In line with our recent focus on interpreter mental health, Sobrina Soloman, a highly experienced and qualified interpreters, has kindly shared her own recollection of interpreting within a challenging assignment. The following text is a great source of ‘food for thought’ for new and experienced interpreters alike, stimulating self-reflection on how each of us would deal with a similar situation.

If you want to get more in-depth knowledge on Interpreting in Mental Health setting, Sobrina has also built a fantastic webinar complete with forms and glossary. Click here for more information!

Throughout my experience as an interpreter, I have always feared facing an assignment where I had to be the one delivering bad news, mainly when it’s something to do with a person’s health or worse – like the fact they only have days to live.

There was one assignment I faced a couple of years ago, which I have not been able to erase from my mind.  We interpreters face many challenges and emotions daily which we are required to deal with on our own. Some of us may not even know how to deal with these emotions and thus we suppress them. We are required to say genuinely tricky things with the same feelings and emotions as the person who is going through the process. Neuroscience says that our brain cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is not, so when we say things in the first person our brain registers it as though it were happening to us for that moment – to the point that we can feel the emotions of the traumatised person.  In this way, a traumatic interpreting assignment can affect the interpreter in ways where the memory just gets embedded in their mind even though the actual trauma did not happen to the interpreter.

I want to share my experience of the above. A few years ago, I received an on-demand face to face booking for a hospital inpatient ward round. I always get anxious when I get on-demand hospital bookings as I know it can be something serious or an emergency situation where they require immediate help.

I walked into the hospital, I was feeling anxious, and my heart was already beating fast, as I did not know what I will see in the ward. I went to the allocated ward, and the nurse came to the door and asked me is there an interpreter for Mrs X, I double-checked my timesheet and said yes. Then she said, please sit in the waiting room over there, and the doctor will come and speak to you before you see the patient. I was sitting there waiting and at this point, my anxiety level was at its peak. In my heart I just knew it was something terrible – or else why would the doctor want to speak to me first? I could feel my heart in my throat, and my palms were getting moist. I calmed my self down by saying whatever it is I need to deal with it, this is my job.

The doctor arrived, took me to another room and said – I am sorry we have to get you to do this, but the family are refusing to pass this information to their mother, and we need to inform her that she does not have many days to live. Are you okay with that? I said yes. At that moment in my head I was telling myself – it’s okay, I am here for a reason, and if it’s through me this lady has to hear the news then that’s fine because the family are in a worse situation than me. He then gave me further information about what the patient looked like, as she had one of her legs amputated from her knee down. The cause of her current situation was diabetes which became so uncontrollable that she was going through multiple organ failure. Then the doctor said – are you ready, interpreter? I confirmed, he then said all you need to do is repeat what I say, and the son will be there too. I then asked the doctor if was I allowed to reference religion about death to make the news sound a bit more bearable as that is what we use in our culture to comfort ourselves. The doctor said, of course you can, that is even better.

We walked into the ward, with me was the doctor and a nurse who had been with the patient. The curtain was pulled back by the nurse, and my heart just sank looking at the lady’s face. She was a similar age to my mother and it made me get a lump in my throat. I took a deep breath and greeted the patient, and then I introduced myself. The patient looked very unwell, but she was sitting up and talking to her son. The doctor spoke to the son and said – I am now going to tell your mum what we discussed in the other room with the help of the interpreter, would you like to stay or do you prefer to go? The son chose to go outside. The doctor then began telling the patient that her health has drastically deteriorated and she will now need to go home as there is nothing else they can do to help her, all her organs are failing one by one. They will send her home with a hospital bed, and from today they will stop her medications but give her pain killers to keep her comfortable. I interpreted everything word by word. The lady just stared at me and said – what is he saying, am I going to die, how long?

So, I took another deep breath and interpreted the questions. The doctor said: “We are incredibly sorry, but nothing is certain, as you may know, but we think you only have about two weeks until your heart stops functioning.”.  I interpreted what was said, the patient just said “Ya Allah”, which means ‘oh god’. She then said: “It is okay. I want to go home and be with my children and grandchildren.”. The doctor explained it would take a few days to sort everything out; the plan is to send you home.

The lady then grabbed my hand; I was standing next to her bed. She said: “Please pray for me, is it true what the doctor is saying, is it my time already?”. At that point I wanted to burst into tears, but I kept myself together. I tried to comfort her, but instead, I interpreted what she said to the doctor. The doctor said – we are deeply sorry. The lady was clenching on to my hand, I did not know what to do, I just stood there numb, I looked at the doctor, and he said – interpreter could you please wait few minutes in case Mrs X has more questions. At that point the son came back to his mum and said “Does she know?”, I just nodded my head. He burst into tears and said – you did a very tough job there, thank you, because I could not say it to her.

The lady then started to ask me personal questions, and so I said “I am sorry, I need to go, but I will remember you in my prayers.”. I felt numb. I got the doctor to sign my timesheet and while doing so, he said “You did an excellent job, we understand how difficult this must have been”.

Throughout my journey back I just felt numb, I could not believe what I had had to do. Different thoughts kept going through my head – what will I do if the doctors said that about my mum, I hope I never have to experience anything like that again. I went straight to my mum’s house and gave my mum a big hug.  I remember that day in every detail. My feelings at that moment were indescribable, but the fact remains that interpreters do not get trained in dealing with those situations, nor do they get support in the aftermath. The emotions one feels are very real, but we must just deal with it and move on.