By Flavia Lima & Monica Guelman
After months of near-total lockdown in many US states, courts are reopening with a massive backlog of cases to work through as a consequence of the pandemic and interpreters are in high demand. We need to find solutions to assist court attendees who are Limited English Proficient (LEP), while maintaining social distancing. In the pre-COVID era, interpreters would frequently get very close to LEP individuals to perform whispered interpreting (chuchotage), a reality that is common in most courthouses. Is this practice safe today when COVID is still a major concern?
The role played by the LEP in the courtroom determines the choice of the interpreting mode. If the LEP person is required to speak during a proceeding (e.g., deposition, direct examination, cross-examination), the interpreter uses the consecutive mode. On the other hand, if the LEP person is mostly a listener and is not required to speak (e.g., trial, hearing), the interpreter uses the simultaneous mode. For these situations, one solution is to use assistive listening devices which were originally created for hearing impaired people and have been repurposed for simultaneous interpreting. By using such devices, interpreters can avoid direct contact with LEP persons instead of providing whispered interpreting (chuchotage), a mode that can be detrimental to our vocal cords  as well as exposing us to infectious diseases.
Portable assistive listening systems can be one-way (for example, allowing interpretation from English into Spanish and not vice versa) or two-way (from English into Spanish and vice-versa.) To select the appropriate system, one must determine whether the event will require one-way or two-way simultaneous interpretation. For depositions, examinations under oath, mediations, arbitrations, hearings, or trials, one-way systems will suffice. For two-way simultaneous interpreting, transceivers combined with a microphone and headphones for each person is preferable since it allows them to actively participate in the proceedings by being able to listen as well as speak.
Rules and regulations
Another thing to consider is that in the US, assisted listening systems must be FCC certified. In the US, any intentional radiator (transmitter) falls under the FCC rules 47 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations), Part 15, Subpart C. All transmitters and transceivers should have an FCC ID label to meet this requirement. If the product does not have an FCC ID clearly marked with an alphanumeric code identifying the manufacturer and the model, not just an FCC logo, it is illegal for use in the US.
Safety and cleanliness
Due to the current pandemic, making sure that your electronic devices are clean and safe is paramount. Most of the time, these devices are not used by a single person but rather passed around or shared by different people. There are a few do’s and don’ts you need to be aware of to prevent cosmetic or functional damage, as well as transmission of virus or bacteria:
- Most of these devices have multiple buttons and openings that can allow liquid to penetrate and thus permanently damage the circuits. Carefully wipe down the equipment, making sure no drops penetrate any of the buttons or slots.
- Certain cleaning products can be harmful, or completely ineffective, or completely ineffective if not applied properly. We recommend sanitizing the equipment (such as receivers and headphones) with disinfecting wipes before and after each use, in front of users if possible Then allow the devices to sit for about 5 minutes to dry. This will kill any virus or bacteria present on the surfaces.
Battery safety is important too. We recommend alkaline or nickel metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable batteries. Low-quality lithium batteries increase the risk of fire, as the battery degrades over time.
Although we have chosen to focus on the ISO standards, in this article, there are others, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI); the latter is part of the IBC Model code and has requirements for accessibility. As far as ISO standards, ISO 20109:2016 (en) references simultaneous interpreting equipment and the requirements for range and audio standards.
In conjunction with either ISO 2603 or this document, ISO 20108 and ISO 20109 provide the relevant requirements both for the quality and transmission of sound and image provided to interpreters and for the equipment needed in the booths.  
When selecting your system, keep the decibel level in mind. The industry standard is 60dB (decibels). Noise above 70 dB over a prolonged period of time may start to damage your hearing. Researchers have found that people exposed to noise levels at 85 dBA or higher over long periods of time are at a much greater risk for hearing loss.
There are 2 different types of protection that interpreters require:
1) Against sudden acoustic shock or peak loads. The limit for simultaneous is 94 dBA (A-weighted decibels) SPL (Sound Pressure Level) for any duration longer than 100ms as per the ISO 20109 standard. 
2) Against constant noise exposure. The limit for simultaneous is 80 dBA SPL over 1 minute. 
Environments and applications may have different decibel requirements. There are numerous headset offerings in the market from a low noise environment to heavy duty headphones and ear buds that can offer up to 29 dB of noise protection.
Also, established brands of receivers and transmitters have volume control so the user can select the volume appropriate for them. In addition, Signal to Noise ratio is incredibly important to speech intelligibility which is what these systems are used for.
In conclusion, to the extent possible, consider using wireless assistive listening devices for in-person assignments to ensure physical distancing from LEP individuals. If the use of wireless equipment is not an option, interpreters should maintain physical distance from LEP individuals to help everyone stay safe during the pandemic.
 Flerov, Cyril. “Whispering in Your Ear is a Bad Idea! by InterStar Translations.”
 International Organization for Standardization (ISO) – “ISO 4043:2016 Simultaneous interpreting — Mobile booths — Requirements.”
 International Organization for Standardization (ISO) – “ISO 20108:2017 Simultaneous interpreting — Quality and transmission of sound and image input — Requirements.”
 International Organization for Standardization (ISO) – “ISO 20109:2016 Simultaneous interpreting — Equipment — Requirements.”
 Pulsar Instruments. “Decibel chart – decibel levels of common sounds.” Dated: July 16th, 2019
Flávia Lima is a Staff Portuguese translator and interpreter at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, DC. She is a CCHI Core Certified Healthcare Interpreter and a Provisionally Approved Court Interpreter in the state of Florida. Flávia holds a B.A. in English and Literature from UBM, a graduate degree in Translation from Universidade Estácio de Sá, Brazil, and a Master in Conference Interpreting (MCI) from the Glendon School of Translation at York University, Canada.
Monica Guelman is a Certified Spanish Court Interpreter in the State of Florida with experience in family matters, divorce, probate, bankruptcy cases, depositions, hearings, trials, EUOs, mediations, arbitrations, insurance claims, medical appointments, business meetings and more. Monica holds a BA in TESOL and a master’s degree in Business Administration. She’s also Vice President of Sales at www.Translation.Equipment]
Image of soundwave: PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay
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Georganne Weller says
Wonderful information, thanks so much!