The Blood and Guts of Interpreting


Connecting Cultures is grateful to Maria Schwieter for contributing this article!

I have just finished a great course on medical interpreting.  I have learned so much and am very excited; I’m ready to go out there and be a great interpreter.  My medical interpreter training prepared me very well.  I learned medical terminology, anatomy/physiology, ethics, standards of practice, cultural competency, etc.   WOW.  I know I still have much to learn, but I’m ready.  “Interpreter, come to the ER STAT, we have a multiple auto accident and the victims do not speak English, it’s pandemonium down here, get down here now.”  I go running, my heart pounding, full of adrenalin. How exciting.  I get to the ER.  There is blood everywhere. A young child’s face is torn off because she went through the windshield- no seat belt.  I think there was a shout that she was dead and to move on to the living.  I freeze.  I have never seen so much blood in my life.  A young child is dead.  I feel my stomach churning.  I am nauseated. I have to leave. I can’t stay here and watch this……………

Interpreters are exposed to the same stress that healthcare providers have to endure.  However, it has only been recently that we as trainers and experienced interpreters have addressed this issue in interpreter training.  How do we prepare our students for such scenarios?  What do we do to protect them as well as ourselves from becoming traumatized? This scenario is not uncommon especially when the interpreter is new at the job.  We, as instructors, try our best to prepare our students for the trials and tribulations of interpreting. But can we truly prepare them for this? It is crucial that we address the “blood and guts” issues of our profession.  I have seen too many interpreters leave the profession because they were ill prepared for the traumatic side of interpreting.

What can we do? I address these points in class:  the language of trauma; the smells and noises; the visuals (the blood and guts literally); and the high intensity of the emergency department. But, what do we do after the trauma? There are many techniques out there to help us relax and take care of ourselves, but what do we do if we are exposed to a very traumatic experience or experience Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome?  The best solution I have encountered is a stress debriefing session conducted by a stress debriefing team.  Many communities have debriefing teams that help people in high-stress professions such as nursing, police work, and firefighting. I would add interpreters to this list.  We cannot always prepare our students for traumatic encounters.  However, we can give them the knowledge and the tools to seek help and recognize when they need help. This very important addition to our training may help our future interpreters stay in their jobs.  

References: Critical Incident Stress debriefing From a Traumatic Event:  Psychology Today, February 12, 2013.  Joseph A. Davis

About the author: Maria has been working as a professional medical interpreter for 14 years. She holds bachelor’s degrees in psychology and nursing and a master’s in mental health counseling.  She is currently the coordinator for Interpretation services at IU Health La Porte Hospital. She also teaches a medical interpreters course which is accredited by the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA).

Editor's note: You can learn more about this topic during Maria's presentation Vicarious Trauma: How to Prepare Your Students for the Blood and Guts of Interpreting at the International Medical Interpreters Association Tri-Symposia October 3-5, 2014 in Little Rock, AR. Don't miss it