My coping mechanisms as a public service interpreter: the importance of family

Updated: Mar 12

I recently attended a business networking event. The speaker was a therapist who specialised in Time Line Therapy™, a powerful therapeutic process that has evolved from hypnosis and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). When asked how she dealt with the emotional impact of working with patients who had suffered horrific past events, her response was “I talk it over with my therapist.” Apparently, every therapist has a therapist.

As an interpreter, I work alongside professionals working within public services and non-English speaking service-users who access them. The nature of public services means that professionals working within them are vulnerable to both directly experiencing trauma themselves and being exposed to trauma through listening to accounts of difficult experiences users may encounter.

Settings I find myself in during the course of my work include police stations, courts, prisons, hospitals, solicitors’ offices and immigration services. I am the bridge that enables communication to take place between professionals and people who have a limited command of the English language. As such, I often hear accounts of traumatic events such as rape, physical abuse, torture and terminal illness.

Emotionally-charged days

Just like professionals working within public services can experience emotional and psychological effects of working with people who are emotionally distressed, so can interpreters.

When I tell people what I do for a living, they often ask me how I cope with the emotional impact of the constant exposure to such traumatic information and stories. Unlike the speaker at the networking event, I don’t have my own personal therapist. That’s a perk the average interpreter does not have. So, how do I manage the emotions?

Picking my emotional battles

Firstly, and this is more of a personal strategy, I only accept jobs that I feel I can cope with on a psychological level. Having worked as an interpreter for 12 years, I have been exposed to a wide range of situations and have come to realise which settings I can handle emotionally, and which I feel are perhaps better suited to my colleagues. Everybody has their limits, and interpreters are no exception.

I purposely choose to take on assignments where the worlds I find myself in are so far removed from my own world that I can barely relate to them. Therefore, I can switch off. Don’t get me wrong, I feel a great deal of sadness, compassion and pure shock when I hear accounts of the horrendous torture suffered by asylum seekers, and the detailed descriptions of sexual abuse disclosed when I interpret in rape cases disgust and infuriate me; I am by no means an insensitive or cold person. I have feelings. However, I do not spend days (and nights unable to sleep) pondering over these sessions, like I used to after interpreting for the family of a terminally ill child, for instance.

"Professionals who work with people who have experienced trauma can experience negative emotional and psychological effects of this work” (McCann & Pearlman, 1990; Figley, 2002)

Examples of cases I have interpreted for that I’d deem traumatic yet manageable for me emotionally include: a teen who murdered his girlfriend while their baby lay sleeping next to her; the case of a young child under local authority care having been sexually abused by his father; an African lady who was petrified to testify against her abusive husband in court; a young woman who came over to the UK to have an abortion at 23 weeks pregnant, because in France abortion is illegal after 12 weeks; a human trafficking victim who had escaped hours earlier from a house she’d been held captive in.

The chaos of parenting

My other key coping mechanism, I’d say, is my life outside of work. I have an extremely hectic family life. With three young children, the oldest being 8, and the youngest 3, I barely get a minute to think. They drive me insane every minute of the day, but they are my heroes. For without them, I would have too much time on my hands, time that would potentially be spent reflecting on the scenarios I find myself in while they are at school and nursery; all those different worlds that, unbeknownst to them, in their cosy bubble of childhood innocence, are, for some, reality.

"I went from being the voice of someone suspected of murdering her baby, to frying meatballs, in the space of 5 minutes"

Recently, I interpreted for a legal representative and a prisoner held on suspicion of infanticide. The victim was her new-born baby. It was a Friday afternoon. The grotesque details of the alleged offence were shared during the meeting. The appointment ended at 5 p.m. Five minutes later, I was cooking meatballs for my family. The fact that, due to Covid, the session had to take place remotely meant that I didn’t even have the drive home to distance myself from the information I had just become privy to.

I never seem to have time to give a second thought to my assignments, as the minute a job is over, it’s time for the school run, or I need to pack my son’s swimming bag, put on a wash or log onto a remote parents’ evening…As absurd as it may seem, I see my crazy, headless chicken life as a blessing in disguise.

I wear two hats. Professional hat and mum hat. As soon as I take one off, the other one goes on, with barely a second in between. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I get to wear Lauren Shadi tout simplement hat at around 10 pm, before I fall into bed exhausted around 15 minutes later, alarm set for 6.30 am to check emails before waking up my young tribe…

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