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Interpreters: We Need To Talk

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 23, 2016

There’s a silent contagion that threatens to kill my profession. It infects both new interpreters, who should be immune and more experienced interpreters, who should know better. It neuters conversation, strangles mental health and suffocates any hope of recognition.

It goes by a camouflaged misnomer, “confidentiality.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not for one second saying that we should tell the world that “Mick Smith” spent a few hours at the proctologist or that “Made Up Ltd” had a dip in their profits, which means that the MD is risking his job. Sharing that sort of personally and commercially sensitive information will always be unthinkable for any professional.

Yet too many in our profession still wrongly think that, to be true professionals, we must be some kind of secret agent, with no one, not even our closest family members having any clue about the stresses and strains we have faced that day. In fact, I have even come across one set of terms and conditions which effectively barred interpreters from telling anyone anything about their work, even to the point that all terminology research had to be done by the agency themselves.

There’s a phrase for that kind of thinking: total nonsense. Actually, it is much worse, it is damaging nonsense. How is it damaging? Let me give you three very powerful ways.

1)    Our unnecessary “vow of silence” may be destroying our mental health

Years ago, AIIC did a study of burn out rates among conference interpreters. Now bear in mind that conference interpreters do not traditionally face the kind of traumatic material that can be an everyday reality for court interpreters and public service interpreters. Still, it was found that AIIC members had higher burn out rates than Israeli army officers. Really? Are the “elites” of our profession really that mentally unhealthy?

It is also generally known that social isolation and depression are nigh-on twins. Basically, without a support group, without people you can discuss your day with, your mental health is likely to face a tailspin.

Of course, nothing in the AIIC study points to isolation as the sole cause of excessive burn out rates and it just might be that the problem has since cleared itself up. I sincerely hope it has.

Still, it doesn’t take much imagination to see why overdoing the confidentiality to the point where you can’t tell anyone anything is not a good idea. Even more so given that interpreters do like to share war stories, yet for some, this entirely cathartic process might lead to a pang of guilt.

For the good of our own mental health, we need to create safe places where we can not only share war stories but debrief on the contours of each assignment, mentally unpacking any baggage that might have built up. We need relationships with people who can talk us through our decision-making, understand our fears and settle us down after a particularly difficult or stressful job.

2)    Having a wrong view of confidentiality kills professional development

The idea of debriefing leads nicely to the next reason why we need to talk about interpreting: if we don’t, we won’t improve.

Go to almost any other profession, from medicine to music and you will find a consistent pattern of people being supervised or coached from their first tentative stages to their greatest triumphs. It’s almost taken as read that no one will improve just by gaining experience. After all, you can do the same thing a million times and still be doing it wrong.

There is a myth the interpreters are somehow special. It’s only very recently that interpreters have discovered the need for deliberate, mentored practice and so the ideas, let alone the application are still in their infancy. What we are learning, however is that interpreting is not that special. Elisabet Tiselius has shown evidence of experienced interpreters actually performing worse than they did at university.

In short, if we want to improve, we need to be able to coach and supervise each other and that necessarily means not just helping each other with practice outside of assignments but chatting about how we could improve what we do during assignments.

3)    If we can’t talk about interpreting, we can’t promote it

There is one last reason that talking about our work. If no one knows the difference we make, no one is going to hire us.

I got into a twitter chat recently with the President of FIT and a leading professor of interpreting. The conclusion was that the only way to combat the eternally bad press that interpreting gets is by getting ahead of the news cycle and generating some positive PR. If we are to do that, we really do need interpreters to blog, tweet, and talk about the times that the client sold thousands of units or the diplomats did the deal or the patient was treated.

Again, we can leave the specific details out but something as simple as:

“Did a job for a major construction equipment manufacturer. Three articles in the target language press.”

or

“Interpreted at the doctors. Patient is now fully well.”

would go a long way to helping people understand the power and importance of our work.

But what about clients?

This is all well and good; some might say, but is it really necessary to discuss this stuff in public? Honestly, I thought long and hard and discussed with colleagues the merits of making this a public blog post, rather than an article for a magazine. But the truth is, since we are talking about client confidentiality, it makes sense to involve them in the conversation.

So, clients, what do you think of all this? Would you be happy with interpreters who consulted specialists and kept improving their skills by working with coaches? Would you be happy for us to talk about the pleasure and honour of working with you?

What about interpreters? What’s your take? How comfortable would you feel about working with a coach, debriefing after each assignment and sharing your successes?