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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 this picture depicts how complex emotions can be:


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