Top Ten Tips for Going Wireless

Whether you’re new to the field or simply haven’t used voice amplification equipment for simultaneous interpreting, it can be a bit intimidating to work with at first. Wireless equipment one of the most common technology solutions I’ve seen in court and it’s an excellent tool to protect the interpreter’s vocal cords while allowing interpreted testimony to be heard easily by the listener. The systems essentially consist of a small transmitter that the interpreter speaks into, and a receiver with headphones for the listener.[1] The places where many of my colleagues work are equipped with other types of amplification equipment, including infrared and multi-user stations or booths, all with their own considerations. What I’ve gathered below are practical ideas to ensure that portable devices are well-kept and useful for both the interpreter and the listener.

1. Have extra batteries and a battery tester on hand. If your equipment takes batteries, be sure to have extras on hand every time you begin your work.  Battery testers are a great help as well. Our coordinator got each of us a tester from a local electronics store very inexpensively, and we are able to test batteries we think may be failing.

2. Care and storage. Clean the equipment regularly, following manufacturer instructions. Keep extra headphone pads so you can replace them as needed. For storage and transportation, one of the nicest setups I’ve seen for a small set of wireless equipment is an inexpensive silver-colored metal case with foam padding inside and a carrying handle. It protects the equipment from damage and looks very professional. Keep equipment stored where it won’t get damaged by movement or become tangled. When you purchase a set of equipment, it often comes with a great little case, too.

3. Have backup equipment. I prefer to use the wireless equipment, but I always make sure to have my old-fashioned amplifier on hand. It’s a battery-powered amplifier I speak into that is connected directly to headphones for the listener. A great addition is an extension cord, which allows for most of the movement that wireless would allow.

4. More than one listener. If you will have more than one listener, you can set more than one receiver to connect with the interpreter’s transmitter. If you use old-fashioned amplifier I mention above, there are ‘splitters’ available to allow for multiple sets of headphones.

5. Consider the headphones. Not all headphones are created equal. I purchased headphones that allowed the listener to adjust the volume, but I’ve also used inexpensive ones as well. No matter which you prefer, make sure that both sides are working. The listener may become concerned if they cannot hear from one side, and it could mean equipment or battery failure. Also, be sure that if you’re mixing and matching equipment that the headphones are compatible.

6. Consider the listener’s experience. There is probably nothing more disconcerting than a listener finding us annoying. If you need to use a cough drop, consider how loud it will be in your mouth, rolling across your teeth and causing swishing sounds, all amplified as the listener tries to hear your interpretation.  Other things to consider are your breathing, which you have to both control and direct. Whichever equipment I use, if I have to take a deep breath or cough, I use a mute button or pull the transmitter or microphone away from my mouth. Something else to consider is transitions during team interpreting. Make the transition as quietly as possible, trying not to whack the microphone around while you get situated. Considering the listener helps avoid unnecessary distractions that could interfere with understanding.

7. Agree on a signal in case of equipment failure. You can instruct the listener to raise a hand if the sound is suddenly garbled or non-existent. If you inform the judge and attorneys that a hand raise could mean this, then they can all stop speaking until the issue is resolved. There have been a couple of times when the listener notices a failure, delays in reporting it, and although I stand and begin to approach, the testimony is ongoing. I have had to speak up and inform the judge that there seems to be a problem with the equipment in order to get testimony to stop. When this happens, it could mean you’ll have to resort to not using equipment for a while or swapping out to the backups. Either way, being quick and efficient in resolving the issue is key.

8. Whispering vs. quiet voice. When I was first an interpreter, the custom at my courthouse was to whisper. Staff was extremely concerned about disturbing the court or the jury, and so the listener heard whispering for the duration of the proceedings—sometimes days or weeks of whispering, in fact. I had heard that whispering is actually more of a strain on the vocal cords—thanks to having worked with a speech pathologist in the past—but I went along with what everybody else was doing. Finally, I got a case where the defendant/listener was extremely hard of hearing. No amount of volume in my equipment was enough if I whispered. So, I had to resort to using a quiet voice, and not whisper, for the duration of the trial. Eureka! I discovered the wonders of non-whispered simultaneous, including voice care and the ability to change my tone of voice as needed for emphasis in the interpretation. Everybody in the courtroom got used to the low buzz in the background, and I never again went back to whispering. My colleagues soon stopped whispering, too.

9. Controlling our sound. Because we’re using our quiet voices, we still sometimes have to be mindful of moments where we should be extra quiet. Often when attorneys give closing arguments, they speak quietly to achieve certain effects, and it may seem inappropriate to speak as loudly as usual. I’ve found that placing a notebook or other barrier in front of my mouth to prevent my voice from reaching anything but the microphone is a great help.

10. Controlling outside sound. I’ve also been situated directly under a speaker in the ceiling that is booming loudly into my microphone and drowning out my voice. The simple solution is to again place a barrier between that sound and my microphone, often by simply cupping the microphone with my hand when the speaker is loud and cannot be adjusted. In court, we don’t have the sound protection we would have in a booth, so we have to be inventive.

These tips are not all-inclusive, but should be a good start. Once you’ve had the chance to work in a variety of situations with wireless equipment, you’ll start feeling more comfortable with it. Remember, equipment companies often have booths at professional conferences where you can get in person demos, discounted pricing, and the opportunity to compare product types and brands. Check them out, and welcome to wireless!


[1] A web search with the keywords of simultaneous, equipment, transmitter, receiver, interpreter will yield many companies that sell and rent wireless interpreting equipment. There are several companies that will work with the interpreter to build sets for multiple listeners or find the right size, portability features, pricing, etc.

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