Acoustic Shock: What Interpreters Need to Know

(The following was originally published on the blog of ATA’s Interpreters Division, www.ata-divisions.org/ID/blog.)

Acoustic shock can have very serious implications for interpreters but we’re not paying enough attention to it. This issue has gained more awareness in the context of remote interpreting during the pandemic, but also in the context of colleagues who experienced acoustic shock while working in Canada, Paris, and other places. As interpreters, we need to educate ourselves about this condition.

Let’s start with a definition. There are several definitions out there, including: exposure to sudden, loud, shocking, or startling noises, usually in one ear, which may subsequently develop into painful symptoms.1 Acoustic shock can have many symptoms. It could manifest as physical symptoms like headaches, tinnitus, nausea, hyperacusis (a collapsed tolerance to usual environmental sounds), muffled hearing, and vertigo. Other symptoms include numbness or burning sensations around the ear. If the symptoms persist, acoustic shock could even lead to psychological symptoms such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and even depression.

Protecting Yourself

So, what can you do to protect yourself against acoustic shock and its consequences? You could start by purchasing a limiter. Limiters are not widely used in the world of interpreting, but they are in the world of television and the music industry. These small pieces of equipment act as a middleman between your headphones and the interpreter console or computer. They inhibit any sudden surges2 in sound from reaching dangerous levels. The manufacturers calibrate the limiters to suit the make and model of your own headphones. You may want to check out brands like AdaptEar (www.adaptear.com) or LimitEar (www.limitear.com). You’ll also find headphones with built-in limiters. They may not offer 100% protection against acoustic shock, but they’re better than nothing. Links for more information on the brands and specifications can be found at the end of this article.

There are also interpreter consoles with built-in limiters. So, when you get back to onsite meeting assignments, make sure you know what equipment will be provided. Remember, it’s good practice to ask questions about the equipment you’ll be using in the booth. The conference technicians will be able to provide the information you need to minimize the risk of injury. After all, being knowledgeable about the tools of your trade is always a good idea.

Some colleagues who have suffered acoustic shock had to undergo lengthy medical treatments, during which they were unable to work. At the risk of stating the obvious, our hearing is essential to our livelihood as interpreters. With this in mind, you might want to look into purchasing an occupational accident insurance policy. These policies are designed to cover any periods of unemployment that may arise as a result of an occupational accident, but make sure to check if acoustic shock qualifies. Having this type of coverage in place will minimize the financial impact if you do suffer an injury.

Something else for conference interpreters to keep in mind when we do start traveling again is that certain types of planes can be very noisy. Using noise-canceling headphones when traveling can help protect your ears. It’s also a good idea to have regular hearing checkups as you may not be aware that your hearing is deteriorating.

Safety Is Your Responsibility

When we do in-person interpreting, we often rely on others to ensure that the equipment functions properly. However, under the current circumstances when we’re all working from home, that responsibility falls on us. Properly functioning equipment will go a long way toward ensuring our safety and peace of mind in troubling times.

Notes
  1. Milhinch, Janice. “Acoustic Shock Injury: Real or Imaginary?” https://bit.ly/Milhinch-shock.
  2. You can learn more about surges in an article on decibels by Cyril Flerov, a Russian conference interpreter and executive director of the American Association of Language Specialists. See: Flerov, Cyril. “What Every Interpreter Must Know about Decibels,” https://bit.ly/Flerov-decibels.
Additional Resources

Bowman, Naomi. “How to Choose a Headset for Remote Simultaneous Interpreting,” https://bit.ly/Bowman-headsets.

Flerov, Cyril. “How to Use Audio Equalization and Compression to Partially Mitigate Effects of Toxic Sound in Remote Interpretation,” https://bit.ly/Flerov-toxic-sound.

The International Association of Conference Interpreters put together a listing of headsets that are compliant with the International Organization for Standardization: https://bit.ly/AIIC-headsets.


Maha El-Metwally is a conference interpreter who works for a wide range of international organizations, including the European Institutions and the United Nations. In addition to ATA, she is a member of the International Association of Conference Interpreters and the Chartered Institute of Linguists. She serves on the Board of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, where she is also a member of the Admissions Committee. She is associated with a number of universities in the U.K. and abroad where she contributes to the curricula. Having obtained an MA in interpreter training from the University of Geneva, she offers training on technology for interpreters and remote interpreting. Contact: maha@culturalbridges.co.uk.

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