Ergonomics for Translators and Interpreters

Published on 01/11/2007

Freelance translators enjoy an envious situation. We get to work at home or wherever we please (in our favorite pair of pajamas if we want) and, in many cases, get to pick a schedule that best suits us. However, regardless of whether we are freelancers or in-house employees, we still have to spend long hours sitting in front of our com­puter typing or editing thousands of words per day, endlessly clicking our mouse. Performing repetitive tasks over long periods of time can cause all sorts of physical ailments.

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (www.ccohs.ca), ergonomic hazards refer to workplace conditions that pose the risk of injury to the muscu­loskeletal system of the worker. Examples of musculoskeletal injuries include Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (a condition affecting the hand and wrist). Ergonomic hazards include repetitive and forceful movements, vibration, temperature extremes, and awkward postures that arise from improper work methods and improp­erly designed workstations, tools, and equipment.'

These repetitive motions are part of what are known as ergonomic haz­ards, which can eventually generate musculoskeletal disorders and affect your hands and wrists with Carpal or Cubital Tunnel Syndrome, as well as cause pain and stiffness in your neck, back, and legs.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome occurs when the median nerve, which runs from the forearm into the hand, becomes pressed or squeezed at the wrist. Cubital Tunnel Syndrome is pressure on the ulnar nerve behind the funny bone caused by bending and straightening the elbow repeat­edly or by leaning on the elbow for long periods, which causes numbnessand tingling in the ring and small fin­gers of the hand.

Symptoms usually start gradually, with frequent burning, tingling, or itching numbness in the palm of the hand and the fingers. Some people say their fingers feel useless and swollen, even though little or no swelling is apparent. As symptoms worsen, people might feel tingling during the day. Decreased grip strength may make it difficult to form a fast, grasp small objects, or perform other manual tasks. Some people are unable to teil between hot and cold by touch.

"...Take care of your body:
it's the most important
tool you have, and the
only one you can't

You can also fall victim to Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), which is caused by staring too long at your computer screen. You tend to blink less frequently when looking at your computer screen, making the eyes dry and irritable. Watching TV, for instance, doesn't damage" your eyes as much because it is usually farther away from you than the com­puter monitor. The most common symptoms associated with CVS include: eyestrain or eye fatigue; red, dry, and burning eyes; light sensi­tivity; blurred vision; headaches; and pain in the shoulders, neck, or back.

How can you avoid all these Prob­lems? There are numerous devices that claim to offer the best solution to ergonomic hazards, but you can start by applying some simple and sen­sible changes to your workstation and the environment around you.

Hands and Wrists

  • It's very important to keep your hands and wrists in a neutral posi­tion that does not cause strain. Try not to twist them to the sides or upward. Split keyboards are sup­posed to help you avoid damaging positions, although researchers' opinions on this subject are divided.
  • Check your seat height. Your elbows should be no higher than keyboard height.
  •  Don't deploy rear keyboard feet unless your elbows are below desk height. It's also been suggested that keeping your keyboard in a "negative" position (tilted for­ward) helps avoid strain. The best way to do this is by using a key­board tray, which also allows you to move the keyboard up and down or in and out.
  • Make sure that your hands are in line with your forearms.
  • Shake your hands at regular inter­vals and rotate them clockwise a few times and then counter-clock­wise (this relieves tension in the fin­gers, hands, wrists, and forearms).
  • Use a light keying action. Most people hit the keys three or four times harder than they need to.
  • Take regular breaks to rest your wrists and hands.
  • Have a space in front of your key­board to rest your hands when you are not keying. If you are a touch typist who is more comfortable with the keyboard next to the desk edges, keep this position but rest your hands in your lap when not typing.
  • Avoid having anything in front of your keyboard, except for a wrist pad if you feel that helps you.

Protecting Your Eyes

New flat-screen LCD (liquid crystal display) monitors are easier on the eyes than conventional

CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors, but not everyone can afford them because they are usually considerably more expensive. The American Optometric Association (AOA) outlines five easy preventive measures to avoid CVS2:

  1. Keep the computer screen four to nine inches below eye level.
  2. Place the computer directly in front of you if you're looking at it most of the time.
  3. Use drapes, shades, or blinds to control the glare from your window. Vertical or horizontal blinds can be used to direct light away from the computer user and the screen.
  4. Create an adjustable workstation. That means using an adjustable table and chair, a detachable key­board, and an adjustable copy-holder that fastens either to the desk or the computer. Make sure your computer screen can be turned or tilted and that the brightness and contrast can be adjusted. Generally speaking, the brightness of your screen should be equivalent to the brightness of other objects in the room. As for the color of the screen, black characters on a white background are easiest on the eyes.
  5. Use a glare reduction filter. It will enhance screen contrast and increase character legibility.

Another simple way to combat CVS is to rest your eyes by taking short breaks throughout the day. The pres­sure to meet tight deadlines or the desire to get a lot done during a cre­ative spurt can produce marathon ses­sions in front of the computer screen. As you work, make it a point to look away from the computer screen every now and then and focus your eyes on faraway objects; also, remember to blink often.

Neck and Shoulders

The following suggestions will help you avoid neck and shoulder pain:

  • If you work with documents, posi­tion them in front of you on a doc­ument holder so that you can look straight ahead most of the time.
  • If you don't use the number pad often, have the letters section of the keyboard directly in front of you. This means moving your keyboard a couple of inches to the right.
  • Keep your upper arms relaxed and hanging comfortably by your side while you work. Make sure the key­board is close to you to avoid stretching your arms in front of you.
  • Your chair's armrests are sup­posed to help you relax your shoulders, but sometimes fixed arm rests are too low, which will make you hunch to support your arms. A way to solve this problem is to wrap the armrests with foam. If your armrests are adjustable, you may need them higher than you think, so set them high first and then lower them gradually over a day or two.


Although experts don't seem to agree on the causes of back pain, there are some things you can do to avoid it:

  • Make an effort to sit correctly, very upright. Most of us are used to sitting in a slumped posture, which is bad for the back.
  • Adjust the backrest on your chair to give support to the lower spine.
  • Make sure that the seat cushion is not too long for you: you must be able to sit fully back in the seat. Some office chairs allow you to adjust this by sliding the seat-back assembly forward. Experiment with your chair to find out what all the adjustments do.
  • Make small adjustments to your posture throughout the day to relieve any tension on your back muscles.
  • Adjust the height of your chair so your feet can rest on the floor or on a footrest. Otherwise, if your chair is too high you may find yourself sliding forward and either slumping or sitting upright with your back unsupported.
  • If you need more support in the small of your back and purchasing a new chair is not an option, try using a lumbar support.


Lack of blood flow is a common problem among people who have sedentary jobs like translators and spend many hours sitting in front of their computers. If your chair is too high, or if your seat cushion is too long for you, pressure points can build up under the thighs and behind the knees. They can pinch nerves and blood ves­sels, resulting in a prickly sensation ("pins and needles") in the lower legs or swelling in the feet and ankles.

If you can feel pressure at the front of the seat cushion, you need a footrest. If your budget doesn't allow you to buy a footrest, use the cheapest footrest of all: get the Yellow Pages and place it under your feet! If you cannot sit fully back in the seat (i.e., the back of your knees hit the front of the cushion), you need to adjust the backrest assembly by sliding it forward (if possible), or get a chair that is not so deep.

The common denominator to alle­viate all these symptoms is to take frequent breaks from your transla­tion. Stand up and walk around for a couple of minutes every half-hour, and take your eyes off your monitor and focus on a far-away object for 10 or 15 seconds every 10 minutes.

Another important factor is being able to move your keyboard frequently to allow your hands and wrists to work in different positions, as long as they feel natural and you don't force them into a position that may cause strain. Make an effort to turn your workstation into a comfortable place. After all, it is where you spend most of your day. Take care of your body: it's the most important tool you have, and the onlyone you can't replace.

Disclaimer: The information con­tained in this article should not be taken as medical advice. If you are experiencing pain or discomfort, you should consult your physician. This article only provides general guide­lines that are not the last word on what are considered to be ergonomi­cally correct behaviors or postures.

Do what feels right; learn to listen to your body. If something feels uncom­fortable, don't continue doing it.


Taken from the website of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, www.ccohs.ca.

Taken from www.aoanet.org.

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