Can changing the background colour in your CAT tool make you a healthier, better and more productive translator?

Can changing the background colour in your CAT tool make you a healthier, better and more productive translator?

One of my all-time favourite resources available on is Universal Principles of Design. The series deserves a blog post on its own, so I’ll just let you savour it in your own time – I am sure you will find its episodes both surprising and satisfying. The thing that caught my attention at the beginning of August and has been simmering in my head before prompting this blog post is how colour catches our attention and influences our perception. I was really surprised to hear that yellow – and especially greenish yellow – is more visible to the human eye than other nuances traditionally believed to stand out the most. If the story checks out, apparently yellow fire-trucks are more visible than red ones, and when yellow was used, accidents involving drivers not getting out of the way or driving into the trucks by mistake fell by 2/3. Because of firemen’s morale, though, apparently red replaced yellow soon afterwards to give the brave big boys their toys back (how fascinatingly messed up men are… Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse” jumps to mind… but I digress!)

So if yellow did really make things more visible and increased attention, customising your CAT interface may both increase your well-being and productivity, hopefully also helping with the quality of the end product, as well as the overall ergonomics of your translation tech set-up?

Many of us have heard of the writer’s block which sometimes affects translators, as well: we read a bit of the source text, and then we look at the white piece of paper or the white target segment area and we’re not sure how to start (please, MT engine, give me a hint! Just this once, I promise! Right…). That’s why some of us use speech recognition technology: we find it easier to start speaking a rough draft of the translation rather than type and then erase our false starts.

So we know intuitively that a blank screen is terrifying. We also know (thanks to eye-tracking studies conducted by researchers like Michael Carl, Barbara Dragsted and Arnt Lykke Jackobsen┬ásince 2010) that translators don’t actually read the entire segment before they start translating in their CAT tool, but rather read in chunks, translate, go back and forth, read ahead and go back in the source text, too. From a cognitive and ergonomic point of view, this is a resource-intensive process and it’s quite a miracle that professional translators cope so well with the complex environment they work with, and do not make a lot of mistakes as a rule rather than as an exception, given the many areas of focus in a CAT tool:

  1. source segment (words, but also tags);
  2. target segment (where do these tags go??);
  3. previous source and target segments;
  4. subsequent source segments;
  5. document preview (if available; incidentally, the lack of accurate previews for all file types must be one of the biggest gripes that I have heard);
  6. TM, TD, and portions area (assuming they are presented altogether in one area rather than split in individual little boxes scattered across the CAT interface);
  7. CAT menu items at the top of the window with various helpful functionalities;
  8. additional useful info, such as time spent, edit distance, segment length, etc, at the bottom of the window;
  9. 9-infinity: external resources and browser windows/CAT tool pop-ups/hard copies of useful reference material

A typical CAT tool interface (in fact, this example is less busy than in the case of other CAT tools available)

In these cognitively-demanding circumstances, how do you maintain a high level of attention? Which environment would keep you most engaged? The plain white one or the colourful one? Are you really, *really* sure about your answer?

memoQ editing environment with the default colour scheme (left) and with alternating yellow row background (right)

I hope I will not be misunderstood:

  • I am not criticising any CAT tool in particular for having complex editing environments – in general, this complexity is the result of the developers actually listening to their users and adding features which the user community requested;
  • I am not blaming them for giving translators blank sheets of paper, either: they followed the tradition of writing on white paper, then in a white MS Word and we didn’t really argue with that. As long as they allow users to customise this feature (not all do, and not equally well), we’re all still friends.
  • I am not saying that by changing the background colour of your CAT tool editing environment you will all increase the quality of your output by 25%.

What I am saying is that:

  • fairly inconclusive studies which are fairly hard to dig up and which generally have nothing to do with translation studies suggest that taking an exam on a pastel-coloured sheet of paper sometimes leads to slightly better grades (please note I used “fairly”, “generally” and “sometimes” in that previous sentence);
  • yellow appears to make everything more visible to the human eye, is a warm colour, and does not suffer from the problems associated with cultural interpretations of red, for instance;
  • the majority of us (all of us even?) have been taking it for granted that we should be translating in CAT tools on white backgrounds (to be fair, too, as I mentioned already, not all CAT tools allow in fact the users to change the background colour anyway, but there are a few which do).

What about you? What has your experience with CAT tool background colour changes been? Please let me know and contribute to our community!