Hearing Loss and Acoustic Shock Public  

A Silent Threat for Interpreters

Article by Sarah Hickey.

Interpreters are taught to look after their voice. Unlike speakers, who take natural turns, interpreters have to interpret for everyone, non-stop, for sometimes long periods of time. The fact that this can put a strain on one’s voice is well-known in the interpreting community. Interpreters understand the real threat of the “no voice, no job” causality. To prevent such an extreme scenario, some interpreter programs even offer voice coaching to instill best practices for maintaining one’s voice right from the start. 

But what about interpreters’ hearing?

Hearing loss: an occupation hazard

Whether it’s during traditional simultaneous interpreting at conferences or during a remote interpreting assignment, interpreters often work with headsets. Prolonged use of earbuds and headsets can, in general, cause hearing loss. This was confirmed by a number of studies, including a large study from the American Medical Association in 2011. 

Adding to the problem is that during simultaneous interpreting, interpreters only cover one ear so they can hear the speaker but also monitor their own output. Studies have found that this imbalance can be more damaging than if both ears were covered. The second earpiece that just sits behind the ear presents another risk. Receiving sound from directly behind the ear can be even more damaging than if the ears were covered. Over time, both aspects add up, and can increase the risk of hearing loss.

As if that wasn’t enough, interpreters are also exposed to the risk of experiencing acoustic shock.

Acoustic shock

Acoustic shock is a phenomenon caused by sudden loud sounds. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, fainting, loss of balance, hearing loss, and tinnitus. Interpreters are at high risk of experiencing acoustic shock when working with inadequate equipment. 

Across the globe, interpreters have been suffering from acoustic shock after working with inadequate equipment. In Canada, almost one-quarter of the Translation Bureau’s interpreters were hospitalized after experiencing acoustic shock. This has led to a call for a new standard for interpreting equipment. Representatives from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Interpreting (DG SCIC), the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), the Translation Bureau, and select remote interpreting platform providers joined forces to work on a new ISO standard, which has been released in January 2020. 

How severely are interpreters affected?

We wanted to understand how severe the risk of hearing loss is in the interpreting profession and conducted a survey to which thirty interpreters responded.

In our survey, almost half of respondents reported that interpreting has indeed affected their hearing.

Has interpreting affected your hearing?

Hearing Loss - has interpreting affected your hearing?

Source: Nimdzi Insights

When asked to indicate the severity on a scale from one (mild) to five (severe), the average was 2.06 – veering towards the mild end of the scale. That being said, almost 40 percent of respondents placed the severity of their hearing damage at either three or four.

How severely has interpreting affected your hearing?

Hearing Loss - How severely has interpreting affected your hearing?

Source: Nimdzi Insights

Aside from the severity, we wanted to find out in what way the respondents’ hearing was affected. The two effects that stand out the most from the results are “Temporary hearing loss” (33.33 percent) and “Permanently reduced hearing” (33.34 percent) – both of which can be described as serious.

How has it affected your hearing?

How has interpreting affected hearing?

Source: Nimdzi Insights

In addition, a few respondents reported that for them, interpreting has permanently led to a hypersensitivity to sounds.

When we dug deeper to ask about the respondents’ experience with acoustic shock, the results were similarly worrying. Close to 45 percent indicated that they have experienced acoustic shock at least once throughout their career – more than 27 percent even experienced it several times.

Have you ever experienced acoustic shock during an interpreting assignment?

Have you ever experienced acoustic shock during an interpreting assignment?

Source: Nimdzi Insights

Again, we wanted to know in what way the respondents were affected. On the physical side, the most common effects respondents to our survey experienced were “Temporary hearing loss” and “Temporary tinnitus” (37.50 percent each). These severe but temporary physical symptoms were closely followed the even more severe “Permanently reduced hearing”, which more than 30 percent of respondents reported they experienced as a direct result from acoustic shock. In addition, a few respondents (12.50 percent) even had to be hospitalized.

What was the physical result of your experience with acoustic shock?

What was the physical result of your experience with acoustic shock?

Source: Nimdzi Insights

Given the severity, and in some cases, long-term effects caused by the respondents’ experiences, we asked if this has had a direct impact on their careers. While the majority of respondents report that their experience with hearing loss and acoustic shock has not impacted their career, about 13 percent report that they’re thinking of switching careers. An additional four percent stated that they had to leave the profession.

How has your experience with hearing loss and acoustic shock influenced your career?

How has your experience with hearing loss and acoustic shock influenced your career?

Source: Nimdzi Insights

In addition to the above, a few respondents provided further comments in the “other” section of this question, stating:

  • I signed off for several months.
  • I am very wary of potential feedback. I have always let the client know that I would have to cease interpreting if they cannot solve the problems.
  • My job became extremely difficult.
  • Just made my job a little harder but not leaving my career yet.
  • I am concerned about long-term implications.
  • I am much more careful with my hearing.
  • It’s making life difficult and means turning up the volume which could make it worse again.

Tackling a serious issue

While the scope of this study was limited, the results nonetheless show that interpreters appear to be at increased risk of experiencing hearing loss and acoustic shock and that, for some, the effects on their hearing are severe and permanent.

Our findings highlight the need for raising awareness about the risks to interpreters’ hearing and a need for better equipment standards. Both are essential for protecting interpreters’ health and preventing them from leaving the profession. This is particularly so, as well-trained interpreters are already considered a rare commodity, as outlined in our report on Interpreting Across the Globe. Language service providers should take this as an incentive to stand out from the crowd by caring about their interpreters’ hearing – for example by making sure they adhere to the new ISO standard for remote simultaneous interpreting equipment.

Interpreters should try to take care of their hearing. For example, they should not always cover the same ear and work with headsets that allow the volume to be turned down on the earpiece that just sits behind the ear. When working with remote platforms, working with a provider who is following the new ISO standard for remote simultaneous interpreting equipment should be a priority.

This article was researched and written by Nimdzi’s Chief Researcher, Sarah Hickey. If you wish to find out more about this topic, please reach out to Sarah at sarah@nimdzi.com.

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