Counselling With A Translator – How It Works

For fifteen years, Thrive Counsellor and Trainer TEDDY CHAKEE has supported people across East Africa who have been impacted by conflict trauma, often working with a translator. Here he explains how the process works best and what Thrive can offer to you and your organisation.

Tell us about your work. In many of the countries I work – like South Sudan and Somalia – there is limited mental health provision. I often work with local and international NGO staff who have been through stress and/or trauma. I provide them with one-to-one or group counselling, Psychological First Aid and training. Some of these people have been through terrible things – like relatives being murdered or property being burned or people being raped. They might also be experiencing more general fear or anxiety around things like their work, and of course Covid-19.

How is the counselling process different when working with a translator? Well, the presence of someone else changes the dynamics, and so it can change what the client says. Working in another language changes things as well, because there are often psychological terms which cannot be captured in the vernacular language. And so it’s very important to have the right person as translator, and also as a counsellor I need to be particularly observant of a client’s nonverbal communication, to sense how accurate the translation is.

What makes for a good translator? That’s a good question. As well as the ability to translate, they should be someone with soft skills and empathy. It’s also crucial to have the same translator for each session. Ideally this should be a professional translator. But where this option is not available it should be a person of trust or someone the client feels safe with. We find normally the client’s organisation will provide the translator, which means they can help give context and provide a role beyond simply translation. But they should never be the client’s boss or a relative. On occasion, I bring a translator, which is helpful when the client wants or needs to share particularly personal material. This usually creates a safer space if the client has work-related issues or issues which may lead to stigma and discrimination.

What do you do in a counselling session if the nonverbal communication you observe is very different to the verbal communication you hear? I simply ask the translator to tell me exactly what they’ve said to the client, and what the client said back. Often I find there has been a mistranslation along the way. This means that sessions can last a little longer, but we still make good progress, because we are still providing the key components of a counselling session – namely a safe space to listen without judgment, to show understanding, to psycho-educate. The language barrier cannot stop these things – the benefits far outweigh the challenges.

Does Thrive offer this service in many languages? If we can identify the right translator, then we can do it in any language! We also offer services in French, Arabic, English, Kiswahili, Spanish and Turkish. If someone reading this would like to make an enquiry about our services in different languages or with a translator, then they can email and we can talk more.

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