Vicarious Trauma and Interpreters

(The following was originally published on the blog of ATA’s Interpreters Division, www.ata-divisions.org/ID/blog.)

The first time I heard of interpreters experiencing vicarious trauma was in 2000. First it was mentioned in relation to the interpreters working during a trial related to the Balkan Wars at the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. But the idea was quickly expanded to include all interpreters working directly with victims of crime and/or medical patients. Simultaneously, the sign language community was becoming acutely aware of the impact of vicarious trauma on our sign language colleagues.

Generally, vicarious trauma is understood to be the emotional residue of exposure that counselors have from working with people as they hear trauma stories and become witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured. According to the American Counseling Association, it’s important not to confuse vicarious trauma with “burnout.” Interpreters may be more at risk because they restate the facts related in first person, especially when this is combined with a phenomenon called “receptor fatigue,” which is a biological response to overstimulation of one of the senses.

Below, you’ll find a listing of some of the articles, books, trainings, and other reference material available on the subject. This is not a complete or exhaustive review of what’s available, but it seeks to provide a clear sampling of what is being written and studied.

Sign Language

Here’s a sample of the material produced by the sign language and American Sign Language community

  • Harvey, Michael A. “Shielding Yourself from the Perils of Empathy: The Case of Sign Language Interpreters,” Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education (April 2003), 207–213, http://bit.ly/Harvey-empathy.
  • Lai, Miranda, Georgina Heydon, and Sedat Mulayim. “Vicarious Trauma Among Interpreters,” International Journal of Interpreter Education (May 2015), http://bit.ly/Lai-vicarious.
  • Macdonald, Jami L. “Vicarious Trauma as Applied to the Professional Sign Language Interpreter,” Montview Liberty University Journal of Undergraduate Research (2015), http://bit.ly/Macdonald-sign-language.
  • Andert, Olivia L., and Allison P. Trites. “Vicarious Trauma Among Sign Language Interpreters: A Pilot Study,” (Northeastern University, 2014), http://bit.ly/Andert-study.
  • Lor, Mailee. “Effects of Client Trauma on Interpreters: An Exploratory Study.” (St. Catherine University, 2012), http://bit.ly/Lor-client-trauma.

Medical

In the medical interpreting world, vicarious trauma has also become a subject of concern. Some of the trainings and articles available in this field include:

  • The National Council on Interpreting in Health Care Trainers Webinar is free for members or available to nonmembers for $30. You can find links to the webinar and slides at http://bit.ly/NCIHC-webinar.
  • A 2018 presentation by Ludmila Golovine, “Vicarious Trauma and Professional Interpreters,” is available as a free webinar on the California Healthcare Interpreting Association’s YouTube channel: http://bit.ly/CHIA-Golovine.
  • Knodel, Rebekah K. “Coping with Vicarious Trauma in Mental Health Interpreting,” Journal of Interpretation (Registry for Interpreters of the Deaf, 2018), http://bit.ly/Knodel-vicarious.

legal

Marjory Bancroft, a specialist in this field, authored a 40-hour curriculum called Voices of Love and began publishing a blog in 2015 under the same name. Unfortunately, that project is not funded and not currently active, but you can read the blog archives here: http://bit.ly/voices-love.

There is, however, a 30-hour curriculum called Breaking Silence, a training for interpreters working in victim services, that has a lot of content for addressing both interpreting for trauma and managing its effects. A set of materials by Marjory Bancroft, Katharine Allen, Carola Green, and Lois Feuerle is available free for download from Ayuda:

Other Publications of Note from within the Interpreting World

  • Justine Ndongo-Keller’s “Vicarious Trauma and Stress Management” appears in Chapter 21 of The Routledge Handbook of Interpreting, edited by Holly Mikkelson and Renée Jourdenais (Routledge, 2015), http://bit.ly/Routledge-interpreting.
  • Swain, Martyn. “Reliving the Nightmares of Others,” International Association of Conference Interpreters (October 2019), http://bit.ly/Swain-nightmare.

Scientific and General Interest Journals

Articles of interest published in other scientific and general interest journals include:

  • Vigor, Jana. “Vicarious Trauma and the Professional Interpreter,” The Trauma and Mental Health Report (January 2012), http://bit.ly/Vigor-vicarious.
  • Kindermann, D., C. Schmid, C. Derreza-Greeven, D. Huhn, R.M. Kohl, F. Junee, M. Schleyer, J.K. Daniels, B. Ditzen, W. Herzon, and C. Mikendei. “Prevalence of and Risk Factors for Secondary Traumatization in Interpreters for Refugees: A Cross-Sectional Study,” Psychopathology (July 2017), http://bit.ly/Kindermann-trauma.
  • Darroch, Emma, and Raymond Dempsey. “Interpreters’ Experiences of Transferential Dynamics, Vicarious Traumatisation, and Their Need for Support and Supervision: A Systematic Literature Review,” The European Journal of Counselling Psychology (2016), http://bit.ly/Darroch-trauma.
  • Splevins, Kevin, Keren Cohen, Stephen Joseph, Craig Murray, and Jake Bowley. “Vicarious Post Traumatic Growth Among Interpreters,” Sage Journals (July 2010), http://bit.ly/Splevins-vicarious.
  • Mehus, Christopher, and Emily Becher. “Secondary Traumatic Stress, Burnout, and Compassion Satisfaction in a Sample of Spoken-Language Interpreters,” Traumatology (December 2016), http://bit.ly/Mehus-trauma.
  • “The Cost of Caring.” A Report by NIMDZI Insights, a short version of which is available at: http://bit.ly/NIMDZI-caring.

Vicarious trauma constitutes an area where there is still much opportunity for research and study. Such further research, as well as raising awareness of the issues, can help foster greater public understanding and appreciation of the profession and may help enable interpreters to advocate with regard to their working conditions and even fair compensation.


Cristina Helmerichs is an ATA director and chair of ATA’s Interpretation Policy Advisory Committee. She has more than 30 years of interpreting and translation experience as an English<>Spanish conference and judicial interpreter. She is certified as an interpreter by both the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT). She has been a consultant to the Federal Court Interpreters Certification Program and the National Center for State Courts Interpreting Training Program. She is also an interpreter trainer. She serves on the Texas Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators’ Education Committee. She was ATA’s and NAJIT’s technical adviser to the European Union’s Grotius II Project. Contact: cristina@cristinahelmerichsd.com.

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