How — and Why — to Hire an Interpreter

 

In China, Interpretation, Business, International Business, Interpreting 101

How to *Listen* like a Conference Interpreter

 

In Interpretation, Conference Interpretation, Language, Learn

From an audiophile’s lair: audio gear for better teleconference calls

Teleconference calls: a unique professional challenge

Every freelance interpreter at some point of his or her career runs into a new kind of assignments: teleconference calls. They represent a unique challenge to a budding professional and some of these telecons, without a doubt, are not for the faintest of heart.

You wake up at 4:00 am (California time) more or less capable of thinking and speaking coherently because at 5:00 am a client in the US (New York time) is going to be discussing the next big thing in deep space research with their Russian counterparts in Moscow. Or another U.S. client would like to address the subject of locating and disposing of hazardous radioisotope batteries lost eons ago in the snowy vistas of Siberia during the waning days of the USSR. Or there is a presentation on the cutting-edge antibiotics research to be broadcasted from Britain to 39 countries around the globe at 3:00 am (California time), a presentation that will be interpreted into 8 other languages…

Language pairs will always vary. Subjects under discussion will be demanding. For a few days, they can easily turn you into a rocket scientist or a medical student as you hit the books and work the Google machine to beef up your expertise and put your glossary together. For each conference call, the alarm clock will always go off at a different time: clients can be any number of time zones away so you quickly learn which remedy helps you wake up at just the right time where you don’t sound so sleepy (it’s a secret I am going to spill: I use the same kind of Oolong tea they serve to Buddhist monks before morning meditation). You also learn (fairly quickly) to experiment with different kinds of phone and audio gear to find out what works best on the technical side of things, and, despite all other variables getting in the way, can still deliver your spoken voice to eager clients with repeatable results while bringing crisp and clear audio and maximum comfort to the most crucial tool of the trade — your ears.

Even under the most adverse of circumstances (read bad connections, dropped calls, echoing or noise on the line), long hours on the phone teaches you what audio gear works best and makes the craft of interpreting that more enjoyable. Protecting one’s hearing is no less important — after all, you can’t just swap your ears for a new pair at a nearby transplant station. Well… not just yet. Undistorted audio, even with limitations built into common phone lines, serves interpreters well and is just plain nice to have.

In the process of tinkering with different types of audio gear, I became a bit of an audio geek. Not a bad thing, considering we interpreters always use some sort of audio gear as implements of our craft, be it in the booth, on stage or in the classroom. My goal is to share with you, my fellow interpreters, bits of this geeky professional audio knowledge I have learned along the way. I also secretly hope that you, dear reader, will also turn into a bit of an audio geek yourself — and find these tips useful for your next conference call.

Over the course of the last 10+ years I covered many teleconference calls using 4 distinct kinds of audio gear setups. Each specific setup had its own unique weaknesses and strengths, the former always pushing me to try something new and more advanced. I am going to briefly talk about each one of these arrangements in the order of their evolutionary progression and make recommendations on what audio gear, in my humble opinion, works best for conference calls.

My advice is not intended to be taken as a dogma: I am simply sharing what has worked for me over the years. Reader feedback is welcome, whether positive or not. The time is ripe to go a bit deeper into the technical side of things.

 

Getting technical: gear that worked for me over the years (and still does)

1. The cheap and easy ‘poor man’ interpreter’s setup — a working payphone.

 

Image of a payphone in Monterey County (courtesy of Google). An almost identical phone was still located in front of the MIIS library back in 2006, now dismantled.

We all start somewhere. Once the graduation ceremony is over and the first student loan payment is due, you quickly realize you have no clients and no money.

The first two years of freelancing can be excruciatingly hard on all counts: long periods without any (or very little) work, finding one’s first assignment, getting your name out there and slowly completing the transition from a recent graduate to a hardened and experienced professional who gets regular work — if you can tough it out.

Needless to say, you survive by cutting costs. No funds for the latest and greatest audio gear? No phone line? No problem! Some things can be had for free! My emergency backup for teleconference calls back in 2006 when I was in these very shoes? Simple and easy: a phone booth!

Warawanaide kudasai, onegai itashimasu! Please do not laugh! At least 2 conference calls early on in my career were completed from a pay phone in front of the MIIS library. At one time I could not afford a regular phone line at home and had to improvise — it worked, because there are no students near the library at 5:00 am.


Pros: It’s totally free, if the client provides you with a toll-free number for dialing in. Sound quality is acceptable. As an emergency backup, it works just fine.

Cons: It’s not always reliable as the receiver may have a bad connection to the phone and/or malfunctioning components. You are sure to get weird looks from passers-by as you stand there for an hour or so switching between two languages and taking notes. Clients may start wondering why they hear sounds of a city waking up in the background (street-cleaning trucks, screeching seagulls in the air and hungry sea lions on Del Monte Beach in Monterey).

Conclusion: Use at your own risk. If all else fails and for some reason you don’t have access to a basic telephone line at your home, go for it to get the job done!

 

2. Standard and the most obvious setup — a regular phone at your home.

© 2017 Igor Zoubko. Author’s own trusty Panasonic fax phone, slightly dusty and yellowed from years of use — many a lengthy telecon was completed with its help. No longer cutting-edge technology in 2017, but still a part of my gear collection as a backup unit.

This would be the most obvious choice for any interpreter, assuming you now get steady work to justify the cost. Not too much to explain here: you find a reliable working phone and just dial the toll-free conference system number with a meeting code provided by the client. Still, even this simple setup has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Pros: You work from the comfort of your home. Most corporate clients provide a toll-free 800 number in the US to dial in and connect for free, eliminating any long-distance charges to you. Sound quality is mostly acceptable.

The Panasonic fax phone: receiver disassembled. Note the small condenser microphone capsule (similar to those found in entry-level computer microphones). Compare its size to the size of the Shure mic capsule in the images below.

Cons: Some conference calls can go on for hours — the longest one I have done to date was about 2.5 hours without a break. This makes for a very tired ear (it becomes red and irritated from the receiver being pushed against if for an extended period of time). The hand holding the receiver becomes uncomfortably stiff. Echo and delay are possible when several people dial in on international long-distance lines (it would be fair to say that most modern teleconference systems have echo cancellation; satellite links have become increasingly rare for international long distance — most lines are fiber optic, thus having very little transmission delay). You strain your hearing a lot because the loudness of incoming sound cannot be adjusted (or has a small adjustment range with the help of buttons available only on the more advanced phones). You assume a bad posture behind the desk because you sit in a half-crooked position holding the receiver with one hand, with your left elbow resting on the desk as you take notes with the other hand — not good for your spine and blood circulation. It’s pretty clear that there is a health risk involved if you do conference calls all the time.

The most logical solution to address the crooked posture problem would be a good headset for your phone. I used to have one in my previous sales job — it did the trick. However, they are not totally free from the above-outlined drawbacks either: the range of loudness adjustment is limited, the ear cups are tiny and do not offer a substantial increase in audio quality and ease of listening compared to a phone receiver. Granted, at least now you can use both hands for taking notes or typing on your laptop if an unfamiliar term pops up and you quickly need to look it up (try doing it with one hand — it’s really awkward). Some of the best phone headsets are made by Plantronics (www.plantronics.com)

I am in no position to offer further advice on this type of gear though — I have not used a phone headset in years. Besides, this category of equipment is not the main focus of my article. Let’s move on.

After a handful of long teleconference calls I started thinking: “Is there a way to use components from my growing audio gear collection to put together a setup which is both comfortable on ears for long stretches of time and which can enhance the phone line sound to make it easy to listen to? Can it also help to deliver my speaking voice to the client with uncompromising quality (even within the limitations of a phone line)?”

At the time when I first started pondering these questions, I already had a few audiophile-grade components in my growing collection of audio gear: a pair of AKG K271 MKII headphones, a pair of AKG K701 headphones and a Shure SM7B vocal microphone, along with a quality microphone stand and Mogami XLR cables.

It was time to tie it all together with one core device. I intended to abandon a trusty Panasonic phone and switch to using Skype on my laptop in order to dial into calls over a reliable high speed Internet connection. The only missing ingredient was a decent USB audio interface that would do the intended trick of connecting all other components: a good microphone, comfortable headphones and my laptop. A few decent USB audio interfaces were widely available back in 2013 when I decided to make the switch.

After some shopping, I settled on a CEntrance MicPortPro to connect my Lenovo W520 laptop and the above-mentioned microphone and headphones. This arrangement worked so well that I stayed with it for the next 3 years, successfully completing dozens of conference calls. To get a detailed breakdown of the pros and cons extended by this setup, please read on.

A CEntrance Mic Port Pro, image courtesy of CEntrance. The author used this core device in his audio station in 2013–2016. Please note the Mini-B USB port on the image on the right — the weakest link. Still, it served really well and is a breeze to set up. As I threw the broken one away, alas, no images of my own working setup for this device.
In Interpretation, Translation Technology, Telephone Interpreting, Telephone Translation, Interpreting Equipment, Conference Interpretation