Why interpreters need better sound than normal listeners. Bad sound explained

Female ear and hands close-up. Torn paper, yellow background.

Why do interpreters say they need better sound than normal listeners? And what’s wrong with sound quality in video-conferencing?
Here’s a quick guide.

Why is my interpreter saying the sound quality isn’t good enough? I can hear the speaker just fine!
There are two issues here. The first is that interpreters need to be able to hear the speaker to do their actual job. The second is that, for interpreters, sound is an occupational health issue – we need to protect our hearing.

Sound to interpret from
First, in normal conversation – online or in the real world – people don’t always hear every word that is said. Far from it. A lorry passes by, it’s windy, the internet connection cuts out, there’s a hiss or a buzz, etc. We miss a bit. But our brains just fill in the blanks as we go along, based on our unconscious mastery of context, grammar and collocation in our native languages.

When they are interpreting simultaneously however, interpreters’ brains are already working at full capacity listening to a foreign language, analysing, translating AND speaking at the same time. Interpreters’ brains don’t have the spare capacity to ALSO fill in the blanks created by sound problems. So we need perfect sound – better sound than everyone else in the room.

Occupational health
Then there is the question of occupational health. Interpreters listen to meetings all day, most days. For everyone else meetings are far less frequent, and often shorter, events.

Bad sound
So what makes sound bad? There is not just one cause, nor one fix for bad sound in video-conferencing. It’s complicated.

1. Echo
Using poor quality (often in-built laptop) microphones; using good microphones incorrectly (like being too far away from, or not facing the microphone); or being in a room with bare walls will create a hollow, or echo-like effect.

2. Background noise
Speakers who are outside, have a window open, are in restaurants or have their kids and/or pets making noise at home, will transmit more than just what they are saying.

3. Fizz
Poor internet connections, microphones or sound cards on your computer can create white noise like a fizz or buzzing.

4. Cutting out.
Wifi internet connections and bluetooth headsets (or microphones) lead to the sound cutting out for fractions of a second repeatedly while you are talking.

This is a visual representation of poor sound. Try to read ALL of the text!

5. Different volume levels from one speaker to the next
Participants (because they are all in their own homes and offices) are all using different equipment. That means different volume levels from one speaker to the next, and different sound qualities.

All of the above issues will lead interpreters to turn the volume up to hear properly. Because we do this all day, every day, it’s going to damage our hearing.

6. Sound processing, including dynamic sound compression
Sound is processed before it is sent across the internet, for example by dynamically compressing it. Amongst other things this removes the micro-silences from the sound. You won’t notice that the sound is poor, but it is.

By removing micro-silences from the audio feed dynamic compression deprives the ear of any down-time. This tires the ear out more quickly and leaves it vulnerable to injury2 3.

7. Acoustic shock
This is when the sound system creates an extremely sudden and dangerously loud sound. Acoustic shock4 appeared to be the greatest health risk in 2020 but cases have fallen away since. However something approaching acoustic shock can be caused by the volume differentials described in 5. above.

Finally, sound quality issues in video-conferencing impact on interpreter health in at least two other ways. They aggravate the proven phenomenon of Zoom fatigue1 which interpreters, who listen all day, are far more vulnerable to. And secondly the sheer variety of possible problems mean interpreters can no longer RELY on the sound they receive, nor choose a single effective mitigation strategy. This is an oft forgotten, but significant, stress factor in an already stressful profession.

No easy solution

Different people and companies are responsible for the different types of poor sound quality in video-conferencing5 – participants, internet providers, employers, RSI platforms, etc. This means that they all have to play ball to create usable sound… That’s a vanishingly rare occurrence. It also means that it’s very easy for everyone to blame everyone else.

Some RSI and video-conferencing platforms used by interpreters CAN now offer broadcast quality sound… to anyone using  ALL the right equipment PROPERLY. Consequently, they are now happy to pass the buck to participants6. OK, but if you take a look at the photos on their websites you won’t see many microphones or ethernet cables pictured. The platforms then are happy enough to suggest to customers that they won’t need any equipment to use their product. In doing so they facilitate participants’ extremely poor record in contributing to improved sound quality thus far. 

This state of affairs – with its variety of problems and responsible parties – is in stark contrast to the traditional on-site meeting room, where none of these problems exist. That’s because in a meeting room you have a single technical setup, uniform microphones, cables and connections, which one or more technicians, who are physically present, understand, have control over and can adjust immediately if need be. So interpreters and participants get the same quality sound… and it’s usually perfect.

These problems are real and highlighting them and trying to solve them does not mean that one is dogmatically opposed to RSI. But they are problems that impact both our ability to do our job and on our health. And two years after the advent of Covid and ubiquitous video-conferencing solutions are, it would seem, still a long way off.


With thanks and acknowledgement to Andrea Caniato and Cristian Guiducci, our sound gurus, who have trodden a steep and often lonely path since day one of the video-conferencing revolution.

1. Stanford researchers identify four causes for ‘Zoom fatigue’ and their simple fixes

2. The Proposed Pathodynamics of the Junk Sound Syndrome

3. La notion de micro-silence est fondamentale pour la santé auditive

4. Interpreter injuries spike due to virtual Parliament

5. Headsets Won’t Work Miracles: Here is How Digital Sound Gets Degraded in the 21st Century

6. AIIC today, Interactio tomorrow: catching up with Uroš Peterc

Image credits: Oleksandr Shchus, WHO

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Andrew Gillies

Andy Gillies is a conference interpreter and interpreter trainer based in Paris. He works from French, German and Polish into English at the European Parliament, the European Patent Office and the European Space Agency, amongst other places. He’s written extensively on interpreter training and has published other occasional musings about the profession for industry outlets.

A part-time nerd, Andy has always been interested in how interpreters can leverage tech to their advantage - be it glossary software; tablets for consecutive; Learning Management Systems for training; or more recently… RSI.

And failing that he's also written about how not to advertise being a luddite.

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