Some UN Interpreters Push Back Hard Against Remote Interpretation

Remote Interpreting Opposition at the United Nations

The official magazine of civil servants at the United Nations in Geneva, UN Today, reported that remote interpretation does not work for UN interpreters. The reason: sound quality.

According to Amy Brady and Martin Pickles, interpreters at the UN in Geneva, the remote simultaneous interpretation (RSI) platforms and peripherals (e.g., microphones, earpods, earbuds, headsets) do not always produce high enough sound quality for interpreters. In fact, sound quality falls short of relevant ISO standards and may damage an interpreter’s hearing, they said.

“After working with RSI for two years, we have seen that the quality of the sound we receive from remote participants via the platforms is simply not up to the standard we need in order both to do our job to the best of our ability and to protect our hearing,” the duo explained.

Some 60% of interpreters at UN Geneva over the past year have reported suffering various symptoms — tinnitus, hyperacusis, ear pain, vertigo, and dizziness — after interpreting via RSI platforms, according to the same UN Today article.

Health and Welfare First

To mitigate against any potential impact on interpreters’ health, the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM) following consultations with the Division of Healthcare Management and Occupational Safety and Health (DHMOSH) decided to reduce the number of meetings that interpreters had to service (from seven to five over a week) as well as their length (from three to two hours).

“The past two years have clearly shown the importance of modern technology,” but “the health and welfare of staff is our top priority,” said Cherith Ann Norman Chalet, Assistant Secretary-General at DGACM.

Brady and Pickles blame technology and its limitations for a “disastrous decline in interpreters’ working conditions” and ask conference organizers and participants to strictly adhere to equipment requirements to optimize the sound quality in meetings. In addition, they hope for a return to fully in-person meetings.

De-demonizing RSI

Online meetings are here to stay,” wrote Viviane Brunne, Programme Management Officer at DGACM. And so is remote interpreting.

Brunne continued, “While online conferencing was a trend before the pandemic, it has become a habit much faster than anyone could anticipate.”

“We have learned from this Covid crisis that there are other ways to do things, not only the traditional ways,” said Genoveva Ruiz Calavera, Head of the Directorate-General for Interpretation (SCIC) at the European Commission, in a SlatorPod episode.

“We have to […] take advantage of the new technologies because we see that some of the meetings will continue to not be fully virtual but hybrid,” she added.

 “Working from home in remote interpreting is here to stay and should not be demonized,” wrote @katherinestully, community and conference interpreter, in a recent tweet.

In addition and despite the sound quality and health issues, interpreters embrace new technologies and recognize that remote interpreting also has certain potential health benefits (e.g, likelihood of a better diet, more time for sleep and exercise), according to @InterRausch, conference and business interpreter.

Moreover, remote interpreting can reduce interpreters’ carbon footprint, improve their work-life balance, open up new opportunities for them, and allow them to accept jobs that they otherwise would not have been able to, according to Interactio and Interprefy.

These benefits were confirmed by Nicoletta Spinolo, Assistant Professor at the University of Bologna, and Agnieszka Chmiel, Professor at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, who received the first AIIC Research Grant for their project entitled “Inside the virtual booth: the impact of remote interpreting settings on interpreter experience and performance.”

The project aims to cover ground between the fast evolution of the market and research, identifying pitfalls and best practices based on empirical evidence, while supporting both the interpreter community and platform developers in this technological transition that is changing the face of the profession.