Stress And The Interpreter a research Paper By Said Shahat preamble

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Stress And The Interpreter

A Research Paper


Said Shahat

In this chapter I will discuss stress in interpreting with the hope that my findings will fill a gap, still exists, in the studies made on interpreting. What is stress. How it affects the interpreter, its sources (i.e. behavioral, emotional, cognitive, cultural and coping techniques and management. All these issues will be identified and analyzed with the hope that the reader will be able to gain more insight into the profession of interpreting.

Interpreting is a demanding profession, and as such it is by and large conducive to stress which is a phenomenon endemic to our modern way of life. Such demands and constraints will become clearer when one gets to know the skills and the way the interpreter is taught to perform his or her duties. I believe that other research papers of mine have explained fully to the reader the skills and techniques involved in the interpreting profession. This saves me from redundancy and sets me free to head straight to the core of this chapter...that is STRESS.


Every body in a position of responsibility and people who have to make important decisions, carry out demanding procedures, meet deadlines, be creative on demand, resolve difficult and delicate conflicts...etc‑ are conscious of stress in their working life. It is always seen as a negative, threatening and even dangerous phenomenon that, in extreme cases, can lead to health breakdown and death, and that even in mild forms always affects the quality of life.

The sensation of stress is an essential part of the body's make‑up. It is, on the other hand, the body's "fight or flight" (Kalucy 1979) ; a response to a perceived environmental danger "at its simplest levels" as professor Burrows put it. The latter describes the stress humans feel when they worry about finding a job or squeezing another commitment into an overloaded schedule as a basic animal protection‑ "the fight or flight" instinct which speeds up metabolism when an animal is in danger . An excess of stress that is not successfully handled leads to both psychological and physical illness. When chemical alarm bells ring, the body acts to protect itself. Blood is diverted from less essential areas like the gut and skin to the muscles, heart, brain, and important sense organs like eyes and ears (Maquade 'n.d.); blood pressure increases and natural painkillers are released into the body. One may ask IS SOME STRESS OK ?.
To think so is just ludicrous. Let me explain. Stress results when the mind can not sort through all the demands and constraints. The volume of work, hassles at home or with colleagues are matters that do not cause stress. It is how we cope with these daily happenings (Graven 1992). However, we all have this in-built phenomenon called anxiety ‑born out of hurts, fears, guilt and lack of confidence accumulated along the way [through no one's fault I might add]. Now anxiety inhibits our ability to cope and when we can not cope we become stressed. And then all our problems come to play. Can't sleep, headache, no confidence, difficult to motivate, lethargic, no self-esteem, drink or eat too much. Our performance effectiveness is stifled (Montgomry 'n.d.). Dr. Michael Epstein described living with persistent stress is like running a car fully revved but not moving. Now we can conclude that stress is;



If such is stress how dare we maintain that some of it is healthy ?
The manipulation of stress -termed "DISTRESS"‑ can be economically costly and depleting to the work force. The latest Work‑Care claims show that anxiety and depression are among the top 10 reasons patients visit a general practitioner. Mrs. Jane Renshaw of the Victorian Accident Rehabilitation Council "VARC" (Deborah 1992) pointed out that last year "1991" Work-Care had 2924 stress claims, a 40% increase on six years ago, costing an average of more than $11.000 a claim, she said workers did not know how to SOOTHE job pressures.

One of the big problems facing bio‑medical scientists and physicians is the lack of a "stress meter" or a direct measurement of stress. Dr. Epstein, secretary of the Royal Australian College of Psychiatrists, identifies three major causes of stress:
He said many people tried to do too much, expect too much of themselves and lived with the fear that they would not live up to those expectations. Dr. Epstein as well as other experts, maintains that current definitions of stress relate to psychological states, with "DISTRESS" normally being detected by changes in people's behavioral patterns or, in the worst case, by the onset of a major illness, such as heart attack, hypertension, or alcoholism and living in an environment where constant wars are waged, as is the situation in Iraq, Kosovo, Rhowanda or Palestine. However, stress usually unleashes a number of easily‑detectable symptoms.
There is a wide spectrum of detectable symptoms including lethargy. fatigue, insomnia, anxiety and physical problems without other causes such as joint pain, headaches, stomach cramps, skin rashes, speeding of the metabolism leading to digestive or menstrual problems, loss of libido. Some people may have a complete breakdown and become unable to manage simple daily tasks like organising meals or getting dressed.
Briefly the signs or symptoms of stress can be categorised (Montgomry 'n.'d.) as follows:
SUBJECTIVE : moodiness, fatigue, guilt and anxiety.

BEHAVIORAL : increased accidents, impaired speed.

COGNITIVE : poor decision making, poor concentration and forgetfulness PSYCHOLOGICAL : increased blood pressure, high cholesterol and glucose and coronary


ORGANISATIONAL ; absenteeism, high turnover, low productivity, low commitment.
As explained before, these stress symptoms are unleashed as a result of the individual's inability to cope with the demands and constraints imposed by the environment. What are these demands ?

The pioneer in research on stress Dr. Hans Selye of Mogill University, Canada (Farrell 'n.'d.), defines stress as "THE NON‑SPECIFIC RESPONSE OF THE BODY TO ANY DEMAND", the demand is termed as "STRESSOR".
Changes and demands are part and parcel of everyday living and we unconsciously cope with many of the stressors we encounter. However, we are also exposed to environmental and self‑imposed stressors that may lead to dire consequences. Examples of such stressors include quantitative and qualitative job overload, over reaction to the loss of a loved one, adopting responsibility for the actions of others, perceived lack of support, lack of stimulation and opportunity, high needs and aspirations and lack of self‑esteem.


Dr. Selye's description of the body's response to stressors, when explained (Farrell 'n.d.), will offer us an invaluable aid in understanding the effects of stress and how to minimise its undesirable consequences, in other words, how to manage it.
The first stage of the body's reaction to stressors "environmental demands" is ALARM. In this condition the stressor is recognised and there is a coordinated bio‑chemical response beginning with hormonal release from the hypothalamus at the base of the brain. The consequence is that we suddenly become aware of impending physical danger; in response to this stressor an alarm is raised in which the adrenal glands are stimulated by brain‑released hormones to mobilise the body's energy resources. Immediately the blood sugar levels elevated to a point where it is ready to provide a sudden burst of energy. At the same time, our senses are heightened, our breathing and heart rate increase to supply more oxygen and the body enters into a state of preparedness for quick physical reaction, the so‑called "FIGHT or FLIGHT" condition.
The second stage is that of RESISTANCE,. The body then responds or adapts to the stressor and returns to its previous state of equilibrium. Continuing the "FIGHT or FLIGHT", idea, our response to the danger may be to fight, run away, or in the worst scenario fail to respond or "FREEZE". In many modern day situations, a "FIGHT or FLIGHT" is seen as an unacceptable social behavior despite the body's bio‑chemical readiness for such an action.
The above state leads to the third one, that of EXHAUSTION. The body, in this state, does not appropriately respond to the stressor and fails to return to its previous equilibrium. This is the stage where the body has failed to cope with the stressor, the body's defense mechanisms remain mobelised and over the course of time this heightened state results in physical illness and can even accelerate death. This is the state that Dr. Epstein likened to a "running car fully revved but not moving." Exhaustion inhibits the body and renders it less able to cope with additional stress or new stressor and "catch 22 cycle" commences.
The good thing is that when the stressors are adequately coped with, a feeling of stimulation, satisfaction pleasure or success occurs. While a failure to cope will lead to distress, anxiety, depression, or illness. Of course an individual's ability to cope with stressors varies depending on his or her genetic make‑up. As Dr. Selye puts it "you can not make a race‑horse out of a turtle....but the reverse is true" (Deborah 1992), so if one is a race‑horse type, high flyer business executive or a highly efficient politician, one cannot be told not to do anything, for one would be under terrible stress, while the opposite in the case of a turtle is true.
The physical and psychological aspects of the individual's make‑up interact to determine the ability to cope with stressors. Although not easily understood or measured, as Professor Gabriel Kune, emeritus professor of surgery at Melbourne University indicated (Deborah 1992) maintains “our psychological coping mechanisms are as critical as our physical controls in getting pleasure rather then distress from changes in our environment”.
Analysis of the different behavioral patterns of groups or individuals and their correlation with stress‑related diseases, such as heart disease, has been widely used to identify those people who are most likely to have poor psychological coping mechanisms and hence are at greater risk.
Rosenman and Freidman's classification of personalities into types [A] and [B] (Farrell 1985) has been widely used to analyse the behaviour of people in work environments.
Type [A] are aggressive competitors, outwardly confident and self-assured. Type [B] people, while they may be just as serious about their jobs as type A personalities, tend to take time to ponder. This type is less impatient, less competitive and less pre-occupied with recognition of their achievements. They are not constantly driven to achieve.
After several years of observations, analysis and studies, it has become obvious that there are many people with type A personalities who, while they are successful in their careers, do not contract stress-related illnesses. It seems that there are two categories of type A personality; those that are prone to stress and those who are not. The difference between these two categories seems to be the degree to which each of them develops and suppresses anger and hostility. The evidence indicates that it is type A person that fosters anger and hostility are those who susceptible to heart disease.
Other traits that have been found to characterise stress-prone persons include lack of self-esteem or self-assuredness, a tendency to worry or to have irrational fears about relatively trivial matters, and a consuming concern about loss, either anticipated, present or past.

Although a full description of all types of interpreting is given in other research papers, I have to have a quick scan over the types of interpreting and the skills involved in them to be able to illustrate the demands 'stressors' placed by work environment upon the interpreter.

A] COMMUNITY LIAISON INTERPRETING; otherwise called "Interview Interpreting" or "3-Cornered Interpreting Situation" : This is usually performed in a medical consultation in a general practice, or in a public hospital; or in a consultation with a solicitor or a barrister; or in an interview with a teacher, or a school principal; or in an interview with a bureaucrat in a state, federal or local government department; or an interview with a social worker or a welfare officer; or the meeting that results from an appointment with people such as infant welfare sister, a bank manager, estate agent, a trading agent; or an interview between high government officials and overseas dignitaries; or an interview between a police officer and a suspect.
Environment where this interpreting takes place :
It could be in a stifling general practice, a hospital, solicitor's office, rehabilitation centre where physical exercises(e.g. swimming, aerobics) are underway; vocational centres where machines are revving aloud; psychiatric clinic, factory or workshop, welfare officer's office, bank manager's office or an army camp where boat refugees are housed, court environment where formalities are at its highest, or on the air at a TV Video-Conferencing Room...etc.

Skills involved :

They are: interpersonal skills, confidence, self-assuredness, understanding of cultural backgrounds and differences of both parties, linguistic proficiency in both languages understanding and possession of skills of para-linguistic features, understanding and skillful manipulation of non-verbal signals, impartial attitude, burning desire to facilitate communication, sense of dressing for the occasion, awareness of acceptable social habits and customs, sensible adherence to the guidelines laid down by the ethics of the profession.


In this category of interpreting, consecutive and simultaneous interpreting may be used. It could be a local conference where local issues are raised; such as city or shire council annual meeting; or a local city mayor promoting some innovations in his county; or a local health authority providing information on local health issues; or local chief of police giving talks on recent techniques on combating crime or on neighbourhood watch techniques. It could also be a national conference held by any authority or foundation to discuss issues affecting the people nationally, namely political issues. On the other hand international conferences may involve a wide spectrum of international issues, ranging from economic, political, to educational, humanitarian, agricultural and international security issues.

Environment where interpreting takes place :
It does not need much of imagination to know where such conferences may be held. However, the dry and sterile ambiance of such conferences and where they take place add to the pressures felt by interpreters.
Skills involved :

High level interpreting skills, high level of concentration, high standard of knowledge to place the interpreter on par with the speakers, top level of linguistic skills in both languages, powerful memory retention and fast memory retrieval, public speaking skills, poise, presentation and voice projection, skills to overcome sudden problems, human , mechanical or otherwise; immaculate organisation ability; last but not least a sense of pride in his/her role.

The above review identifies the large number of stressors, environmental and personal, that may have great impact on the interpreter. The environmental: on job and off job, work place, work colleagues, or job overload. The personal: such as genetic make-up, personal problems, lack of self esteem or confidence.
Both environment of the workplace and the skills demanded of the interpreter, as displayed above, harbour an enormous number of stressors, ones that, in my view, exceed those imposed by other professions.
Being a young profession, no statistics are available yet on the incidents of interpreters falling prey to stress. However if I place them in the category of teachers or a social workers, here is what Ms. Jane Renshaw (Deborah 1992), Rehabilitation Case Manager at the Victorian Accident Rehabilitation Council "VARC" said in this regard, "...workers with an high commitment to the job such as teachers and community workers are most likely to put in stress claims, frequently after a minor incident which triggered years of stored stress".
Being exposed to more stressors than most of other professionals, the interpreter is prone to more incidents of stress than others, hence finding ways and means to control stress is inevitable so that interpreters may perform their duties to their best.

As we have shown hitherto in this paper our response to a stressor can, if positive, give pleasurable stimulation, but a yield of stressed feelings "distress" may be the outcome if our response is negative. The key factors in determining the outcome lie in an understanding of :
* Our inherent limitations imposed by our personality make-up.

* Our coping or control mechanisms.
Clearly it is a matter of "KNOW THY SELF", for one must come to know whether one is by nature a high flyer, a "Race-horse" or a lay-back person, a "Turtle" type. THE DANGER LIES IN TRYING TO BE WHAT ONE IS NOT. However, within those limitations an interpreter can exercise considerable control over his/her responses to stressors and increase the likelihood of success, good health and self-satisfaction.
Initially the interpreter has to deeply look at his own personality make-up, and then tries to identify the causes of his stress in order to do something about them.
A colleague of mine, let's call her K.J., is a single parent with two children. she runs around all day to keep interpreting appointments on her overloaded schedule, "...I always feel that I have no time, my duties as a parent are very important to me, and I think I neglect myself, I'm concentrating on keeping the fridge full with food."
Ms. K.J. relies on practical organisation and some time-management to control her stress levels.
Another colleague of mine, Y.K. a Chinese interpreter from Sydney, he is more enterprising, he uses another trick when the stress builds up to a breaking point, "...I might sound silly to you' he says, "...I just take a mental vacation, I even sometimes keep walking briskly along a narrow, shallow creek there...I usually book an old-fashioned log cabin and sit there doing nothing until I feel better". Y.K’s breakaways are occasional, once every four or five months. He admits it is the only form of stress management that keeps him out of hospital.
Ms. C.L. a Serbian interpreter and an old colleague of mine, "...being always on the ball, competent, well dressed, with obvious smile and alertness can take its toll...I used to stop at Port Melbourne Stress Management Centre for a massage. It revitalises me and balances the otherwise frantic demands of interpreting.... if I feel I need it" he says "I say enough is enough, I would cancel an appointment or even two to do it, because I won't do the appointment properly if I don't...massage is my outlet now".
Well, all popular stress management techniques go in fads, Port Melbourne Stress Management Centre draws about 45 clients a week, Pamela Rietveld, manager of the Center confirms, "and they go for a massage, or have counseling, yoga or naturopathy".

A Turkish interpreter who is a colleague of mine tried the floatation tanks, first for fun, and said "....when you are in the tank you are weightless and in isolation. There is no light, no feeling of the temperature because the water is same like your body temperature, all you can feel is your heart beat and your breathing. I use to feel wonderful with new body and new outlook"
Many of the floatation tanks popular in Melbourne in the last few years closed down. However, One of the fads is the growing trend of using crystals. It is believed that such stones contain healing powers. Barbara Buchanan, a crystal therapist confirms that healthy people looking for stress treatment go to visit her clinic.
On conducting this research I found out that perhaps the most popular relaxation techniques is YOGA. It is offered in dozens of centers in all capitals of Australia. Paul Mcinnis, of the Siddha Yoga Foundation, advocates that both the physical exercises and meditation techniques of yoga helped people sense the relationship between their mental and physical selves.
Besides the above accounts of how stress sufferers address their stressed feelings, I believe that the onus is on the individual interpreter to take a look deep into his/her self to determine the quality of their particular genetic make-up and their personal stress control mechanisms. And having done that I suggest they try the following (Craven 1992):
1. Change or minimize the cause of stress.

e.g. Say "no" to tasks.

Manage your time and schedule your activities, work- appointments or assignments efficiently and within your own capacity.

Plan out your actions.

Use energy conservation - take short cuts.

Deal with your emotions and do not pin them up.

2. Change your own reaction to stress.

e,g. Increase your general awareness of what causes you stress and how it affects you.

REMEMBER, it is not the people and events out there that cause you to feel stressed. it is your reaction to them.
RELAXATION – IN LEISURE!, for such relaxation has a direct physical effect on the body, reversing the "FIGHT or FLIGHT" response. It decreases heart rate, blood pressure, tension in muscles, breathing rate, adrenaline released and it decreases state of mental arousal also.
Having said all that, I have to stress here that I am a proponent and advocate of a philosophy that says; if STRESS is more or less a product of ACTIVITY it stands to reason that to counter that one has to dive into a state of INACTIVITY... totally the opposite. My philosophy that has found an advocate in Mr. Ray Reardon, who holds seminars and work-shops on stress management all over Melbourne, is this; if we want to get rid of our anxiety -the feeling that all is not well within, I suppose that all the theories in the world are not going to help at all.
What I encourage the interpreter to do is sit down twice or three times a day and simply LET THE MIND HAVE A LITTLE REST FROM WORKING CRITICALLY. It has been found that it is at this time of repose 'relaxing meditation' that the hidden fears, and hurts diminish, we start to cope better, we avoid stress and all of our problems have a good chance to come right. Sleep improves, fewer headaches, more fact if you keep on practicing each day.... the result is quite profound. Here is the natural and easy exercise should you wish to control stress:

sit down on a chair (not necessarily too comfortable) . Let your eyes close and EXPERIENCE almost a total HELPLESSNESS. Now you feel that physical relaxation in the mind.

As the body is calm

The mind is calm

[do not try to be successful at it - do not try to stop your mind wandering]

FACE...feel the calm in your face, feel it in the mind....deeply....letting yourself go with it....effortlessly....letting yourself EXPERIENCE your own natural ease and calm.

Naturally (feel it)

Utterly (feel it)

Effortlessly (feel it) . [do not try to do anything, just being there......]
Having done that, take a deep breath and resume your daily activities.

Because the profession of interpreting is in its formative years, and because studies on stress in the field of interpreting are not available, statistics to substantiate information in this chapter are, consequently, unavailable. However, observation of practitioners in the field have shown that the demands of the interpreting profession are nothing but conducive to stress. So light has to be shed anyhow on the problems.
This paper has hitherto illustrated the stressors encountered by interpreters, symptoms of stress and suggested some ways to combat it.
In this paper we have displayed, also, that the control of our behaviour may be simple and straightforward. It may, for example, merely involve revising a daily work schedule to allow for a break and some exercises.
Alternatively, a harsher re-evaluation of life goals or relationships may be necessary. Considerable indirect control can be achieved through an active involvement in physical or intellectual activities outside of work, and learning to relax by using such techniques as described above.
It is possible, sometimes, to overcome feeling of anxiety, and low self-esteem by immersing oneself in other activities. It has been proved that the nature of our social environment and supports also affect our ability to deal with stressors. It is, then, rather significant to have a close family, friends, and work colleagues to provide protection, feedback, advice and confidence. Probably the first danger signal is the absence of such support structure in one's life.
Craven, Denis, "Taking stress out of stress management" The Age Newspaper, Melbourne, 12 September 1992.

Farrell Peter C., "In search of health & fitness" Weldons. NSW. Australia.

Hanscook, J.N, "Translators and Interpreters for the Third World" ITI New York, 3 (1), 1988, 5-8.

Kalucky. R., "Coping with Stress", Video Tape titled 'Healthy Life Style', '79' Sydney, 1979.

Maquade, Walter, "Stress: what it is, what can it do to your health, how to fight back" n.d., n.p.

Meichenbaum, D. "Coping with stress", Facts on File publication, Oxford, England.

Montgomry, Bob, "You and Stress", Nelson, Melbourne. Australia.

Reardon, R. "Stress Management - Relaxation Meditataion", Public lecture, Deakin University, 1992.

Stone, Deborah, "Keeping your Head under Stress", Reports. The Age Newspaper, Melbourne. 8 August 1992.


Said Shahat,

Lecturer in Interpreting and Translating

Lecturer in Arabic Language and Culture


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