Unique burdens of job weigh on court interpreters
Problems include a shortage of support, uncertain income and second-hand traumas
The moment court is in session, Shahla Husain becomes someone else.
“Once you start interpreting, you are not there. You are just a voice for somebody, and you always use the first person,” explained the freelance court interpreter.
Everything said to, or about, her client is processed, translated (between Urdu or Punjabi, and English) and uttered from Husain’s mouth, but in the first-person. Not “My client doesn’t know the time,” but “What time is it?”
Courtroom interpreters give voice to everything said in court — dull procedure, technicalities given by expert witnesses and, as Husain said, “things you probably wouldn’t even imagine in your worst nightmares.” Criminal trials can see hours, or even days of witnesses describing physical or sexual violence in horrific detail. Interpreters must bear witness to it all, and be exacting in its translation.
Husain copes by practicing meditation and deep breathing. As an eightyear veteran of courtroom interpretation, she’s capable of distancing herself from the horrors of hard trials most of the time.
“Everyone — or most of us — have come up with, I guess, methods of coping with things,” explained Husain.
The majority of Ontario’s court in- terpreters must resort to their own methods as well. Most don’t receive access to psychological counselling funded by the Ministry of the Attorney General’s office, despite bearing witnesses to sometimes-horrific testimony.
Only a few dozen court interpreters are employed by the Ontario justice system full-time. The rest, roughly 800, are independent contractors — and, according to the Attorney General’s website, “do not qualify for government benefits such as health and dental coverage, insurance, or pensions.”
“Because you are ‘fee for service’, you are basically on your own. You are technically running your own business,” Husain said.
Freelance court interpreters tend to be fairly solitary workers, she said. Teamwork is rare, and each interpreter’s hours depend on the assignments they’ve managed to snag. A number of them rely on another job, or the steadier income of a spouse, to get by, Husain said.
She loves her job, but said that no matter how experienced you are, some testimony can just “get under your skin.”
For Janet Rodriguez, a former Spanish-to-English court interpreter who left the profession in 2004, this included the trial of a married couple accused of confining an underage girl to a hotel room and sexually assaulting her.
As an interpreter for the complainant, Rodriguez had to listen to the girl’s testimony and translate it precisely — and in the first person.
“But when you’re in the court . . . and (the complainant) says ‘They did this, this, this, to me.’ And I have to turn around and repeat, ‘They did this, this, this to me,’” Rodriguez said.
She continued on with her career after that trial, but found the whole experience deeply unsettling.
“It took a long time to, first of all, try not to think about it — and then try to think through it, and then wrap my head around it,” Rodriguez said.
The Ministry of the Attorney General’s office said it provides a two-day training program for accredited freelancers, which includes a module on coping with traumatic experiences heard in court.
It also maintains a 24-hour employee support number (but, of course, freelancers are independent contractors).
Any freelancer who asked for help, however, “would be provided with a list of appropriate resources where they could seek assistance,” wrote ministry spokesperson Brendan Crawley in an email to the Star.
Yet despite being considered independent contractors, freelance court interpreters are bound by the same code of confidentiality as full-time employees serving the court.
“Which means the minute you step out of court — even if the lawyer wants to catch up on something, or has missed out on something — we don’t technically remember anything,” Husain explained. “So it kind of just stays bottled in.” Doing so can be deeply traumatic in its own right.
Dr. Robert Muller, a clinical psychologist and York University professor, said professionals (like interpreters) who frequently listen to traumatic stories run the risk of vicarious traumatization, akin to second-hand trauma.
“We know that the effects of psychological and emotional trauma are about as significant as the effects of physical or sexual abuse,” Muller said.
The condition isn’t officially in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), considered the medical standard for psychiatric, psychological and neurological disorders.
“But we know that it exists. We see it,” Muller said. He, along with several other researchers, have been discussing the effects of vicarious trauma for about a decade.
Not every court interpreter who listens to horrific testimony is going to end up with vicarious trauma, Muller said. Nonetheless, it is a risk for those who routinely listen to traumatic stories.
“So, it’s very important for people who are interpreters to seek supervision, support from other people, to take breaks, to take care of themselves — because you don’t want a situation where you end up burning out,” Muller said.
It’s advice a freelance court interpreter would be hard-pressed to take. As independent contractors, they don’t receive EI or paid sick time. Rodriguez said that when she was an interpreter, refusing an assignment was technically possible — but not for long.
“You can only do that so much because then they’re going to say ‘You know what? Next time, we may not call you — we’ll go to the next person in the roster,’ ” Rodriguez said.
Husain, still a freelance court interpreter, said her own coping techniques help her keep traumatic experiences in perspective. Older, experienced freelancers tend to also have systems of their own. However, Husain said other interpreters might benefit from a system that lets them disclose their own experiences — in strictest confidence — to someone who can really listen, and empathize.
“Basically, you need someone to talk to, who understands what you’re going through — all your pressures — and just keep it safe. And you do not break your confidentiality oath,” Husain said.
She hopes to better organize freelance court interpreters to ensure they’re well-supported. The justice system, Husain said, “would come to a grinding halt if they did not provide the services that they do.”
“Nobody wants to hold them, nobody wants to take care of them.”
When she lived in Pakistan, Husain worked in two languages as a TV journalist. As a court interpreter in Canada, Husain is dedicated to her job — hardships aside.
“It is rewarding, too, because you give voice to people who probably wouldn’t be heard at all if we don’t interpret,” she said.
“Nobody wants to hold them, nobody wants to take care of them.” SHAHLA HUSAIN FREELANCE COURT INTERPRETER