Golden Ears, Golden Tongues: How interpreters should take care of the tools of their trade
Our livelihoods depend on speaking and hearing, but if we do not take care of our voices and ears, the results may be unpleasant.
Opera singers know this well. These simple steps will help you protect and maintain the precious tools of your trade, especially if you travel a lot.
"You sing on the interest, not on the principal.'' Simon Estes
Treat your voice as you would a muscle: you should condition it slowly and never overuse it. Some simple rules may help:
Daily vocal warm ups
Your voice needs to wake up in the morning, taking between 30 minutes and 2 hours. Proper training and exercises can greatly reduce this time: 10-15 minutes of humming each morning should help.
Vocal exercises "lubricate" your voice, making it less subject to stress and fatigue. Some sources recommend cool-down exercises too for all professional speakers: repeat this exercise in the evenings.
Hydration is extremely important for our voices
Being well-hydrated changes viscosity of the vocal folds favorably, even if the effect is not heard immediately. Start your day with a glass of plain, still water, served at room temperature. Never use ice! A feeling of scratchiness in your throat during the day may be a warning sign of dehydration.
Be careful of medications
Some medications — especially antihistamines — may cause vocal changes as well as dehydration. Check any medications against the medication database of the U.S. National Center for Voice and Speech for potential culprits.
Get checked up, regularly
Recent graduates of interpretation schools are strongly advised to find a good ENT specialist and visit him annually. Baseline and periodic hearing and laryngeal evaluations are the best way to monitor for possible issues.
If things go wrong, see a doctor
Vocal fatigue, GERD, nonproductive cough, allergies are just a few possible conditions that you should consider being checked by a medical professional. If you feel your voice gets tired regularly after a day in the booth (it should not) something is wrong, and professional help may be needed.
Guard against the effects of aging
Voices age with the rest of us: changes are observed in resonance, pitch and other vocal properties. Male and female voices also age differently. Regular non-strenuous aerobic exercise — like vigorous walking, jogging, swimming — may slow or even reverse changes in muscle tone and help protect the aging voice.
Traveling and Aircraft
Interpreters are road warriors: we are familiar faces at dozens of airports, often on first-name terms with the security and check-in crews. Modern traveling, however, comes with a price tag. It pays to be careful.
Aside from using special pressure equalization earplugs, there is not much that you can do about pressure changes at takeoff and landing.
Noise levels in the passenger cabin during critical flight phases, such as takeoff, can reach 105 dB and even cruising altitude noise can be as high as 85 dB. This poses a risk: hearing damage is caused not only by extreme impulsive or impact noise, but also prolonged exposure. Flight attendants have an unusually high occurrence of tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and other hearing problems — the result of long-term exposure to high noise levels and pressure changes.
A noise cancellation headset is any interpreter's best friend!
Active noise cancellation headsets are a godsend, and interpreters are advised to use them especially on long intercontinental flights. Look for comfort, easy battery replacement, and good noise cancellation. The headset should also continue to work without noise cancellation if the battery has run out. The author's workhorse is Bose QuietComfort 25.
Special caution should be exercised when you listen to music through your headset in noisy environments. In airplanes, for example, the background ambient noise masks whatever your headset outputs. This means that in noisy conditions you subjectively feel that the same output is not loud enough compared to in a noiseless background, making you increase the volume to unsafe levels. United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) considers levels above 85dB unsafe and requiring hearing protection, and even a Walkman at 50% can output 94 dB.
Try this exercise: during a flight, set your music volume to a comfortable level; then, after landing (once you’re in quiet conditions), listen to the music at the same volume. You will notice how uncomfortably loud your music level is. In flight our eardrums experience the same level of vibration (intensity), only the vibrations are masked by the cabin ambient noise. Keep your in-flight listening volume level as low as possible, even if it feels too low.
Use both ears!
The same is true when listening with only one ear: binaural summation (listening with both ears) requires less volume and is therefore safer. Speech intelligibility when listening with one ear decreases by 30% compared to listening with both ears. The listener behaves like a patient suffering hearing loss who needs to increase volume unnecessarily.
This is another argument for using both ears when using your simultaneous interpretation headset — although it is a personal preference. Run the same experiment as above: compare your required headset volume for the same speech intelligibility while listening with one ear versus two ears.
The louder the headset volume, the greater the damage to your hearing is in the event of a dropped microphone, or sudden online noise in remote interpretation. So listening with only one ear may be less safe.
In-ear monitors (IEM) are never a good choice — for music or for interpreting. If you insert an earbud into your outer ear canal, the sound emitting membrane will be too close to your eardrum. This makes it more dangerous if you happen to accidentally overload your headset. Look for "on ear" or "around ear" headsets and they must be “half open” or “half closed” to let in enough ambient noise during interpretation, including your own voice, but not too much.
NO NEED TO SHOUT!
The masking effect of ambient noise acts on your voice as well. In noisy environments we often do not notice how loud we become (think of a noisy bar). For speech to be intelligible we need to add at least 35 decibels (dB) to the background noise, so adding aircraft background noise to our voice gives us speaking levels in excess of 100 dB — essentially shouting. In the example above — with an aircraft taking off — if we add 35dB to the aircraft takeoff noise level of 105 dB, we end up with horrifying 140dB. This means that in order to be understood by our travel companion at that stage of the flight you need to be as loud as a stage sound speaker at a rock concert. In short, this is a vocal fold disaster situation!
One piece of advice is borrowed from professional singers: do not talk in aircraft, feign sleep if you have to. The same rule about not shouting applies to other noisy environments, like bars, dance clubs, or sports stadiums.
Try your best not to fly with a cold: the pressure differential may cause hearing loss. If you have to fly, consider using pressure equalization earplugs.
Hydration becomes even more important on aircraft. Cabin air is actually so dry that the main source of moisture is the passengers’ own breath! This dry air wreaks havoc to your vocal folds: they may lose their normal appearance and dry out. Dehydration may happen after as little as three hours of flight, with mucosal traps losing their ability to contain dust and pollen particles, and more importantly, airborne viruses and bacteria.
Possible solutions include:
- literally a “solution”: saline nasal spray
- large quantities of warm or hot liquids (warm water with a bit of honey or lemon, weak tea)
- avoid drinks that will further dehydrate you (any sugary drinks, alcohol, strong caffeinated drinks) or compensate by drinking even more water.
- professional singers sometimes wear a surgical mask with several moist paper tissues under it. Who cares if you look funny?
Protecting and maintaining your voice and hearing is a part of interpreter education. A voice that is properly cared for should not fail!
Cyril Flerov (with co-author Michael Jacobs) published Improving the Interpreter's Voice - a book on voice training specifically for conference interpreters. The book has a companion website with voice training resources and exercises
Davies, D. Garfield and Jahn, Anthony F. (2004) Care of the Professional Voice: A Guide to Voice Management for Singers, Actors and Professional Voice Users, 2nd Edition. Routledge.
Flerov, Cyril and Jacobs, Michael (2016) Improving the Interpreter's Voice
Vecsey, George (1985, May 31) Sports of the Times: The Athlete at Carnegie Hall. The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1985/0...
Articles published in this section reflect the views of the author(s) and should not be taken to represent the official position of AIIC.