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Staff Insights

Tools for Interpreting Stories of Torture

Published September 23, 2019
Dina Translator Booth in Jordan

Dina Tamimi is a staff interpreter/translator at CVT Jordan. Photo shows Dina with colleague Qais H. Salameh as they interpreted at the 26 June event in 2019, Amman.

As an interpreter at CVT, I’ve learned there are stories that can make their way into everything you believe. Hearing about the atrocities of war tends to change your mind about humanity, about people. It makes you wonder how can human beings do such things to each other? One story has haunted me for over a year. I still think about it.

So I have learned methods for taking care of myself while still faithfully sharing the words of clients during counseling sessions. Doing interpretation in these situations can be long, exhausting, painful. When I first started, I didn’t fully understand what was going on and I tried to interpret word for word. I was new in this business. It was too much. Now after nearly three years, I walk into a session and handle it with ease. It has become second nature.

As an interpreter, I have to understand and really think about what the words mean. It’s as if I have to visualize them. One tool I use is to think of the story like a film that is going into my head and then back out of my mind. Thinking of it this way helps distract me a bit. I used to look at each story as if I was watching a movie – that’s a very different approach and it was really difficult. These are torture stories. It leaves a mark. So actually imagining the story leaving my mind makes it easier.

After I finished my Bachelor’s degree in translation, I taught Arabic to American Embassy employees at their language center. I absolutely enjoyed that experience – the students were all ages and very fast learners. Some spoke Arabic really well, which was rewarding to me as an instructor. I had always spoken English as second language pretty well and was interested in translation as a career, even though it is difficult to pursue in Jordan. Jordanian companies outsource translation all over the world and most embassies work with translation agencies. So when I saw an opening for CVT Jordan on the website, I applied. I didn’t have a clue they’d contact me!

At CVT, I do some document translation, but I mainly interpret during counseling sessions, probably 80 percent of my time. I interpret for both physiotherapy and psychosocial counseling, and I also handle meetings and trainings.

After I started at CVT, I learned that with torture and trauma, instead of immersing myself in the story, I need to distract myself. I was told by a former supervisor to try not to speak in first person. She said that your subconscious reflects the story in yourself. You believe it’s you being chased or shot or tortured. So I took that advice. It’s not easy to implement. I trained myself to do it, but I still fail at times. I was also taught by the CVT trainers to play with something during the sessions, have an object or bottle of hot or cold water in my hand while I hear stories. This is a grounding technique that helps you stay in the present. They also taught me to keep observing my breathing – this helps with grounding as well.

In the beginning, I thought my job was going to be just like any other job. Work 9-5, do your job, make money, then go home. But after working at CVT, I realized it wasn’t just a job. Working at CVT, I had the privilege to witness how our clients’ lives are being transformed before my eyes, thanks to our wonderful clinicians, and this on its own is an honor for me to witness. Even though it is better if interpreters don’t speak to clients, I’ve been approached by some. They have told me it comforts them to have me there. One client told me that she loves me even though she’s never spoken to me. They can really feel and see the empathy. They can really feel that we’re trying to help.

And working with the clients has changed me. For example, I worked with a group of teen boys. Before this, I thought I didn’t have much of a connection with kids, but after this group, I now prefer working with them. This was a major change in my life. I thought that maybe they wanted to come to CVT and play here. But that was just the way we see children on the outside. Now that I’ve interpreted for many children’s groups, I couldn’t help but feel astonished by how these children show the truly deep end of their personalities in these sessions. It’s way deeper than I thought. You can get lost in the depth of a child. I remember one boy who had lost his mom. He said “You remind me so much of my mom.” That was the only time I struggled to hold back my tears in a session.

This gives me hope and it has also helped me to see hope in myself. I am a female living in the Middle East. I have challenged a lot of things and people to set myself up to become an independent person – independent from every person who tells me “No, you cannot do that because you’re a woman.” For me, I know if I don’t do it, no one’s going to do it for me.

I hear about hope from clients at CVT; I never really thought that one day hope will be the only thing we live for. I wish that CVT could expand – take in more clients, recruit more employees, more experts, and not just in Amman. I hear a lot of clients say all they want is to go back home and work, rebuild their home, start from scratch. It’ll be difficult, but they can do it. And we want to help.

Funding for CVT’s work in Jordan is provided by the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration and the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.

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