Medical Interpreters and Expressing Grief


Newsflash: Medical interpreters are not robots. They are human beings with all the dynamics, uniqueness and complexities that every other human being has.

This also means that interpreters have emotions, feelings and reactions to the situations they encounter. The question is whether or not interpreters can (or should) express their own emotions when interpreting. The answer isn’t as cut and dry as “yes” or “no.”  For the sake of this reflection, I’ll focus exclusively on the emotions associated with grief, sadness and sorrow.

Along my professional journey, I’ve learned a few things about grief and grieving. The only generalization I can make about grief is that it is different for everyone.

So when it comes to interpreters and whether or not they can or should express their emotions during encounters, the best answer I can offer is “it depends.”

Ultimately, everything the interpreter does ought to be grounded in the interpreter’s sole purpose for being present: to facilitate communication.

With that in mind, an interpreter should contain emotions if expressing them will prevent the interpreter from continuing to perform his or her professional duties. Let me give an example of what I mean. When I cry, I cry. There are no little sniffles or delicate teardrops welling in the corners of my eyes. It is Niagara Falls combined with an F-5 tornado. Not only would this display of emotion be distracting and disruptive to others, it makes it impossible for me to talk. If I can’t talk, I can’t interpret. If I can’t interpret, I’m no good to anyone. 

Additionally, we have to consider the impact our display of emotion might have on the individuals who are grieving. There is no way to magically know how other people might feel or react to your, the interpreter’s, display of emotion. I have learned that sometimes grieving people are offended when “outsiders” display sorrow in response to the person's situation. There’s a feeling of “Why are you crying? It wasn’t your family member who died.” On the other end of that spectrum, the grieving party or individual can feel guilty for causing you, the interpreter, to feel sadness or sorrow. “I’m so sorry to make you cry,” says the grieving widow to you, the interpreter.  This just adds to the grieving person’s burden, which is the last thing the interpreter wants to do.

On the other hand, a complete lack of emotion on the part of the interpreter can create the impression that the interpreter is indifferent, unconcerned, uncaring, or even rude. This can create an environment wherein the individuals feel that it isn’t safe to express themselves honestly and openly. The interpreter’s presence shouldn’t cause people to act differently than they would if the interpreter weren’t there. Interpreters are present so that people can fully engage in the encounter in their way and on their terms, not create the opposite effect.  Likewise, a completely detached and frigid demeanor can cause irreparable damage to the rapport that is essential for the interpreter to maintain with all parties.

So what is an interpreter to do? Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Know yourself and your natural responses to grief and those who are grieving.
  • Whatever you do, be genuine – no crocodile tears, please.
  • Be mindful of how your presence is impacting the environment and the people who are present.
  • Be human – demonstrate empathy and concern in demure and culturally appropriate ways.
  • Avoid becoming the center of attention. (Sidebar: If you are nearing your breaking point, alert the medical team member that you need to take a brief break. Hopefully, you had the chance to establish this expectation before the encounter began.)

Interpreters, how has your composure during encounters involving grief aided in facilitating open communication among all present?  

Posted on April 27, 2016 and filed under Interpreter.