When to rest your voice?
February 16, 2021 3:59 PM   Subscribe

Someone who reports to me interprets for other members of our staff. Sometimes these other staff members complain about the interpreter's need for breaks between calls, or during long-haul blocks of calls (2-4 hours). Breaks (5 minutes max, mainly rest and water) seem reasonable to me; how do we make them seem reasonable to other staff?

Of course they don't complain directly, because the rule about these breaks actually came down from on high. But they grouse when they have to wait for the interpreter to take 5 minutes between calls, or if the interpreter starts to get hoarse after hours of interpreting. I've never had to talk for 4 hours straight, but imagine I'd be pretty hoarse and tired too. Are there official recommendations (either explicitly medical, or guidelines given for people who talk for a living, like audiobook readers?) capping how long someone should talk before they take a break? My own searches keep returning general recommendations for rest, moderation, etc., but the complaining staff need to see Clear Rules from An Authority, or they'll keep blithely suggesting (indirectly, of course! wouldn't want to get sued!) that water breaks and late afternoon hoarseness are Highly Inconvenient and therefore Not Recommended.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It’s not just the physical hoarseness—interpreting is very demanding and mentally exhausting. Most guidelines I’ve seen say you should have two interpreters switching off every 20-30 minutes to lower the risk of mistakes.

Here is one set of guidelines (see page 7)—I’m sure you could find some similar ones issued by a group in your area.
posted by music for skeletons at 4:18 PM on February 16, 2021 [25 favorites]

I personally wouldn't expect anyone to work for more than three hours without some kind of break, regardless of what kind of work they do.

Is there any kind of guideline for rest and meal breaks in your industry/at your workplace in general?
posted by kinddieserzeit at 4:24 PM on February 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Some helpful search terms for you re: the physiological effect on voice are vocal hygiene and vocal fatigue. But as music for skeletons points out, research shows that interpreting/translation is very mentally demanding, and, depending on the situation, can be psychologically or emotionally draining. They need breaks for that reason too.

(Your co-workers who are complaining about an interpreter taking a five minute break during several hours of non-stop translation sound like they have an empathy and common sense deficit. If they literally can't imagine why someone would need a break during a 2 or 4 hour translation, I don't know what else you could tell them that might help.)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:26 PM on February 16, 2021 [47 favorites]

Is there a professional organization of interpreters which might have published guidelines you can reference? It seems to me that interpreting requires not just speaking but also rapid thinking and translating. This would be substantially more taxing than merely narrating or perhaps reading for 2 hours. I am dumbfounded than any thinking person would perceive 5 minute breaks to be indulgent. And what about something as mundane as a bathroom break? 4 hours would be excessive, I think, to deprive someone of access to a bathroom.
posted by citygirl at 4:26 PM on February 16, 2021 [6 favorites]

I mean, you could also take the tack that if the whiners can find a good interpreter who will work for four hours with no breaks and never gets hoarse, they're welcome to recommend them, but Staffmember is the interpreter you have on staff and they need to trust her to do her damn job. (If it's actually possible to hire a second interpreter who your report can switch off with, that would probably be a great solution for both the fatigue and the whining!)
posted by mskyle at 4:31 PM on February 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Also, in answer to this part of your question:

Breaks (5 minutes max, mainly rest and water) seem reasonable to me; how do we make them seem reasonable to other staff?

I think you just make it seem reasonable by acting like of course it's reasonable. That seems like a tautology, but it sounds like what you need to do is take the lead in normalizing the idea that humans need to take breaks from work in order to be effective (and also because they are not machines and it's the humane thing to do).

It sounds like you are this person's manager and you are concerned about their well-being. I would say, embrace the fact that you do, indeed, have the authority to push back against people who want to impinge on your direct report's working conditions. And it's your responsibility to do so. (Not saying you haven't been doing that, but you don't really need to find a document by a doctor that says "You must rest your voice every 2 hours." You are justified, and the assholes [sorry, but they are being assholes] who think your direct report doesn't need breaks need to take your word for it that yes, they do. WTF.)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:34 PM on February 16, 2021 [40 favorites]

If you have the freedom in scheduling, then enforce the breaks for *everyone*, not just the interpreter. Have both the staff and interpreter take 10-15min breaks. Then nobody is waiting on anyone.
posted by jpeacock at 4:35 PM on February 16, 2021 [19 favorites]

I don't think they're really complaining about the fact that your interpreter needs to take breaks; I think they're complaining about interpretation services being unavailable when they need them. So I'm also on team Get More Interpreters.
posted by flabdablet at 4:36 PM on February 16, 2021 [12 favorites]

“Have both the staff and interpreter take 10-15min breaks.”

Or go the other direction and mandate that no one in your organization is allowed to use the bathroom during the day. The need for breaks will suddenly seem more reasonable.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:42 PM on February 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Five minutes? In four hours? Five minutes is not even long enough to go to the bathroom. These people are out of their minds. I think if I were in your position I would just stare at them, shake my head very slowly, and walk silently away. But that's why I'm not in a management position.

Maybe she's hourly and there's a state law you could cite?
posted by Don Pepino at 4:44 PM on February 16, 2021 [15 favorites]

Best answer: Actors Equity, the union for professional stage actors and stage managers - and therefore a group that knows something about the vocal and mental demands of work that’s probably less difficult but not dissimilar to live translation - mandates the following for rehearsals: 5 minutes break for each 55 minutes of work, or 10 minutes after 80 minutes of work. After 5 hours, a break of 60 to 90 minutes is required. The total work hours for the day is capped at 6 hours. (There are exceptions, especially to those last two rules, but you get the point.)
posted by minervous at 5:01 PM on February 16, 2021 [14 favorites]

I would go with the 5 minutes break an hour concept for all employees. Almost everyone performs better with a short mental break, opportunity to move around a little, and take care of various biological necessities. Making it uniform makes it about treating all employees well rather than privileging the translators.

P.S. The complaining coworkers are jerks and perhaps should be given an assignment that involves speaking for four hours non-stop so they can see what it's like.
posted by Candleman at 5:16 PM on February 16, 2021

I was going to mention California law about rest breaks as an offhand example but I see from your profile you might actually be in California. In California everyone is supposed to get a 10-minute break for four hours of work “or a substantial fraction thereof” which I believe was ruled to be interpreted as 2 hours and 15 minutes or more (i.e. if you’re working a 2 hour and 15 minute shift you are supposed to get a 10-minute break just like you would for working 4 hours.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 5:17 PM on February 16, 2021

In a similar situation, we had two interpreters on shift at once for exactly this reason. Nobody can be expected to successfully interpret for 4 hours with a 5 minute break regularly.
posted by heyforfour at 5:22 PM on February 16, 2021 [8 favorites]

That's insane. Our interpreters work in teams and spell each other off after 20 minutes or so!
posted by jacquilynne at 6:09 PM on February 16, 2021 [11 favorites]

Sometimes when a person is being an unreasonable ass, you have to look at them and say Are you serious? Really?
posted by theora55 at 6:11 PM on February 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

A 5 minute break is absolutely too little for 4 hours of uninterrupted mental and vocal work. If these people are not complete assholes, they're complaining about lack of adequate interpretation support. Hire more interpreters. If these people are actually complaining about human beings growing hoarse from working too long without a break, then they are assholes. You don't need to convince them breaks are reasonable. You need to come down hard on them for lack of empathy and respect for the hard work of other people.
posted by Mavri at 6:13 PM on February 16, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Hello, professional interpreter here. As others have stated above, not only is a short break every few hours the most basic humane way to treat any employee, interpreters needing breaks is more due to cognitive fatigue than anything else. Simultaneous interpreting is INCREDIBLY demanding, but it's an internal process, so people don't see that. When I'm interpreting, here's what I am doing:

1. listening to the incoming message and registering its meaning (usually easy enough, but harder if there's advanced vocabulary, language specific to the situation like company "lingo", people who tend to speak in puns, metaphors, or idioms, people with an accent, lots of background noise or distractions, several people speaking at once, etc)
2. from that meaning, deriving what's most important and what is extra detail, in order to make sure I'm keeping THE POINT and then including as many details as I can in order of importance within the limits of time and working memory
3. registering the dynamic prosody of the incoming message (emotions behind it, humor involved, all the unsaid implied meaning, HOW the message is being delivered like the tone of voice, etc)

1. calling up my knowledge of the target language to brainstorm all my options for word choice and considering which words/phrases would fit best and convey the actual meaning most effectively, as well as be most readily understood by my consumer (which also involves assessing the consumer, as this is different for everyone)
2. attempting to make my statements in the target language as natural and idiomatic as possible so it flows well and is easily received by my consumer
3. attempting to make my language choices match that prosody from earlier, so the tone and delivery is equivalent (like, including the implied meaning, or the tone of voice, etc - so if the speaker is hyper and energetic, trying to make sure my interpretation is the same)

1. monitoring myself for errors and going back and correcting them whenever possible
2. monitoring my consumer for understanding and when I get confused looks, assessing if it was because of my interpretation or because the initial speaker was being confusing, and if it's because of my work, going back and clarifying

1. holding the next utterances from the initial speaker in my memory until I can finish the process for a specific section and start at part 1 again for that next bit.

(all these parts are happening at the same time, by the way - talk about multitasking!) This is indeed very mentally tiring. And yes, physically tiring too. My profession's standard practice is that any job over two hours should have a team of two interpreters who switch off every 20 minutes (and the "off" interpreter SHOULD help the 'monitor for errors' part, to lighten the load for the "on" interpreter, but this doesn't always happen).

If you think scholarly articles would truly help, I'm including this link to an article that shows increased error rate due to cognitive fatigue over time when doing simultaneous interpreting, but I couldn't find a free version online so you might have to purchase a copy (sorry, I did try). But here's another fun thing you could try if people were up for a little experiment: find a bunch of TED talks (like an hours worth), and have the complainers sit down and listen to them while simultaneously repeating everything that's said out loud (do this one right after another for as long as they can stand it). Monitor them for errors (by tallying up errors in each five minute section, for example), and you will likely see more errors made the longer they continue. Now ask them to imagine doing that for four hours straight. And that's without the actual interpretation part, even! Not sure you'd get any volunteers for this little experiment, but it could help increase awareness if you did.

aaanyway, sorry for the wall of text, but I regularly see people (unintentionally) underestimating the challenges of interpreting, and I wanted to take my opportunity to make the unseen seen for a minute. I hope this helps, and feel free to memail me with any questions! Thanks for being an advocate for your interpreter employee :)
posted by carlypennylane at 6:15 PM on February 16, 2021 [71 favorites]

Also, if the interpreters are native speakers of, for example, Spanish, consider how racism may be a factor.
posted by Mavri at 6:19 PM on February 16, 2021 [19 favorites]

Translator who has done some interpreting here.

Yeah, you need to hire more interpreters. That schedule is unreasonable and unsustainable. Standard simul interpreters work in teams of two and switch off every 15-20 min.

And if other people have a problem with being asked to wait five fucking minutes so their colleague can take a (way too short) break, they are welcome to learn the bloody language themselves.
posted by Tamanna at 7:03 PM on February 16, 2021 [24 favorites]

Am I right to presume they can only make these complaints through the interpreter?

That makes it seem more like harassment to me, and I wouldn't hesitate to say something like 'if I could speak X or you could speak Y we wouldn't need an interpreter, would we? I should look into changing the requirements for new hires.'

Only after you explain to the interpeter that you're happy with their performance and are saying this to discourage the complaining, of course.
posted by jamjam at 7:16 PM on February 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is a real opportunity for you to teach your staff that interpreters are vital to their jobs and, as such, they should be happy to work with them to preserve their voices and take care of their mental and physical health in every way possible.

I speak for a living, it's exhausting, it takes a real toll on your voice and body, and the work I do is with a set script. I can't imagine making it up all day long, from one language to another, especially for people who complain that I'm not doing enough for them.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 7:32 PM on February 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

As a translator and interpreter, I co-sign everything that Carlypennylane spelled out so eloquently above. Your coworkers need to be educated about the importance of keeping your interpreters happy. Normal practices entail at least two interpreters to spell one another out every half hour/forty-five minutes. That way, you can keep your sessions running smoothly with no interruptions. We are not machines or babelfish, we are human and the work is hard! If we are really good at our jobs, interpreting may appear effortless. But as others have stated, it is mentally taxing work that can leave you exhausted.

I have been in this profession for over twenty years, and I have never once interpreted simultaneously without a break for more than ONE hour. Your interpreters are heroes, and their brains must feel very mushy when their done.
posted by msali at 7:58 PM on February 16, 2021 [22 favorites]

I've had several ASL interpreters at meetings and events I've been at, and in my experience if it is going to be over an hour, the companies I've worked with have required two interpreters. They won't let you hire just one, period. The interpreters usually work together and switch off every twenty to thirty minutes. They are usually prepped in advance as well with the names, background information and often reading materials to assist them in the meeting/event. I'm pretty surprised by your situation - that must be exhausting for the interpreters and its outside of the standard that I've seen.
posted by Toddles at 9:11 PM on February 16, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I've been an interpreter as well - in house, part of a big team. For any meeting longer than an hour or maybe two if we were stretched thin (there was a reason we had so many interpreters!), they would schedule us in pairs, and we didn't even usually do simultaneous interpreting, but mostly consecutive for reasons. When I had to do simultaneous because people would not stop talking, I could feel myself getting dizzy after maybe 90 minutes.

We also talk more than anyone else in the room, so it's even more important that we get to hydrate. I was never vocally fatigued (I am a hobby singer with good vocal technique), but I have felt dehydrated more than once. And you know what happens when you drink more? You need to pee more.

I agree that you should probably hire more interpreters - if the one you have gets sick or quits, what will you do?
If you can't do that, you could do what my old company did, which was hold a lecture about working with interpreters and hand out some guidelines/rules. These should also, while I'm at it, include things like "don't make punny jokes that are hard to translate and get mad if the other side doesn't laugh"

As an aside that may or may not be relevant here: In my experience, 90% of times the people who need interpreting the most because of a lack of language skills are the shittiest people to interpret for because they think it should be super easy. (The other 10% are bilingual people sitting in on the meetings making smartass comments.)
posted by LoonyLovegood at 2:57 AM on February 17, 2021 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: First, thank you everyone. When I posted this question I was too livid to read the answers immediately, and am working my way through them today.

I hope it's not threadsitting to add more context/answer some questions - this is a legal nonprofit, the folks complaining are the monolingual attorneys (one in particular, although none of them respond well to denial of instant gratification), and they grouse to the interpreter in that plausible-deniability way. Passive-aggressive not-quite-actionable shit. My report has (argh, reasonable) concerns about me going to the offending party, because I've confronted her before about similar shittiness, and it always ends with "but you/she must have misunderstood" and then my report has to endure more passive-aggressive-not-quite-actionable comments. After years of hammering California break rules, they're at least conditioned to grudgingly accept "it's time for my state-mandated 30-minute lunch/10-minute break."

The 4-hour blocks are a recent development, not that 1-2 hour blocks are much better. (Why do they need to do all their calls at the same time???) The 1-2 hour blocks tend to be for different attorneys, but because nobody here has any object permanence, Chuck McGill doesn't experience Francesca interpreting for, say, Kim Wexler from 1-2 PM and then picking up for him from 2:05-3 PM as Francesca interpreting for two hours. He only experiences it as having to wait 5 minutes for Francesca to join *his* call, even if she already told him why she'd be joining at 2:05. Also, this is the kind of place that doesn't believe you're working if they can't see you, so since we've gone remote I think the attorneys assume we're not getting our money's worth out of this person or something if she's not interpreting.

We need another interpreter so much. We used to have 2.5 FTE admins on staff who could interpret, and 1 FTE got fed up and left and was replaced by a monolingual English speaker, because yes, our attorneys are the kinds of assholes who think interpreting is unskilled admin work (racism is definitely a factor), refuse to do any staff time budgeting, and get to make the staffing decisions about how many interpreters we need. (Previous staffing suggestions have been rebuffed on the grounds that I Don't Understand Legal Practice. )

Anyway, we're scheduled for a leadership change soon, so I'm thinking the way to approach this is without putting my poor report on the spot is to show these calendar blocks and resources to New Leadership and gently suggest we start following industry best practices about staffing two interpreters (sigh, probably won't happen but it's worth asking) and cap interpreting at x consecutive hours at a time and y hours total per day. We do engage contract interpreters when no one in-house is available, so hopefully I can make the case for setting an internal max and then requiring the attorneys to book a contract interpreter when our in-house interpreters hit the cap. (My report enjoys interpreting, so I'm trying to avoid a situation where they pull her off interpreting entirely and/or give her shit for raising this with me. We just need enforceable limits.)

Sorry for the ramble, thank you sincerely and absolutely to everyone for your suggestions and recommendations and best practices and validation that these time blocks are wildly unreasonable.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 11:16 AM on February 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: These people are being jerks and yet in the legal profession there is a constant and serious disdain for anyone who would suggest that cognitive labor is real labor that requires breaks and can be exhausting. It is a cultural attorney thing and it is truly awful. That is on top of the racism, which is horrible.

They are being jerks 100% -- but I would say that scheduling with clients, particularly clients who have shifting work schedules or limited access to phones, can be very challenging, particularly if you have no access to the actual scheduling blocks that are workable/available before you talk to your client. If you coordinate for 2pm and then all of a sudden you have to wait until 2:05, while your client's kid screams in the background and you have no real way to communicate with them -- that sucks. It's not the interpreter's fault. But it does suck. If they know up-front that they can get interpretation from x:00 - y:00 on z day, then you will probably see much less complaining.

I suggest that, if you have the power to do this, you make translation requests go through you or another central calendaring service. "Because we have had ongoing issues with interpretation availability, interpretation services will need to be centrally coordinated in order to make sure we that have appropriate coverage for meetings. If you need interpretation, please see X for availability before you schedule your meeting." Then any meeting scheduling needs to go through either you or an outlook system that blocks out 3 hours in the interpreter's schedule for every 2 hour interpretation meeting (or similar).
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 2:38 PM on February 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: you make translation requests go through you or another central calendaring service

I'm an attorney at a legal non-profit, am extremely familiar with the dynamic you describe, and this is what I was going to suggest. All our non-attorney work requests go through some sort of request (zen desk) or calendar system so attorneys can't passive aggressively abuse our non-atty colleagues. You make a zendesk request or you put your interpretation in the interpretation calendar. If you don't, you have to use language line or reschedule. If someone is unhappy with this, they talk to the manager in charge of the calendar, not the interpreter.
posted by Mavri at 3:56 PM on February 17, 2021 [4 favorites]

One thing that occurs to me is that the schedule isn't set up well. Francesca is expected to interpret from 1:00-2:00, then take a 5 minute break, then work from 2:05-3:00. It seems like it would be cleaner and work better if the schedule were 1:00-1:55, break, 2:00-2:55, break, etc. (That's aside from the issue that 55 minutes is entirely too long a session.)
posted by Lexica at 3:56 PM on February 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

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