Paying attention to what you’re looking at will improve your life, both personally and professionally.
The following was originally published on Next Level: The ATA Business Practices Blog. This initiative by ATA’s Business Practices Education Committee provides information for both freelancers and company owners to use in all aspects of their careers, from improving their privacy protections to planning for retirement.
How much time do you spend each day looking at some type of screen? Do you work on a computer, use a tablet to look up terms while interpreting, or spend long periods staring at your phone? Have you ever noticed a headache coming on while you work, or have your eyes started to feel dry and irritated? These may be signs your eyes have been working too hard.
Since the pandemic drove large swathes of employees and students to remote work and virtual learning, experts have stepped up warnings about the possible adverse health effects of ubiquitous screen use, especially for our eyes. The potential issues are manifold, encompassing digital eyestrain, headaches, neck or back soreness from poor posture, and a variety of short- and long-term risks associated with excessive exposure to the blue light emanating from all those screens.
Computers, LED televisions, phones, tablets, and even some modern light bulbs expose our eyes to increasing amounts of light on the blue end of the spectrum. Blue light triggers alertness in the human body. This can be a good thing at lunchtime when you have a full afternoon of work ahead. Working late, however, may make it difficult for you to sleep well because the light from the computer screen tells your body to stay awake. Limiting exposure later in the day, especially when preparing to sleep, will help reduce the risk of insomnia or other sleep cycle disturbances.
Researchers have also found links between blue light exposure and decreasing amounts of macular pigment in the eyes. The macula, or the back of the retina inside the eye, usually contains a substance that can block some of the light waves from the blue end of the spectrum. Individual optometrists and ophthalmologists have shown concern about low macular pigment leading to eye problems1, including:
- Decreased visual acuity (the ability to see clearly)
- Decreased contrast sensitivity (the ability to distinguish between lighter and darker objects)
- Light sensitivity (discomfort in bright light)
- Difficulty seeing while driving at night
Some studies2 have even suggested a potential link between lack of macular pigment and increased risk of age-related macular degeneration, a disease that causes vision loss in the center of your field of vision. Eye doctors can measure the macular pigment optical density (MPOD) in their patients’ eyes and counsel them on the use of supplements, special coatings on prescription eyeglasses, or special blue light glasses to help block some blue light from reaching and potentially damaging the retina.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) believes that special lenses are unnecessary for reducing the amount of blue light reaching your eyes. The AAO agrees, however, that excessive use of digital screens is causing eye problems for many and states that blue light alone cannot be blamed. The way we use screens, holding them too close and staring at them for too long without blinking, can also cause several temporary problems classified together as digital eyestrain. Symptoms include tired or itchy eyes, blurred vision, dry or watery eyes, difficulty concentrating, and even neck or back pain from changes in posture while staring at the screen.3
As translators and interpreters, we need to protect our vision if we want to work productively. Given the nature of our jobs, however, and our dependence on computers for everything from term research to remote simultaneous interpreting, avoiding screen use altogether is simply impossible. How can we strike a balance between using technology to work and avoiding health problems caused by overusing our eyes in the process?
General Recommendations for Preventing Eyestrain and Blue Light Overexposure
The AAO and independent eye care specialists suggest several measures we can take to improve our eye health while using digital devices. Consider whether any of the following steps may help protect your vision.
Blink: Sometimes people run into trouble with screens because they stare at them for too long. Even regular blinking can help prevent your eyes from drying out and becoming strained.
Use the 20-20-20 Rule: Every 20 minutes, spend 20 seconds looking at something 20 feet away from you. Eye specialists often recommend this technique to help you give your eyes a chance to recover from staring at the bright screen. People who use the Pomodoro Technique4 to focus and manage their time or take regular breaks from work are also giving their eyes a rest when they give their brains some time off.
Keep Lighting Consistent: A bright screen in a dark room will cause your eyes to work overtime. Try to keep your screen brightness similar to the lighting in your workspace.
Adjust Contrast: Low contrast on the screen can make it difficult for you to distinguish text or objects from the background. This problem increases with age (the age of the translator, unfortunately, not the age of the screen). Using high-contrast settings can make it easier for your eyes to tell what’s what.
Reduce Glare: Glare on the screen will also increase the workload on your eyes. Adjust your work setup to reduce glare or invest in a matte screen filter.
Adjust Your Position: Thinking about ergonomics can help your back, neck, hands, and eyes. Be sure to sit up properly and try to keep the screen at least 25 inches away from your face. The distance will help you tolerate light from the screen better.
Use Artificial Tears: If your eyes get dry, a little bottle of artificial tears can provide instant relief.
Get an Eye Exam: If you’re working with an undiagnosed condition like myopia (nearsightedness), or if your eyeglass prescription is outdated, you may be squinting at the screen unknowingly. An optometrist or ophthalmologist can diagnose any problems, check your MPOD, and make recommendations for your eye health.
Use Computer Glasses: Some eye doctors will suggest the use of eyeglasses that help your eyes focus at the distance your computer screen normally sits from your eyes. These glasses are not the same as blue light glasses, which block blue light from reaching your retinas. The AAO says blue light glasses are not proven to help anyone and doesn’t recommend their use.
Try Supplements: If you have low MPOD, eating food high in lutein and zeaxanthin can help increase your macular pigment density. These foods include greens like kale or spinach and yellow and orange foods like corn or citrus. The American Macular Degeneration Foundation offers a helpful chart of foods high in lutein and zeaxanthin.5 If you can’t or won’t eat enough of these foods, supplements are also available.
Extra Tips for Translators and Interpreters
The specialized nature of our work calls for some specific measures to avoid straining our eyes. See if you can incorporate some of the following practices to give your eyes a break during the workday:
Keep Your Paper Dictionaries: Online access to dictionaries is convenient, but looking up words online requires you to stare at the screen. Give your eyes an occasional break by pulling your trusty old behemoths out from under your monitor and using them for their intended purpose.
Edit on Printouts: Many translators prefer to edit their work on paper because they catch errors more easily than they would on the computer screen. Editing on paper also allows your eyes some time away from the screen. The paper can then be shredded and recycled to keep your workspace clean and landfills less crowded.
Learn Touch Typing: If you never learned traditional touch typing and need to look at the keyboard and screen to produce a translation, try to learn this skill. You’ll be able to look away from the screen while you work, saving your eyes further strain. I even like to type with my eyes closed sometimes to give them a break.
Use Your Voice: Many translators prefer to dictate their translations using software like Dragon Naturally Speaking. If you read the source text on paper and dictate the translation, your eyes won’t have to work so hard.
Opt for Phone Calls Rather than Zoom or Skype: Use video conferencing when it makes sense, but if you don’t need to share screens or look at information together during your talk, using the phone may be the better option.
Try Add-Ins and Extensions: Device settings on computers, tablets, phones, and e-readers can be adjusted to increase yellow light and decrease blue light use. While these settings are helpful, you may want additional options. Blue light filtering programs6 are available in both free and paid versions, and browser add-ins can offer additional options while conducting online searches. Lately, I’ve been playing with Screen Shader, a Google Chrome extension that allows me to customize the pixel settings on most pages opened in my Chrome browser. Other add-ons may be available for Edge and Safari, and some programs can be operated in dark mode, which may be easier on your eyes over long periods.
These measures should help protect your eyes from digital eyestrain and potential damage like cataracts or age-related macular degeneration. They will also help regulate exposure to yellow and blue light, which can help you stay alert during the day and sleep better at night.
In short, paying attention to what you’re looking at will improve your life, both personally and professionally. You might improve your sleep patterns, improve your diet by adding foods high in lutein and zeaxanthin, protect your vision in both the short- and long-term, and make your working hours more productive by reducing strain on your eyes. While the jury is still out on some of the causes and effects of excessive screen exposure, especially those related to blue light, taking steps to protect your eyes from excessive strain can only help you in the long run.
- “MPOD—Macular Pigment Ocular Density” (Vision Source, 2022). Also see: Kar, Deepon. “The Role of Macular Pigment Optical Density in Ocular Health,” Retina (August 2022).
- Heesterbeek, Thomas J., Laura Lorés-Motta, Carel B. Hoyng, Yara T. E. Lechanteur, and Anneke I. den Hollander. “Risk Factors for Progression of Age-Related Macular Degeneration,” Ophthalmic & Physiological Optics (February 2020). Also see: Lew, Drake W., Pinakin Gunvant Davey, Dennis L. Gierhart, and Richard B. Rosen. “A Systematic Review of Carotenoids in the Management of Age-Related Macular Degeneration,” Antioxidants (August 2021).
- Symptoms and Causes of Eyestrain (Mayo Clinic).
- Click here to learn more about the Pomodoro Technique.
- Chart of Lutein and Zeaxanthin Concentration in Fruits and Vegetables (American Macular Degeneration Foundation).
- Tengyuen, Ngan. “9 Free Blue Light Filters for Desktop Windows PC, Apple Mac, and Chrome Browser” (Gecko & Fly, January 2022).
Danielle Maxson, CT has been translating since 2009 and specializes in medical translation with a focus on patient records. She is an ATA-certified Portuguese>English and Spanish>English translator. She is also chair of ATA’s Business Practices Education Committee and one of the blogmasters for Next Level: The ATA Business Practices Blog. Before focusing on translation, she worked as a Spanish teacher and a medical interpreter. firstname.lastname@example.org