Specialists in oral translation services

Monday, January 25, 2021

What's noise got to do with it?

by Mary Fons, AIB

What’s Noise Got To Do With It:

A Checklist Manifesto for Interpreters

So we’ve made it to 2021, reeling from the shock of 2020 as a whole and aware that we’re in for more of the same for a good while yet, and that RSI is here to stay, in both its flavors—remote simultaneous interpretation and, yes, repetitive strain injury. But the latter is not my topic for today.

When I started to learn home-based RSI because of lockdown, I was overwhelmed to realize just how many adjustments were needed to convert my working environment—a powerful laptop in a well-appointed, dedicated home office—from its optimal setup for normal use (email, writing, job preparation, continuing professional development, written translation, project management, accounting, programming, etc.) into a single-occupant booth with plenty of mod cons, far more equipment than I would ever need or want in a proper booth—and two gaping chasms where my boothmate(s) and our friendly (or even surly) sound engineer ought to be. Some of the adjustments are obvious, others less so, but they all add up and I often have a lot of other things on my mind when I’m getting ready to interpret (such as, you know, the actual content and terminology I’ll have to convey to my listeners). 

Why Checklists

Enter Atul Gawande’s A Checklist Manifesto, a perspective-changing book that illustrates how consistent use of checklists can improve outcomes in contexts as challenging as surgery and airplane piloting. I particularly enjoyed its careful discussion of how power dynamics can make or break a checklist system; it’s worth reading for that section alone. A key take-home message  (in Malcolm Gladwell’s words) is that “experts need help, and … progress depends on experts having the humility to concede that they need help.” Enter experts: I and my fellow experienced interpreters. Enter technical complexities on top of the usual cognitive load. Enter likelihood of forgetfulness—or complacency. Enter the checklist.

Once I realized how easy it would be to miss important actions, I quickly compiled my own checklist and shared it with my colleagues at AIB. I store the real list on Google Keep because it’s resource-efficient and easy to access from any device. At the end of this article you’ll find an annotated version of my current checklist, a hybrid beast because I created it for my own home setup but I also wanted to be able to share my latest version with other interpreters. I update it every time I think of something I don't want to overlook.

Order matters: while some items can be performed at any time before the meeting starts, some must follow a specific sequence. The list is annotated here because it’s important to understand why we do things, but ideally you would want it to be as brief and to the point as possible. However, you may want to keep notes that describe how to do something if you're not sure you'll remember.

Customize Your Checklist

Note that while the list itself should be tailored to individual circumstances (e.g., no need for Mac pointers if all you have is a Windows machine), some of its items involve the rest of the team. Make sure you're on the same page as your boothmate and team leader.

You can and should add your own items as appropriate, as well as edit mine. A few ideas:

  • Get someone to dogsit for the duration of the meeting. (I don’t have pets, not even quiet ones.)
  • Add screens, curtains, panels or anything to dampen the echo chamber effect. (My home office is lined with packed bookshelves.)
  • Set up green screen. (I actually have a homemade one, but I've never needed it for interpreting, so far. Anything else pertaining to video is appropriate if you're expected to put in an appearance.)
  • Unplug the washing machine if it's right next to where you're working (mine isn't).
  • Beg your DIYer neighbor not to use her power tools near your window during the meeting, if at all possible.

Ideas for Other Checklists

There’s plenty more checklist work if you care to undertake it. A speaker’s checklist should remove the interpreting-specific items but keep everything to do with conserving computing resources and add points about screensharing. I find it disappointing when interpreters participating in our own videoconferences use any old built-in laptop mic… only to complain about speakers doing just that. 

A team leader’s checklist would add items for checking in with all booths, technicians and client.

One of these days I’ll have to make a companion end-of-meeting checklist for myself. I recently spent three wonderful, interruption-free hours after a meeting getting nonurgent things done, without realizing that people were trying hard to get hold of me—and then the following morning, when I (fortunately) had to go shopping, I discovered my post-it note (see illustrations) was still on the doorbell.

A troubleshooting checklist might help the technologically panic-prone. Remember to include checking any inline headset mute buttons, disconnecting and reconnecting your headset or mic, swapping headsets, leaving the meeting and re-entering it, updating the relevant software (browser or videoconferencing app), and rebooting the computer.

An onboarding checklist is a good idea if you want to make sure everyone on a newly formed team is on the same page.

AIIC has a collection of excellent guidelines that include valuable checklists, but they’re upstream material, not a quick reference that kicks in 30-45 minutes before an online assignment (I’ve managed to get my time down to 15 minutes in a pinch, but that leaves very little time for troubleshooting). Hope this seed checklist can help a few colleagues. 

As far as its content goes, I’d like to thank my colleagues at AIB and the technicians who have provided support at our meetings for many valuable lessons learned together; Josh and Alex of techforword for their training courses and webinars (both free and paid); and Naomi Bowman of DS Interpretation for her coffee-side chats. Their generous sharing of knowledge made this checklist possible. Please feel free to use and share my list among colleagues, but please attribute it properly to me and this blog entry if you use it or adapt it for further publication.