In Canadian courts, a person who does not understand either French or English is entitled to the assistance of an interpreter. Pre-trial stages, however, often call for written translation, and given the complexity of legal terminology, defence counsel may ask the translator to be present at the occasional meeting.
When translating documents containing violent details, translators must not only deal with regulating the cognitive load involved in the translation work, but also with keeping their emotions in check to avoid reflecting them unintentionally in the target text. As psychologist and fellow translator Séverine Hubscher-Davidson puts it, “Translators are not directly writing about their own emotional experiences, instead, their emotions may leak out while they rewrite someone else’s story that initially produced an emotional reaction in them.”
If emotions have an influence on writing, it would be reasonable to assume that, if not careful, translators could end up amplifying or reducing the weight of a term and impacting comprehension or perception. An agreed statement of facts—a description of the facts the defence and the Crown have agreed upon—is a good example of a document that frequently contains unsavoury details. Translation accuracy and impartiality are critical in these cases. First, because the objections of the accused, if any, will be a direct consequence of understanding the draft translation correctly, and second, because the judge will base their ruling on it. Moreover, if the accused pleaded guilty but the judge has enough reason to believe they do not fully understand what is at stake, the guilty plea is likely to be rejected and the case would proceed to trial, perhaps resulting in a longer sentence.
During in-person meetings, the translator’s facial expressions and body language become crucial to demonstrating impartiality and professionalism. Intimate knowledge of a case file may cause emotions to inadvertently show on the translator’s face in the form of microgestures of disgust, contempt, or aversion. Even subtle non-verbal communication—moving backwards, looking down or away, etc.—could affect the accused’s attitude and increase tension.
While personality and frequency of exposure to such work are two variables that have a bearing on the translator’s ability to remain detached, some cases are challenging to even the most experienced professional. Eliminating distress completely would probably be an unrealistic objective for most people, but a sense of dismay can be tamed to a certain degree with practice and preparation. Apart from long-term strategies like meditation and mindfulness, there are other “detachment options” that can be used to avoid the above-mentioned amplifications or reductions.
The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines emotion regulation as “the ability of an individual to modulate an emotion or set of emotions.” Professor James Gross, from Stanford University, identified five emotion regulatory processes: situation selection, situation modification, attentional deployment, cognitive change, and response modulation.
Situation selection is an approach/avoidance technique used so as not to get exposed to circumstances with the potential to elicit negative emotions. Situation modification is self-explanatory, but situations undoubtedly vary in their degree of possible modification. Attentional deployment relates to focusing only on certain aspects to cast out unpleasant emotions. Cognitive change is used to decrease emotional response by considering other meanings an event may have. These four processes occur before the emotional response has taken place, but the last one, response modulation, only becomes available after the emotional response materializes, and consists of controlling such a response through different techniques, for example, emotion suppression.
Due to differences in work settings and output speed requirements, translators seem to have more regulation options when working on written texts. For instance, situation selection would not be appropriate during a meeting, as the translator cannot stand up and leave. Conversely, when working on a text, there are many options to downregulate emotions (for example, taking a break or doing a breathing exercise). Rejecting a project to avoid being exposed to its emotional content is the ultimate example of situation selection.
As going further than word meaning is essential to the translator’s job, looking for causes behind facts usually comes instinctively. Yet in some cases, digging deeper is both unnecessary and ineffective. Whether the reason for a violent offence is nature, nurture, or a combination of both, attempting to rationalize it might impair the translator’s ability to detach from the text. Therefore, bearing in mind that there is no “why” to be found may be useful to prevent emotions from interfering with translation choices. This strategy, called distancing, is an example of cognitive change.
Reappraisal, another form of cognitive change, involves considering other aspects of an issue. For example, translators may view themselves as essential contributors in ensuring the achievement of justice through clear communication or remind themselves that a violent crime not only has a profound effect on victims and their loved ones but also on the perpetrator’s family. Suppression, a response modulation approach, involves inhibiting signs of emotion and can be useful when assisting in meetings. However, Professor Gross maintains that reappraisal is a more effective strategy than suppression, as it decreases behavioural expression of emotions as well as emotions themselves, while suppression acts on the behaviour but does not downregulate emotions.
Even if an overall strategy is probably the best way to achieve emotion regulation—exercise, mindfulness, psychotherapy, and meditation have been proven to help in controlling emotions in the long term—having a readily available toolset for specific scenarios can make the difference between a translator’s high and normal levels of stress.
According to Professor Gross, “individuals exert considerable influence over which emotions they have […] and how these emotions are expressed.” Whatever emotion regulation approach a translator chooses, it is useful to be aware that the delicate balance between empathy and objectivity can also be reached with the help of a series of specific techniques that merit further consideration.
Garland, E. L., N. A. Farb, P. Goldin, & B.L. Fredrickson (2015). Mindfulness broadens awareness and builds eudaimonic meaning: A process model of mindful positive emotion regulation. In Psychological inquiry (online).
Gross, J. J. (2001). Emotion regulation in adulthood: Timing is everything. In Current directions in psychological science (journal article).
Hubscher-Davidson, S. (2018) Translation and emotion: A psychological perspective. New York: Routledge.
Pervin, L.A., O.P. John, & J.J. Gross (1999). Emotion and emotion regulation. In Handbook of personality: Theory and research. New York: The Guilford Press.
Ross, S. (2014). Positive mental training: Efficacy, experience and underlying mechanisms of a health promotion intervention for resilience and wellbeing in the workplace (thesis).