The ATA Chronicle - July/August 2020 - 21

hope is the pro bono hours given by
dedicated professionals, including
translators and interpreters.

I WOULD LIKE TO HELP, BUT I DON'T
THINK I'M QUALIFIED...
These were my exact sentiments only
a few years ago. I've been teaching
Spanish language, culture, and
literature for the past 20 years at a
small liberal arts college in Illinois. I
was hired to teach specialized courses
in Peninsular literature and culture, as
well as introductory language classes.
I had studied abroad in Spain as an
undergraduate and gone back several
times to live for extended periods. After
receiving a PhD in literature, my focus
on working toward tenure and raising
a family required all my attention.
However, I had occasionally dabbled
in translation and interpreting. Both
my own inclination toward this field
and external pressure to teach careerready skills led me to slowly place
more emphasis on translation and
interpreting. Eventually, I earned
my certification as a medical interpreter
in 2016.
Even with this experience, I still felt
unprepared to do asylum work. So,
when the humanitarian crisis at our
border and talk of building a border
wall began to be featured in daily media
reports, I didn't immediately take
action other than to express armchair
outrage and repost articles on social
media. Part of me excused my inaction
with the logic that I wasn't a specialist
in Latin America and had extremely
limited exposure to Central American
Spanish. Second, I felt more comfortable
in the medical realm than the legal.
I was afraid I would be tongue-tied
for all the legal terminology I would
need. Finally, I was woefully ignorant
about the asylum process, and most
of immigration law for that matter.
Therefore, I rationalized that I really had
no place getting involved.
This thinking continued until I did
a little more reading and assigned
some provocative texts to my students,
like Francisco CantĂș's reflections5
on working as a U.S. Border Patrol
www.atanet.org

officer, or PBS's Farmingville6, which
provides an insightful look at the
effects of immigration in small-town
America. However, it wasn't until after
reading Valeria Luiselli's Tell Me How
It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions
that I knew there was no turning
back. Luiselli provides readers with
a precious window into the lives of
unaccompanied children who arrive
in our immigration courts through
her work as an interpreter. Luiselli
discusses how the interview process
("40 questions"), designed for adults,
plays out for children. Question 7 is
particularly hard ("Did anything bad
happen to you on your way to the
U.S.?"). As Luiselli readies herself for
the answer, she reflects, "...all I want
to do is cover my face and my ears and
disappear. But I know better, or try to.
I remind myself to swallow the rage,
grief, and shame; remind myself to
just sit still and listen closely... [for] a
particular detail that can end up
being key to his or her defense
against deportation."7

As a bilingual U.S. citizen and
experienced translator and
interpreter, I began to realize I
had a highly valuable skill set
that could have a huge direct
impact on hundreds of lives.

As a bilingual U.S. citizen and
experienced translator and interpreter, I
began to realize I had a highly valuable
skill set that could have a huge direct
impact on hundreds of lives. Moreover,
I began to see donating my time and
skills as a moral imperative. As it
turns out, the shortfalls I saw in my
experience, while not insignificant, were
not as large as they loomed in my mind.
I already had the most important skills
to be successful and would quickly
learn everything else of importance.

So, what's required to work in
this area? In the following I outline
some of the most important skills for
interpreters and translators in this
field. For those still uncertain if this
work is for you, it's surprising how
many skills you already use that overlap
into this area.

INTERPRETERS WITH EMPATHY
For interpreters, the most important
skill to bring to the table is listening
with empathy. In many cases, the
interpreter is literally the first person
to hear a refugee's story and the first to
voice this story to someone in a
position to help. This is a both
tremendous responsibility and an
honor. In the words of my colleague
Cindy Lepeley, who volunteered for
the American Immigration Lawyers
Association's Proyecto Dilley pro
bono project in Texas, working with
women and children detainees: "This
is sacred work."
If you can perform consecutive
interpreting for an extended period
and have the emotional fortitude to
deal with traumatic stories, then you're
ready and qualified to dive in. Many
medical interpreters deal with traumatic
situations in their work, so they already
have the necessary experience and tools
to handle intense experiences. When I
say "emotional fortitude," I don't mean
the ability to interpret like a robot
without feeling. Hard as you may try,
you'll shed tears in this work, and some
stories will haunt you.
There are excellent resources
available on vicarious trauma for
interpreters8, and I cannot recommend
them highly enough as a prerequisite
to this work. Some tricks I use are
deep breathing for its calming effect or
pressing my pen hard into the paper
when I'm taking notes. The latter allows
me to release tension into the pen
and paper and away from my lungs,
throat, and chest. When possible, I
try to go outside and take a walk right
after interpreting traumatic material.
Knowing my emotional triggers also
helps. In my case, they happen to
be when men break down and sob
or when the client expresses profuse
American Translators Association

21


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The ATA Chronicle - July/August 2020

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