Shortly after I took the computerized version of ATA’s certification exam in 2017, I received an e-mail from one of the proctors—whom I had thanked for stepping up to proctor at the last minute—in which she commented on the contrast between my “ergonomic” setup and the hunched posture of my fellow test takers. It would make for a great ad, she mused.
I had to laugh. I didn’t go into the exam with ergonomics in mind, but having seen the difference a few ergonomic upgrades to my home office earlier that year had made in my focus and overall well-being, it seemed like a no-brainer to apply the same principles to ensure my comfort and efficiency during the exam.
It may have seemed silly to focus on the details of a workstation I would only use for three hours, but the proctor was right: it ended up making all the difference, not only in terms of comfort, but more importantly, in terms of efficiency and state of mind. If you’re anything like me, sitting up straight and looking directly ahead fosters greater confidence and alertness than does being stooped over a mess of pages and books. Perhaps there’s something to be said after all for social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s widely discussed research on the impact of body position on our confidence and, in turn, our chances of success.1
While ergonomics wasn’t at the forefront of my mind going into the exam, it’s now the first thing I mention when colleagues ask for advice on how to prepare. There’s plenty of guidance out there on the theoretical side of the assessment, but how often do we hear about the importance of a comfortable and efficient workspace?
By sharing some of what worked for me on exam day, I hope to encourage others to discover the difference that straightening up and finding comfort and confidence can make, both during the exam and in our everyday work.
Ergonomics: It’s About More than Comfort
Before we get into the details, let’s consider why ergonomics matters. In short, it goes well beyond physical comfort.
First, what is ergonomics? The authors of an article in the January/February 2017 issue of The ATA Chronicle point out that the concept encompasses more than “office chairs, keyboards, and computer mice.”2 As cited in that article, the International Ergonomics Association (IEA) defines ergonomics as being concerned with the optimization of “human well-being and overall system performance”3—that is, it’s about a lot more than a comfortable office chair.
In fact, one of the three branches defined by IEA is “cognitive ergonomics,” which is concerned with mental workload, human reliability, and the interaction between humans and computers. We’ll come back to this later.
For now, let’s look at recommendations for improving efficiency and performance through one of the more obvious branches: physical ergonomics.
Laptop Height: My number one recommendation is to ensure that your computer screen is at eye level. Most of us set our laptops directly on the desk in front of us, forcing us to angle our necks downward to see the screen—a posture that has been shown to exert a detrimental amount of strain on the neck over time.4
If you work with a laptop on a regular basis, you might consider investing in a laptop stand, which will serve you well not only on exam day, but also in your everyday work. There are many to choose from, but it’s worth procuring one that you can easily carry with you to the exam or when working away from home. I use the Roost Stand,5 a favorite among digital nomads for its transportability: it collapses into a baton that’s just over a foot long and it weighs a feathery 5.5 ounces. It’s also height adjustable. (See photo at left.)
If you’re in a pinch on exam day or you aren’t sold on investing in a new gadget, you could just as well set your laptop on a large book or two—dictionaries work wonderfully.
Do keep in mind that you’ll need an external keyboard and mouse for either of these setups. There are affordable options out there, and I consider it a worthwhile investment, price notwithstanding.
Page Holder: Unlike the source texts in a translator’s daily work, which are almost invariably in digital format, exam passages are on paper and cannot be typed into the computer.
So what to do? Ideally, for the same reasons discussed above, the source text should be positioned at eye level. For this purpose, I used a small, dome-shaped page holder during the exam to prop up the source texts. (See photo above.) I purchased mine on www.etsy.com, but you can find one at just about any major office-supply retailer by searching for a “page-up holder.” Most are priced at under $10. You may need to set the holder on top of a dictionary to match your screen height.
Not only will this relieve neck pressure, it’ll save you time and trouble when glancing from sheet to screen.
Earplugs: Consider bringing earplugs to the exam to block out noise. Chances are you’ll be absorbed in your work, but you never know when the clickety-clack of a keyboard or the hum of a fluorescent light will distract you. Here’s where cognitive ergonomics come in: decreasing distraction lightens cognitive load, allowing you to focus on the task at hand.
Review Techniques: Speaking of cognitive ergonomics, the exam involves the demanding cognitive task of not only translating, but also reviewing, two dense texts in the span of three short hours. This means no opportunity to review with fresh eyes, which is a crucial step in actual practice. And without a computer-assisted translation tool or other application to help break the text into segments, the task becomes even more prone to errors. The accidental omission of a word or an entire line of text can be hugely detrimental. The good news is that these errors can be avoided by employing some simple review techniques.
One of these is to enlarge your font size: try increasing it 300% by using the zoom feature on your word processor (i.e., WordPad or TextEdit, the two applications permitted for use on the exam), or by increasing the font size to 72 points. This will help you catch errors you may otherwise overlook after staring at your translation for so long.
Another tip for getting a fresh perspective: change the typeface itself.
Finally, try reading the completed text “aloud” in your head, or reading it backwards—two old copy-editor’s tricks.
Miscellaneous: With the big ones out of the way, here are a few final pieces of advice to optimize ergonomics during the exam and help you focus on your work:
- Keep your feet flat on the floor, if possible. You may be able to choose from different chairs the day of the exam, but don’t count on it.
- Make sure your elbows are at a right angle when typing. Consider bringing a pillow to sit on for this purpose.
- Have water on hand (drink it).
- Take at least one stretch break. Do a forward bend and gently stretch your arms, legs, and neck to get your blood flowing before returning to the task with fresh eyes.
As the authors of the aforementioned article in The ATA Chronicle propose, taking ergonomics into account “will allow translators to do what they do best instead of wasting time and energy dealing with non-ergonomic conditions, interfaces, and tools.” What better opportunity to conserve time and energy than during the rigorous three-hour ATA certification exam?
I may have been amused by the proctor’s comment about my setup, but it cost me nothing to implement these simple principles, and the benefits of certification are already evident just one year later.
- Cuddy, Amy. “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are.” TEDGlobal Video (June 2012), http://bit.ly/Cuddy-body-language.
- O’Brien, Sharon, and Maureen Ehrensberger-Dow. “Why Ergonomics Matters to Professional Translators.” The ATA Chronicle (January/February 2017), 12, http://bit.ly/Chronicle-ergonomics.
- “Definition and Domains of Ergonomics” (International Ergonomics Association), www.iea.cc/whats.
- Bever, Lindsey. “‘Text Neck’ Is Becoming An ‘Epidemic’ and Could Wreck Your Spine,” The Washington Post (November 20, 2014), http://bit.ly/Bever-text-neck.
- Roost, www.therooststand.com.
Emily Safrin is an ATA-certified Spanish>English translator and the owner of Saffron Translations. She has lived, studied, and worked between the U.S. and Spain since 2004. She holds a master’s degree in intercultural communication and public service translation and interpreting from the Universidad de Alcalá (Spain). She specializes in medical translation and has a personal interest in all things food, including culinary translation. Also a certified Spanish>English medical interpreter (Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters; Oregon Health Authority), she is the former lead translator and interpreter for the Northwest’s largest reproductive health care provider. She currently serves as a board director of the Oregon Society of Translators and Interpreters, and writes for The Savvy Newcomer blog and ATA’s Public Relations Writers Group. Follow her musings on language, translation, and Spanish culture on Twitter at @saffrontrans. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.