METM22 Chronicles: Mary Fons i Fleming

The sound and the fury: troubleshooting audio to protect our hearing

I was delighted to be able to attend Mary Fons’s talk at METM in San Sebastián, in which she addressed a particularly practical issue: sound. For those not working in interpreting, the burning nature of this issue may have passed you by. Good quality sound is, of course, central to good quality interpreting. However, the rise of remote interpreting during the Covid-19 pandemic has made the importance of good sound painfully apparent to interpreters. Bad sound quality (also known as dirty sound) is responsible for many headaches (as well as nausea, tinnitus and vision problems). Such is the problem that EU interpreters went on strike from June until mid-October this year. Their demand: for MEPs to join meetings from suitable environments, with good connections and appropriate equipment. A reasonable demand, you would think.

Mary came prepared with a battery of tips for interpreters to help ensure the best sound quality possible when interpreting remotely. We will not be able to erase dirty sound, but we can mitigate it. Ironically, Mary was assigned the most (only?) echoey room in the venue to talk about poor sound. When trying to play clips about the difference between omnidirectional and cardioid microphones, it was impossible to tell the difference.

A large part of Mary’s talk focused on what we can do as interpreters to ensure that the sound reaching our ears is as clear as possible. For something that so often feels out of our control (beyond stressing the need for speakers to use equipment such as earphones and microphones, and not call in from a moving car or tiled bathroom), Mary’s detailed description of the different pieces of equipment, the importance of equalisation and the origins of various sound defects all give us back some level of control over what goes into our ears. Because our ears are our tools – without them, we can’t be interpreters, and that’s that.

So what nuggets did Mary have to share?

Internet – it should be wired and we should always have a backup! Mary talked about the unreliability of Wi-Fi, even when it is a fast connection.

Audio equipment – microphones should always be cardioid, not omni, to prevent sound being picked up from around the room (this applies both to us and to speakers). Mary advised us as interpreters to use separate (analogue) headphones and a fixed microphone because of issues with USB combined headsets, particularly in relation to keeping the microphone appropriately positioned (taking a sip of water can upset your setup). Good quality USB combined headsets are, however, good backups.

Analogue processors (DAC, digital to analogue converter ) – sound is analogue and it is digitised to travel through the internet, so having a decent sound card and analogue processor can ensure that this conversion is as efficient as possible, improving quality.

Round volume dial – instead of a volume button so you can quickly change volume.

Equalisers – can help interpreters doctor bad sound, one of causes of strain, by gaining sound frequencies and thereby improving intelligibility. Frequencies can be split into multiple channels, but for ease of application they should be split into high, mid and low. Mary guided us towards a useful blog post for more information.

Overall, Mary’s presentation gave us a comprehensive guide to different aspects of a home booth and how to take control over your own sound, as well as use this knowledge in negotiations with clients and speakers about their use of equipment in a remote interpreting setting. With remote interpreting here to stay, this is a must for any interpreter.

This METM22 presentation was chronicled by Sandra Young.

Featured photo by METM22 photographer Jone Karres.

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