The government of Canada is currently investigating the conditions that led to a particularly bad case of acoustic shock in an interpreter working on Parliament Hill last month.
On Oct. 20, an interpreter working for a Senate committee collapsed after an instance of loud feedback, putting a spotlight on some of the distinct injuries interpreters may face on the job. Although interpreting is far from the most dangerous job out there, it does present health risks — from acoustic shock to ergonomic injuries — that are somewhat unique to the profession.
In the case of the Canadian interpreter, it appears that the acoustic shock can be traced back to low-quality audio equipment used by two witnesses testifying to the committee remotely. According to a report from the Canadian Broadcasting Company, the witnesses did not use the recommended headphones, which featured a microphone wand, and there was a slight static buzz in the background throughout their testimony.
According to the Melbourne Audiology & Speech Pathology Clinic, acoustic shock is “an involuntary trauma response to a sudden, brief and unexpected loud sound, causing a consistent pattern of symptoms,” such as ear pain, tinnitus, headaches, and even vertigo or nausea.
A 2020 study found that nearly half of all interpreters report having experienced acoustic shock at some point during their career — this varies from country to country, with 96% of interpreters in Brazil reporting instances or symptoms of acoustic shock compared to 59% in Canada and just 38% in Belgium.
In a 2020 blog post, the American Translators Association recommended interpreters consider investing in a limiter, which, as the name suggests, limits a listener’s exposure to sudden bursts of sound that could cause acoustic shock.
Sign language interpreting raises the possibility of another class of physical injuries: repetitive stress injuries (RSI). This is a generic umbrella term for injuries associated with repeated motions or tasks that can cause stress or tension in the extremities, and include conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinosis. Results from a small-scale survey of 40 sign language interpreters, suggest that as many as 87.5% of sign language interpreters have experienced at least two symptoms associated with carpal tunnel. When symptoms of RSIs are left unaddressed, they can develop into more serious disabilities.
In order to alleviate the stressors that interpreters face on the job, the National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers (NCIEC) advocates for team interpreting, which can also mitigate some of the mental fatigue caused by long days of interpreting work.
“Team interpreting provides the court with an additional measure of security to ensure that the record is accurate and the non-English speaking parties are fully present and able to participate in the proceedings,” reads a report from the NCIEC.