Canada among the most dangerous places for language interpreters


While no MP or parliamentary administrator wants to see interpreters get hurt, the question is: will they change the way they do business to ensure the upcoming parliamentary session does not mark open season on interpreters’ health and safety?
OTTAWA—A new international study places Canada among the countries with the highest rate of acoustic shock incidents suffered by language interpreters.
The study found that Canada ranks 13th of 81 countries with six-in-10 (59 per cent) Canadian respondents reporting they have suffered symptoms typical of exposure to an acoustic shock.
Almost half (46 per cent) report having suffered one, while 13 per cent aren’t sure. Among the top 20 countries, Brazil reported the highest incidence of acoustic shock symptoms at 96 per cent (72 per cent who report having suffered an incident, plus 24 per cent who report having symptoms typical of exposure), while 38 per cent of respondents in Luxembourg have experienced symptoms including 25 per cent who say they have suffered an acoustic shock, and 13 per cent who report symptoms typical of exposure, ranking 20th overall.
Acoustic shock has long been a safety hazard for interpreters.
Interpreters’ stock in trade is to focus intently on a speaker’s words to render them faithfully into another language. Electronic feedback, the drop of a microphone, tapping on or yelling in the microphone, or other unwanted noises can send an audio shock directly into the headset of a working interpreter.
These acoustic incidents, usually unexpected, brief and loud, can leave interpreters suffering concussion-like symptoms, or may trigger ringing in the ears, a feeling of fullness or pain in the ear, to name a few ill-effects.
More than 1,000 interpreters were surveyed for the study undertaken by the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) in collaboration with Dr. Philippe Fournier, a Canadian audiologist and researcher at the Laboratoire de neurosciences sensorielles et cognitives, Aix-Marseille University.
Overall, this first ever international study of interpreters and the acoustic shocks they are exposed to found:

  • a significant proportion of the interpreters surveyed (approximately 67 per cent) have been exposed to acoustic incidents in the form of loud, unexpected, and brief sounds, including those with symptoms of acoustic shock but no clear recollection of having suffered one.
  • almost half (47 per cent) reported previous experience of one or more symptoms following these acoustic incidents, with tinnitus being the most prevalent symptom, followed by hearing hypersensitivity, headaches, hearing impairment and stabbing pain in the ear.
  • of those who have suffered an acoustic shock, most (85 per cent) interpreters report being exposed more than once with 25 per cent experiencing more than ten acoustic shocks.
  • three-quarters (77 per cent) of interpreters who experienced acoustic shock did not officially report the incidents.

The incidence of acoustic shock among interpreters is not well understood, and for good reason. Most acoustic shock incidents among interpreters go unreported. Among respondents who have suffered an acoustic shock only 18 per cent filed an official report primarily because there is no formal avenue for reporting, according to the study.
Lack of reporting may well explain the dearth of research into interpreters’ hearing health, and recognition of this issue as a real and present health and safety risk for which there must be meaningful protection developed.
Survey data for the international study was collected in the fall of 2019, just months before the COVID-19 outbreak.
Since Parliament began meeting virtually under COVID-19 restrictions interpreters working for the federal Translation Bureau have suffered a spike in hearing injuries.
At issue is the sudden increase in “remote simultaneous interpretation” assignments. These involve meetings where participants, including interpreters, connect from remote locations via the internet, phones, or web conferencing platforms. Since parliamentary gatherings have gone virtual, remote simultaneous interpretation assignments have become the rule. These assignments are particularly taxing and dangerous for interpreters, and frustrating for MPs and witnesses because of:

  • poor audio quality—from speakers using technically inadequate microphones, from poor quality of processing, or disrupted transmission of audio signals;
  • acoustic shock arising from the mix of different ill-suited technologies used by participants to connect to the meeting or event;
  • low-quality video with image blurring and lip asynchrony;
  • internet instability, disrupting audio and video feed.

Soon after the House began meeting virtually, a Commons committee heard testimony that there were more injuries during the month of April this year alone than had been reported in all of 2019. Subsequently, the Procedure and House Affairs Committee reported there were 55 health incidents during that period among the 70 interpreters working for the Translation Bureau from March to May 2020.
In spite of encouragement, many participants, including MPs and ministers, still are not using the proper headset, cabled microphone and hardwire connection to the internet when participating in parliamentary committee and House proceedings. These should become mandatory requirements because we know these measures greatly improve conditions that allow interpreters to deliver quality service safely.
While no MP or parliamentary administrator wants to see interpreters get hurt, the question is: will they change the way they do business to ensure the upcoming parliamentary session does not mark open season on interpreters’ health and safety?

Nicole Gagnon is advocacy lead for the International Association of Conference Interpreters-Canada Region-(AIIC-Canada)

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