Trauma takes toll on interpreters in confronting cases

Sedat Mulayim.

The confronting nature of an interpreter's job can take a personal toll.

(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)

Interpreters help keep the wheels of justice turning in Australia.

Relating accounts of horrific sexual abuse and torture to police.

Translating for murder suspects at trials.

But the confronting nature of their job takes a personal toll.

And a survey has found a concerning number are now choosing not to accept traumatic assignments.

Phillippa Carisbrooke reports.

(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)

Sedat Mulayim is a Turkish interpreter with 20 years' experience.

His police work has exposed him to the pain, fear and trauma experienced by victims of crime.

And brought him face to face with alleged murderers.

"And he was covered in blood ... scratches ... He was still shaking, and he was incoherent. I can still remember the smell of the blood and the whole atmosphere in that room. It was very confronting."

Unlike the police officers he works with, the father of two has no formal debrief before heading home from stressful assignments.

"It's very difficult to switch off. And you can't tell people what you have just experienced. I mean, it's a professional life. It's like you're living in two worlds separately. And I think most interpreters are not trained or have skills to cope with this."

A survey of more than 270 interpreters in Victoria has found 78 per cent have experienced distress following an assignment involving traumatic material.

One in five reported the emotional distress was so severe it reduced the quality of their performance.

Sixteen per cent said, as a consequence, they felt a loss of interest in interpreting.

And close to 40 per cent said they would avoid such assignments in the future.

The survey was part of an RMIT University study, co-authored by Dr Georgina Heydon.

She says the findings are disturbing.

"That 16 and a half per cent who would maybe seek other employment and choose not to continue in their profession as an interpreter, that might represent the entire language access for some communities. So in our emerging languages, when people are recently arrived, there's a great shortage of interpreters. To lose just one interpreter could be catastrophic."

Interpreters reported having "nowhere to turn".

And saying "agencies don't care" about the trauma, "they're too busy just giving out jobs.

And, "I'm supposed to forget it."

State government departments often hire interpreters through private agencies.

A spokesman for Victoria's Department of Justice and Regulation says there is no universal approach to engaging contractors.

And he says the department is not involved in hiring contractors for the courts.

Miranda Lai is a Mandarin interpreter.

She says interpreters could do a better job if, before each assignment, they were given a brief.

"Just so that interpreters are somehow prepared when they go into an assignment, they know roughly what the assignment is about, what they are going to be exposed to."

Dr Heydon is calling for the curriculum on interpreter training courses to be altered to put greater emphasis on the impact on the job exposure to trauma can have, and how they can get help.





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