Hidden In Plain Sight

What is it like to be a refugee, interpreting the traumatic experiences of other refugees?

I never really thought much about the phrase “hidden in plain sight” until the day I found Marina, one of our interpreters, crying quietly in the stairwell outside my office. She’d just finished interpreting an especially intense therapy session with one of our student therapists. It was her sixth session of the day.

I sat down next to her and asked what was going on. She took a moment to catch her breath, then told me she felt like she was coming apart. She was having trouble sleeping, suffering from frequent headaches, and found herself crying at home and sometimes even at work, between sessions. She explained that she had to mentally process every story of trauma and loss twice: once as she listened to clients share their experiences, and again as she translated their words into English. She said she loved her job, and that she found meaning in helping other refugees heal from the effects of the war, and linking them to social services in the city. But at times she felt invisible, or worse, like a machine being asked to translate the language and emotion of trauma and despair as though the content would have no effect on her.

I felt foolish for missing what should have been obvious. It should have been clear to me long before then, but somehow I’d overlooked a self-evident reality. Interpreting in psychotherapy with refugees is a tough job, especially if you happen to be a refugee yourself, and you’ve lived through the same stories you’re being asked to translate session after session.

Psychologists are good at talking about the importance of self-care. There’s an extensive literature on coping with the effects of “vicarious trauma,” the adverse effects of listening to stories of trauma day after day. There are workshops and trainings, websites and retreats, all designed to help therapists manage the stress of sitting with other people’s pain. Back in 1999, though, few people were talking about vicarious trauma among interpreters, even though interpreters were routinely used in mental health clinics around the world, anywhere refugees and therapists didn’t share a common language.

Marina didn’t want a different job. She just wanted the difficult reality of her work to be recognized, and for the wellbeing of all our interpreters to get the same attention as that of the therapists. It’s not something she should have had to ask for, but that’s the nature of blind spots; sometimes we simply don’t see what’s in front of us, hidden in plain sight.

Not long after my conversation with Marina in the stairway, I gathered together a research team to conduct interviews with interpreters who were refugees themselves, in mental health clinics and torture treatment centers around the country. Their stories were all pretty similar. They loved their work and felt good about being an essential part of the healing process. But like Marina, they also struggled with the pain of listening to and translating endless stories of trauma and loss. Here’s a woman talking about a particularly difficult session:

I remember one woman who was raped and when she told me what happened, I was crying. And I couldn’t say anything so I had to wait until I stopped crying to translate. So the therapist couldn’t know immediately what happened. So that was very hard and in that moment I felt like, it wasn’t fair, like I was weak. And after that I had a big discussion with the therapist and I realized it was not weakness. It was just a human reaction.

Even for interpreters without traumatic backgrounds, those who’d gotten out before the war hit their town or village, the stories they translated could take a toll:

The stories are really painful. A few weeks ago, I heard something, my brain just could not take it. I came back and I talked with my friend who is working with me and cried   then, because it is hard. I mean, I didn’t have any trauma in the war, I was pretty lucky  but I know how this looked because I saw it. These last few months when I started working so hard and I do not know, I am not taking therapy but I think I should. I cry much more easily than before.

For a lot of the interpreters we interviewed, the distress of their work was transient, especially if they felt supported by the staff of the agencies where they worked. But in other cases, the work was unnecessarily difficult because they were left on their own to manage their painful reactions to clients’ stories.

In the beginning it was really rough, I mean really tough because I saw some things that happened over there. So in the beginning when I was listening to these stories and I was translating, I was putting myself in the same situation. You know, like I am here, and then on the way home, like I was a little bit nervous, I was reacting a little bit faster, I would explode very fast because I think that those things that they told me, they were still in my brain, you know the stories they were telling me. They were still inside me.

There was no question in our clinic of using non-refugee interpreters. For one thing, there were few Bosnian speakers in the area who weren’t refugees themselves. It wasn’t just that, though. Our clients felt more at ease with someone in the room who’d lived through the war, knew all the references, and could understand the places and events that were so important in their lives. The interpreters were an essential part of the process in ways that went well beyond the mere translation of words. They bore witness no less than the therapists to the stories of humiliation, violence, and loss that defined the war for our clients.

It just took a while for me to see that.


Excerpted from War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love, and Resilience (Larson Publications, 2016).

To see the research article on which this story was based, click here.


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