Ergonomics in the professional translator’s workplace

Captura de Tela 2016-07-21 às 15.59.24

Source: FCOS Box

On July 12 and 13, I attended the Ergonomics and technologized knowledge work: cognitive effort, creativity, and health issues workshop held at FALE (Faculty of Languages), UFMG (Federal University of Minas Gerais), in Belo Horizonte, MG, Brazil. The workshop was organized by Prof. Fabio Alves (UFMG) and Prof. Maureen Ehrensberger-Dow (ZHAW), and supported by the Brazilian-Swiss Joint Research Programme (BSJRP) and the Zurich University of Applied Sciences.

Besides having personal intentions (I wanted to interview Maureen, Fabio and Adriana Pagano for the podcast – and I did!), I also represented Abrates at the event.

The workshop was fantastic because it fostered interaction among researchers and professionals in interdisciplinary areas, such as translation studies, applied linguistics, health, ergonomics and other technical fields. Only about 20 people attended the event, but it ended up being great for networking and exchange of ideas in a more intimate and personal level. I was the only professional translator; everybody else was a researcher and/or university professor.

Prof. Fabio Alves opened the event with some numbers regarding UFGM:

  • The university has about 3,000 undergraduate students and 600 graduate students.
  • It is the only Brazilian federal university with 2 Excellence-graded programs, both in Languages and Linguistics.

Everyone deserves a break!

Prof. Maureen then presented on “Ergonomics matters for translators and other knowledge workers.” And she started in great style by applying common knowledge and research into practice: she stopped for a 5-minute break every 20 minutes. In the first break, we stood up and  introduced ourselves to the people next to us. This was great to break the ice and already get to know some of the attendees. In the other breaks, we also had to stand up and did some quick and simple stretching exercises, following an occupational therapist from ZAHW. I loved the idea! The Swiss researcher and professor talked about the research she conducted with other colleagues recording translation processes of professional translators at LSPs, institutions and freelance environments. They analyzed not only their physical environment (chair, table, computer, etc.) but also their social situation (people, systems, etc.). Since competence in language technology, such as CATs and MT, is now a prerequisite for professional translation, our memory has been extended by the use of multiple applications and resources, and the disadvantage is that we can offload too much, affecting our emotional state and concentration.

from Greek: ergon = work, nomos = laws

Prof. Maureen’s main goal is to study the human side of usability, focusing on the user, rather than on machines or tools, or even productivity. Therefore, ergonomics, on her study, encompasses:

  • Physical: concerned with human anatomical, anthropometric, physiological and biomechanical characteristics as they relate to physical activity. Simply put, physical ergonomics involve equipment (desk, chair, keyboard, mice) and their design; use and distortion of hand/wrist when typing and handling the mouse; sitting for too long in one position, resulting in pain and muscle stiffness; context factors, such as noise levels, lighting, temperature. Consequence: negative impact on accuracy and translation quality. For example, did you know QWERTY (English) keyboards were arranged to prevent mechanical typewriters from jamming, not for ergonomic reasons?
  • Cognitive: concerned with mental processes (perception, memory, reasoning, motor response) as they affect interactions among humans and other elements of a system. Simply put, cognitive ergonomics involve human-computer interaction (HCI), computer responsiveness, digital resources, over-crowded screens, disturbances and interruptions, and time pressure. The consequence here is also the negative impact on accuracy, translation quality and productivity. As we, professional translators, are well aware of, even slight delays in computer responsiveness can negatively affect task perfomance and potentially contribute to stress.
  • Organizational: concerned with the optimization of sociotechnical systems, including their organizational structures, policies and processes. Simply put, organization ergonomics involve sociotechnical issues, teamwork and communication, self-concept and professional identity, and job satisfaction. Consequence: negative impact on company loyalty and organizational development.

In a nutshell, the translational action is a complex system and sociological event that involves various actors and factors where every small detail of the interaction matters. What we currently see are translators adapting to machines, instead of the contrary.

The brain is not only in the skull, it involves the entire body.

Prof. Fabio followed, and his talk was about LETRA (Laboratory for Experimentation in Translation at UFMG): “LETRA’s perspective on cognitive ergonomics and human-computer interaction.” His presentation was in Portuguese in order to provide the interpreter students in the booth (yes, there was an interpreting booth in the room!) a chance to practice Portuguese into English interpretation. According to UFMG’s Director of International Affairs, the lab carries out research on human-computer interaction related to processes involved in: post-editing tasks of MT output, development of interactive MT interfaces, and development of translation applications comprising a combination of speech recognition, MT output and HCI. The process maps the translation expertise, taps the translation process and models task execution. The methodological approach involves pre-task questionnaires, keylogging, eye tracking, direct observation, task recalling and text analysis. The results of the studies conducted at LETRA allow the design of interactive platforms and applications geared to improving/enhancing translators’ performance and interaction among users, and the development of training programs.

Prof. Adriana Pagano, coordinator of the area of Translation at UFMG, presented next on “Ergonomics and usability testing in the design of applications for chronic condition management and health promotion.” The goal of her study is to design an app to promote adherence of teenagers to treatment of diabetes and user empowerment, facilitating self-directed behavior change. The group comprising the study is called Empoder@ and aims at developing a conceptual and methodological prototype for the design of tools to assess educational interventions oriented towards self care and empowerment. Questions such as smartphone and internet use, app features and avatar were asked to teenagers in order to find out what they prefer. Note that the focus here as well is on the human being: developing an app adapted to the user, not the contrary.

Ursula Meidert, from ZAHW, followed with her presentation “Physical ergonomics at computer workplaces: Findings from ergonomic workplace assessments and interviews.” The study was conducted by an inter-professional project team: the Institute of Occupational Therapy and the Institute of Translation and Interpreting. As Maureen also pointed out, not only physical work environment factors, but also context factors, such as ambient noise, lighting and temperature, can influence the performance of people who work at computers (translators included), and they can even represent risk factors for health problems. Typing and using input devices (touchpad, mice) involve the entire body, and constant repetition of certain movements can cause an overload of muscles.

Did you know women generally complain more about health than men?

Besides interviewing participants, the researchers also visited workplaces (freelancers’ offices, enterprises and institutions) and assessed their ergonomics, recorded screens and translators themselves while working. Problems were more often observed among freelancers and younger professionals, therefore, the researchers’ recommendation is that: basic ergonomic knowledge be integrated into BA and MA programmes, ergonomic training be provided to practitioners and information about ergonomics be disseminated through professional associations. They also recommend an individual workplace consultation by an occupational therapist before any health problems emerge.

The last activity on the first day was a workshop, “Cognitive and Physical Ergonomics of Translation: What can we do to make a computer workplace more ergonomic?”, presented by the occupational therapist Michèle Gasser (also from ZHAW) and Ursula Meidert. Michèle started by saying that the worst problem of professional translators is the one-sided strain: sitting in the same position for a long time. The physical load on the body throughout the day remains the same, causing problems, especially when the workplace is not ergonomically adequate and/or the translator has the wrong posture. Ergonomic adaptations to the translator’s abilities must be made, but it is advisable that the translator also have a healthy life (regular exercise), take regular breaks and frequently change the working position. Here are some of the orientations:

  • The computer screen should be positioned so that the light from windows comes from the side, preventing reflections or glare. The light should always be indirect. Office light should not be directly above the head.
  • The feet should be flat on the floor, forming a 90-degree angle by the knees and the hips. This is important for posture and blood circulation. If, for any reason, when making these adjustments the feet do not reach the floor, a footrest should be used. However, the best condition is that the table and the chair are adjustable in order to allow the feet to touch the floor. There should be a gap of two fingers between the knees and the seat.
  • The arms should also form a 90-degree angle and rest on the table. Armrests are not really necessary.
  • The backrest should be flexible enough to lean back for occasional relaxation, but still providing enough resistance to support the back, that should press lightly against it. The curve of the backrest should support the lumbar lordosis.
  • The computer screen should be straight in front of the translator at an arm’s length. Now here’s something new: the top of the screen should be one hand width below eye level, not on eye level! However, this will also depend on the size of the screen and on the CAT the translator is using. The rule of thumb is that the nape is straight, not curved, and the translator is slightly looking below, not straight ahead.
  • The keyboard should be directly in front of the translator. Allow enough distance so that the heels of the hands can rest on the table, and are not floating.
  • The mouse should be next to the keyboard, as close to it as possible.
  • When working with two monitors, whenever possible, the main screen should be straight ahead and the second, stand next to the first, at an angle. However, when both screens are used equally frequently, both should be angled and positioned accordingly.
  • When working with paper documents, they should be placed between the keyboard and the screen, preferentially supported by a holder.
  • When working regularly for long periods on a laptop, it is important to use an external keyboard and mouse, and all of the above orientations apply. However, a larger external monitor is also recommended.
  • Ideal equipment: big non-glare screens, adjustable chair in height and backrest and adjustable table.

A peace and quiet work environment is also essential. Avoid interruptions and misunderstandings by communicating your working days and time.

Useful link:
FCOS Box: Safety, health and ergonomics in the office

Another recurrent topic during the event was usability and its connection with ergonomics, topic that was also addressed by Rossana Cunha, a research student from UFSC (Federal University of Santa Catarina). The goal of her study was to bridge the gap between corpus-based tools, ergonomics and usability by a user-oriented methodology. The results indicated that, despite the concern for providing a user-friendly interface, the system she analyzed did not make use of known usability and ergonomic methods. And here I add something one of the presenters mentioned: SDL Trados was questioned if they conducted usability tests. Surprise, surprise (or not): “Usability? What is it?” was their answer. The problem here, and with most of the CATs we use, is they are developed by developers only, with no involvement of translators whatsoever.

Next on the second day, Arlene Koglin and Norma Fonseca, both from UFMG, presented on “An analysis of work-related medical issues and ergonomic aspects in Brazilian translators’ workplace.” They mentioned the importance of introducing usability and ergonomics in early stages of university courses to make students aware, and not only buy the coolest CAT in the market. The results of their research can contribute to increasing awareness of the physical and cognitive aspects of professional translation as well as to improving translators’ working conditions. Now here is the great news: they plan on publishing the results of their study to the professional translation community, not only to academic professionals. So we may have something new coming up soon… 😉

Last but not least, Maureen presented with Peter Jud on “Cognitive ergonomics of computerized translation work.” Besides being a translation teacher at ZAHW, Peter is also a professional translator, so it was interesting to see his intakes from both sides. According to them, it’s all linked: physical, organizational and cognitive ergonomics. Therefore, disturbances and interruptions at the workplace can also negatively influence the translator’s work. All levels, players and aspects should be taken into account: physical aspects, translator training, translation teacher training, software development, research, organizational aspects, clients/agencies.

To sum up all the learnings from the event, all participants and presenters were asked to talk a bit about their impressions, and the key points were:

  • Usability was the keyword of the event, as an object of study, approaching it from different angles and disciplines.
  • Keeping people in the middle is what matters.
  • Translators don’t have a voice: we (researchers) have to listen to them!
  • Being keen and open to new approaches is essential.
  • This workshop and the discussions we had may be the stepping stone of something larger to come.
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4 thoughts on “Ergonomics in the professional translator’s workplace

  1. While reading your post I had to think of some ergonomics slogans I saw the other day:
    “Does your work space give you a pain in the neck? Don’t get bent out of shape. Work within your comfort zone!” Thanks. You made some interesting points there.

    Like

  2. Very well written article. I totally agree with your points. Take a look at icwusa’s blog, I think we have similar interest and share the same opinion about the importance of ergonomics at the workplace.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Weekly translation favorites (Jul 29-Aug 4)

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