“Your Story Is Your Weapon”: Interpreting for Immigrants in the Wake of Trauma

Being aware of how words sound in our ears when we hear them—of how words feel in our bodies when we speak them—can provide a powerful physical counterweight to the undertow of suffering tugging at our attention, and tugging down our boundaries, as we interpret.

I had been interpreting for Ahmed1 for almost two years when one day his words dried up. As an asylum seeker fleeing Algeria in 2007, he had already come through a lot. An escalating series of death threats from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had culminated—late one night, as he was closing out the register at his restaurant—in four men spilling out of an SUV, headlights glaring, guns blazing. Ahmed had narrowly escaped his attackers through a safety door leading upstairs to his apartment. But because Al Qaeda’s reach extended far beyond his city, he was forced to flee Algeria.

I was helping Ahmed prepare for his immigration court hearing. As a senior corporate paralegal at Orrick, a large international law firm with an extensive pro bono practice, I served on the Volunteer Interpreters’ Panel of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, but I also worked with Orrick attorneys as part of Ahmed’s legal team.

I had dual roles then, as an interpreter and advocate. Ahmed’s attorneys had asked me to work with him, one on one, a few days before the hearing, to practice his testimony in French as it had been scrupulously developed in meetings. Both emotionally and legally compelling, his story was based solidly on persecution for religious and political beliefs as a non-observant Muslim opposed to terrorism.

Turning Memories into Testimony

Yet like many asylum seekers—traumatized by an initial catastrophic event whose effects are compounded when an individual is uprooted from family and community—Ahmed found it hard to align the swirl of his splintered memories with the precise chronology required to convince a judge. As we practiced, he froze periodically into stretches of silence, or stumbled over actions he had recounted easily before.

I had come to know Ahmed well. I knew that the gunmen’s shots had both terrified and shamed him, this successful business owner, loving husband, and father of two young children. The restaurant boarded over, his family crowded in with relatives, Ahmed was alone and barely scraping by, stocking shelves in a city on the other side of the world.

“This is hard,” he said finally. “Sometimes it all gets jumbled up in my head.”

“I know,” I said. “It’s really hard. Remember, though, when the terrorists were shooting, you had no choice but to run. Now it’s different. When you tell your story, it’s where you stand your ground and strike back.”

Votre histoire, c’est votre arme,” I told him. “Your story is your weapon.”

Years later, when Ahmed’s narrative began shaping itself into a poem, I described his response this way:

He tries again,
and again
we move through the long
afternoon, over and
over till his story

enters his voice like a room
where both can feel
at ease,
till what he has lived
becomes at last
what he knows
how to speak.

For Both Immigrants and Interpreters, Finding a Place to Stand

Ahmed would continue to stumble occasionally on his path to asylum. At his last hearing, though, he succeeded in pulling from inside himself the story that would finally vanquish his shadowy attackers, that would convince the judge to grant him the right to live in the U.S., free of persecution, and to reunite his family.

Ahmed’s life here isn’t easy. At night he no longer greets customers returning to their favorite tables at his restaurant. Instead, he cleans offices in San Francisco’s Financial District. Yet he knows that, when the time was right, he was able to stand his ground.

But on what ground can the interpreter stand for immigrants like Ahmed and countless others? Whether in legal, health care, or community settings, interpreting for asylum seekers, refugees, and other immigrants who’ve been forcibly displaced can test emotional resources as intensely as linguistic and cultural knowledge.

In Interviewing Clients across Cultures: A Practitioner’s Guide, by clinical psychologist Lisa Aronson Fontes, “highly experienced court interpreter” Ilia Cornier shared the following:

“The worst time for me was when I was interpreting the victim impact statement of a sadistic rape [of a young girl]. She was weeping…and I was repeating everything, […] using the word ‘I,’ as if it had happened to me. I was trying to put emphasis where she put emphasis and convey in my speech, as much as I could, the feelings she was conveying as she spoke. Then, at the end, the court took a recess and I went to the bathroom, splashed water on my face, and I was supposed to walk right into the next courtroom and begin working on the next case. I was shaking like a leaf.”2

In her ATA webinar “Vicarious Trauma and Language Professionals,” interpreter Ludmila Golovine described the difficulty of “not just witnessing but channeling the trauma through you.”3 As trauma may be carried in the body of the person who has experienced it, an interpreter may sometimes experience an immigrant’s narrative of trauma as a kind of assault on the interpreter’s own body, not literally, but through other manifestations of distress like trembling, nausea, or dizziness.

I haven’t experienced vicarious trauma. But in one of my first interpreting sessions, during a meeting with attorneys, I interpreted for Aissata, an asylum seeker from Guinea who had been subjected, as a young girl, to genital cutting. As an adult she was tortured by government forces for belonging to a political party opposing an attempt by Guinea’s president to extend his term for life.

The meeting lasted several hours. For at least an hour afterwards, I sat in my office with the door closed, the phone silenced, and stared at the surface of my desk. I felt as if I had been flattened by a truck.

Yet I also felt I had just discovered work of enormous complexity and utility, a way of using whatever I knew about French to support a woman from another continent, whom I had never met before, in telling her story of integrity and courage before an American judge. She had fled Guinea because her life was in danger. If I could help her convey her story, I would be helping to save her life.

I recognized, in that moment, that I wanted to continue this work. Over the years that followed, I also came to recognize that, if the work is to be sustainable, interpreters need techniques for building resilience.

Interpreter Self-Care: A New Wealth of Online Resources

I’m deeply grateful for the extensive, expert work accomplished over the past decade by practitioners, researchers, agencies, and organizations to support interpreters with a range of self-care techniques. During 2022 alone, the following invaluable free resources have become available online:

  1. “Trauma Basics for Interpreters: When Trauma Is in the Room. Foreign Language Interpreting about Traumatic Experiences.” A webinar presented by Lisa Aronson Fontes on June 15, 2022, through Blue Horizon, the online training platform of Cross-Cultural Communications, LLC.
  2. “Vicarious Trauma and Language Professionals.” An ATA webinar presented by Ludmila Golovine on February 15, 2022. Golovine’s presentation also references self-regulation techniques.
  3. Breaking Silence: Interpreting for Victim Services, by Marjorie Bancroft, Katharine Allen, Carola Green, and Lois Feuerle. This is a specialized training manual for trained, professional interpreters, with accompanying workbook and glossary, produced by Cross-Cultural Communications, LLC in 2022. The manual was undertaken as a project for Ayuda, which provides legal, social, and language services to help low-income immigrants access justice, with funding from the District of Columbia Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants.

Drawing Resilience from the Source: The Well of Language

In addition to these tools, I find myself, as a writer, turning repeatedly to another source: the well of language from which we drink so deeply, daily, that it’s easily taken for granted. Yet there they are, hiding in plain sight: the words we hear in one language, then speak in another as we listen to immigrants tell their stories.

Of course, we’re already listening—at every moment, with all the attentiveness we can muster—for the meaning of what we hear. When we speak, we’re equally attentive to the meaning of each utterance.

At the same time, we need to be aware that every word has a physical presence, not only in our minds but in our bodies: our ears, tongues, throats, chests. Being aware of how words sound in our ears when we hear them—of how words feel in our bodies when we speak them—can provide a powerful physical counterweight to the undertow of suffering tugging at our attention, and tugging down our boundaries, as we interpret.

During my time interpreting for Aissata, an attorney asked if she thought her husband, brutally beaten in prison, might still be alive. She responded “Non, c’est pas possible,” and I said, “No, it’s not possible.” At that moment, meaning was paramount in my mind. I had come to know Aissata well and mourned her husband’s likely death.

Yet there was a silent, underground part of myself that noticed how the fiercely nasal non contrasted with the percussive, alliterative hits of pas possible. That same part of me sneaked a quick sip from the way, in English, the long “o” in “No” modulated to the broader “o” of “not,” which in turn was echoed in “possible”—and how all those flat, drawn-out English sounds contrasted with the fluid French they rendered.

From an Ancient Art: Four Fresh Techniques

As I’ve tried to capture, as a poet, some of the struggles and satisfactions in interpreting for asylum seekers, I’ve developed techniques rooted in poetry that have helped steady me after challenging sessions, and that may be of use to others.

But why poetry? Isn’t poetry too delicate a companion to help us make our way through a sometimes charred, broken landscape?

What makes poetry up to the task is that, as U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón said, it’s “the only creative writing art form that builds breath into it.”4 Each stanza or line break gives space for the reader to breathe, to slow down for an infinitesimal moment, rather than charging, as we tend to, ahead.

When our minds are hell-bent on meaning, poetry, rooted in the body, holds us to a slower pace. It insists that we consider words in all their dimensions—sound and rhythm as well as sense. When we interpret for those who’ve experienced trauma, the narrative can threaten to undermine our bodies and minds. Poetry’s unique gift is to strengthen both. The following techniques may help unlock this gift.

1. After a session, reclaim in writing your solo voice. Writing about your experiences in a journal can be very helpful.5 But try choosing just a few words or concrete details that stick in your memory. If some seem too painful, feel free to choose others: you’re in charge. Rather than encasing words in conventional sentences, try moving them around on the page. Arrange and rearrange.

When I wrote about Aissata, I found the pain of her experience during genital cutting bound up in small details. Eventually they came to rest like this:

Near the woman’s hand, a small
bright knife with a little
handle, tied with a fuzzy piece
of red string

I remained fully aware of each word’s meaning, but poetry opened me up to other dimensions. I read the words aloud. I noticed how the sound of “handle” echoed “hand,” and how the vowel sound in “string” semi-echoed “piece.” Then there was “fuzzy”—its sound, I realized, an outlier, a bumblebee among sharks.

Just when I needed something to steady myself, I grasped at monosyllables: “small bright knife,” “red string”—each one sturdy as a walking stick, or a heartbeat.

I love longhand’s tactile engagement, but if you prefer typing, go ahead. What’s essential here is a sense of freedom—anything that lets you put space around words to hear and see them in new, powerful ways. Immersed in, and at the mercy of, an interpreting session, you can’t do this. Now is your time to reclaim your voice, your language in all its dimensions.

2. Honor, in post-session writing, the shared rhythms of consecutive interpreting. Even during searing, high-stakes testimony, I’ve found—and clients have confirmed—a quiet but essential undertone of mutual support in the shared rhythms of consecutive interpreting.6 When a session is going well, try to hear, if only for a few seconds, the back-and-forth duet unfolding as your unique, human voice interweaves with another voice—also human, also unique.

Later, in a journal or wherever you do your personal writing, try to remember a few sequences of words or phrases, first in the speaker’s voice, then yours. Place these on the page however you want, just as you did when writing about your experiences in your solo voice.

Watch as these phrases take shape. Speak them, feel them in your body like the hum that starts up in your throat as you welcome your favorite song. Listen to the differences between languages like musical instruments, each contributing its timbre as thread to tapestry.

Do any of these sounds evoke memories, whether of hearing or learning? For me (not a native speaker), that tricky French “r” reminds me of seventh grade, when I doggedly explored regions of my throat I never knew existed until they emerged, by June, with the sound I couldn’t manage in September at the start of school. Speaking that “r,” even when interpreting brutality, can ground me physically in something beautiful that I found, initially, hard. It reminds me of times I’ve been discouraged and considered giving up.

Write your memories as well. They make the undertones of your particular music.

3. Between sessions, keep your interpreting instrument in tune. If you already like poetry, you can probably skip this section. But if you’re indifferent to it, dislike it, or simply feel intimidated, letting bits of it into your life for a few minutes, once or twice a week, can ease you into a way of hearing language that may—over the long term, indirectly but powerfully—strengthen your interpreting practice.

I’ve found that podcasts make this process simple. The two excellent podcasts listed below can bring you a wide range of contemporary poetry in short episodes. Typically, the host will read one poem and discuss it briefly, in an insightful, non-technical way that I almost always learn from:

  • The Slowdown, hosted by Ada Limón. The website includes links to episodes by prior host, former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, along with links to additional resources, including playlists.
  • Poetry Unbound, hosted by Pádraig Ó Tuama. One 15-minute episode is released twice weekly.

Finally, while this isn’t a regular podcast, poet and novelist Ocean Vuong’s extended discussion with Krista Tippett (host of the On Being podcast), entitled “A Life Worthy of Our Breath,” ranges through themes of language, poetry, the body, immigration, displacement, and joy.

4. Don’t memorize. Learn by heart. If you decide that you would like to bring poetry even closer, choose a short poem—anything that speaks to you, in any language, rhymed or unrhymed—to learn by heart. Notice I didn’t say “memorize,” though, yes, it’s the same thing. But I like that “learning by heart” captures how, in the process of committing a poem to memory so you can say it out loud to yourself, you bring it into your body. Choose your poem carefully: you’ll have it forever, like a third eye.

Our Story Is Our Weapon

Interpreting for immigrants in the wake of trauma requires us to carry—in our bodies, our voices—the stories of others. When these stories haunt us, or when they are harrowing, it’s essential that we make space, somewhere in our lives, for our own stories.

Ahmed learned to shape his story into his weapon, to protect and shield him as he moved toward a new life. We also, in our work, at times need weapons, need shields. Poetry, as an ancient art rooted in the body, can help us hear the muted rhythms of our voices tracing the shapes of our stories. When we’re at our most vulnerable, poetry can help steady us for our ongoing work.

  1. The names and identifying details of former clients have been changed to protect confidentiality. In addition, asylum seekers like Ahmed whose stories formed the basis for my book, Second Tongue, were read the text aloud, in French, and provided written consent to publication. All profits from the sale of the book are being shared equally with my former clients.
  2. Fontes, Lisa Aronson. Interviewing Clients across Cultures: A Practitioner’s Guide (The Guilford Press, 2008), 162–163.
  3. “Vicarious Trauma and Language Professionals” (an ATA webinar presented by Ludmila Golovine on February 15, 2022).
  4. “Life of a Poet: Ada Limón,” an interview by Ron Charles (Library of Congress video, January 31, 2019).
  5. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., a clinician, researcher, and educator best known for his work on the effects and treatment of trauma, confirms that “[w]riting experiments from around the world…consistently show that writing about upsetting events improves physical and mental health.” See van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Penguin Books, 2014), 242–243.
  6. Bessel van der Kolk vividly describes how rituals of collective rhythm—expressed in music, dance, and theater as ways of “keeping together in time”—have helped veterans and others heal (See van der Kolk, Bessel. Body Keeps the Score, 335). Bruce Perry, M.D., a teacher, clinician, and researcher in children’s mental health and the neurosciences, writes that “[r]hythm is essential to a healthy body and a healthy mind.” Perry, Bruce D., and Oprah Winfrey. What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing (Flatiron Books, 2021), 47.

Judith Small is a writer, educator, and 16-year member of the Volunteer Interpreters’ Panel of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. Her award-winning book of poems, Second Tongue, interweaves asylum seekers’ narratives from Algeria and Guinea with her voice as their interpreter. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker. She has 37 years of experience as a senior corporate paralegal at leading San Francisco law firms. She has a degree in Romance languages from Oberlin College and master’s degrees from San Francisco State and Harvard. jdsmall770@gmail.com

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