Oct 20, 2014

Seven days of gratitude, day seven: free will

The choice of subject for the last post reflecting on things for which I am grateful was delayed by what my German friends sometimes call die Qual der Wahl, the agony of choice. As I grumble my way through the daily routine, feel the sore muscles from last Saturday's hunt with the dogs in the mountainous terrain of an enormous Eucalyptus forest plantation and the mild indigestion burn from one too many spicy calzones for lunch I am not particularly conscious of gratitude. What I do notice, however, is a relaxed optimism about a very unknown future in a country and a culture that will take me several decades at least to understand in the depth I wish to. There are days when the decision to leave Germany might seem as daft as some of my German friends considered it, particularly on days when I have to have anything to do with monolingual medical office personnel in Évora, who do not understand that faster repetition of what I did not understand the first time will not lead to quicker understanding. There are more than a few things missing in my present life, which I used to take for granted; sometimes hot water for washing and fire for cooking are among them when I fail to understand the trick for connecting a new tank of butane to supply my water heater and stove. But although friends in the UK and elsewhere have often expressed great admiration for the quality of public utilities, water pressure and bathroom fixtures in Germany, I find less satisfaction in these than in the feeling that I am among reasonable people of good will who treat others with good, basic respect. If the state of household technology is sometimes not much above that of a primitive campsite, at least I am camping with people I would be pleased to call friends.

Coming to Portugal was a choice. A good one I think; many of the choices in my life have certainly been less good or at least less satisfying, but they were mine to make, and I am grateful for the control over my own life which enables me to make a very wide range of choices and act on them. One of the greatest difficulties I have with German, Germany and German cultures comes down to a single word: muß. Or "muss" after the not-so-new spelling reform. Must. Some days it seems to be part of every spoken sentence in that language. When I used to hear that word too much, sometimes I would reply acidly that to live I must breathe, eat and drink, and some day I must die. Everything else is optional. Until they go abroad for a while or make the acquaintance of many people from other cultures, a great number of Germans seemed to feel that there was really only one way to do anything. Former neighbors of mine in rural Brandenburg certainly felt that way about feeding chickens, a task which must occur on a regular schedule at specific times of the day and always include boiled potatoes. Without those potatoes the best quality poultry feed will fail to meet a chicken's fundamental nutritional requirements.

I think it's a sad life for those who feel their choices are determined by others. Made with the finest cloth and decorated with masterful embroidery, a straightjacket is still an article of clothing of no good use to one wearing it with a healthy mind. The sick, crazy ones may indeed derive benefits from the straightjacket of social or political convention, but I prefer to let my own free will make the final decision after evaluating the consequences of action by my own standards.

Even in risk-averse cultures like that found in Germany, there is some acknowledgement that success often has many failures as its prerequisite, and many failures - or success - require many choices.

I am also grateful to have lived my life in political environments where the consequence of my choices are generally less critical than they might be more repressive, less stable parts of the world. But in these places the ones who often sacrifice themselves for things that I and my readers take for granted probably have a deeper understanding of why the exercise and defense of their rights of free choice are so important, perhaps more important than their lives.

As a freelance translator I have opportunities to exercise my free will with great scope in business, market my services or not and pursue my own visions of service and quality. And when the nattering nabobs of false positivism tell me I should be grateful for the chance to use Vaseline in my business relations with Linguistic Sausage Producers (LSPs), I gratefully exercise my free will and ignore this stupid advice and choose to associate myself with other service providers instead. You can choose to do the same, and I hope you do.

This is the last day of my written reflections of gratitude for the many blessings in a sometimes subjectively difficult life. I am grateful to my friend Teresa, a young veterinary behaviorist and fellow dog trainer, for the challenge to take the time to think in a more structured way about what constitutes the real wealth in my life. In the time I have lived in Portugal, becoming ever less a stranger in a strange land and more one discovering a heart's home, she and other friends have provided many occasions for such reflection. And in a poor region of the country, in an economically distressed city where I have often seen people dumpster diving for food or making complex life compromises to survive, much less thrive, I am often comforted by observing how Portuguese people respect their rights of choice and choose to live.

So on this seventh and last day of gratitude I choose to express mine for free will. Because I can.

Oct 17, 2014

Seven days of gratitude, day six: hands

By Sardaka (talk) 09:54, 10 September 2008 (UTC) (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Aboriginal hand stencils in Red Hands Cave, Australia
The sixth day post in this series was delayed by a day as my attention was absorbed by medical tests of the nerve responses in my hands. Many translators have chronic issues with strain injuries in their hands; although I complain a lot about mine, they do not even approach the misery of experience for some colleagues I know. I also cannot say that my hand troubles are due to my work as a translator, because they predate my current choice of profession by many years.

I take too many things for granted, things that seem small, not so important, until something goes wrong with them. I never gave my left thumb much thought until I cut it off one day when a donkey nudged my shoulder to remind me that she wanted some of the zucchini I was free-hand slicing for my sheep. After it was sewn back on I remember needing assistance buttoning my shirt and performing other minor tasks, but as the nerves slowly regrew in the years after and the numb sensation subsided into something approaching normality I forgot the experience.

My health classes in school covered a lot of subjects, among them the need for exercise, good nutrition (the definition of which keeps changing, but an experiment with rats in the sixth grade showed me clearly that man should not live by cornflakes alone), how metabolism works and how not to get syphilis, but I don't remember any discussion of occupational health and the need to protect our bodies from the consequences of work. Later safety instruction in the laboratories where I studied and worked emphasized short-term protection against accidents, such as chemical spills, sprays and gas releases, but ergonomics were never really a topic. I hope that has changed now.

As readers of this blog know, I have many disagreements with the promoters of machine pseudo-translation and especially with those pushing HAMPsTr processes. Aside from the fact that I cannot abide profiteering liars who overpromise and underdeliver with a technology that will never live up to its sales pitch except on the broken backs of the disposable human labor assigned to cover up the inadequacy of six- or seven-figure engineering investments, I am mostly concerned with the physical and psychological consequences of disastrous work ergonomics in the post-editing of machine pseudo-translation. Time and again I have presented data to show how dictation processes routinely far exceed the best productivity currently claimed for trained post-editors on optimized machine pseudo-translation systems. Some MpT researchers like John Moran are aware of these productivity issues and helpfully point out that there are ways in which these different technologies can be usefully brought together (by the use of speech recognition to reduce strain injuries for keyboard-using post-editors, for example), but so far I see little willingness on the part of capital investors to invest in human health protection as long as custom and the law allow cheap laboring humans to be tossed like coal and wood scrap into the furnaces that fire their profit engines.

I feel a little sick sometimes when I read discussions of speech recognition for translation which emphasize possibly greater speed of production. I've started a few of these, and my little video demos on YouTube which show some rather impressive translating throughput in three-minute tests certainly promote that topic of discussion. But the best value in this alternative or complementary technology to the keyboard is the potential for improved digital health... the "digital" in this case referring to the digits on one's hands.

When that digital health is degraded to the point that holding a small dictaphone up to catch some important words from a conference speaker becomes unbearably painful after a few minutes, it is easy to focus on the disability and the disadvantages of it. These can be fixed or not, by therapy, surgery or perhaps even time. But what I cannot forget is how lucky I am to have these numbed hands, and while they do not always do my bidding, they do enough. I have met people who have lost their hands or parts of them in accidents or have been born without them, and while I would of course adjust to the loss of mine, I am grateful that this is not my present need.

When I was 15 I had an experience that I remember often when facing some incapacity. I lost my sight. For a week I was blinded after an accident with a hot nitrating mixture in the lab ate my face and sealed my eyes in the swelling of burns. I accepted quickly that my sight was lost, there was nothing to be done about it after the 3:1 concentrated sulfuric and nitric acid mix did its work. I sat in bed for most of the Easter holiday, listening to the television and wondering how I would go about learning to read Braille. Somewhat uncharacteristically, I wasn't thinking all that much about what had been lost, but when, after a week, the seal on one eye dissolved, fluid ran down my face and I saw light - just a little and nothing in focus, I felt a gratitude that I will never forget for that gift of limited sight.

And so, whether they serve me well or with difficulty, I am grateful for my hands, which serve me well enough and which I hope will always have enough strength and dexterity to serve others in some useful way.

Oct 15, 2014

Seven days of gratitude, day five: dissidents

The recording of Glenn Greenwald's TED talk is about one of the most important issues of our day: privacy. That some fail to acknowledge this as a problem in today's society is an indication of how much the assault on privacy and the erosion of social norms has made the abnormal state of things seem acceptable to many, though as Glenn points out, the actions of privacy deniers stand in stark contrast to their words. Many people, translators among them, have been victims of identity theft (I have been myself at least twice that I am aware of), and this problem, too, is intimately linked to modern problems of privacy.

So when an individual stands up to the surveillance state and lays bare its lies about the extreme degree top which the modern infrastructure of our networked society has destroyed our privacy, requiring from us what some would consider extreme measures to hold any part of it out of the jaws of ravenous government "curiosity" and commercial advertising greed, one might think that some would be grateful for that individual's actions, which might involve no little personal risk. Some call Snowden a hero, as I do; some are less generous in their assessment. But I am grateful that he took a stand and upended his life in dissent against a government gone far out of control, reaching far, far beyond its legal powers simply because it can.

This morning I read about students missing in protests in Mexico; apparently their bodies were not in mass graves which were discovered. This time. But this reminded me of students and other people butchered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and others shot years before at Kent State University in Ohio in the USA and others in so many other places. What would our world be like if nobody had the courage to take a stand and risk everything for something of which the majority might even disapprove?

As a child, I listened to a neighbor describe the wars (the best word I can think of for the conflicts) which accompanied the unionization of coal mines in the part of the US Midwest where he had spent his youth. And when I asked my grandfather about the crazy tale of the Bonus Army I heard on the radio one evening, taking it for some sort of fiction because I had never heard of the protest and the massacre in my history courses in school or college, he confirmed that it was all real and related his experience in the army of that time and the contempt he had for MacArthur and Eisenhower for their part in suppressing the protesting families.

Confrontation between Bonus Army protesters and police in Washington D.C.
History is full of examples of individuals and groups who have expressed their dissent in many ways, sometimes with success, sometimes ending in disaster, with few sure predictors of the outcome being clear in the early days. I cannot call all forms of dissent good and I struggle to find legitimacy in any form which advocates violence. I am particularly grateful for the many examples of courage under duress by those who choose non-violent forms of dissent. These are, in my opinion, one of the bet health checks on the political system of any country which aspires to just or even democratic rule.

In the language services professions we also have opportunities which call for dissent from the wisdom offered by certain commercial interests. This dissent does not, of course, entail the great risks of many political or economic dissents in the world, but given the carefully coordinated way in which those who profit from abusive practices sometimes direct their campaigns against those who oppose them, with largely transparent divide and conquer tactics which sow fear, uncertainty and doubt and turn one colleague against another, following a script which was written in the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, standing up for good sense, good work hygiene and normal, respectful business relations in language services is not entirely without risk.

I am not really sure if "dissident" is the right word to use, when really what I mean are those who will take a principled, non-violent stand against something perceived as wrong and, being aware of the possible cost of opposition, choose to do what they feel to be right. There is a wide spectrum of courage, and I think that many, once they find themselves somewhere on that spectrum, may find greater courage as and when it is called for. There is a line which has stayed with me for many years in a song by East German dissident songwriter Bettina Wegner: “Grade, klare Menschen wären ein schönes Ziel, Leute ohne Rückrat ham wir schon zuviel”. Be the one who stands straight, with backbone and a clear mind.