In Other Words: What is it like for the interpreter?

‘Words by themselves are easy to interpret, but it is what’s hidden behind them that is so very hard to convey.’ 

Quote from In Other Words: the interpreter’s story

The presence of an interpreter makes it possible for clients’ voices to be heard.  Their role is vital – sometimes life saving.  Interpreters hear and relay often distressing and heart-rending stories, and how they do this can make a critical difference to clients’ lives.  Yet their own support needs are often overlooked and they have few outlets for the emotional impact of their work.

Interpreters often work in freelance contexts for a variety of agencies in the private, statutory and not-for-profit sectors, attempting to transfer meaning between professionals operating in stressful situations and vulnerable clients.  They may work in criminal justice, immigration, child protection, physical and mental health.  Workload is difficult to predict and there is seldom any support offered.

Their training can leave them feeling underprepared for the impact of this work: underprepared in terms of the support they may need and for the intensity of the emotions experienced by the clients.  Supervision and training give space and opportunity to explore our unconscious processes safely so that we can act within awareness.  This is not just an interesting and optional exercise; it is essential if the practitioner or interpreter is to provide the best possible environment for clients to access the help they need, to heal and to thrive.

In 2009 Mothertongue, the multi-ethnic counselling service, launched a dedicated mental health interpreting service, which is funded by the local CCG and health authority.  We have a firm commitment to training and regular clinical supervision for all our interpreters who work in a mental health context.  But, from our supervision sessions, it has become very clear that this support is very rarely available for interpreters elsewhere.  They have no other outlet for the feelings and thoughts which they witness and experience and, without adequate support the burnout rate can be very high.

‘Although what was being said came from other mouths, it was from mine that she heard it.  It made me feel like the executioner on pulling the trigger.’

This month we published an anthology of their accounts.  They write about their personal and professional experiences: who they are (when they are not interpreting what other people want to say), what led them to becoming an interpreter, what impact the work has on them.  The interpreters in this anthology describe the dilemmas they face, having to hold professional boundaries while under great personal pressure.  This can come from both sides of the dialogue they are facilitating, and yet in their role they have no opportunity to relieve this pressure.

These are real human stories from the interpreters’ own experiences.  The interpreters have been courageous in sharing and reflecting on their dilemmas, the risks they take and the mistakes they can make.  We have done our best to anonymise and fictionalise the accounts so that no one is identifiable.  The nature of interpreters’ work may be elusive but enabling vulnerable people to be understood and taken into consideration is serious and important.  These stories concern clients who would otherwise be doubly silenced – by having to speak through an interpreter’s voice, and by having no one who will tell their story and listen to it fully and with compassion.  Publishing this anthology will, we hope, help those in charge of interpreter services and others who employ interpreters understand their role better, and how best they can be used and supported.

In Other Words: the interpreter’s story is published by Mothertongue this month.  The quotes are from the anthology

To receive your copy of the anthology please email

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