Translation is More Than Words for Survivors of Traumatic Experiences | The Center for Victims of Torture

Translation is More Than Words for Survivors of Traumatic Experiences

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Fisseha Micheale Tassow is an interpreter/cultural liaison at CVT Ethiopia.

As an interpreter, but not a counselor, I listen carefully in every counseling session and repeat the stories from clients who have survived difficult, traumatic situations. I repeat the words from the counselors who extend care and healing. I hear a lot, and I empathize. I know my translation will help CVT’s clients recover.

Before I came to CVT, I worked as an interpreter as part of resettlement services in the U.S. immigration bureau in Shire and Axum, Ethiopia. I learned from a psychotherapist friend that CVT was going to begin implementing a program, so I contacted them and got a temporary contract. I helped with interpretation in meetings with organizations and implementation partners as CVT set up its new program.

Once the program was up and running, I applied for a permanent job. The work of CVT was very interesting to me. Today I work very closely with the psychotherapists as part of the service we offer. I hear a lot of things. As interpreters, we learn the teaching skills and the methods the counselors use to help clients understand their feelings and their life situations as they work to make changes and recover.

I provide oral and written translations for the expatriate psychotherapist/trainers. Daily we go to the refugee camps and help connect with clients, individuals or in the group counseling sessions. I also translate and interpret for training. Almost all of the CVT psychosocial counselors do not speak English, so I help them understand the training the therapists provide.

I also help the expatriate staff understand the culture with our Eritrean clients: what’s appropriate and what’s not. My role is called interpreter/cultural liaison for this reason – it’s important to understand what will be acceptable to our clients or not. As an example, part of the intake assessment tool used by the counselors contains some questions that are not appropriate for our clients. For instance, questions that inquire about sexual history or interest in having sex are not going to be acceptable to clients who have suffered sexual abuse. For women in these situations, what is sexual is not comfortable. People don’t want to answer those questions. So as interpreters, we help the counselors consider other ways to get information.

As an interpreter but not a counselor in the therapy sessions, there are positive and negative aspects. A very positive element is providing exact translations. I am eager to see clients make changes in their lives. To do this, I do my best always to give the exact wording of the therapist and of the client.

A negative aspect of participating in the counseling sessions is hearing very heavy stories. All the stories are passed through us as interpreters – we are like a bridge from the client to the therapist. Hearing sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) stories and torture stories is very heavy during these sessions. But we have a structure in CVT that provides supervision, so we can talk about the effects of these stories. We also have a self-care program, so we can help ourselves to get relief from the things we hear. As interpreters, we want to move right from one session to the next client’s session. It’s important to us  that we always make ourselves available for the next session.

The most important thing for me in my work is helping clients. I provide translation that helps them understand their feelings, but also helps the counselors understand the clients’ culture. I give the appropriate information to the psychotherapists and work to ensure there is a good relationship between the expatriate and the clients. I am always ready to help people. My job is to provide translation for clients, but it also helps them to recover. I always show empathy and understanding to the clients. I help in many different ways.

As an example, in Mai Ayni camp we had a client who had just arrived from Eritrea a few days earlier. She had come here to be with her daughter. However, when she got to the camp, she found out that her daughter had died just a few days before she arrived. The woman was very distressed, very sad. We were very sad too about this loss. The client couldn’t stop crying; she wasn’t able to speak to us properly. I was very touched by this. We understood her grief. We gave her space and time to finish crying. Then we were there to give care and listen to her. She finished crying and talked to us properly again. She was able to go to her next appointment, and we set up individual counseling for her. I did my best to show her that even though I’m an interpreter, I really care about her. I gave her tissues and did what I could to help keep her calm during that time.

This work is rewarding. I work with psychosocial counselors who are seeing clients rebuild their lives. Some are from Mai Ayni, very depressed when they start the group. They don’t know what to do. They have lived through some very difficult times. But then after they finish the group, I see them in the camp. They have changed their lives. Some are going to technical and vocational training; I see former clients today doing hair dressing, food preparation to be a chef, and other kinds of work in the camp. It helps them generate income. I see that they are continuing to make good progress with their lives.

I see a great deal of hope in the psychoeducation program. We work in Adi Harush camp two days a week doing training and psychoeducation. A lot of this work is with the minors in the camp, getting them to engage and understand about CVT’s services. At our psychoeducation sessions for children, you’ll see them sitting on the floor doing activities, doing drawings – all designed to help them understand what we provide. The children are happy to participate when we make it about playing. But it helps teach them very important concepts. We see suicide attempts in the camps by children. So we do psychoeducation to teach them how to manage when they feel very sad or hopeless and helpless. By providing this training, we help them learn coping mechanisms for hopelessness. We teach them how to identify extreme sadness. We show them how they can seek help from others beyond themselves – they can come to CVT.

The children are responsive and very participatory. Sometimes the counselors show them pictures of people who are sad and others who are very happy. The counselors ask them to identify what they see: why is this person sad? Why is she happy? We might show a picture of a group of people and ask why are they sad? Then we get reasons from the children. They focus on their own context. They may have friends who are like the people in the photos – their reasons are based on this personal context. Then the counselors talk to them about ways to replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts.

I enjoy my work at CVT, going to the camps daily, meeting clients, helping clients with the psychotherapists. I know that my work is part of their healing journey.


CVT’s work with Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia is funded by a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.


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