Emma Lipton: The dark side of freelance freedom for interpreters

Posted on October 12, 2017

So Tuesday was World Mental Heath day and this year’s theme is “mental health in the workplace”.

Huh, I thought, what about me? What about all freelance, lone workers, actually?

I took to the bright lights of Twitter to spitball a few thoughts about interpreting and mental health, the mental health of interpreters to be precise, and it turns out a lot of people really connected with it. So here are those thoughts, with a little extra meat because how deep can you really go in 140 characters?

To be clear before we get started, I really enjoy my job. I love interpreting and I’m fortunate to earn a reasonable living from it. But my mental health often suffers.

There are lots of textbook reasons for this that I was taught to be aware of and how to cope with when they arise; vicarious trauma, transference, counter transference, et cetera. I pay a professional supervisor to listen to me talk about that stuff, unpick and reflect on it so I can continue working safely and with integrity.

What no one warned me about was just how lonely it is.

I’m lonely. I have no team that I see every day, no friendly chat about Saturday’s X Factor with Sheila over the water cooler. No weekly 1:1 with a line manager to check I’m coping with my work load. No one to bring a box of questionable toffees to from my summer holiday. No one to eat lunch with. No one to plan a team night out with. And that’s a lonely place to be.

As a community interpreter, most of my work is shorter stand-alone jobs.  GP appointments, hospital bookings, home visits, the occasional university lecture.

None of these afford me a co-worker, none of them afford me the opportunity to build a meaningful relationship with someone that you might if you did regular bookings with the same people every week.

Loneliness is a really difficult emotion to carry.  It’s heavy and loud and it makes itself very obvious, so we must acknowledge it. We must try to find relief from it.

I have a small group of interpreter pals who have become firm friends, they’re always at the other end of the line should I want to chat and they are they few people in my life that really get it, but that doesn’t make the two hours sitting in a Tesco car park between bookings because there’s not enough time to go home and back, eating a luke warm cheese butty any easier to swallow.

So, my point is this. Interpreting, as a freelancer can be lonely, it can be isolating and it can be a really dark place sometimes. I’m afraid I don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution, either. Answers on a postcard…

In the meantime, from one interpreter to another, if you’re reading this whilst sitting in a supermarket car park trying to pass a couple of hours and you’re feeling alone, you’re not. If you’re reading this having not seen or spoken to another human being today and you feel isolated, you’re not alone.

I’m right here with you, and I get it.

Emma Lipton (@BSLterplife on Twitter) is a freelance registered sign language interpreter based in South Yorkshire. 

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