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Interpreters in the European Parliament and Issues with Remote Working

This article is a collaboration with Day Translations. Interpreters are essential in the EU meetings because each meeting is translated into the many official languages.

Any disruption in interpretation services can cause major disruptions. EU interpreters have taken an issue with remote translation, because since Covid the job of interpreters has changed dramatically. EU institutions have embraced a hybrid model of some in-person meetings and some remote meetings, all requiring interpreters.

When interpreters work remotely at times they are not able to see non-verbal cues, the body language of the speakers; many times there are issues with the quality of sound and the internet connection. It may not seem intuitive but body language is very important in interpretation, as it gives context and additional layers of meaning to a conversation. Not all remote meetings have a video element: sometimes delegates call in from disparate locations, which can be as random as cafes and restaurants to moving trains and other types of public or private transport. This means that the line can be patchy and there are instances of lost internet connections or gaps in people’s conversations.

There are also health issues related to remote working for interpreters: some have complained of ear/hearing problems, headaches, fatigue, insomnia, vertigo, blurred vision, even nausea.

EU Interpretation Staffers Went on Strike over Remote Working

When EU interpreters went on strike in 2022 (you can read the story on Politico) for the remote aspect of their jobs (which means that they still worked for in-person meetings), the European Parliament hired external freelancers who were not familiar with the inner workings, language, terminology and affairs of the EU, not to mention the strict confidentiality rules EU staffers have to adhere to. External freelancers were recruited via agencies but they were not accredited with the EU; this situation caused friction with interpreters who are on the EU books. The European Parliament had to admit that it was forced to hire external interpreters to cover remote meetings because of force majeure, in other words because it was necessary to allow meetings with representatives from EU countries speaking different languages to take place and therefore ensure the institutions could continue to work without interruptions.

However, bad sound quality can prove detrimental for conducting meetings: there is no point trying to have multiple conversations when delegates can’t hear each other and the interpreters aren’t able to make sense of what is being said because lines can be patchy and parts of the conversation get lost.

Relations between interpreters and the European Parliament haven’t been easy in the past few years, as the pandemic had caused many interpreters to lose their job when the Parliament cancelled its in-person meetings.

What Does the Future Look Like for EU Interpreters?

On the one hand, the EU Parliament must get on with its business, carrying out meetings in multiple languages. On the other hand, EU interpreters have seen the volume of work drop considerably, and working conditions to deteriorate, in some cases even losing their job. EU institutions started cutting down in-person meetings at the beginning of 2020, so interpreters have been living with a sense of uncertainty ever since. On a side note, some members had to speak in English instead of their mother tongue because interpretation wasn’t available during lockdowns.

A diplomatic solution is barely needed and negotiations are likely to be lengthy and complex. Considering that the EU employs more than 3,000 freelance interpreters, only about a third of them has regular contracts so most jobs are precarious and can be terminated without many guarantees and protections. Unions are unimpressed with the measures taken by the EU Parliament, to say the least, and are campaigning to ensure interpreter’s health and working conditions are taken seriously. In the meantime, guidelines are being circulated recommending people dialling into Zoom meetings to ensure they are not on the move and that they choose a quiet location to minimise disruption, which basically means it’s like putting a plaster on a gaping wound.

A suitable answer to these questions will require some strong planning that includes the provision of better technical equipment and the safeguard of interpreters’ rights.