Vicarious trauma (promoting detachment)

If you are an interpreter, you must know the true meaning of words. This is a rule that needs to be taught in interpreting courses.


When we learn about terms related to a particular subject we tend to read superficially and not dedicate time to fully understand where the terms come from. This leads to wrong beliefs and expectations.


To elude vicarious trauma, interpreters need to adopt a detachment that is not indifference but a conscious state of being objective (as in impartial, neutral). 


When we interpret, we need to avoid being influenced by our own feelings and opinions (subjective) and stay true to the facts. By remaining objective (not subjective) we achieve accuracy because we are seeking the truth of other’s words, not imposing our own reality.


In seeking detachment (as in the state of being objective, impartial), we should cultivate skills that lead us to be independent and assertive, precise (as in ‘exact’) and specific (as in ‘well defined’). 


In promoting detachment, we need to question our own set of values. Have we learned the true meaning of the terms we are interpreting? Not only the terms related to law or medicine but many terms related to feelings and emotions. How can we interpret detachment correctly if many believe detachment to be a complete lack of interest in the world around us? Or an indifference to the suffering of others?


In fostering detachment we need to know the exact meaning of terms like nonattachment, compassion, empathy, empathic, and the true reason for reacting to events. This will help us to control our emotions and voice the true meaning of the words spoken by others. 


Finding the correct equivalents in English to match the meaning of words spoken in our languages or vice-versa is a dance we all need to learn. How can we nurture accuracy if not by being respectful of others? Other’s eye contact, other’s gestures, other’s silences, other’s powerful words?


We are all human and yes we will feel certain injustices and share some of the pain while interpreting – I am not denying this. We are the only person in the room processing the words, emotions and trauma at least 4 times between listening, processing and analysing it and then voicing it into the other language. However, perhaps we need to learn that compassion should be offered cold, not warm. I mean as in objective, constant, not warm with feelings.


By distancing ourselves, we avoid becoming too close and consequently too emotional. Distancing ourselves from the action makes us an objective observer, rather than an emotional reactor. Emotional reactions take over our rationality and coherence. We become a puppet of others’ emotions. 

We can test ourselves (again) in our personal lives. Are we quick to react to others’ comments on social media, or to our partners in private? Or do we hear and understand that other people’s anger or nasty comments are merely the actions of someone who is not in full control of their emotions?


We would do well by reading the differences between the western understanding of compassion and detachment versus the Buddhist concepts. No, I am not Buddhist but I believe that some words have been taken out of context and with time evolved to fit a purpose, and in some ways became fashion words (e.g. mindfulness and empathy), to confuse some and/or to bring wellness to others.


In achieving detachment, we distance ourselves from the experience, we allow the other to be, we allow the other’s words to come into existence as pure and simple as they are said, we do not bend them to our understanding, we empower them into being. 


Detachment is not indifference or coldness, but a prerequisite for effective communication.


By Helena El Masri


The equanimous interpreter

The ‘equ…’ what?


Yes, the word is not a buzzword like being ‘mindful’ or doing ‘meditation’ but equanimity should be a word every interpreter should look into.


What is equanimity all about?


Equanimous (adjective) means calm and composed. Some may even say serene, collected, or even peaceful.


Equanimity (noun) means having a calm mind under stress or having the emotional stability to be undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, trauma, pain, or other experiences that may cause us to lose the balance of our minds.


Being undisturbed is different from being indifferent. Undisturbed is having the rational ability to avoid events entering our sacred space.


No, we do not need to follow Buddhism, or practice yoga, nor follow any other religion. What we need is to understand how our minds and emotions work to alert us to when we are losing that poetic balance needed for serenity. 


Translate all this to interpreting and you can see that being equanimous is a desirable asset.


How do we get there?


As the saying goes, ‘there are no shortcuts to any place worth going’. Everywhere worth going needs learning and practice. This takes time. Just because we are interpreters that does not define us. We are human beings with different morals, cultures, education, and aspirations. What habits we acquired from childhood and/or from peers and family will reflect in our future personal or professional relationships. 


In the same way, we followed a long journey to be where we are today, we need to continually question ourselves if we are being true to ourselves in our private lives and if we are leading the lives we chose for ourselves. 


Interpreting, as the profession we choose, will surely have an impact on our personal lives, we may arrive late home, be tired to spend time with our loved ones, overlook private events in favour of extra assignments. The work we do will surely creep into our households and minds if we do not demarcate both and live them separately, while concomitantly. 


In the same way, our personal life experiences, dramas or traumas can sneak into interpreting if we do not have them well defined and separate.


Remember, reacting is very different from responding.


When we face any stress by reacting, we are choosing one of the following trauma responses: fight, flight, freeze or fawn.


If we are afraid of confrontation we may choose flight.


If we are angry we become aggressive and we fight. 


Many freeze in shock but more people than expected actually shower others with exaggerated flattery or affection in an attempt to tell others (by their gestures, not words) ‘be nice to me, I am praising you, therefore, I am your friend.’ This is fawning, more commonly known as people pleasing.


Why is it important to know this?


How we perceive threats is a good way to start learning about equanimity. If we can avoid panicking, we can achieve a few seconds before reacting, and those seconds allow us to create a suitable solution for the problem and respond instead.


If we are equanimous we have a mind that can compound all these options in a serene way which in turn allows us to respond according to each situation.


By becoming equanimous in our personal lives we create patterns that will serve us when we see injustices in the workplace. How we deal with challenges or conflict is as important as how we deal with rage, trauma, or victimization of others. 


Investing in personal introspection and development can help some of us avoid vicarious trauma and retraumatization of others.


Are you ready to become an equanimous interpreter?


by Helena El Masri


Next… Vicarious Trauma (promoting detachment


Vicarious trauma (the hoarding of emotions)

If you are an interpreter, you must know the true meaning of emotions. Everyone has expectations and ideas (grand or otherwise) of themselves – this leads them to feel and act in certain ways.


Notice I did not say ‘people have anticipations’ (looking forward to what is coming, knowing it is good irrespective of how it will happen). Most people have expectations (projecting a fictional reality onto the future).


Why is this distinction important? Because most people’s day-to-day lifestyles are conditioned by belief systems and cultural conventions. We are told to be kind and good people (to recycle and use less plastic) but we are not teaching people how conditioning affects us at the core, and we surely do not teach people fundamental skills like ‘holding space for others’ and letting go.


We all talk about living in the present, or in the moment, but how many people can live outside their comfort zones? Just happy with minimal clothes and possessions? Just happy with simple meals and comforts?


We are a hoarding society – we voraciously collect hats, shoes, books, yes, mostly physical possessions but we also do the same with thoughts and emotions without noticing it.


This private life hoarding leads to professional hoarding. Meaning you will be more inclined to associate with others’ feelings and emotions. Some people become used to gossip, others captivated by external emotions (like soap operas or real-life shows). Mental repetitions lead to creating mental habits (of desires/ emotions/ states).


If you hoard the emotions of others, thoughts, images you hear about, you are hoarding and harbouring their baggage full of stuff… good or bad. It can be news of a newborn or the death of a newborn. It can be the gossip of a wedding or the systematic abuse of a child.


Hoarding personal emotions leads to the addiction of storing other people’s emotions. People are not taught to ‘hold space’ for others. People are taught to be compassionate or be kind to others, but if these teachings are not fully explained they lead to idealistic behaviours that harm us. 


For us interpreters, it translates into vicarious trauma. Did you know that one synonym of vicarious is empathetic? The ability to understand and share the feelings of others.


Why is this important for interpreters?


Holding space for others does not include ‘us’ in it. We allow the other to be, to suffer, to be emotional but we do not succumb to their emotional states. Holding space allows us to be present during their emotional journey, accepting them as they are rather than how we think they should be. Holding space allows us to let go immediately afterwards and ultimately be free of their suffering.


We often confuse compassion with empathy – as interpreters we need to understand what others are going through (cognitive empathy) but we do not need to be helping them (compassion). If we start feeling what others feel that is emotional empathy. The more we connect ourselves with their journey of words and emotions, the more entangled we are and the more difficult it is to disengage. Therefore more susceptible to ‘vicarious’ trauma.’ 


Interpreters are the voice of others therefore we should only connect at a cognitive level, not an emotional level. 


How do we achieve this? By being honest and asking ourselves the real meaning of our actions. Why are we meddling in the conversation of others? Why are we drawn into others’ emotional states? Yes, we are all human and occasionally we can feel more for a particular case or person because it hits home, because it is disturbing but those are the exceptions, not the rule. The rule is to stay detached. However, detachment is not indifference. Detachment is synonym with impartiality in fact. According to Ghandi, detachment is the prerequisite for effective involvement (as in participation not as in association)


Often what we think is best for others is distorted by our attachments to our opinions. We want others to be happy in the way we think they should be happy. But why would we think others do not know how to be happy, but we do? How can we know better than them? Because we are addicted to being kind, doing the right thing, or being a good person.


Perhaps we need to teach equanimity to interpreters.  How can we be equanimous? By noticing the presence of others in a non-judgmental way. We are mindful of their words without being attracted or repelled by them. We understand the nature of suffering and the results of trauma but we are not compelled to relieve them from what they are going through. 


Interestingly enough, one of the techniques for developing equanimity consists in trying to develop an impartial attitude towards all human beings. Which reinforces the notion above that what you are in your personal life reflects in your professional life. If we develop equanimity (impartial attitude) in our private lives it will become second nature in our professional life when interpreting.


By Helena El Masri


Next – The Equanimous Interpreter


The interpreter and Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries – Part 3

Intellectual boundaries 

Knowledge is power and having too much of it might interfere and/or impact our interpreting. Our knowledge and principles can cause trife if we disagree with those we interpret for. Inspecting our intellectual boundaries will prove useful to stay impartial.


If in our personal life we are quick to argue with people about something that is close to our heart, then we are more susceptible to having thin skin when the same happens in a professional setting. Our disagreement or opinion will surely be stronger than someone who has control over their intellectual boundaries. Knowing which aspect triggers our anger, disappointment, dissatisfaction is the first step to recognise the signal that it is about to happen. 


Looking at how we settle our conversations in our personal life will help us decide if we need to change something to ensure the same will not happen at work. 


Looking at the way we respond to others on social media will show us what happens when they are poking at our beliefs and/or prejudices.


Only when we know how we rock, do we know how we dance.


A lover of Tarantino movies may demonstrate actions powered with drama, action and activism. Intense moments that may defy morals. 


A lover of Woody Allen movies may demonstrate actions peppered with comic and absurd features. Maybe repeating the same reactions in different situations and/or with separate people according to morals.


In a Netflix and Facebook culture where everything is flickering so fast, it is difficult to grasp ideas, to stop and digest that idea, deconstruct it and learn it so that we can predict future behaviour. Sometimes our knowledge is no more than a spoon full of other people’s posts and ideas on social media, not deep enough to give an opinion, but it seems we do not see that. We seem to think we know it all, or at least more than the others in the room. So when we intervene are we exercising our right to intervene because it is needed or because we want to?


Are we quick to mention when we believe a non-English would be better served with an interpreter in another language? Maybe they do not want to have an interpreter in their mother tongue because they believe they will be protected from shame in the community. Maybe they have lived in the third country long enough to feel more comfortable expressing themselves in their C language. 


How do we know so much about others we just met that allows us to see exactly what they need?


Are we quick to volunteer cultural information that is not called for just because we believe we know better what a person needs? 


How many migrants/refugees have had their voices stolen and their rights violated that perhaps they would prefer to have an interpreter that respects their message and does not take over?


The reality may be different for each one of us, but it pays to know ourselves and the reasons behind our so-called ‘logical’ interventions. It pays to invest time in delving inside us to learn more about our principles with an aim to create healthy boundaries, in the same way we plunge into research to learn about the settings in which we need to interpret. 


It also pays to keep our personal knowledge and experiences tamed (meaning we know our intellectual boundaries) so that they do not emerge in our interpreting where we can inadvertently help more than is required. Or when we do not agree with what the parties are saying. After all who will know?


Knowledge is indeed power but our knowledge should be paving the road to success, to becoming aware of the traps that can tarnish our reputation. 


Above all, our knowledge should not betray our impartiality. 


By Helena El Masri


The interpreter and Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries – Part 2

The interpreter and Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries – Part 2


In our quest for healthy boundaries, I would like to explore expectation boundaries in more detail. As I said before the choices we make may be cultural, religious or simple societal conditioning but where does it all start? And why do these sometimes interfere and/or impact interpreting?


Expectation boundaries

If we anticipate things to be done a certain way (or just right), or according to our beliefs, then we have expectations. If, based on the things we believe, we criticise others for their actions, words, or mistakes, then we have prejudgements about them. No matter how often this happens, the fact that it happens is reason to believe we may just react in the same way with someone we are interpreting for because it is engineered in our character. These morals are learned from childhood and can come from parents, peers and/or educators.  


Our personality defines how we think and behave but our character is defined by the pattern of our thoughts and actions. If we think of personality as our mask (that many put on in front of others), then our character is the raw objective ‘I’, our inner self. 


An important point to remember is that we also have expectations of ourselves. When we back away from a disagreement because we do not like confrontation, we have feelings and emotions that rebel against those who wronged us and against ourselves for not standing up for ourselves. We expected them to behave with more respect and we expected our response to have been different. 


When we join the fight in favour of the unjust or the poor, we are taking sides. When we take the side of a sister or brother, we are supporting them. These are natural patterns we all follow at different stages in our daily lives. If we are not aware of them, we will use the same patterns and behaviours in our professional lives.


Add to our expectations the expectations of others upon us and we definitively must see the need to have boundaries. 


So, let’s look at the ‘why’ we do little extras for people. We may just give extra time to our sister when she needs a supportive shoulder, or we may just go out of the way to go and buy a present for a loved one, we think of ourselves as generous and kind because it’s good karma, we like to help people because that makes them happy. Whatever reasons we have, sometimes we do it because we also want something in return – I will work an extra hour each day this week, with the expectation that my boss will agree to give me next Monday off. Or I will work hard for three months so I can take a full week off and go to Spain. Or I will babysit my sister’s dog so that she can do the same for me when I need it.


When we have established expectations, we anticipate others to do it at a certain point. We also expect others from our same culture to behave in a similar fashion to us. There is evidence in honour-based violence cases of some interpreters adding information in their language to intimidate the person ‘to do the right thing’ and not leave their husband.


But then there comes a time when we think that we need to be more selective with our generosity as people are not responding to our generosity the way we expect. When we stop our quest to help, we may start to realise the faults in others. They are not respecting us, or they are just plain rude. They are taking advantage of us, of our kind heart. One good example is when interpreters feel they have worked for an agency for so long and gave so much time and respect to the jobs they accepted and then one day when they need to cancel a job for a real emergency, they are rewarded with a cancellation fine. 


Or we may never see anything wrong and continue offering the best of ourselves selflessly. 


Whether we move forward with expectations or resentments following disappointment, we are creating new paths for our behaviours. When we are faced with similar situations at work, these trigger memories might [or not] interfere with our impartiality. 


If we are expected at home to be the breadwinner, or the housekeeper, or the good person, or the person who always solves problems, our roles outside the home may become blurred and we may behave in similar ways. When we are expected to give more than we have, when we do not feel appreciated with time we become frustrated.  


Creating expectation boundaries makes us aware that there is a gap between our personal experiences and the experiences of others. Meaning we should not react to them as an extension of our own.


Creating expectation boundaries may mean saying no to jobs that conflict with important aspects of our lives, like religious events or family engagements.


It could also include working on our introductions to ensure everyone knows what our role is so that they do not expect things of us outside that role.


In the same way we are learning to have high standards at work we should start having them for ourselves and the ones around us. This will make us have more consistent behaviours and avoid discrimination.


Working on our personal development in the same way we work on our professional development is important because as human beings we continuously need to adapt our behaviours to new circumstances. 


A lot is common sense and awareness of ourselves, of how we act and react. We all have patterns of behaviour, the more we know about ourselves the better interpreters we become.


By Helena El Masri





Next: Part 3 – Intellectual boundaries

The interpreter and Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries – Part 1

While we all seem to understand fairly well the concept of privacy and personal space it seems yet again that personal choices where boundaries are concerned may be impacting on interpreters at such a deep level that I would like to share with you what I have been thinking about in this subject. 


Unhealthy personal boundaries may cause interpreters to suffer from anxiety, secondary trauma, and ultimately burnout.


These choices may be cultural, religious, or simple societal conditioning but the reality is they are impacting the professional life of interpreters. What? How? Where does it all start?


There are several boundaries that we all opt to have under control in our personal lives, but I will only mention three – emotional, expectation, and intellectual boundaries, because these are the ones that might interfere and/or impact on interpreting.


In this article, I would like to start with emotional boundaries, and these pictures depict how complex emotions can be:










Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions

Emotional boundaries 

In your personal life, how do you express yourself when you are tired, overworked, disappointed, sad, joyful?


Regardless of how you feel at any given moment, you have reactions to other people’s comments, opinions or suggestions. You may see them as they are, or they may hit home hard and cause you to be even more emotional. You may have different feelings if the other person is a loved one or a stranger. If your emotions are levelled you will respond, but if your emotions are out of balance you will react. There is a huge difference. 


Why is it so important to know the difference between reacting and responding?


Reacting is quick and impulsive. Responding is slow and involves some reasoning, meaning you create the result you wish to see.


When you respond you hear the other, you pause to understand their message and do some thought analysis before giving your piece. You are listening and processing the information, in fact, very similar to interpreting. In listening to the other you refrain from including your own thoughts.


When you react, you want to be heard and noticed, your voice raises, and your stance imposes. It is so quick that if you do not know how to control yourself in time you risk doing the same in your work, meaning you may not be able to control yourself in time and you will be interfering in your interpreting. Remember the conversation is between two people trying to reach a goal, you may disagree with them but it’s not your conversation to have.


Humans are emotional beings, full of contradictions so not an easy task to say we understand their reactions. As interpreters, and human beings we must invite dialogues and debates to our private lives rather than being dragged into arguments. It will allow us to respect others’ opinions and participate with our opinion if it is requested. Unsolicited opinions may be ill-received as superiority or lead to being called ‘opinionated’. Some rushed comments or reactions may reveal your own prejudice, and you may end up not interpreting faithfully the message of the speaker.


A good way to achieve more dialogue and fewer arguments can be by mentally giving ourselves the green light to slow down and reflect, and the red light when we need to control ourselves from interfering.


Creating emotional boundaries makes us also aware of our choices and ultimately of our habits around a topic or moral. It will make us sensitive to the importance of having our own space, the need to be assertive, and refusing to be taken advantage of, which are commonly mentioned by interpreters. 


“I was working for 3 hours straight without a break or even a glass of water.” 


“The meeting took much longer than anticipated and I felt I could not stop and say something, therefore I was very late picking my child from school, which caused me a lot of anxiety.” 


“I finished in court and had to run home to cook dinner, it’s 10pm and I did not have one minute for myself.”

We all have complex lives before we add the stories of other people’s lives. If our personal lives are hectic, crowded or even disorganised, work imbalances will create more havoc than tranquillity. Therefore, creating certain boundaries brings balance and harmony to a difficult day. Combining hectic and havoc brings destruction to the rest of the day or to our emotional state.


Let’s cultivate healthy boundaries to improve our mental health as interpreters.


By Helena El Masri


Next: Part 2 – Expectation boundaries


Adding flavour to interpreting 

Being impartial is a professional choice (not a rule), and as my colleague Phil Muriel repeats and insists, “what matters is not what we are doing, but how we are perceived”. Those watching us do not know what we are saying, which can be misconstrued as giving advice (medical or legal). 

Maybe some of you heard about an interpreter telling a domestic abuse victim to go back to her husband and not tarnish the honour of the family. Our code of conduct predicts situations like this and encourages us to stay faithful to the message and to not add anything when interpreting. It is not about being trained properly, it is about how we want to be perceived by others, and this should not be an individual choice, but what the profession expects of us.

The reality is that many interpreters add flavour to interpreting, feel the need to bridge the gap of understanding by embellishing the message or changing the register, they even chat away in the waiting rooms to help pass the time or to follow the conventions of British culture. And then when fewer interpreters state impartiality, standards or a code of conduct they are met with scepticism.

This is a touchy subject where some interpreters are divided by their humanitarian and social needs and/or the needs of others. For some, staying impartial and not adding any personal touches to interpreting is a must. 

I sat many times with defendants, patients, duty solicitors and appropriate adults in a small room without engaging in conversation. They understand and fully support my role as I introduce myself upon arrival.

It does not happen often but once the sister of the witness I was interpreting for asked me if I wanted to swap seats with her so I could chit chat (exactly those words) with her sister, and I explained very nicely and respectfully that: “as an impartial interpreter I follow a code of conduct and we do not engage in side-conversations to avoid bias. As I said in my introduction, I am here to be your voice and will interpret everything you wish to say, as accurately as I can, but my role is simply to interpret. This way I remain neutral and do my job without judgement or prior knowledge of the case.” 

As an interpreter I cannot stop their exchanges towards me, however, I was trained to use tools to protect myself, and to reduce certain things from happening as much as I can. 

My first tool is impartiality, my second tool is to use the code of conduct as a shield, and I bring a book because I know their need to talk can go on and on. They are often in an ’emotional’ state. Where I want to be in a rational state to be an effective interpreter.

My personal stance is that my private life is not to be shared with people I do not know. That is not what I am paid for. I go to a venue to interpret, not to be pleasant to people. I respect both parties and treat them the same. This is how I want to be treated and I have the right to say no when other people want to download their idle talk or personal dramas on me. 

I work in public service contexts, not in the hospitality industry where I must talk to everyone or make sure everyone is okay. That is the providers’ role. 

In addition, I consider both parties ‘service users’ and ‘service providers’ not ‘my clients’ as some interpreters often refer to non-English speakers. In my opinion, the moment we associate with a party as ‘our clients’ we are narrowing the boundaries and getting closer.

Personally, I do not get involved, as it is not my conversation, and I have no interest in being part of it, this is my job, I do not need to know anything extra about the parties (except for a briefing), I am not their nanny or confident so the extra pepper on my plate is of no concern. I do my utmost to be accurate and after my assignment I disengage and go back to my own life. 

Yes, there is a lot of common sense in our decisions but we should also ask ourselves why do we feel the need to offer extra comfort, words, whatever we are offering extra to those we are interpreting for. Perhaps it is not necessary. After all, we are already giving them a voice. Perhaps it is our own need to be chatty and pleasant, not necessarily needed for rapport or to build trust. 

I agree that a code of conduct offers guidelines only (not rules) because the profession is not regulated, but when we are all believing different things about our role it begs the question: Are we all interpreting to the same standards? 

And are we interpreters asking ourselves our motives for acting one way or another? Are we self-reflecting on our role and trying to improve our professional persona?

Self-evaluating or having a dialogue with peers is good, to maintain standards, consistency and have others seeing us all as professionals, not divided individuals doing each one a different thing. We need to establish boundaries, and for me adding flavour to interpreting, or any other involvement brings the parties to be too cosy and friendly. I remind myself that ‘I am not their friend. I am their voice’.

This brings me to another potential breach of impartiality – being left alone with non-English speakers in the room, instead of waiting outside the room. The same applies to being in the same room with the provider and exchanging trivialities.

If we are alone they may ask me for my help or advice, then I have to explain why I cannot do that. Too much explaining can be avoided with a good introduction. 

In an article published not long ago, an interpreter shared her experience of being left alone in an A&E cubicle separated by curtains while the nurse went to get something and the patient touched the interpreter inappropriately. If we are left alone with one of the parties, anything can happen. 

As human beings, we also have our own personal ethics in addition to our professional ethics, which guide many of our decisions. Only we can see if they become blurred and conflicting with each other. No one can tell us otherwise. 

I feel impartiality protects me as the interpreter, in every single way, from being attacked physically or verbally, from vicarious trauma, from complaints, accusations of taking sides, invitations, sharing private information, breaching confidentiality, asking me to do something I should not be doing. 

I see the code of conduct as a shield not as a burden to obey and not challenge.

In an ideal world nothing happens, but when something goes wrong how do we protect ourselves? How many of us have the tools to deal with challenges and conflicts?

As a trainer I must be inclusive, so for the benefit of all cultures, we should have more dialogue and see what issues and challenges occur often across all languages and cultures. What is acceptable in Britain may not be acceptable to other cultures even if they live in the UK. 

It cannot be all black or white, victims of rape will not want interpreters pity or extra words, cultures with castes and/or social status may not allow mixed education levels to chit chat, certain religious Muslim men (even of Catholic and/or of Orthodox faith) will not expect to engage in conversation with a female interpreter, so yes, in Britain certain things are acceptable to Brits and some Europeans but not to all cultures. 

Impartiality is the most difficult concept to learn and comply with. Hence why my previous thoughts were on whether Facebook is allowing us to share far more information than we should.

My thoughts aim to bring awareness to certain topics and issues (not criticise or disapprove). I do not pretend to have a position, but I believe we all need to develop critical thinking to see where we can improve and maintain high standards (myself included).

by Helena El Masri


The Interpreter or the good-doer…

As an interpreter trainer, my aim is to raise standards and for interpreters to do some introspection into the motives behind actions that can compromise their reputation. After all, if our work ethic was beyond reproach the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) would not be doing a full independent review of the existing qualifications and standards. Here is another thought…


The Interpreter or the good-doer…


An ‘interpreter’ is a good verbal communicator, faithful to the message of two parties, accurate in delivering their messages, who does not actively participate in the conversation (meaning does not interfere in their exchanges). 


A ‘good-doer’ can often be an individual who is virtuous, who gives generously, someone who helps others, a humanitarian, an altruist. 


A ‘good-doer interpreter’ feels the need to help people because they know exactly how to communicate what others need or deserve. 


Being a good-doer interpreter leads to involvement that is not asked for, nor required. They initiate, add and improve on what is said because they feel a need to help. After all, they know the language and the system better, therefore they think it is their role to bring power to the disempowered, help heal those suffering, disguised as a voice to those in need.


If challenged, the reason is often stated ‘I do it out of the goodness of my heart’, or ‘it’s what is required of me’. But is it really the true call of one’s heart or the ego believing ‘I know what you need because I know better’; or because ‘I have been there myself so I know exactly what you are going through’; or because ‘I am okay and you are not, therefore I know what you need’. 


Having gone through something is not equal to what others go through, even when referring to the same event. We all experience an event differently because we have different personalities and even if we share the same language and culture we may have had different upbringings that shaped our reactions to that same event.


The truth is, interpreting for someone makes us feel good about ourselves. We feel powerful and capable of resolving unsurmountable problems. This power should make us humble (as in unpretentious, respectful) not superior or presumptuous.


Let’s face it, we all want to be paid for the interpreting jobs we do, so we are not really doing it selflessly (or altruistically). Thus, we are not that noble. So, why are so many interpreters falling into the good-doer trap?


On the one hand, we live in a time where social media pressures us to do the right thing. We must recycle, not use plastic, be politically correct, help the elderly, rescue a dog… as a result we need to help those we interpret for, too.


Social pressure can become a prison, and we have all witnessed the examples of ‘cancel culture’ lately, which begs the question, where is the ‘good’ in the ‘doing’?


On the other hand, because users of interpreters give us praise, ‘your work is amazing’, ‘you are reliable’, ‘I can always count on you’, ‘your help was really appreciated today, we had a breakthrough’, therefore we must continue to help them.


Praise can sometimes be poison because the perception of users may have been real and that is exactly what they felt after we interpreted for them, but did we evaluate ourselves? Was our interpreting accurate? Were we faithful to the message? Were we impartial? Did we intervene appropriately? Or were we doing a ping-pong of helping left-and-right so subtly that no one noticed? Yes, that is what power allows us to do if we are not attentive and ethical in our work.


What good-doer interpreters think they ought to do is not always in sync with what their code of conduct prescribes. Hence why many academics paved the way before us and created a study of ethics so complex that needs to be adapted to each profession according to what is considered right or wrong in such profession. 


Yes, our profession is not regulated, but that does not mean we should become unregulated individuals (as in ‘not controlled by regulation’) doing whatever we believe to be right according to our own (descriptive) ethics. Remember, each culture and society have different beliefs so many of us will have to agree to disagree. Even though ethics may feel prescriptive, we need guidelines that help us make the right choice in a given situation.


Good-doers work according to their own beliefs as opposed to a collective belief. 


Interpreting, despite not being regulated, should make us united, demonstrating core beliefs, behaving unanimously (meaning we all believe in the same core belief) so that there is no doubt in the mind of users of interpreting that we are right in acting the way we do. 


Being a good-doer is not a bad thing (personal ethics), just perhaps not consistent with our code of conduct (professional ethics). Again as I have been questioning myself lately, ethics are prescriptive for a reason. To enforce unity amongst a group that performs the same job. 


Yes, the profession has evolved to embrace a collective of individuals of different backgrounds, some with extensive training among some with meagre training. But this trend of good-doing is not a phenomenon of untrained interpreters. It seems everyone can fall into the trap. Therefore, we should work together rather than alienate colleagues that do it. 


Perhaps the dialogue needs to happen at some point. 

Perhaps more ‘good-practice’ directions should be created. 

Perhaps sooner rather than later…


by Helena El Masri


The interpreter, from invisible to celebrity…

When I became an interpreter in 1998 there was no internet as we know it today. Google was just starting, and most people were Yahoo or Hotmail fans communicating on Microsoft Messenger (not FB Messenger, as Zuckerberg was just 14 and Facebook was not even an idea then).


Therefore, I learned from experienced interpreters like Ann Corsellis, Marjory Bancroft, and others, who had vast experience and knew how to articulate information in a logical way. In addition to being a member of the CIoL and ITI, I was also a member of associations in the US like NAJIT and ATA to receive their interesting magazines by post. 


I attended every conference I could in the US, as the UK was not offering much in the early 2000s. I devoured every lecture and paper I could read, including The Linguist and The Bulletin.


And it was in one of these ATA conferences that I heard the [heated] discussion of the ‘invisible’ interpreter. Boy, did it cause a stir… 


I remember that I understood it as we are invisible because we do not impact or disrupt the conversation, we are interpreting so accurately with minimal interventions that they can communicate easily and effortlessly, as if they spoke the same language, therefore I am ‘invisible’ because I am doing it right, not because I do not exist. 


The discussion continued and many gave their opinions, and it was a good discussion as it helped define the role of interpreters which was very much enshrined in mystery back then.


It helped enrich the vocabulary of what was acceptable and why we needed to respect confidentiality, why we must be impartial, why we need a code of conduct and what distinguishes a professional from an untrained interpreter. There were talks and articles that had been in the making for years, yes, even back then. NAJIT had a lot to offer, and many experienced interpreters had paved the way for me.


Fast forward 20 years and we are at the other end of the spectrum with interpreters being extremely visible and vocal. An interpreter can now advertise their services on websites and different mediums and portals, show off their newly acquired qualifications and achievements and add selfies of themselves showing where they spent their days interpreting on various social media outlets.


I know that times change, and the internet has allowed so many things that were taboo to become normal, but I always question where all these liberties are taking us. Are they for the benefit of the profession? Are they raising awareness of interpreters as a profession or making interpreters achieve celebrity status? If so, with what intent?


And if it is an acceptable practice, why aren’t doctors taking selfies with their patients on the operating table with captions that read “another 18 hour day in the OP theatre, 3 bypasses later and I am done, off for a nice walk home along the canals.” 


Or why don’t I see barristers taking selfies outside the courtroom, saying “Massive thanks to my team, we got a conviction today at the Old Bailey!” 


Or a social worker taking a selfie outside the home of an elderly lady saying “After 8 visits today, my last job just received me filled with faeces, in the bed, hands, hair… had to shower her, clean the bed and room, wash everything… who is paying for the extra time on my zero-hour contract?”


Maybe because by doing so, they show where they are, they reveal the location of someone’s house, the identity of a defendant (or patient), and that leads to breach of their ethical code. So… if some professions find it easy to follow a code of conduct and good practices, should we not follow suit to ensure we also achieve the same respect as professionals?


When did it become normal to have so many liberties with confidential information and where will it stop? Should we accept it as normal or are we falling into the celebrity trap?


‘There is a time and a place for everything’, we have all learned this at some point, but it seems that nowadays ‘everything can be done everywhere at any time’… when did the coin flip? And if everything is acceptable, why do we need ethics? Why do we need a code of conduct or good practice for interpreters?


I find it worth reading posts or publications with information that helps others written by interpreters that take their time to create them, as well as free and paid CPD that inspires us all, but do we need a celebrity profile for that?


Where I do not advocate an invisible or celebrity model, I think we should look at the issue with critical eyes and question our motivations before embarking on what can be perceived as detrimental to our reputation.


I was recently invited to an award ceremony taking place at an Education conference in Dubai where it seems I would receive an award. I was intrigued. I asked questions and what transpired was baffling. It seems my name had been chosen at random amongst many others from an algorithm that selected individuals according to searches made of their names in LinkedIn and Google. I received a call explaining to me how alongside other 100 individuals I would receive my award on stage, and then the sales pitch started. I would need to apply, be selected if my application form was detailed enough and met their parameters and If I was successful I had to pay to attend the conference.


Now, this would be a great fit for any celebrity seeker, but I saw no benefit in pursuing this or attending this conference. My niche market is small and specialised, I have 20 years in this business, therefore I am already established and have a reputation. And, having to pay to attend my own award ceremony, looks like I am buying an award, so it made no sense to spend time convincing them of something I already do well and successfully. 


I am sharing this little story because we can all fall into the stardom trap and desire to have a moment of glory. Did a say a moment? Well, it seems more like everyone is having their “15 minutes of fame” every day. But I question myself again, are we getting more work because of the celebrity status than our skills? 


Yes, we do business very differently nowadays, but should we not have a balance of privacy and disclosure? Should advertising a service or marketing be a self(y)-promotion affair? And what about those interpreters who work in high-profile cases or in languages that put them at risk? Are we creating a segregated category of interpreters, those who can and those who cannot be stars on the windows of the world? And how come I do not see AIIC interpreters in this category of fame-seeking? 


I have too many questions that beg an answer, perhaps the dialogue is not ready for me so I will continue as an observant and do what I preach (basically what I learned). 


No, we can no longer be invisible, but maybe we can find a balance even though it seems morality is becoming relative. Maybe normative ethics need to change, maybe we should have more examples of good practice created based on a code of conduct, maybe we can still put back the pieces, maybe…


by Helena El Masri


Join me in making a difference!


Message from Helena El Masri 

Founder of DPSI Online and Chair of the Association of Community Interpreters (ACIS)

As many of you know I have been actively working to raise standards in Community Interpreting.

With a view to fostering a better understanding of the professionalism of community interpreters, I would like to invite you all to join the association today. Everyone can be a member as long as you foster the aims of the Association.

Being a Full Member of ACIS will give you access to free CPD for a whole year. Meaning there is nothing to pay until January 2023.

To get your free CPD click here. Use the discount code: acis_30 to get it 100% free.
By becoming a full member, you agree to be contacted directly by ACIS with a view to broadening your chances of getting work by being added to the Directory of Qualified Community Interpreters.

Once fully functional, this directory will be shared with key stakeholders like the NHS, DWP, and others so that they can contact you directly, knowing that they are getting a qualified professional who is vetted.

Join me in making a difference. Let’s make 2022 the year where we have all raised the bar for community interpreters nationally.