6th Annual MiTIN Regional Conference on Interpreting and Translation: Short-Term Memory Retention and Vicarious Trauma

Memory Retention Graph

6th Annual MiTIN Regional Conference on Interpreting and Translation: Short-Term Memory Retention and Vicarious Trauma

work life balance 2015 MiTiN conference

On Saturday October 3rd, 2015 the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Novi hosted the 6th Annual MiTIN Conference on Interpreting and Translation.  The conference was attended by over hundred professionals and students, accounting for a 12% attendance increment over the conference of the previous year.  There were representatives of 25 languages, and among them, representing UMHS Interpreter Services, Ximena Erickson, Christa Moran, Isabelle Ryan, David Porta, and Megumi Segawa.  It was a full day event consisting of one plenary session and four sittings with parallel talks of interest to translators and interpreters alike.  Additionally, information booths from several agencies were set up for marketing purposes; being the one set up by the UMHS Interpreter Services gracefully run by Christa Moran and Megumi Segawa.

2015 MiTiN conference

UMHS Interpreter Services: Megumi Segawa, David Porta, and Isabelle Ryan. Photo Credit: Ximena Erickson

2015 MiTiN Conference

UMHS Interpreter Services: Christa Moran and Megumi Segawa. Photo Credit: Ximena Erickson









I would like to summarize here some information regarding two of the presentations I believe might be of most interest to all practicing healthcare interpreters. Both of them relate to working techniques, one useful to improve performance skills, Short-Term Memory Retention by Izumi Suzuki, and the other to assist with self-protection, Vicarious Trauma by Jinny Bromberg.


Short-Term Memory Retention

As interpreters, a very important tool, if not the most important one to help us fulfill expectations is memory retention, especially when applied to short-term memory.  Without it, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to accurately interpret in a timely manner. And although there are individuals with extremely good memory, memory retention can always be exercised and improved, therefore enhancing our interpreting skills.

Memory Retention Graph

To strengthen memory retention it will be always supportive, if possible, to start by studying beforehand the subjects at stake.  While doing this, there are several things that may be taken into consideration since they can help improve the outcomes of our time spend with this activity. It is important to avoid cramming too much information at once, rehearse as much as possible, and once in a while vary the study routine. It will also be helpful to start teaching others as to accomplish this one has to become very familiar with the area under discussion and achieve an expertise that will be of further assistance during interpretation.

To improve short-term memory retention active hearing and LISTENING; keeping focused is a must.  The use of mnemonic devices (chunking, visualization, method of loci, use of acronyms, etc.), relating concepts (associate to you/something close to you), and the use of visualization are several proven techniques to strengthen all those skills needed to retain information for a certain period of time, even if this time is just a mere amount of seconds.

And when in a particular interpreter’s appointment because of cramming of information, multiple speakers intervening at once, lots of unrelated information (numbers) we cannot completely rely on our short-term memory skills we can always draw upon note taking, which will help us to organize information and to pay extra attention to what it is being said.

In any event, to help out in any situation, though, the most important of all helpful activities is to have had a good sleep beforehand, especially when facing any potential important or difficult performance.

During the workshop, several exercises were proposed to help with the practice of different aspects of available short-term memory retention techniques:

  • Finger exercise (focus) – A series of exercises lifting and bending different amount of fingers for somebody else to repeat, starting with short sequences and progressively lengthening them.
  • Numbers (chunking) – Similar to the fingers exercise but using sequences of numbers.
  • Application of the Hendrickx method for simultaneous interpreting – Envisage a story with seven unrelated words to remember them without missing any and in the same order as they have been uttered.
  • Active hearing (LISTENING) – Provide a short story and ask questions: What? When? Where? (Also useful for note taking)
  • Association (making a story)
  • Visualization – One reads a sentence, another one repeats it and adds a second sentence. A third one utters the first two sentences and adds a third one and so on; multiple players can participate.

You may now try them out to see which exercises work best for you, and to which extent each of them helps you with memory retention.


Vicarious Trauma – also called ‘compassion fatigue’

Vicarious trauma is described as a secondary traumatic stress.  And stress, according to the Oxford English Dictionary is, within the frame of psychology and biology: “An adverse circumstance that disturbs, or is likely to disturb, the normal physiological or psychological functioning of an individual; such circumstances collectively. Also, the disturbed state that results.”

compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma

From The “H” word; retrieved on 02/18/2016

Vicarious trauma is, in a sense, a type of stress that professionals from different disciplines, healthcare interpreters among them, take upon themselves.  Interpreters put themselves in the shoes of somebody who suffered traumatic experiences. And by identification with that individual, especially while interpreting in first person, they might become subjected to those same traumatic experiences.

Multiple symptoms may indicate the possibility of being affected by vicarious trauma.  Those are exhaustion and fatigue (especially with everyday persistence – when one feels like dragging his/her own feet), insomnia (waking up with mind at full blast), apathy and detachment, forgetfulness (a brain over limit starts to shut down), irritability, increased susceptibility (to illness), somatization (mental illness referred to physician), or any combination of them.

The presenter listed a series of tricks that can be used in an attempt to avoid vicarious trauma by reducing stress buildup.  Among them, emphasis was made in remaining optimistic. Also considered important were, the split of attention to calm down (to avoid losing focus it is suggested to keep 10% of the brain out of the case at stake), wearing several layers of clothing, remedying unpleasant smells that might trigger painful memories and impair focusing (it was suggested the use of perfume or Vicks®VapoRub™, if permitted), keeping oneself well hydrated at all times, performing deep breathing with slow exhalations, and asking for an immediate (bathroom) break if the interpreter fells is going to lose it.

During breaks the most commonly useful techniques applied are, again, deep breathing (keep posture – lower shoulders); inhalation through nose and exhalation through mouth (repeat about 10 times inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other – slowly while focusing, which allows release of energy and refocus mind; perform brief self-massages; exaggerate yawning; rolling the head; closing eyes – to reflect and relax; stretch joints, which helps to concentrate on the more tense parts of the body; shake hands and arms; and drink – a cup of tea or chamomile.

However, even knowing the symptoms and knowing how to avoid the potential triggers of vicarious trauma, there are moments that there is no mercy for the interpreter. It is in cases as such when it is extremely important for the interpreter to be prepared to minimize the impact of vicarious trauma. For that it is extremely important for the interpreter to not take what he/she cannot handle (mentally stressing appointments or cases), and to prepare beforehand for those more challenging situations by asking ahead of time about their nature, while keeping emotions in check.  Also of assistance, especially in difficult and stressful cases, is to rotate interpreters as well as to provide interpreters with advance warnings.

And if anything helps and vicarious trauma arises, then we have the three Rs to cope with it:

  • Reflection
  • Relaxation
  • Rejuvenation

For all of those, three things are needed: (1) self-analysis, (2) the identification and addressing of potential triggers, and (3) the appreciation of little things.

To overcome vicarious trauma one has to have a minimum knowledge of oneself. Self-knowledge is needed to understand and to keep in mind what (a) one cannot do, (b) what one can do without further problems, and (c) what can cause difficulties but still allow the interpreter to be functional.  Thus, it would be important to find physical outlets, ways to help with distress as well as to de-traumatize.  Those physical outlets will support different interpreters in their own way because having everyone a given personality, for a particular interpreter some things may work better than others.  Physical outlets may include debriefing with colleagues (keeping always confidentiality in mind), starting a journal of experiences, developing a hobby, or maybe going shopping to disconnect.

At any rate, it is vital to try to keep life in balance, to not forget that all of us carry our own emotions, to set up deliberate rituals, and to engage in growth promoting activities!!!



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