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Legal Interpreting: Vicarious Trauma

Jul 18, 2022 | Interpreter Education

by: Lisa Hendrickson, CI - NIR Coordinator

Vicarious trauma, also called compassion fatigue, is a real threat to Sign Language interpreters in any setting. In a primary school setting, an interpreter could witness the effects of physical abuse on a d/Deaf student at the hands of a parent. In a hospital setting, an interpreter could bear witness to the effects of neglect from medical staff at a nursing home for a Deaf geriatric patient. A meeting at a place of employment could lead to accounts of sexual harassment or abuse of a Deaf worker. While these events are possible in any of these, and other, settings, no setting involves these kinds of events more so than those of a legal nature. A large percentage of the interactions in legal settings will involve tense, painful, and/or disturbing content. As a result, those exposed to this content (officers, clerks, bailiffs, court reporters, correction officers, interpreters, etc.), could experience vicarious trauma as a result. 

Warning signs of vicarious trauma can manifest physically or behaviorally in the interpreter. Some physical signs include: exhaustion, insomnia, headaches, irritable bowel, and heart palpitations. Some behavioral signs are: avoiding colleagues and social events, increased use of alcohol and drugs, feeling helpless, and problems in personal relationships (Macdonald, 2015).

Peer support and consultation are vital for interpreter self-care. Various outlets of this nature are available to interpreters in settings that do not jeopardize client confidentiality. “After particularly difficult assignments, interpreters may need to talk to therapists or spiritual counselors in order to process this exposure…” (Potterveld, 2012). Many such resources are available, some specifically geared toward interpreters, others of a more general nature. Recognizing the symptoms of vicarious trauma is vital to the health of interpreters working in legal settings.


Macdonald, Jami L. (2015) “Vicarious Trauma as Applied to the Professional Sign LanguageInterpreter,” Montview Liberty University Journal of Undergraduate Research: Vol. 1: Iss. 1, Article 6.

Potterveld, T. (2012). Law enforcement interpreting for deaf persons. Alexandria, VA: Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.


If you are an interpreter in the Southeast Florida area, interested in freelance work and have availability days, nights, or weekends, we have a variety of assignments throughout the community (medical appts., evening/overnight hospital shifts, day/evening college classes, school districts, legal, etc.). Please visit our website and submit our New Interpreter Questionnaire.


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