Parliament Hill interpreter hospitalized for ‘acoustic shock’

Public Services and Procurement Canada says it’s investigating what led to a Parliament Hill language interpreter needing help from paramedics last week.

The department said she is the third interpreter to be hospitalized while on shift in the past five years and the first during the pandemic.

“The Translation Bureau is extremely concerned by this accident,” wrote departmental spokeswoman Katherine Proulx.

At the Senate environment committee on Oct. 20, two witnesses testified over video conference with poor sound quality and did not wear the recommended headphones with a microphone wand.

During questions from senators, a buzz could be heard as the first witness spoke, similar to a smartphone vibrating on a table. As the second witness answered questions from senators, there was a sudden moment of loud feedback.

“Feedback occurred in the sound system and an interpreter suffered an acoustic shock. The interpreter subsequently received emergency care,” Proulx wrote.

Acoustic shocks are when inner ear muscles are startled by sudden noises, such as someone tapping a microphone or suddenly speaking much louder when an interpreter has been straining to hear them.

The Canadian Association of Professional Employees argues last week’s meeting should have been halted at the time of the injury.

Instead, a Translation Bureau supervisor took over as the freelancer was escorted out of the room, where she collapsed.

Concerns over virtual work

There has been an increase in reports of hearing injuries among federal interpreters since parliamentary work shifted to virtual formats during the pandemic, with Translation Bureau attention on hearing problems going back to 2019.

In advance of virtual appearances, the Senate asks witnesses to use a proper headset, offering to reimburse up to $100 in pre-tax value to buy one. The House of Commons caps this at $175.

“Each participant is required to use a wired headset with an attached boom microphone to ensure optimal sound quality for simultaneous interpretation,” reads the Senate’s January 2021 instruction sheet, which specifically says not to use earbuds.

And yet, the injury occurred at a sitting where one witness wore earbuds and the other had headphones with no microphone wand.

“Senate Administration staff and committee chairs make decisions regarding committee functioning, including witness participation,” wrote House of Commons spokesperson Amelie Crosson.

The office of Sen. Paul Massicotte, who chaired the meeting, diverted questions to the Senate administration.

“When interpreters indicate that sound quality is preventing them from interpreting, witnesses are told that they are unable to continue,” wrote Senate spokesperson Alison Korn.

She said that was the case at last Thursday’s meeting, yet the official recording shows the testimony continued in full.

Internal investigation launched

The House of Commons audiovisual team maintains some Senate equipment, including in the room where the incident occurred.

They inspected the room after the incident, and “concluded that the consoles are performing normally and offer interpreters hearing protection,” Crosson wrote.

A federal interpreter, tasked with translating English to French and vice versa, is seen in the background of this photo of a House of Commons debate.
A federal interpreter, tasked with translating English to French and vice versa, is seen in the upper left of this photo of a House of Commons debate. (CBC)

Proulx said the Translation Bureau “will also conduct an internal investigation, and will share its findings with key stakeholders when they are available.”

Crosson added that the House audiovisual team does recurring checks to make sure all systems meet international safety regulations.

“The House of Commons, working with its partners, has taken efforts to ensure that any sound issues are addressed proactively or as they are identified, to enhance the remote participant experience, improve the quality of hybrid proceedings, and protect interpreters.”

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