Wherever Myriam Bureau goes, the high-pitched ringing in her ears goes with her. The veteran parliamentary interpreter says the unending noise is the price she pays for doing work she loves.
The technical term is tinnitus, a condition linked to hearing loss. “I hear the tinnitus now, right now,” Ms. Bureau, 55, said in an interview at a downtown Ottawa office.
“It’s a high pitch. It’s as if you had a radio that had just had that `eeeee’ in the background.”
Her medical issues, linked to her work by an audiologist’s letter she provided to The Globe and Mail, reflect a brewing problem for the interpreters who, plugged into sound systems, translate the business of Canada’s government from English to French and French to English.
The chief executive officer of the Translation Bureau put it bluntly in an April appearance before the Senate’s standing committee on internal economy, budgets and administration.
“Interpreting virtual sessions continues to present very real risks to our interpreters. The number of health and safety incidents reported remains very high,” Lucie Séguin told the committee.
She noted that there have been 250 incident reports submitted since 2020, with staff complaining of tinnitus, headaches and earaches.
“We have 44 interpreters available to interpret full-time, but we have had to accommodate 10 interpreters with part timework and give them more rest periods. And this is based on advice from their doctors,” she told the senators.
The pandemic prompted the use of a hybrid Parliament that had MPs dialling into house business, creating problems that have been linked to various medical issues.
Ms. Bureau’s audiologist, Myriam Grenier, said in the letter provided to The Globe that Parliament Hill interpreters have been grappling with inferior sound quality, variable levels and “toxic sound” that can lead to “acoustic shock,” as interpreters adjust volume and strain to hear participants.
“Poor sound quality creates an increased cognitive effort, and the cumulative effect of listening to toxic sounds for multiple hours per day, along with the numerous acoustic shocks, would eventually cause auditory damage,” she wrote.
Ms. Bureau said her most recent issues began in June, 2020, with a series of headaches that escalated to pain in her jaw.
In her committee testimony, Ms. Séguin said the Senate and House administration responsible for the technical issues of interpretation have been able to improve working conditions by installing consoles designed to prevent acoustic shock.
Still, it is challenging work, she said. “Interpretation requires heightened concentration to isolate voices from the rest of the audio. Interpreters are more vulnerable to video conference fatigue. It is even worse when the sound quality is poor, which is often the case in virtual sessions.”
She said working hours for virtual sessions are being reduced, but “this reduces our capacity and makes it more challenging to manage demand given the shortage of interpreters in Canada and around the world.”
House of Commons communications director Heather Bradley said 26 hearings of parliamentary committees were cancelled between April 1 and May 31, adding that interpretation issues may have been among the reasons for the cancellations.
The Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE), which counts interpreters among its union members, submitted proposals in April to the House of Commons Board of Internal Economy in a bid to improve the situation.
It said participants in the parliamentary audiovisual system must be instructed to use proper microphones and join the system from a computer over a cabled internet connection. It also said technicians should perform sound tests with all participants and balance volume between participants before interpretation starts.
“Unless the sound from virtual participants is improved, things are likely to continue to get worse as more committees hit their stride and scarce interpreters are called upon to staff more hybrid assignments,” the union’s report said. “CAPE anticipates that hybrid interpretation will remain a feature in Parliament for some time so the issues associated with it must be addressed.”
Filomena Tassi, the minister who oversees the file, says she is mindful of the issue.
“Ensuring the health and safety of interpreters is a priority for our government. The Translation Bureau will continue to adapt to support the interpreters throughout this challenging time as they continue to meet the needs of Parliament,” she said in a statement.
“I can assure you that I will keep working with those involved to ensure the well-being of the parliamentary interpreters.”
But Greg Phillips, CAPE’s national president, said he has been unable to meet with Ms. Tassi to express his union’s concerns directly to her. “She’s shuffled us down to the deputy minister and the president of the Translation Bureau.
“Maybe I am not screaming loud enough or I am not jumping up and down hard enough.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Bureau is leaving her job on Parliament Hill to work in the private sector, hoping for a better, more sustainable experience.
And she is taking her tinnitus with her. “I am assuming it’s permanent now.”
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