In European institutions we understand each other less


One of the most precious and least narrated works of the European institutions is that of the interpreters, the hundreds of people who translate the speeches of parliamentarians, officials and political leaders who come from 27 different countries every day, and allow everyone to understand each other. Taking into account all its institutions, the European Union employs around 4,000 interpreters, 800 of whom have permanent contracts and 3,200 are freelance.

The sharp reduction in meetings and events due to the coronavirus pandemic caused problems especially for the second category, which suddenly found itself out of work; but even the regularly hired interpreters claim to be forced to work in difficult and potentially dangerous health conditions. The result is that according to the same interpreters, their difficulties are reflected in the daily work of the people of whom they translate announcements, speeches and replies: in short, we understand each other less.

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A delegation of interpreters freelance he met with the European institutions in late April, and another meeting was held on 26 May: a solution has not yet been found.

The European institutions guarantee the simultaneous translation of most of the works into the 24 official languages ​​of the Union. In the larger classrooms the interpreters work in special raised rooms, protected by dark glass walls. It is such a demanding job that we change every half hour, considering the deadline even for an expert interpreter: beyond that limit, lucidity falls and it is difficult to translate well. The sheer number of meetings, assemblies and debates that were held in the institutions every day made the work of hundreds of interpreters necessary at a time.

Cabin work is only the tip of the iceberg of their duties. To be able to translate in real time the speech of a French breeder who talks about breeding breeds, or a member of parliament who comments on the internal quarrels of a Finnish party, you need to study hard and be ready to improvise. Someone has compared it to the work of the reporter, who has to deal with something new every day.

The sharp reduction in meetings for the coronavirus pandemic has caused many problems that are difficult to solve. The first concerns the amount of work available. A Commission spokesman said to Politic that before the pandemic, 40-50 events were held every day that required simultaneous translation. By the end of April they had dropped to five. To date, the figure has remained more or less stable, and takes into account both live meetings and those held online.

Fewer events mean fewer interpreters needed. This week at the European institutions – between Parliament, the Commission, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions – only 5-6 interpreters a day translate the work in progress into Italian. Before the emergency, it was often ten times as much.

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Foreseeing that the situation will not change soon, the European institutions have also canceled the short contracts they offer to interpreters freelance in view of some particularly crowded events, leaving them in fact without any protection and prospect.

According to a delegation representing the interpreters freelance the particular contractual formula with which they are employed by the institutions prevents them from asking for an emergency aid both in Belgium and in the countries of origin: and since once accredited they were called constantly, although they did not have a stable contract, some of them lost the 100 percent of their monthly earnings.

Even the few who stayed to work, the vast majority hired on permanent contracts, are doing so in problematic conditions. The European Parliament is the institution that more than any other is continuing to hold events in person. Because of the physical distance it has become difficult to change places, so they often work alone in the cabin. The few who remain are inundated with work, and technical problems are on the agenda. The main problem, however, concerns their health.

The institutions have equipped themselves to use platforms that allow the so-called Remote Simultaneous Interpretation (RSI), i.e. remote interpretation. These are programs that allow the interpreter to work with participants who connect via video conference. Before the health emergency, they were mostly used for non-institutional meetings. If used for short meetings they can allow the interpreter to work as if he were in his own workstation, but at home.

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The trouble is that the compression of the audio created by the main video conferencing programs, even those developed especially for interpreters, produces a low quality sound that insiders consider “toxic”, very annoying for prolonged listening. Especially if the speaker does it very quickly, through an unprofessional device and from a place that has connection problems.

“While a phone call with a friend remains manageable, to understand a Slovenian who speaks very quickly on a technical topic we must have excellent audio available: otherwise the brain goes to food,” reports an internal source to the interpreters.

Interpreters at the European institutions were not the only ones to report the problem. A union representing most interpreters working in Parliament of Canada recently reported that after working hours translating video conferencing meetings, some interpreters expressed tinnitus, auditory fatigue, headaches, nausea, insomnia, lack of clarity and ability. of concentration.

The union president representing Canadian civil servants and interpreters said to CTV News that in April 2020 the interpreters of the local parliament reported more accidents at work than in the whole of 2019. Data from the group of interpreters in the Canadian Parliament indicate that 46 medical files were opened in a recent six-week period out of a total of 70 interpreters.

Auditory fatigue can produce serious damage and there is a scientific literature on it, even if its consequences are not yet so well known. Psychophysical stress is also being felt among the interpreters who have been working on European institutions in recent weeks.

Moving everything online, with the connection problems on the agenda and the compressed audio that is transmitted through the headphones, also causes several problems of understanding. Interruption or distortion of the audio, even for just a fraction of a second, can cause a particle of negation to escape, or the name of a person, a place or a company. Furthermore, most politicians who work in Parliament speak very rudimentary English and are unable to use it for meetings with highly technical contents.

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Some European officials have made it clear that CSR will also be increasingly used in the future, due to new work habits in the institutions (which for weeks have encouraged smart working and remote work). The negotiating delegations are trying to deal with protections for their members and to put on the table the health problems experienced by the interpreters forced to work remotely, but the margin to get something seems very narrow.

According to a delegation of interpreters freelance, The European institutions offered to fix and pay in advance three or four working days between now and the end of 2020: the delegation considers the offer inadmissible, because it would only be a loan.

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