Why Ergonomics Matters to Professional Translators

A research project studying the workplace of freelance, institution-based, and company-based staff translators highlights the connection between ergonomic conditions and productivity, health, and job satisfaction.

Why ergonomics? Most translators probably associate the term “ergonomics” with office chairs, keyboards, and computer mice. These factors are all relevant, but the definition put forth by the International Ergonomics Association (IEA) is much broader:

Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data, and methods to design in order to optimize human well being and overall system performance.1

The IEA differentiates physical ergonomics (i.e., concerning bodily safety and comfort) from cognitive (i.e., affecting concentration and mental processing) and organizational ergonomics (i.e., related to policies and work processes). Although the three areas overlap, they all matter to professional translators, who spend long hours sitting at computers carrying out challenging cognitive work while juggling deadlines and the expectations of their organizations and clients, who demand high-quality work.

The complexity of their tasks has been accentuated within the past few years with an increasing reliance on language technology such as computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools. Since most of the ergonomic advice about office work is quite general and based on other professions, we decided to find out about the ergonomics of translation with the help of professional translators.2

Workplace Ergonomics

In a recently completed project in Switzerland, translators were visited at their workplaces by a team of occupational therapy and translation studies researchers. The team observed translators as they worked and assessed various aspects of the work environment, such as the furniture, workstation layout, and computer peripherals, as well as ambient noise, lighting, room temperature, and humidity. They wanted to determine whether any of these might represent risk factors for health and influence translators’ work performance and well being.3

The size of the work surfaces in most cases were considered ergonomically appropriate (i.e., 50 x 30 inches), but some of the surfaces could cause glare, were cold to the touch, or wobbled slightly, and many were not at the right height for the translator sitting or standing at them. Although many of the translators had reasonably good office chairs, they were not making optimal use of them. For example, most didn’t know how to adjust their chairs to allow their thighs to be in a horizontal or slightly downward sloping position. They also didn’t realize how important it was to adjust the height of the backrest to support their lumbar zone properly and for their feet to be flat on the ground. This lack of awareness might explain why translators with relatively poor ergonomic workplaces reported significantly more problems with their knees than those with ergonomic workplaces.

The non-ergonomic picture was similar with respect to the workstation layout. In most cases, the position of the computer screen forced translators to bend their necks to look up or to the side. Only one translator had her keyboard flat on the surface directly in front of her. Most translators positioned the screen too far away and had to stretch their arms to type or bend their wrists because they had their keyboard at an awkward angle. Half the translators didn’t have the documents they were using positioned between the keyboard and the computer screen, as recommended, but instead had them at the side or between themselves and the keyboard. In light of these results, it’s not surprising that the most frequent health complaints reported concerned the eyes (e.g., eyestrain or other eye disorders), the shoulder, and the neck, especially among those with relatively poor physical ergonomics.

One-quarter of the workplaces visited were much noisier than recommended (i.e., registering over 65 dB), and many were warmer than what is generally considered a comfortable room temperature (i.e., over 73° Fahrenheit). On a more positive note, all of the workplaces visited were draft-free and most had comfortable relative humidity (i.e., 30–65%). Lighting was flicker-free, but could not be dimmed at most of the workplaces. Glare was also a problem at several desks and computer screens.

Ergonomics of Professional Translation

The results of an international online survey with respondents from almost 50 countries basically confirm that the findings mentioned above are not limited to translators in Switzerland.4 The number of respondents (1,850) also allows for interesting comparisons between freelance, institution-based (e.g., those working for the EU Commission), and company-based translators.

Compared to the other two groups, freelancers are much less likely to have a dedicated workstation, a large enough working surface, or an adjustable chair, and are more likely to use a laptop without any peripherals. This probably leads to health issues because of poor posture. Freelancers are also the most likely of the three groups to report neck pain and stiffness. Since many freelancers probably work in a room by themselves, they should exploit their freedom and take regular breaks and change position more often to avoid physical strain.

Despite having more ergonomic workplaces with respect to furniture and equipment, institutional- and company-based translators are almost as likely as freelancers to identify their chair as the workplace feature most in need of ergonomic improvement (see Figure 1 above). Institutional- and company-based staff translators differ from freelancers with respect to how much control they have over their environment. Even institutional translators, who are much more likely to have private offices than company-based translators, complain that they cannot control the temperature, airflow, lighting, or ambient noise at their workplaces (see the bottom of Figure 1). This lack of control can affect not only comfort and job satisfaction, but also concentration levels and even health.

Figure 1. Workplace features that should be more ergonomic by group (%)

Figure 1. Workplace features that should be more ergonomic by group (%)

Ergonomics of Translation Technology

As mentioned above, ergonomics also touches on cognitive aspects. Physical and organizational constraints will no doubt have an impact on cognition, as will the technology translators use. CAT tools have been around for many years, but there is some evidence from our research, and from that of others, that translators are not always entirely satisfied with the tools they use, though they generally find them helpful.5

From our survey results, it’s clear that not all translators use CAT tools (about 70% of freelancers, and about 80% of institutional- and company-based translators report doing so). However, half the freelancers and institutional translators surveyed who use CAT tools keep the default settings instead of exploiting the possibilities that exist to customize the tools to suit their own ergonomic needs. This might be because customization is too complicated. The reason that company-based translators are more likely to change the default settings might be that they have special training or technical support. In addition, well over half of the translators surveyed report that there are aspects about their CAT tools that irritate them, suggesting that there is much room for improvement in terms of the ergonomics of current translation technology. In particular, they complain about the complexity of user interfaces and forced segmentation of text.6

As machine translation (MT) becomes more dominant in some sectors of the translation profession, new cognitive challenges have emerged. For instance, post-editing has been introduced as a relatively new task for some translators. MT is now regularly mixed in with translation memory, blurring the boundaries between it and MT. In addition, new developments such as “interactive MT” or “adaptive MT” are changing the nature of the task. It’s regularly assumed that these innovations are disruptive and increase the cognitive load of the translation task in general. However, research studies are starting to show that this is not necessarily the case.7 A recent focus-group study carried out by us involving 70 translators from the European Commission’s Directorate General for Translation demonstrated that translators can have both negative and positive attitudes toward MT. On the positive side, translators mentioned that when the MT engine is good and the text type appropriate, it can act as a stimulus for them during the translation process.8


A greater appreciation of the importance of ergonomic equipment, technology, settings, and systems should contribute to translators and companies designing more efficient and user-oriented workplaces, tools, and workflows. We believe this will not only decrease the health risks associated with what has always been a desk-bound activity; it will also optimize the ergonomics of increasingly technology-driven workplaces. In turn, this will allow translators to do what they do best instead of wasting time and energy dealing with non-ergonomic conditions, interfaces, and tools.
Based on our research, we can make the following recommendations:

  • Optimize the conditions of your workplace as much possible rather than simply adapting to them and risking long-term health problems (see the additional resources at the end or consult an ergonomist).
  • Take breaks frequently and change your posture regularly.
  • Consider alternative modes of working (e.g., speech as input instead of text, standing while working).
  • Take the time to customize the translation technology you use to fit your needs.
  • Insist on good ergonomics in your own organization and from your software suppliers.
  • Increase awareness of ergonomics through professional development in your networks.

The degree of interest that our work has received from professional translators all over the world tells us that they recognize that ergonomics matters and want it to be improved at their workplaces. We hope that our research and this article contribute to heightening awareness of this important issue.

  1. “Definition and Domains of Ergonomics” (International Ergonomics Association), www.iea.cc/whats.
  2. We would like to thank the translators and their employers for letting us into their workplaces and acknowledge the support of our teams and the funding agencies that made this research possible. For more information, visit the ErgoTrans project website at www.zhaw.ch/linguistics/ergotrans.
  3. Meidert, Ursula, Silke Neumann, Maureen Ehrensberger-Dow, and Heidrun Becker. “Physical Ergonomics at Translators’ Workplaces: Findings from Ergonomic Workplace Assessments and Interviews,” ILCEA, Volume 27 (Institut des Langues et des Cultures d’Europe et d’Amérique, 2016), http://ilcea.revues.org/3996.
  4. Ehrensberger-Dow, Maureen, Andrea Hunziker Heeb, Gary Massey, Ursula Meidert, Silke Neumann, and Heidrun Becker. “An International Survey of the Ergonomics of Professional Translation,” ILCEA, Volume 27 (Institut des Langues et des Cultures d’Europe et d’Amérique, 2016), http://ilcea.revues.org/4004.
  5. Moorkens, Joss, and Sharon O’Brien. “Assessing User Interface Needs of Post-Editors of Machine Translation,” In Dorothy Kenny (Editor), IATIS Yearbook: Human Issues in Translation Technology (U.K.: Routledge, Forthcoming, 2017).
  6. O’Brien, Sharon, Maureen Ehrensberger-Dow, Marcel Hasler, and Megan Connolly. “Irritating CAT Tool Features that Matter to Translators,” Hermes—Journal of Language and Communication Studies, Special Issue on Translation Technology (Forthcoming, 2017).
  7. O’Brien, Sharon. “Processing Fuzzy Matches in Translation Memory Tools: An Eye-Tracking Analysis,” Copenhagen Studies in Language, Volume 36 (Samfundslitteratur, 2008), 79–102.
  8. Cadwell, Patrick, Sheila Castilho, Sharon O’Brien, and Linda Mitchell. “Human Factors in Machine Translation and Post-Editing Among Institutional Translators,” Translation Spaces, Volume 5, Issue 2 (2016), 222–243.

Additional Resources

International Ergonomics Association

ErgoCheck: An Ergonomic Work Environment (Swiss Federal Coordination Commission for Occupational Safety)

Office Ergonomics Fact Sheets (Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety) www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/ergonomics/office

Office Ergonomics: Simple Solutions for Comfort and Safety (SAIF Corporation)

Sharon O’Brien is a senior lecturer in translation studies in the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies at Dublin City University (DCU) in Ireland. She has been teaching and researching translation studies since 2000, and has a particular interest in the human factors pertaining to translation technology. She is a funded researcher in the ADAPT Research Center, which is supported by Science Foundation Ireland. She has also been the director of the Centre for Translation and Textual Studies at DCU for over three years. Contact: sharon.obrien@dcu.ie.

Maureen Ehrensberger-Dow is a professor of translation studies in the Institute of Translation and Interpreting at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland. Originally a monolingual Canadian trained as a linguist, she moved to Switzerland in 1985 and has been involved in translation ever since she learned German. Her research interests include professional translation processes, ergonomics, human-computer interactions, workplace practice, and translation training. She led the interdisciplinary research project Cognitive and Physical Ergonomics of Translation (ErgoTrans), a follow-up to the Capturing Translation Processes project. She also co-led an interdisciplinary project on language barriers in homecare nursing. Contact: ehre@zhaw.ch.

2 Responses to "Why Ergonomics Matters to Professional Translators"

  1. Irene Radillo D., FCCI, CHI, CEAS says:

    Very well-researched and presented article. Ergonomics is a favorite topic of mine, which is why I presented it at the ATA Conference #55 in 2014: Your Body, Your Most Neglected Tool: Ergonomics for Translators. I was pleased to see a lot of interest in the audience, and sad to hear many stories of preventable problems. In my years working first as an Occupational Therapist, and now as an interpreter/translator, I am always surprised to see how people set up their work spaces, and how little thought is given frequently to the importance of PREVENTING injury or fatigue. People seem to gravitate to this or that “miracle” product while not seeing the big picture, which is: no matter how ideal your work station is, it is not meant to be used for hours at a time, and the fact that one solution does not work for every person. We need to incorporate movement and positional change. Thanks for your article!

  2. Fiza says:

    Not many articles address this important aspect in independent translation business hence kudos to the writers!

Comments are closed.

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