Interpreting in emotional situations

If you browse through the "interpreting" section of this website, you won’t find many unpleasant stories. The jobs I normally work on are environment or business-related, and although it can be upsetting to stand on a mountain of rubbish or talk about the awful impact our lifestyle has on the planet, I rarely have to deal with people actually bursting out in tears or showing any personal distress. However, I once had an extremely difficult interpreting job, which the following passage, found on the court interpreter blog, reminded me of:

He was sobbing and could barely answer the questions. I was standing near him and wanted to do something, but what? The interpreter is very limited in his/her ability to interact with witnesses and/or defendants. The only informal conversation I have with defendants is to explain how the headset works before a proceeding begins. I just kept on interpreting and kept any emotion tucked away inside.

I had to interpret during a meeting between a couple (one French speaker, one English speaker), who had separated, and were fighting over the custody of their child. A psychologist, who was there to assess the situation and help toward the decision process, was also present, and I was mainly interpreting for his benefit. The meeting went wrong from the very beginning, both parties being extremely emotional and on awful terms. They rapidly started screaming at each other, half in French, half in English, and it all went from bad to worse when the woman accused me of being biased in favour of her ex-boyfriend in my interpreting.
I found it incredibly difficult to concentrate and to speak in an even voice despite the stress I was feeling, but somehow managed to hold it together and remained calm and professional until the end ("With all due respect, I did not misrepresent what Mr X said, my translation was absolutely faithful"). Besides, I wasn’t allowed to do or say anything to calm things down; I had to carry on interpreting as best as I could. It’s only afterwards, on the train home, that I felt extremely upset about the whole thing; I seemed to be unable to detach myself from it, it was as if witnessing their drama had made me an active part in it. I pondered over what happened for a couple of days and when I got called to interpret during a second meeting, I turned down the offer. I just didn’t want to put myself through that kind of situation again. Was it cowardice on my part? Or am I just unable to draw a clear line between other people’s feelings and my own? Can an interpreter learn to keep "emotion tucked away inside"?

By |2016-10-18T15:50:37+00:00January 18th, 2006|Interpreting|4 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Jean January 18, 2006 at 12:04 pm

    Wow, Celine. What a tough assignment. I think you were right. If there was a regular demand for this type of work, it would be good if two or more interpreters could set up a support system for themselves (mutual or with an expert, or both) to ‘debrief’ afterwards, like reputable psychotherapists always have a supervisor. Without this, it doesn’t seem a good situation for an interpreter who is a person of any sensitivity (and I can’t really imagine any good interpreter not being that, seriously focused attention and high sensitivity to the nuance of language being prequisites of the job).

  2. Kimberley January 18, 2006 at 3:15 pm

    I think it’s possible for interpreters to learn to keep their distance in the way that, for example, doctors and counsellors do. You “step back”, become a “funnel” (your mental images may vary *g*). But it’s certainly not something everyone can do, nor is it necessarily something you can learn to do at the drop of a hat.
    So I think you made the right decision by not going to the second meeting — better for you and probably the client too. It was *not* cowardly of you to refuse.
    Some kind of support network sounds like an excellent idea. Is there any training available for interpreters who do emotionally sensitive work?

  3. céline January 18, 2006 at 3:26 pm

    Actually, I know of one interpreting charity ( working with people from Black and minority ethnic communities that offers such courses. I play football with the person who set it up and he encouraged me to do the training (community interpreting), but after my bad experience I wasn’t sure I wanted to work in such a sensitive field.

  4. Jo-Hanna January 28, 2006 at 6:17 pm

    That is an amazing story, Céline. I don’t blame you for not wanting to go back to this situation. In interpreters’ training, is this addressed? I am not an interpreter, but I have translated communications where I am left thinking, “Please don’t kill the messenger!”

Comments are closed.