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“Witness and narrator: Addressing problems of secondary traumatic stress and compassion fatigue in spoken language interpreting”

March 28, 2015 @ 9:00 am – 12:00 pm
John Nasseff Heart Center
255 Smith Ave- St. Paul
Preregistered Members: $15/ Nonmembers and same day: $25
Elisa Gustafson

As professional interpreters, we are not devices or machines. First and foremost, we are human beings. We have eyes, brains, hearts and different types of organs that help us to be magnificent or excellent interpreters. In addition, being accurate, impartial, transparent, respectful, keeping everything confidential and having cultural awareness are essential for interpreters to do their best job. “If you talk to a man in a language that he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart”, Nelson Mandela. We, as interpreters, are irreplaceable and have a tendency to memorize what we are witnessing. Because of this, déjà vu scenes sometimes come back throughout our days, and while we are sleeping too. A première tragic encounter or awful lamentable event is what all interpreters have to face on a daily basis and it is uncontrollable oftentimes. Today, we are facing serious issues because there are two types of interpreters: independent contractors, and staff interpreters in their respective facilities. How can we better support each other or ourselves in our community so as to not have compassion fatigue in spoken language interpreting? Is there any solution to control it so interpreters are not compromised by all the events?

STS (Secondary Traumatic Stress) or PTSD (Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder) are the challenges interpreters encounter on a daily basis being in their job “field.” According to Dr. Emily Becher, Ph.D. in Family Social Science, “It is normal to experience all of this; it is a normal function of the brain.” As we all discussed during the workshop, when interpreters have déjà vu scenes over and over or when they have bad thoughts about being traumatized, these are signs to seek help. Staff interpreters can reach out to their co-workers easily, to their spouses, or to mental health providers. On the other hand, independent contractor interpreters might have access to the same entourage of people, except it can be a challenge for them to discuss with their co-workers due to the fact that they work in a variety of places.

Chris Mehus, a doctoral candidate in Couple and Family Therapy in the Family Social Science department at the University of Minnesota also said that “your frontal lobe is responsible for that”. The frontal lobes are considered our emotional control center and home to our personality. There is no other part of the brain where lesions can cause such a wide variety of symptoms (Kolb & Wishaw, 1990). The frontal lobes are involved in motor function, problem solving, spontaneity, memory, language, initiation, judgement, impulse control, and social and sexual behavior.

Today, most interpreters are facing serious problems. Interpreters cannot do a good job or be effective if they do not take care of themselves. On the other hand, when compassion satisfaction is high, interpreters can be proud of their work and do better at their respective tasks. By the end of the day, making a difference in people’s lives is a gift. It is almost like a denouement of a film. Being soulagé (relieved) by all the events that were faced. Debriefing before and after an ICU family care conference with the medical team, for example, is also crucial for interpreters. Being aware, being prepared and getting experience are fundamental for this type of career. All providers, managers, supervisors, and agency owners must be educated; therefore, we also welcome them at interpreter workshops so they can be aware, sense, taste, smell and visualize what professional interpreters are dealing with today in order to help each individual. Today, interpreters play a very important piece in patient care. Finally, there is a Chinese proverb that I wanted to share to all of us, “Learning is a treasure that will follow his owner everywhere.”

               Paseuth Vang , CoreCHI French/Hmong Interpreter

Mehus and Becher UMTIA PowerPoint presentation


UMTIA Snacks



UMTIA Attendees







UMTIA Registration Table



UMTIA Registration 2

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