Vicarious Trauma a Lesson in Empathy

Interpretater Trauma

If you have worked as a medical interpreter for a couple of years, you will notice that the work appears to be enjoyable and frenetic at the beginning, and everything will appear sweet. However, after some time, maybe a couple of months, maybe after a year, you will begin to feel less fulfilled and anxious.

As with other professions, interpreters can face vicarious trauma and require support. Professionals have begun studying the after-effects of leaving a heavy interpretation, including the emotional residues that stick with interpreters because they have been present with patients, interpreting their pain and emotions, and imitating their tone.

In order to overcome vicarious trauma, one needs to understand how and why interpretation can leave scars and become part of us, making us emotional. This helps assist us in overcoming a traumatic experience.

In order to get a better understanding, let’s take a look at the difference between empathy and sympathy. It is important to note that these two words are quite different, however, most people use these words interchangeably, most likely confused because they share a Greek root. The root, “pathos” means “suffering” or “feeling,”, and “sym”, which is the root of sympathy means “with”, while empathy on the other hand starts with “em”, which means “within” or “in”. When you sympathize, what you feel for another person is pity or sorrow, but since you haven’t experienced it yourself, you don’t actually understand the pain they are going through. Empathy on the other hand is on a deeper, more personal level. With empathy, you know where the person has been, and you feel truly connected from within.

For contract interpreters and others, interpretation can be a solitary job. The experiences you have gained in this line of work can be so emotional, yet you may find it hard to find someone that can empathize with you. It will be beneficial if you can find other interpreters to speak with and share experiences, allowing the opportunity to empathize with each other.

When you meet with other interpreters and share your stories, there will be a level of connection amongst all of you. A particular interpreter might describe an experience that was emotionally difficult, and other interpreters there are very likely to have had similar encounters, and you all empathize and support each other. There is nothing as satisfying as meeting together in a room with people that understand what you have experienced, on a personal level. This has a healing effect.

When you observe someone else experiencing a particular feeling or emotion, your brain reacts as if you are feeling that emotion as well. Humans are connected on a basic biological level, and this should bring you hope as humans are made to support and lean on one another.

At Stepes, we know how it feels like and the experiences interpreters and translators encounter. Our professional interpreters always meet together to discuss their encounters and empathize with one another.