To Remain Focused While Interpreting for a Psychiatric Patient
(Selected from February 2009 ATA Chronicle article

Notes by: Jackie Metievier, Certified ATA Interpreter

Speaking in the First Person (ATA Journal Feb 2009)

Once, I served as an interpreter…

in a session involving a young man from (country withheld).

During the session, we—the psychologist, the patient, the sign language interpreter, the patient’s mother, and I, as the interpreter—sat in a circle. Normally when I interpret, I rely on nonverbal communication to relay the nuances of the conversation effectively. However, as the patient communicated to the sign language interpreter and she in turn relayed the message, the interpreter’s speech and motions were so distracting that I had to close my eyes just to hear the message in English; only then could I convey it the mother in her language. Whenever the patient’s mother spoke in her native tongue, I would relay the message in English so the doctor and the sign language interpreter could understand. It was a very intense session.

Another time,

a 14-year-old girl with depression was admitted to the adolescent ward. She came with her mother and stepfather for her first family session. After that, only her mother came to the appointments. It was during one of the last sessions that the girl confessed that her mother’s boyfriend had gotten her pregnant. The mother was so upset that she yelled at her daughter and accused her of flirting with the man. She was blaming her daughter for getting pregnant! I wanted to scream at the mother and tell her that it was not her daughter’s fault, but that was not my role. As an interpreter, my role is only to convey messages; I cannot express my personal opinions. At times, it can be quite difficult to bite your tongue.

Several years ago at the same psychiatric hospital,

a young man, about 16 or 17, was admitted to the adolescent unit. His family brought him in because he stopped speaking. He walked like a robot, he could not say a word, and his gaze was lost in space; he was catatonic. I had never seen anyone in that state and felt such compassion for this man. He was hospitalized for several weeks, but one day he started speaking again. He told me that the day he came into the hospital, he could hear me asking him questions and he wanted to answer me, but he felt trapped. Although he could see, he could not speak or move his body. It was absolutely amazing and extremely rewarding to see him make such progress.

After many interpreting sessions

at the psychiatric hospital, I would walk out, get into my car, and just cry and pray to God that I would never have to go through something like that with my two daughters. I would sit and reflect upon what had happened. I wanted to make sense of things and analyze who was at fault, why these young people were having so many problems, and what I could do in my personal life to avoid these situations. I wanted to learn from their stories. Time and time again, I would come to the conclusion that these problems could be traced to the parents’ lack of education, their cultural baggage, financial difficulties, or to the fact that they live in a part of the world where they do not speak the language or have social support or easy access to needed pharmaceuticals, or physicians who speak their own language.


Article from ATA Journal - February 2009

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