Behind the Face of Neutrality

I wonder how long it takes the average interpreter to realize that their working environment has begun to reflect in who they are as a person? It’s pretty common to set up barriers to prevent a situation from striking at the core of our being; yet, at some point, it seems like it all those emotions and situations have truly built up inside of us, duly hidden behind a face of neutrality, and are just waiting for the opportunity to come out.

The First Environment

When I worked in the medical profession, a colleague and I used to joke how I was Ice Woman. I looked forward to highly emotional situations where I could come out proud that mine were the only dry eyes in the house. It wasn’t because I wasn’t sensitive, not at all. It was a barrier I built up that was unbreakable, impenetrable. I was safe, for years.

Then, my grandma died, and I lost it. I couldn’t explain it: she was very elderly and sick. Her life had been lived well and in my mind, I knew it was her time. Yet, there I was, weeping uncontrollably at her deathbed, at her funeral, on my way home: I couldn’t stop, and I was the most emotional person there. Where was Ice Woman?

The A-ha Moment

That’s when I realized it: the so-called barrier I had put up as a medical interpreter, the one that blocked all the emotions from getting to me, was actually a sort of box for safekeeping in my heart. It was as if the feelings were redirected and stored there, where they were held away under lock and key, until it was safe for me to show them. What a revelation!

A New Environment

Fast forward a couple of years to when I became a court interpreter. I’ll never forget my first preliminary hearing where a defendant was held to answer and then requested to stay and talk privately with his attorney before being returned to the jail cell. There he was, pouring out his heart to his attorney, who sat stoic, emotionless. There was a new norm for me to learn, and quick, because I was used to a lot more empathy than that. Fortunately, it seemed like the relative infrequency of highly emotional situations, where everybody is upset, would be far easier to handle than in the medical setting. Ice Woman traits would really come in handy.

So that’s how it went. Several more years have gone by, and I’ve experienced the whole gamut of emotions with defendants, witnesses and victims whose words flow through me, seemingly leaving little to no imprints on my heart. Nobody’s perfect at preventing a situation from moving them, but as we mature in the profession, it’s certainly easier.

What’s Happening to Me?

Here we are at present day, and lately, I’ve found myself passionately choosing sides of any argument, big or small, and analyzing every nook and cranny to prove my points and establish a solid foundation for my argument. It’s exhausting, and yet I can’t stop. Although I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge, something seems to be changing in me, in who I am. I don’t have a name for it yet, but it looks a lot like what a lawyer does.

What? But, I’m neutral, I’m Ice Woman. My emotions are in check. What’s happening? My best guess is that, once again, I’ve become a product of my surroundings. After being in an adversarial environment day in and day out for years, wouldn’t it make sense that I’ve learned a little about how to argue… passionately? That’s not to mention my newfound ability to remember rules and apply them to the situation at hand, as if I was arguing the elements of a crime and how they fit the facts. This is yet another revelation, for sure!

Normal, but Different

Looking back, I think being in the medical and court environments have helped me because they have tremendously increased my knowledge base. When my kids were little, I knew just what to do for a nagging cough, how to deal with cuts so they wouldn’t get infected, and when to worry about certain symptoms. I’ve learned to make complete stops and how one mistake, especially one that
looks much worse that it really is, can mean the loss of freedom, forever.  I’ve learned to maintain my neutrality and happily provide my very best effort at interpreting for the vilest criminal cases, then shrug it off and manage to feel nothing. But now that I realize that my profession has changed me, I can no longer ignore how it impacts who I am. Being overprotective with the kids and very suspicious of strangers who fit certain profiles: those are the benefits of my professional knowledge. Arguing every point until I’m blue in the face, and expecting my counterpart to be just as skilled in presenting an argument despite no court experience? Not so much.

Looking Forward

In the end, the take-away is this: I need to read more and understand how my career affects me, and those around me. Maybe I’ll find I need an outlet, a new hobby, or simply a way to shut off the court part of my brain once I walk through my front door. There’s a lot out there about vicarious trauma and how as interpreters, we can be impacted by tragedy in unexpected ways. But unless we are feeling emotionally distraught, it may be hard to recognize how we’re changing, little by little. By knowing why our attitudes
and feelings exist, we can better prepare ourselves to stop sweating over the small things in life, and avoid making every little issue out to be like a full-blown evidentiary hearing. Now, beyond worrying about protecting ourselves professionally, it’s a matter of protecting our quality of life and being at peace with ourselves, our families, our coworkers and the universe.


 Some Additional Reading:

“Vicarious Trauma Affecting Interpreters and Translators” by Janice Rhyne

 “Vicarious Trauma and the Professional Interpreter” by Jana Vigor

“Whose Trauma is it? Vicarious Trauma and its Impact on Court
Interpreters” by Sonali Rana, Purvi Shah and Kajori Chaudhuri (NAJIT’s Proteus, Winter 2009-2010)



0 thoughts on “Behind the Face of Neutrality”

  1. Excellent points, Jen. If you’re looking for a hobby, try acting. I find it the best way to change my persona and vent emotions in a positive way. (Acting gives you a natural “high” – and the applause doesn’t hurt, either!)

  2. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

    Thanks, Rosemary! What a great idea! I bet we’d make great actors!

  3. Kathleen Shelly says:

    Very profound thoughts, Jennifer. I too have wondered about all of these things. Thanks for expressing so well what so many of us feel happens to us in the course of our work. As for myself I sing at church and in a large group. Like Rosemary, I find that being creative and “getting out of” yourself is very beneficial.

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