General items: Standing Committee on Official Languages—February 16, 2021

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Opening remarks

Opening

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you for your invitation.

With me today is:

I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak about how my department is working to protect the health and safety of our interpreters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Translation Bureau (TB)—part of Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC)—supports the government in its efforts to serve and communicate with Canadians by providing linguistic services, such as translation and interpretation in both official languages as well as in Indigenous and foreign languages. In addition to spoken languages, we also provide interpretation in signed languages.

The exceptional work of our interpreters is essential in facilitating meetings such as this one.

Interpreters work mostly behind the scenes, ensuring parliamentarians and Canadians can follow our proceedings in the official language of their choice. Their work has been especially important over the last few months.

I know I speak for every parliamentarian and all Canadians when I say thank you to our interpreters, and that we will keep working together to ensure interpreters are well supported.

In the fall of 2017, TB created the Conference Interpretation Advisory Panel and a special procurement working group representing the freelance interpreters’ community as—together—we sought a new contracting mechanism.

Many of the 6 guiding principles agreed upon between PSPC’s Acquisitions Branch, the TB and the interpreter community back then continue to guide us today.

First, our goal was to ensure compliance with the federal government’s contracting policy by maximizing flexibility and agility to meet the specific needs of the interpretation community.

Second, to focus on the quality of services offered to clients.

Third, promote the economic vitality of Canada’s interpretation community.

Fourth, to work together to define the most relevant, sustainable and effective tool for all.

Fifth, reduce the administrative burden associated with the new solution, both for the interpreter community and for the TB.

And finally, we recognize the practices related to the profession of conference interpretation.

Mr. Chair, as it pertains to today’s meeting, I want this committee to know that the government is taking important steps to ensure that our interpreters have the support they need to do their jobs safely. Their health and well-being remains the top priority.

Creating the best possible conditions for interpretation ensures not only that the language rights of all Canadians are respected, but that the dedicated professionals who provide this service are protected at all times.

The Translation Bureau in the virtual era

Mr. Chair, our TB works closely with the House of Commons and the Senate, federal departments and agencies, and other partners to provide interpretation of parliamentary and government proceedings, including virtual sessions.

To be clear, BT is not responsible for the technical aspects related to interpretation, such as providing the necessary equipment. That responsibility belongs to clients—including the House administration—with whom TB collaborates closely to make sure interpreters have everything they need to provide quality service.

Even in ordinary times, interpretation is a demanding and complex task. We know that it requires very specific technical conditions to be performed safely, particularly with respect to sound quality.

The pandemic has forced us to find different ways to meet and work together. Now more than ever, it is especially important to respect public safety guidance. As we rely more and more on virtual meetings, we continue to adapt to new challenges.

Health and safety is a priority for our government, and we are making every effort to ensure our staff and freelance interpreters are protected.

Taking action to protect interpreters

Mr. Chair, at all times, interpreters are instructed to interrupt the service if the sound does not allow for safe interpretation.

Since virtual sessions of Parliament became the norm, the government has strengthened existing measures to protect interpreters at meetings involving remote participants.

Many of these measures came out of recommendations made to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

For example, Parliament is providing headsets with an integrated microphone to members of Parliament and senators, as well as to witnesses appearing before parliamentary committees. These headsets improve sound quality and decrease health and safety incidents.

Another measure is having a technician present with the interpreters at all times, and having sound checks conducted ahead of meetings.

Moreover, the TB has reduced the length of assignments for interpreters working at virtual sessions, without reducing their compensation.

TB has also instructed participants to provide written statements to interpreters in advance when possible, as well as to use videoconference to allow interpreters to see their facial expressions and adjust their tone.

Finding solutions

Mr. Chair, to ensure high-quality and safe interpretation services, the TB is pushing forward with several research initiatives to develop evidence-based solutions.

For example, it has undertaken a research project with the University of Geneva in Switzerland on fatigue and cognitive load during remote interpretation.

Furthermore, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) has tested a new active sound limiter. This type of device can protect interpreters from acoustic shock and measure their daily exposure to sound levels so that they can avoid exceeding the daily dose.

The NRC has also provided TB with preliminary results of an analysis to confirm that sound levels in Parliament do not exceed federal noise exposure regulations, and is continuing testing and sampling to ensure safer working conditions.

I should also note that the Parliament of Canada, on the advice of the Translation Bureau, has replaced all of its interpretation consoles with models equipped with built-in sound limiters, which also meet international standards.

And finally, with the support of health and safety experts at PSPC and external audiologists, TB is developing a hearing protection standard for interpreters.

Closing

Mr. Chair, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted an abrupt shift in how interpretation services are being delivered.

Although far from ready to go completely virtual, the work to improve conditions for interpretation was already well underway. As a result, we were able to go fully virtual and stand ready to continuously adapt.

We know that the risks associated with remote interpretation are real, and the government is committed to continuing its efforts to protect interpreters and improve their working conditions in Parliament and beyond.

The government will continue to find and put in place effective solutions, because we care about our interpreters, who are making such huge efforts in the face of so many challenges to serve Canadians at this critical time. We will not let them down.

In closing, I would like to thank the interpreters at this meeting. My thanks also to everyone working behind the scenes to make important meetings like this one possible, despite the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in.

I am now happy to answer your questions. Thank you.

Media scan

Interpreters’ health and safety concerns

A few articles were published in January regarding concerns raised by interpreters covering parliamentary debates. Articles mentioned in a neutral tone that interpreters have experienced acoustic incidents, such as hearing loss due to a constant stream of low-quality sound and loud feedback loops, while others are coping with tinnitus, nausea and headaches, forcing them to go on leave for recovery.

According to the Canadian chapter of the International Association of Conference Interpreters, a recent survey found that 70% of its members suffered acoustic injuries since the start of the pandemic due to the use of virtual platforms such as Zoom.

In addition, the association states that Canada's official languages cannot be properly translated due to technical problems arising from the use of digital platforms during the pandemic. Coverage notes that the Translation Bureau (TB) has adopted measures aimed at reducing the risk of hearing injuries to its interpreters. (Le DroitFootnote 1, Times ColonistFootnote 2, The Hill TimesFootnote 3, Radio CanadaFootnote 4)

A study last fall found Canada ranked 13th out of 81 countries in the number of acoustic shock incidents suffered by interpreters, with 6 in 10 Canadian respondents having reported symptoms typical of the trauma. Parliamentary interpreters have reported injuries more than 100 times since April, more than triple the number of injury reports filed during the previous 20 months, says the Canadian chapter of the International Association of Conference Interpreters. (CBCFootnote 5, The Hill TimesFootnote 3, La PresseFootnote 6)

Greg Fergus, member of Parliament for Hull-Aylmer, Liberal Party of Canada

Quote from le SoleilFootnote 7 article:

“It gets hard on the ears. I can understand why interpreters say their reality is difficult. Their ears are their life, their profession”

Marie-France Lalonde, member of Parliament for Orléans, Liberal Party of Canada

Quote from le SoleilFootnote 7 article:

“On a number of occasions,” says member of Parliament (MP) Lalonde, “MPs have been unable to receive a translation in the language of their choice”

Public Services and Procurement Canada spokesperson Stéfanie Hamel

Quotes from The Hill TimesFootnote 3 article:

Spokesperson Stéfanie Hamel said by email Public Services and Procurement Canada is modifying the open contract for interpretation "due to increased demand for remote interpretation and in consideration for the difficult nature of interpretation work during the pandemic"

"Interpretation work requires very specific technical conditions to be performed safely, particularly with respect to sound quality. These conditions are sometimes lacking when participating remotely, which has led to an initial increase in reports of health and safety incidents related to sound quality at the beginning of the pandemic"

Statement from Public Services and Procurement Canada’s Translation Bureau on interpretation services

January 27, 2021

The mandate of Public Services and Procurement Canada's Translation Bureau is to provide quality linguistic services to Canada's democratic institutions. It works closely with the administration of the House of Commons and the Senate, federal departments and agencies, and other partners, such as private sector interpreters, to provide interpretation of parliamentary and government proceedings, including virtual sessions.

The technical aspects related to the interpretation of the various sessions are the responsibility of their organizers and not of the Translation Bureau, whose responsibility is limited to linguistic services. Interpretation work requires very specific technical conditions to be performed safely, particularly with respect to sound quality. These conditions are sometimes lacking when participating remotely, which has led to an initial increase in reports of health and safety incidents related to sound quality at the beginning of the pandemic.

Health and safety is a priority for the Translation Bureau, and it is making every effort to protect both its staff interpreters and its private sector interpreters. Even before the start of the pandemic, the Translation Bureau had begun to take measures to protect interpreters at meetings involving remote participants, such as providing them with external sound limiters. These measures have been strengthened since virtual sessions became the norm.

Among other things, the Translation Bureau is constantly making its clients aware of the measures to be taken to promote the quality of interpretation and the protection of interpreters. In particular, it has recommended to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs that precautions be taken to mitigate the risks during virtual meetings, precautions that the committee included in its report to the House of Commons in May 2020, namely that:

In addition, in order to reflect the increased effort required to interpret virtual sessions, the Translation Bureau has reduced the working hours of the interpreters assigned to these sessions without reducing their compensation; currently, these interpreters provide an average of 3 hours of interpretation per day. The Translation Bureau has also increased the number of interpreters per session to allow them to take breaks. At all times, interpreters are instructed to interrupt the service if working conditions jeopardize their health.

The Translation Bureau is also developing a hearing protection standard for interpreters, with the support of health and safety experts from Public Services and Procurement Canada and external audiologists. This new standard includes measures to reduce the risk of acoustic incidents and provides for the training of interpreters.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, no staff interpreters at the Translation Bureau reported permanent hearing loss, and none are currently on sick leave. Measures implemented by the Translation Bureau have since led to a decrease in the number of reported incidents.

In addition, the Translation Bureau is continuing some research projects that began before March 2020 and has launched others to gather evidence and find solutions to interpreter-related issues. For example:

Finally, in collaboration with the Translation Bureau, the Parliament of Canada has replaced all of its interpretation consoles with International Organization for Standardization (ISO)-compliant models equipped with built-in limiters. In addition, to improve sound quality during virtual sittings, Parliament has provided headsets with built-in microphones to members of Parliament and senators, and sends them to witnesses appearing before parliamentary committees.

The Translation Bureau recognizes the risks as real. It is committed to continuing its efforts to protect the health and safety of its interpreters.

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