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Mauro Couto

Interpreting demands a high level of accuracy and well-developed time management skills. To perform with precision, the interpreter needs to be fully focused on the task at hand. Hearing the client’s speech, reading their body language, catching intonation, being mindful of all the details involved in communication; then processing this collected information and reproducing it in a different language, transposing their client’s complex expression, through cultural and linguistic barriers, to land safely on the other side with an accurate version, just to start again. This requires rational thought, drive and concentration.

“the fact that interpreters often work in emotionally sensitive situations creates challenges”

Emotional intelligence is essential for performing rationally and achieving those desired results. The interpreter needs to be able to identify their client’s emotions, as well as their own, to then reproduce them appropriately. If the interpreter fails to understand and control their own emotions, harnessing them to their advantage, they risk losing focus and the task may be compromised.

But interpreters are only human and humans are moved by emotions. Maybe one day the profession will be taken over by cold AI-driven software. Until then, the fact that interpreters often work in emotionally sensitive situations creates challenges in this activity. These challenges are, however, not fully undesirable, as they are a by-product of what most motivates interpreters to do their job: the perception of how meaningful their activity is to the people involved, of how much their work impacts their clients’ lives.

This obstacle will eventually arise in any environment in which an interpreter works. In a legal setting, the interpreter will likely face anxiety-laden formal situations more often, while a healthcare interpreter may frequently work with patients who are going through significant personal distress, sometimes informing them of serious diagnoses, but in a more informal and caring environment. Conference interpreting will usually have a less emotionally sensitive setting, with the interpreter striving to develop their emotional intelligence to ground and to stay focused in the moment for greater lengths of time and with fewer interruptions. Nonetheless, conference interpreters are also often exposed to extreme emotional challenges.

On February 27th, 2022, Nadiya Kyrylenko, a veteran interpreter for the German news outlet Welt, had been assigned to interpret a speech by Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky live from Kyiv. Three days earlier, Russia had invaded Ukraine, and Mr. Zelensky was now leading his country’s defence and struggling to secure meaningful support from Ukraine’s allies in his nation’s fight for self-determination against a formidable invading force.

The urgency of the matter, the bravery shown by a young leader in military uniform supplicating for assistance for his people, as well as the terrifying realization that the darkness of war was descending over that free nation and of all the suffering that would ensue, created a setting that proved too emotionally dense for the interpreter to maintain her focus and do her job. She interrupted her delivery, cried during the live broadcast, and apologized as she struggled to conquer back her concentration to continue.

As an Interpreter, Ms. Kyrylenko failed at her task that February 27th. Due to significant emotional distress, she was not able to properly interpret Mr. Zelensky’s speech, as it had been expected of her. To anyone who was listening to his speech through her voice, however, her failure was perfectly justified. In fact, in a way, it may have enriched the circumstance. As Russian tanks coldly and mercilessly rolled into Ukraine and the invaded nation pleaded for help from its peers, Ms. Kyrylenko’s failure has already gone down in history as an admirable and defiant expression of humanity.


About the contributing writer:

Mauro Couto is an international Law graduate from Brazil who has had experience practicing Law in his home country since 2006. Mauro has worked as an interpreter with a Vancouver based, non-profit organization providing mental health services to survivors of torture.


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