Consider some of the most dangerous jobs on earth such as clearing land mines, excavating ore in the depths of the earth and sea, cleaning up
radioactive waste, or defending our country in the 50-degrees Celsius heat of Bagdad or under fire in the streets of Kabul, and translation probably
rates as quite safe. With the one important exception of those translators embedded in theaters of global conflict, translation is mostly, a
rather "cushy" job.
Depending on the length and urgency of the project, translators typically spend 8 to 10 hours a day in front their computer terminals, probably
experiencing what Paul Ricoeur terms the "joy of translation" (Ricoeur, 2004), and no doubt looking much like typists although ignoring this
particular, and crucial, difference invokes serious danger of a more stealthy stroke.
Early Intervention for Our Ancestors-in-Practice
There is good reason to use the OSHA guidelines for ourselves, to mind our bodies, and to protect the joy of translation.
Some two thousand years ago, circa 510 AD, the story goes that our ancestors-in-practice, the Shaolin monks of China, translated Sanskrit texts to
Chinese, commissioned by the Emperor. When Dharma, a venerable Indian Buddhist monk came to visit the Shaolin monks, he found them in an appalling
state, hunched over scrolls with brush and ink, suffering from all sorts of physical ailments and lack of stamina due to the absence of physical
exercise. Thus, the venerable Dharma began to teach the Shaolin monks a series of movements derived from Yoga practices, and inspired by the 18 animals
of Indo-Chinese iconography, such as the "cat's walk," the "frog's leap" or the "lion's prowl," so they would remember the movements and practice them
to improve their physical health and productivity.
Today, the Shaolin monks no longer fly with words or battle with punctuation, as they are better known as masters of Kung-Fu martial arts. And while
there is speculation on how the Shaolin monks' practices were transformed from physical discipline to martial arts at the expense of translation, the
point here is that an intervention took place to protect their health and to ensure their survival.
Two Thousand Years Later - OSHA
On the western front in the United States, in 1970, government intervention occurred to promote safety of the workplace and to protect the health of
all workers with passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. This Act subsumed the creation of OSHA (pronounced as an acronym) - The US
Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration, whose mission, to date, it is: "to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for
working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education, and assistance"1.
Now, assuming that some two thousand years later the translator's sedentary body still needs constant exercise and care to maintain health and
survival, and considering the dramatic changes in working conditions, from brush or quill to bits and bytes, the following article minds the
translator body in light of OSHA guidelines, an intervention designed to protect our health as working professionals.
Relaxed & Neutral Posture
Translators sit at the terminal for long periods of time, which requires sustained posture, that is, particular musculoskeletal configurations. OSHA
offers a Computer workstation eTool2 with a tabbed section dedicated to "Good working positions," defined as "neutral or relaxed."
This means placing or retaining, the least possible strain and stress on body parts through natural alignment. Accordingly, all the
information of the OSHA eTool is geared towards both pointing out "hazards" - obstructions to proper, neutral or relaxed, alignment of body
parts such as wrists and forearms, head and shoulders, elbows, back, hips, thighs, knees and feet; and to supplying ergonomic "solutions" in reference
to four postures: sitting upright, standing, declined sitting (with knees lower than buttocks), and reclined sitting (with angles between thighs and torso
between 105 and 120 degrees.)
To assist with proper - neutral or relaxed- alignment of all body parts, the various components of the workstation (monitor, keyboard, mouse/pointer,
wrist rest, document holder, chairs, desk and telephone) are each extensively reviewed from an ergonomic point of view, that is, from the dual
standpoint of design and comfort, including use, safety and health.
For chairs, for example: backrest, seat, armrests and base are each examined in terms of their potential hazards relative to neutral posture, and
additional ergonomic information is provided to resolve all the potential disruptions. For example, the absence of lumbar support to maintain the
natural curvature of the spine; a seat that is too high forcing you to move forward without spine support, or to work without your feet touching the
ground; the consequences of armrests that are placed too wide apart, too low or too high, on posture and shoulder alignment; the importance of a secure
chair base, preferably with five contact points, to prevent tipping; or the absence of casters (swivels) to easily position a chair relative to the
computer screen and keyboard, are each discussed and illustrated in reference to the potential obstructions of a relaxed neutral posture. Additional
information is also supplied to resolve each of the potential hazards, drawing on both existing design solutions such as foot rests, depth or height
adjustable seat pans and backrests, or tinkered ones, such as using a rolled towel for lumbar support.
Hands, Wrists & Repetitive Movement
Except for translators using a speech recognition program such as Dragon® for voice-activated control of their computer, and dictated
translations, most translators type many thousands of words, putting themselves at risk for typing injuries. Typing unjuries are usually regrouped
under one of the following terms: Repetitive Motion Strain (RMS) Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI), Repetitive Motion Injury (RMI), Repetitive Motion
Disorder (RMD), which subsume specific diagnoses such as CTS - Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, tendonitis, bursitis and many other specific types of
The OSHA Computer Workstation eTool contains a link to REPETITION3, where repetitive motion is quantified. For example,
proficient typing invokes 18,000 keystrokes per hour, and is assumed to cause "tendon and tendon sheath injuries, especially when wrists are at an
angle." Similarly, there is a risk of repetitive injury to specific fingers when using a mouse, or to other body parts (e.g.; neck or shoulder) in
connection with poor or akward posture.
OSHA suggests micro breaks and task rotations4to reduce the strain of repetition and also offers a series of ergonomic
solutions in the sections dedicated to the presentation of keyboard components (height, distance, design and use), and wrist rests which highlight both
potential disruption to neutral alignment (e.g.; typing with a bent and unsupported wrist) and possible remedies. Similarly, the presentation on
alternative keyboards (tilted and split) offers an ergonomic solution aimed at restoring neutral wrist and hand alignment.
Eyes, Vision, and Glare
The terminal reflects light which strains eyesight, and bright lights shining on the display cause the images on screen to washout, in turn causing an
inability to see what is dispayed onscreen and awkward positions designed to compensate for obstructed viewing. Simlarly bright lights behind the
computer cause contrast problems, which make it more diffcult to see the display. These environmental factors combined with computer component factors
such as monitor position, height and angle, are presented in the OSHA eTool both to highlight the potential hazaards of eye strain and to point to
ergonomic solutions to prevent eye injuries.
Judicious positionning of lights, use of blinds, non-reflective wall paint and glare filters are some of the recommended OSHA solutions. Monitor
distance (20 to 40 inches from eyes to front of display), viewing angle (15 to 20 degrees below a horizontal line of vision), as well as viewing time,
which needs to be interrupted for blinking purposes and to avoid dry eyes, are some of the very useful guidelines that OSHA provides to prevent eye
strain and to protect vision at the computer.
There are also various types of anti-glare coatings which may be applied directly to reading/viewing glasses, and obtained via optometrists.
Breath & Air Quality
Whether it is inadequate proximity to sources of conditionned air or heat forced through the room, insufficient or inadequate ventilation, temperatures
above or below optimal conditions, the quality of the air we breathe has an impact on comfort and productivity, when it is not directly related to eye
ailments and allergies. OSHA recommends ambient air flow rates between 3 and 6 inches per second, room temperatures between 68°F and 74°F
during the cold season and 73°F to 78°F during the hot season, and relative humidity of the air between 30 and 60%.
OSHA also mentions VOCs (volatile organic compounds), chemicals, ozone and particles coming from computers and peripherals (e.g. printers) which affect
air quality and recommends, among several
points, inquiring with computers manufacturers directly. OSHA also recommends to "air out" new equipment prior to installation and to ensure adeqate
ventillation in this regards.
Physical Activity & Stamina
According to the 2010 World Health Organisation (WHO) status report on NCDs (noncommunicable diseases) such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases and chronic
respiratory diseases, six percent of all deaths are attributed to physical inactivity making it the fourth largest risk factor for global
mortality. This is chilling news for a very sendentary and cushy profession, and one that gives further heed to First Lady (& Dharma) Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign.
Minding Our Bodies
OSHA may be well known to translators for all the translations it generates: MSDS (Manufacturer Safety Data Sheets) for workplace products, standards for
workplace safety, and for the trusted seals of approval that it delivers. However, as the above discussion of the potential hazards of computer
workstations reveals, and ergonomic recommendations suggest, there is good reason to use the OSHA guidelines for ourselves, to mind our bodies,
and to protect the joy of translation.
Ricoeur, P. (2004) Sur la traduction. Paris, France: Editions Bayard.
OSHA website - Occupational Safety and Health Administration:www.osha.gov [Link visited Jan 23, 2012]
World Health Organization - (2010) Global Status Report on Non-communicable diseases. Available online at http://www.who.int/chp/ncd global status report/en/index.html [Link visited
Jan 23, 2012]