Interpreters may hear literally a fraction of what attendees hear, or even worse...

March 10, 2022

Revisiting the article written by two fellow colleagues working in the UN @Amy Brady @Martin Pickles (, I’d like to call for urgent attention to the work health safety of our job (as interpreters) in the remote working environment.

There are two main causes of toxic sounds: 1) input sources from speakers when setups are not up to standard (no proper microphones, noisy environment or patchy Internet connections); 2) platforms (both meeting and RSI platforms) transmit a limited range of original frequency captured, compressed or even adulterated with noises, to impact the intelligibility of the speeches for interpretation.

For the first cause, enforcement on remote speakers' compliance on technical requirements with institutional will would be conceivably feasible - and making huge progress, confirmed by the author’s sampling of the meeting videos live-streamed on UN WebTV. There has been a misconception that this hasn’t happened, and it will take many deafness and disability before the political will can be mustered, which appeared not true, as discovered from the investigation of the second cause.

The discovery of the problems experienced by colleagues working in the UN, starts from the comparison of the pseudo-ground-truth (audios broadcasted from UN WebTV, as original input sources to the meeting is unavailable), and resultant audio received at the interpreters’ end (on the RSI platform used by the UN HQ currently). The result is shocking: with great progress on removing the first cause driven by political will, the major audio issues remain solely from the RSI platform which injected the original meeting (on Zoom). At one point, the interpretation of all languages came to a full stop (at 1:33 of the video clip below) with interpreters announcing “the interpretation service will be suspended until the sound quality improves” for an extended period of time, while the audio quality from the original meeting being broadcasted live is clearly intelligible.

The video clip above here for this aforementioned incident was from UN General Assembly 3rd committee meeting. For a full video of this meeting, please visit Judging from the screen layout and speaker background settings, this is believed to be a fully remote meeting with speakers from different places, held on Zoom and injected (or screen-shared) into an RSI platform for interpreters to work on.

Interesting Observations:

1.        The input audio from speakers on UN WebTV is mostly high quality, sufficient for SI and a lot of speakers use headset boom mics or speak close to the microphones within a quiet environment with no echoes. The quality of audio is surprisingly higher than most of the private industry meetings. That demonstrates the success of client education on the speaker-end input source improvement.

2.        The speaker in the video clip has a relatively good quality of audio with sufficient clarity for interpretation. However, interpreters announced the audio quality was impossible to carry out SI, and has suspended it for an extended period.

3.        From the interpretation audio channel making the announcement, loud noise can be heard from the interpreters’ end (what interpreters heard has been penetrated through the English channel too to audience when selected).

4.        There are unusually long delays sometimes in the interpretation channels (not likely caused by human interpreters).

The discovery here, not only cleared the misperceptions from the interpreter colleagues in the UN on the input sources (huge improvement have been made with political wills), but more importantly identified the root cause of the toxic sounds problem which they couldn’t find out without the comparison done.

Surprisingly, the result from the investigation was stunningly similar to the conclusion of @Andrea Caniato’s post on RSI sound is bad for interpreters’ ears? ( Besides, Zoom’s Hi-Fi mode if used properly, is music to interpreters’ ears.

Would the issue of toxic RSI sounds be resolved? Yes, already.

Would UN interpreters’ health issue be resolved? Yes, if there is a political will driven by sufficient numbers of staff interpreters with knowledge of this solution. It is much easier to solve the dirty RSI sounds issue in the private market as interpreters and LSPs have the control, should they prioritise their health impact and get to know and use the new solution.

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Dr. Bernard Song