The challenges of interpreting in mental-health settings

July 4, 2017 11:30 am

We bring to you a new post on an extremely interesting topic: what are the challenges faced by interpreters when working in mental health settings? In this guest post written by Dr Beverley Costa, psychotherapist and CEO of the award-winning Mothertongue multi-ethnic counselling service in the UK, we will learn more about the importance of supervision, training and psychological support provided to interpreters working in distressing contexts.

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‘We are not Google Translate. We are not add-ons. We are the link,’ one of our interpreters at Mothertongue multi-ethnic counselling service reminded me the other day. Since 2009 we have run a dedicated Mental Health Interpreting Service, as well as our clinical psychotherapy service, funded by the local Health Authority in Reading, UK. Interpreters, who work in a mental health context, hear and relay often distressing and heart-rending stories, and how they do so can make a critical difference to clients’ lives. They manage pressure, which comes from all participants in the interpreter-mediated encounter. But they have few outlets for the emotional impact this can have on them. This is why we have such a firm commitment to training and regular clinical supervision for all our interpreters who work in a mental health context.

In a mental health context interpreting relationships take place in emotionally powerful contexts. Unconscious processes do not disappear even if we ignore them or if we attempt to override them. Supervision and training give a space and an opportunity for our unconscious processes to be explored safely so that we can act within awareness. This is not just an interesting and optional exercise. It forms an essential component to our preparation as practitioner or interpreter working in a mental health context, if we are to provide the best possible environments for our clients to access the help they need, to heal and to thrive.

But don’t just take it from me, here is what Mothertongue interpreters say about supervision:

‘You can get home and it (the interpreting assignment) can impact on the relationship you have with friends and family. Because if you don’t offload here it’s going to come out. And sometimes in the wrong situations.’

Some interpreters said that a debrief straight after a session may not be enough:

‘Most clinicians, will offer some support at the end of the session. You can’t always remember, you can’t always think, because during the session you’re there 100% trying to be professional, you don’t let your emotions get in the way, you keep them buckled down.’

Mental health interpreters need to be supported. The consequence, if not, is burn out or disconnect. Interpreters are not Google Translate. We need to care for the people who care. To see other, creative examples of support for interpreters (besides the supervision groups), you might be interested to read our anthology of interpreters’ stories: In Other Words.


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Written by Dr Beverley Costa, DPsych, UKCP reg.Psychotherapist, Chief Executive Officer and Clinical Director, Mothertongue. Beverley Costa, a psychotherapist, set up Mothertongue multi-ethnic counselling service in 2000. Mothertongue also runs a dedicated Mental Health Interpreting Service. In 2009, Mothertongue won The Queen’s Award for Volunteering. Beverley set up the Bilingual Therapist and Mental Health Interpreter Forum in 2010. This meets twice a year in London. She holds an Honorary Research Fellowship at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Post prepared by Doris Fernandes del Pozo – Journalist, Translator-Interpreter and Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament.

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