09 Jul 2021
by Maha El-Metwally

Position statement on vicarious trauma in interpreters

Consistent with its mission to “promote the highest standards in the profession” and given the growing need for interpreting in potentially traumatising situations, the Board of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting has decided to put forward its position on vicarious trauma for interpreters.


Interpreters offer their services in a plethora of situations: mental health, humanitarian settings, police and court environments, and conflict zones to name but a few. When enabling communication between different parties, in order to make the voice of their clients heard, interpreters use the first-person singular or plural pronoun. Whatever the speaker says, the interpreter renders it starting with “I” or “we”, which can intensify the embodiment of emotions and enhance potential traumatic impacts. Empathy with the client, and the tendency to recruit the same interpreter for longer cases, can lead the interpreter to suffer secondary trauma.

Studies have shown that “nearly all interpreters experience some symptoms of vicarious trauma, burn out, compassion fatigue, or increased stress as a result of their repeated exposure to traumatic information and stories." 1 There is a lack of awareness among many interpreters about vicarious trauma; they may experience it but do not recognise it. 2

It is common for interpreters to be freelancers - providing their services to variety of clients. These services are frequently commissioned with intermediaries acting between the end organisations and the interpreters.

The ITI Board position

  • The Board of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting recognises that secondary trauma in the case of interpreters and other front line workers is a real risk.
  • In addition we recognise the need for guidance for interpreters whose work setting may put them at risk of secondary trauma.
  • We also take note of ongoing research on this issue.

The ITI Board recommends the following:

  • Awareness of the vicarious trauma should be prevalent across all levels of the interpreting procurement process. In particular, it is important not to assume that assisting interpreters suffering from secondary trauma is someone else’s problem. A proactive approach to this issue is necessary.
  • The end organisations, the intermediaries, the interpreters and professional associations should work together to ensure that interpreters working in potentially traumatising settings are adequately informed of the risks involved in providing their services. Briefing and debriefing sessions are vital.
  • Increased communication between end organisations, intermediaries, interpreters, and professional associations is needed to ensure that practices take into account interpreter wellbeing.
  • The end organisations and the intermediaries should make their facilities and support services, if established and available, known and accessible to the interpreters.
  • Engagement should be encouraged between professional associations and already established facilities and support services of the end organisations and intermediaries, in order that training opportunities are offered to interpreters so they can learn how to recognise symptoms of secondary trauma, how to protect themselves and where to seek help if they are affected.

[1] Ndongo-Keller, Justine. 2015. “Vicarious Trauma (VT) and Stress Management.” In The Routledge Handbook of Interpreting, edited by Holly Mikkelson, and Renée Jourdenais, 337–51. London: Routledge.

[2] Muller, R. T. (2013, August 2). Vicarious Trauma and the Professional Interpreter. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/talking-about-trauma/201308/vicarious-trauma-and-the-professional-interpreter

[3] The Cost of Caring - Vicarious Trauma in Interpreters. (2020, January 31). Retrieved from https://www.nimdzi.com/the-cost-of-caring-vicarious-trauma-in-interpreters/