You probably have heard about injuries suffered by Canadian interpreters since the end of March when Parliament started meeting virtually over Zoom after a short break due to the onset of the Covid-19 crisis (read Hill Times article). Indeed, there have been as many health and safety incidents reported in the month of April 2020 alone, as there had been for the whole year 2019 and the first three months of 2020. Government-accredited interpreters in Canada are not new to remote interpreting. In fact, up until recently, they were called upon to interpret participants over the phone in audio remote and audioconference settings (see AIIC definitions of those two terms here).
The Translation Bureau, the department in charge of providing interpretation services to the whole Government of Canada, is no longer offering those services, or very rarely so, as telephone lines in Canada do not lend themselves to simultaneous interpreting, given that they can only transmit a maximum of 4,000 hertz, well below the 15,000 hertz required for interpretation as per ISO standards. This enormous gap in frequency response makes it very difficult, even sometimes impossible, to convey the speaker’s message faithfully and accurately. It also significantly adds to the cognitive load of interpreters, who are straining to hear and will often raise their volume to compensate for poor sound quality. Increasing the volume, however, will not replace the 11,000 hertz not being transmitted but will instead increase auditory fatigue and may cause earache, headaches, tinnitus, hypersensitivity to normal sound and undue fatigue.
And what about acoustic shock, you might wonder? Well, if sound levels are relatively even, as was usually the case for audio remote interpreting in Canada where everyone was participating remotely via phone lines, the risk for a major acoustic shock seems to be much lower. The setting that has proven to be the most dangerous in Canada has been audioconferencing, where interpreters are on site with most participants, and some participants attending remotely via phonelines. The reason why this setting presents much higher risks is the significant difference in sound levels. Participants in the room can be heard loud and clear; however, participants on the phone may be very difficult to hear and as a result, technicians and interpreters alike will often raise their volume in an effort to hear the participant better. With sound levels significantly increased in this way, if a participant in the room turns on their microphone, this may create a major feedback being transmitted to the booth. In cases where a proper built-in compressor-limiter has been installed in the sound system, the feedback will be greatly attenuated. If no compressor-limiter is present however, this kind of feedback might send the interpreter directly to the hospital with concussion-like symptoms. This is why government- accredited interpreters were all provided with a PreservEar device, which is basically a portable compressor-limiter device that the interpreter inserts between their headset and the interpreting console. It should be noted that a properly set compressor-limiters will cut off the feedback signal, but it doesn’t do it instantaneously, taking a few milliseconds to kick in. Hence, some injuries of a lesser severity may still occur depending on circumstances.
That being said, most virtual meetings taking place on Parliament Hill these days are held via videoconferencing, namely through the Zoom platform. Interpreters work from a booth on Parliament Hill, one interpreter per booth (as per social distancing rules), with a technician on site, and the Zoom platform is linked up to a regular interpreting console. Monitors are set up so that interpreters can see the speaker. With the proper equipment being used, this setup could very well be ISO-compliant, and provide good sound quality to both participants and interpreters. But as you may have guessed, this is not always the case. Despite the fact that Members of Parliament have been provided with a headset with an integrated microphone, not all of them are using it. Sadly, the model that was sent is not ISO-compliant, something that can still be remedied. It should be noted however, that intensive education efforts have significantly increased the number of MPs using the headset. The major problem lies with witnesses, who are not at the moment being sent one, although they actually have more air time than MPs. Witnesses are strongly encouraged to get a hold of one by their own means, but they do not always use one for numerous reasons, either because they couldn’t find one, or simply do not understand the impact of not using one. Some participants might think that their laptop built-in microphone is very good. Afterall, that’s what they use for all of their videoconferences since the beginning of the crisis and nobody has ever complained. Or they might think a proper headset is preferable, but that earbuds with an in-line microphone is a perfectly acceptable solution. However, this latter piece of equipment has proven quite unreliable, due to the fact that the in-line microphone is just too far away from the mouth and often rubs against the participant’s shirt, making it very difficult for interpreters to hear the speaker clearly. Also, some participants tend to be fidgeting with the microphone, thus producing very unpleasant sounds that will cover the speaker’s voice at sometimes crucial moments of their speech. All this to say that participants using this type of earphones often need to be reminded to hold the microphone directly in front of their mouth, but after a few reminders, the chair of the meeting might be hesitant to remind them yet again.
Similarly, most participants believe that a wifi connection is a perfectly acceptable option. Once again, that is what they have been using for at least the past ten years, and it has always worked perfectly fine. A cabled Internet connection is often seen as a technology of the past, reminiscent of dial-up connections. However, wifi often leads to choppy sound. The interpreters themselves might think the sound is acceptable, until a word gets eaten up by the wifi connection and he or she is suddenly left wondering if the speaker actually said can or can’t, symptomatic or asymtomatic. A very tricky choice to make! A cabled internet connection provides a much more stable and continuous sound, not to mention that cabled connections are a lot more secure than wifi, a crucial factor when the proceedings are highly confidential.
The third element to take into consideration is the platform being used. I cannot speak for the Zoom platform as I do not have the technical data required to make a determination – nor would I have the technical knowledge to make such a determination – but any platform that is not ISO compliant will undermine sound quality.
Let’s be clear, the headset with integrated microphone, the Internet connection and the platform are all part of the transmission chain. Any element that does not meet the requirements for proper sound with regard to interpretation will directly impact sound quality, and therefore, the quality of the interpretation.
When technical requirements are not met, interpreters are exposed to toxic sound, that is poor, choppy sound with a signal to noise ratio well below the threshold for interpreting, background noise, echo and distortions of all sorts. Faced with toxic sound, interpreters are likely to increase the volume and strain their hearing. Under such conditions, the mental effort (also called cognitive load) required is considerably greater than normal, which leads to excessive fatigue, putting the interpreter’s health at risk. Interpreters working on Parliament Hill have been reporting earache, headaches, tinnitus, hypersensitivity to sound and undue fatigue, as well as mental fog, difficulty concentrating and difficulty sleeping. Some of them have had to take time off – anywhere from a couple of days to several weeks – to recover from fatigue or from an injury, despite the fact that booth time has been reduced from 6 hours to 4 hours. And in most cases, interpreters are only working a maximum of 2-3 hours a day. Interpreting is already a very demanding task under good working conditions. Working remotely adds to an already heavy cognitive load. If interpreters are also forced to work with inadequate sound quality and a poor sound/image synchronization, is it any wonder that interpreters end up completely exhausted after a two-hour remote assignment?
Given the high number of injuries, interpreters are strongly encouraged by management to interrupt service if sound quality is poor and could potentially lead to injuries, and not only if sound is completely catastrophic. Indeed, experience has shown that repeated exposure to bad sound produces acoustic shock-like symptoms.
To try and improve the sound, sound tests are carried out before most meetings and interpreters are asked to weigh in. Adjustments can be made to improve sound quality. Witnesses are asked if they have a proper headset on hand. If they have nothing, they are strongly encouraged to find at least earbuds with an in-line microphone, such as the ones that come with smartphones. This latter solution is far from ideal but is still preferable than the built- in laptop microphone. If using earbuds, participants are asked to hold the microphone directly in front of their mouth. In cases where the sound is not deemed adequate for interpretation, participants are told that the interpreters will try their best, but that the service might have to be interrupted. Clerks and chairs are informed of the risk of interruption in advance.
Time and again, participants need to be reminded that interpreters need better sound quality than participants, as participants will often argue that they can hear just fine and wonder why the interpreters have stopped working. Some chairs do not hesitate to remind participants that interpreters are doing a particularly demanding job and are speaking on top of the speaker, and therefore, need better sound quality. Such a strong support from chairs has proven to be key in reducing the stress involved with interrupting a parliamentary committee and in getting compliance from all participants.
If left to the participant, the choice of equipment will undoubtedly continue to compromise the health and safety as well as the wellbeing of interpreters. Clear rules need to be put in place. A delegate would never be given the floor at a conference if he or she refused to turn on their microphone. The same should apply to remote meetings: if a participant is not using a proper microphone, he or she should not be given the floor, not if interpretation services are being offered. Injuries are serious and can last a lifetime, preventing interpreters from earning a living and doing what they love and as such, they are not to be taken lightly. A lot of education has taken place amongst clients and interpreters alike, and this has borne fruit, but a lot remains to be done. Indeed, every effort should be made to improve working conditions and make them safe and sustainable over the long run, because we know that the Covid-19 crisis will eventually subside, but the demand for remote will most certainly not.
Staffer, Translation Bureau (Canada), Member of AIIC-Canada.