By Cristina Helmerichs
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. It is important not to confuse vicarious trauma with “burnout” [www.counseling.org]. 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 will find a listing of some of the articles, books, trainings and materials available on the subject. This is not a complete or exhaustive review of what is available, but it seeks to provide a clear sampling of what is being written and studied.
A sample of the materials produced by the sign-language and ASL community include:
Harvey, Michael A. “Shielding yourself from the perils of empathy: The case of sign language interpreters.” Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, Volume 8 (2003) Issue 2: 207-213 https://doi.org/10.1093/deafed/eng004
Lai, Miranda, Georgina Heydon, Sedat Mulayim. CIT. “Vicarious trauma among interpreters.” International Journal of Interpreter EducationTM Volume 7(1) (2015) https://www.cit-asl.org/new/vicarious-trauma-among-interpreters-7-1/
Macdonald, Jami L. “Vicarious trauma as applied to the professional sign language interpreter.” Montview Liberty University. Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 1 (2015), Issue 1, Article 6 https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=montview
Andert, Olivia L., Allison P. Trites. “Vicarious Trauma Among Sign Language Interpreters: A Pilot Study.” Northeastern University (2014) Vicarious_Trauma_Among_Sign_Language_Interpreters.pdf
Lor, Mailee. “Effects of Client Trauma on Interpreters: An Exploratory Study.” St. Catherine University (2012) https://sophia.stkate.edu/msw_papers/53/
In the medical interpreting world, vicarious trauma has also become a subject of concern. Some of the trainings and articles available in this field are:
The National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC) Trainers Webinar that is free for members or available for purchase by non-members for $30. Links to the webinar and slides.
A presentation by Ludmila Golovine on this topic is available as a free webinar on CHIA’s YouTube channel “Vicarious Trauma and Professional Interpreters” (2018) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBNzlxjN0xg
Knodel, Rebekah K. “Coping with Vicarious Trauma in Mental Health Interpreting.” Journal of Interpretation. Volume 26 (2018) https://digitalcommons.unf.edu/joi/vol26/iss1/2/
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.
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 A. Bancroft, Katharine Allen, Carola E. Green, and Lois M. Feuerle), is available FREE for download from Ayuda:
Training manual: https://ayuda.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Breaking-Silence-Training-Manual-1.pdf
Other publications of note from within the interpreting world include:
In 2017 the National Center for State Courts published a listing of resources regarding vicarious trauma
Justine Ndongo-Keller, “Vicarious trauma and stress management.” Chapter 21 of the The Routledge Handbook of Interpreting, ed. Holly Mikkelson, Renée Jourdenais. (2015)
Swain, Martyn. “Reliving the nightmares of others.” AIIC (2019) https://aiic.net/page/8671/reliving-the-nightmares-of-others/lang/1 (2018)
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), reprinted by Psychology Today (2013) https://trauma.blog.yorku.ca/2012/01/vicarious-trauma-and-the-professional-interpreter/
Kindermann D., Schmid C., Derreza-Greeven C., Huhn D., Kohl R.M., Junee F., Schleyer M., Daniels J.K., Ditzen B., Herzon W., and Mikendei C. “Prevalence of and Risk Factors for Secondary Traumatization in Interpreters for Refugees: A cross-Sectional Study.” (Abstract) Psychopathology. (2017;50:262-272) https://doi.org/10.1159/000477670
Darroch, Emma, 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 Volume 4, No. 2 (2016) https://ejcop.psychopen.eu/article/view/76/html
Splevins KA, Cohen K, Joseph S., Murray C., Bowley J. “Vicarious post traumatic growth among interpreters.” Published on Sage Journals. (2010) https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732310377457
Mehus, Christopher J., Becher, Emily H. “Secondary traumatic stress, burnout, and compassion satisfaction in a sample of spoken-language interpreters.” Traumatology. Volume 22(4): 249-254. (2016) https://doi.org/10.1037/trm0000023
“The cost of caring.” A report by NIMDZI, a short version of which is available at: https://www.nimdzi.com/the-cost-of-caring-vicarious-trauma-in-interpreters/
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 a member of the ATA Interpreter Division leadership council
Image of hands by 6155856 from Pixabay
Daniel Steve Villarreal, Ph.D. says
Greetings from Taipei, Taiwan, Christina! This is real. There’s a murder case I did early in my Bexar County, Texas (San Antonio) staff interpreter career (probably late 1997), in which I was called to court–assumed it was a routine guilty plea or something like that–and walked into a courtroom with wall-to-wall TV cameras covering a high-profile murder trial. The victim’s widow testified and I had to compose myself mid-testimony to continue. I still get emotional sometime talking about this testimony, which, as you say, I recited in first person in the witness’ words.–Dan Villarreal
Roxana Del Barco says
Hi Christina! Thank you for sharing resources about this important topic! Interpreters not always have professional help at hand or mechanisms like debriefing to cope with vicarious trauma. We should definitely advocate for those! –Roxana from Maryland