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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