In the last 2 months the war in Ukraine forced over 2 million Ukrainians to leave their homes and seek refuge in the neighbouring countries. There were hundreds of announcements, posts and recruitment ads in the media seeking for translators and interpreters needed to help the refugees.
We all saw the psychological effects of the war on the refugees, but we seem to forget the pressure the interpreters and translators are facing in these difficult times.
Community interpreting for refugees
There’s nothing that can erase from your brain and memory the mother of two children who left her home with her kids and 200 USD in her pocket, not knowing where she will end up or what she will do, nor the pictures of bombed apartment buildings and fragmentation missiles stuck in a van engine she showed to you on her phone whose screen barely works from all the cracks, nor her crying while asking herself ‘why is he bombing regular peaceful people’.
The closer you are geographically and culturally to the conflict area, the worse it stings. It’s part survivor’s guilt, because some hundred kilometres farther, it could have been you, part worry for your beneficiaries’ future, and part the responsibility for providing the best service you can.
On a more personal level (Elvira speaking here), I’d be more than happy if my services as a Russian translator/interpreter will never be needed again, for I never dreamed I would interpret in/from my favourite B language for such needs. But worry not for me. I am a trained interpreter and I know how and when to ask for help, and I got Covid in March, and couldn’t volunteer for a while. I’m OK most of the time and I will ask for help, if needed.
The ones we don’t want us to forget about are the volunteer non-professional interpreters who didn’t think twice, jumped right in to help and, simply by having been in this position for over a month now and, quite probably, for much longer from now on, who will need professional help when they will have the time to process the trauma they vicariously witnessed.
The subject of war-related vicarious trauma is in the spotlight now; nonetheless there are several fields translators and interpreters work in, sometimes intermixing with armed conflict topics, described below, that might lead to psychological issues and vicarious trauma.
Medical translation and interpretation
Poorly differentiated non-keratinizing squamous cell lung carcinoma with bone metastases, tumeur cérébrale primitive traitée, lymph node with carcinomatous metastasis, mesenchymal tumour can be only a list of diagnosis to be translated into another language. But when the patients suffering from these diseases are your age, or the age of your baby, your toddler, your brother or your parents you wonder “what if it was us in this situation?”
Medical interpreters are often faced with tragedies when they meet patients who cannot afford their treatment, who have to deal alone with the disease because their family abandoned them, who receive the news they have an incurable disease, and these experiences leave deep scars…
The presence of interpreters and translators in courthouses, jails, domestic violence and abuse shelters is required when the victims, the offenders, the parties in a trial or the aggressors don’t speak the language of the country they are currently in.
The translator or interpreter will need all their bravery and mental strength to translate or interpret the details of verbal abuse, physical abuse, violence or even murders.
The general public is ready anytime to judge an interpreter who starts crying when interpreting president’s Zelenski speech, or to judge an imperfect word used during a trial deposition broadcasted on TV.
But how many of them think about the pressure these professionals are facing? Or the importance of physical counselling for translators and interpreters?