Sep 20, 2013

Interpreting in Times of Trauma

by Tracy Miller

  It was a cold night in January a few years ago when I received a phone call very late.
  "You don't know me, but I'm a friend of the family whose son disappeared on Mt. Fuji.  You may have heard about it on the news," replied an unfamiliar voice.
  "Can we possibly call on you to do interpreting if the family decides they need an interpreter?"
  Having been involved in a missing persons investigation several years ago locally, I knew what this meant.  Despite a sense of impending doom, I said, "Of course, I will do whatever I can to help."  
  Thus, began the weeks-long, heart-wrenching process of interpreting between the family of the young man missing on Mt. Fuji since January and the rescue team in Fuji-Yoshida-shi.  The rescue team struggled to overcome searing winds and freezing temperatures in order to find him alive.  I interpreted daily reports about the rescue team’s plan for the day.  Would weather allow them to proceed with rescue operations?  Did they find any clues that the son left behind?  How cold and windy was it?  What was the likelihood of avalanches?  The questions seemed endless in the family’s quest to cover as many bases as possible. All I could do was reassure them of the experience and expertise of the rescue team. I could hear it in the voices of the men and women searching the mountain. They were making every effort to find the missing man alive.
    Interpreters are often called upon to step up and serve in uncomfortable situations like this one. Our conduct leaves a lasting impression on the people we serve.  Keeping this foremost in my mind, I quickly learned everything I needed to know about Mt. Fuji—the elevation, rescue activities, weather patterns, vocabulary for climbing, etc.  I tried hard to concentrate and handle this job using the same protocol I would for any other.  I know as a professional interpreter that I should maintain an emotional distance, but in a situation like this one it’s almost impossible not to become emotionally invested and personally involved.  The family hung on the words of the rescue team as interpreted by me.  Many times, I could not help but have a heavy heart when delivering grim news or no news at all.  On the other hand, I also think that skillful interpreting in a case like this can make Japan seem a little less foreign.  They asked me questions about Japanese culture, customs, and societal norms, hoping that a better understanding might bring some reassurance.  Throughout the process, the family kept a special Facebook page to keep friends and loved ones updated on the efforts to find him.
   Sadly, this story does not have a happy ending.  The young man’s body was discovered in the spring, a few months after he went missing. A beautiful, peaceful photograph atop Mr. Fuji is the the last surviving image these parents have of their beloved son - a photograph showing him very much alive and well, doing what he loved 
   This experience reminds me that what we do as interpreters is more than just providing communication in another language.  Sometimes, we  provide a vital link with lives hanging in the balance.  Interpreting for parents searching for their lost child and the rescue team diligently searching for him renewed my appreciation for the art and science of language, and how important it can be in human interactions.  

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