Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Interpreting the Unspeakable

Anyone who has ever interpreted material that could be described as "rough", be it a graphic description interpreted via telephone during a 911 call, a child abuse report interpreted at a local police station, or for victims of domestic violence through a counseling program... all of us who have interpreted in those settings know firsthand how tough it can be - emotionally- for an interpreter to render the words of a person who has been a victim of a crime, abuse, or both.

As interpreters, repeating those words in first person inevitably takes its toll on us as we mentally conjure images of the speaker, trying to reflect the meaning as accurately as possible while faced ourselves with the often heart-wrenching thoughts of what the person must be going through, or what she or he experienced in the past.

Now, imagine what it would be like to interpret for victims of torture every day from 9 to 5. Not exactly a job for the faint of heart.

Yet, that is exactly what Annmarie Fox does each day in her job as an interpreter, primarily for African Francophones, at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture in the United Kingdom.

In an essay regarding her work that first appeared in Context (a magazine for family therapy and systemic practice), she writes:

"Graphic descriptions of torture, intense emotional distress, loss, rape, bereavement and displacement are very difficult subjects to listen to and then to find appropriate and adequate words to render them into another language. Then there are the associative images - the more eloquent and articulate the narrator, the more powerful and intrusive are the images."

Born in Transylvania and raised in Israel, Annmarie is an interpreter for French and Hungarian.

And, she also debunks the common myth that interpreters can be likened to machines, that they are somehow "unaffected" by their work.

"I have a profound empathy with some of the clients - this is because of my own family history of persecution, because in my time I have also been a refugee in another country and because my working language at the Foundation is not really the language I was brought up in. I can identify with and understand many of the problems and emotions."

Many interpreters I've spoken with over the years admire other areas of interpreting and wonder what it would be like to work in those fields. Court interpreters have expressed to me how they admire the concept of "cultural brokering" so common in the field of health care interpreting.

Likewise, health care interpreters sometimes wonder how a court interpreter can listen to so much legalese and admire the fact that they actually find this work enjoyable.

Several conference interpreter colleagues have expressed their amazement to me about the sheer diversity of call types that a telephone interpreter might receive in a typical day's work.

And telephone interpreters, who mostly perform consecutive interpreting, often express that they admire the conference interpreters' simultaneous interpreting skills, among other things.

One wonderful thing about our field, in my opinion, is the profound levels of mutual respect and admiration that we frequently have for each other's work as interpreters, all of which is challenging and rewarding in its own unique way.

However, I believe there would be even stronger consensus that the work of Annmarie Fox should be regarded with a special awe and respect. Having dabbled in many fields of interpreting, I have a deep appreciation of what it takes to excel professionally in each and every one of them, but I cannot imagine the personal fortitude and the strength of self it would take to do Annmarie's job.

I also cannot imagine how fulfilled she must be, knowing that she is helping individuals on such profound and personal levels to deal with traumatic events each and every day, so that they can work through them and continue living meaningful lives.

Annmarie is definitely helping to change the world, one life at a time, in a very important way. She is a prime example of what the From Our Lips to Your Ears project is all about.

You can read more about Annmarie, and access her full essay, here.

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