|Aboriginal hand stencils in Red Hands Cave, Australia|
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.