Keyboards for translators

Posted on: October 8, 2020   in: Features of Chinese

Keyboards for Translators – Discussion

In this article, I’m going to pass-on everything I’ve learned about keyboards over the years.

Translators type practically all day, and sometimes we have to type very fast and be accurate. Therefore, it’s important that we buy and use a comfortable, functional keyboard. In principal our keyboards are probably similar to that of professional typists, but we also need to think a little about multilingual support.

The Telegraph newspaper (not my newspaper of choice to be honest) published a run down of their favourites.

 

One of the many keyboards available on the market
My keyboard in all its glory

Let’s start with the easiest decisions – wireless or wired keyboard.

Wireless or wired?

I’ve owned dozens of keyboards over the years, and I have come to the conclusion that I much prefer wired keyboards. Firstly, the wire doesn’t really get in the way if you have a suitable set up. Secondly, the wire means you don’t need to change batteries right in the middle of a project or when you are late for something. Thirdly, in my experience wired keyboards tend to break less frequently.

Reasons to use a wired keyboard: Less likely to go wrong, easier to connect (no weak Bluetooth, no changing batteries!)

Reasons to use wireless: If you move your computer around a lot, you really have a small space with no room for wires

I would also say you get much more for your money with a wired keyboard. The very best typists keyboards are very rarely wireless, as the bluetooth unit takes up space in the keyboard real-estate.

Keyboards with separate number pads

I personally always buy keyboards which come with little number pads on the right hand side. I use them all the time when I’m entering numbers of almost any length (see my Article on Chinese numbers here). I hardly every use the numbers along the top of the keyboard, and it’s almost impossible to type quickly without one.

The only reason against it would be if you need great portability or you really do lack space on your work station. If you want something portable you might as well just buy a huge laptop, like a 17inch one anyway, so for me this is a no brainer.

Value for money

I will certainly be expanding on this article over the coming weeks, but for now, let me just say, in terms of value for money, it’s hard to beat gaming keyboards. While not perfect for translators, they do offer most of the functions we need, and they tend to have things like response keys and removable keycaps, for a good price.

If money is an issue, get a good mid-range gaming keyboard. I currently use the ADX Ultimate Gaming keyboard. There’s a good rundown of them in articles like THIS ONE in Tech Radar.

If money is not an issue at all you can and should get a dedicated typist keyboard.

Rule 1 – You Probably Need a HEAVY Keyboard

You don’t want a keyboard that bounces up and down as you hit the keys with increasing force throughout the day. You want a good heavy keyboard so the only parts that moves are the keys themselves. Good keyboards should be metal rather than plastic.

Similarly you don’t want a keyboard that is bendy or flexible, you should be able to press fairly hard anywhere on the keyboard without deforming it anywhere else. The more rigid the basic structure, the quicker you will be able to type.

The only reason against that would be if you need portability, but if you do need portability, I would just get a large laptop and leave it at that.

Rule 2 – Buy Once, Buy for Life

If you are serious about translating, you should plan to do it for several years. You don’t want to keep replacing your keyboard during that time. That’s why I recommend paying more for a really good keyboard and looking after it (repairing it as necessary) so you don’t ever need another one. Think of the keyboard like a pet dog. Generally I would say 100 pounds is a cut off, cheaper means you are getting nasty plastic that will snap/bend/break eventually, pricier may mean you are getting a keyboard made from good solid materials.

However, even once you spend some good money, you still need to make sure the keyboard works for you. No two typists would agree on what makes their perfect keyboard.

Rule 3 – Consider LED Backlighting on your Keyboards

I personally like to use keyboards with an LED light. Sometimes, when I’m talking on the phone to a client, trying to drink a cup of tea and also entering a password or something, it’s nice to have that extra light so you can see the key.

If you are really comfortable touch typing, I doubt you will use the backlight often, so I wouldn’t pay too much more for a backlight, but they can be great when you are searching for characters like the } or the @ which I can never find without looking.

Totally unrelated note, I also recommend getting a task light and pointing it round your keyboard and mouse area. It means your eyes really don’t have to work as hard.

Rule 4 – Get Mechanical Keyboards

A mechanical keyboard has a physical mechanism behind each key that holds the key and gives you just enough resistance, before pushing the key back to its natural position when you take your finger off. You want every key to take the same exact force to press down, you don’t want some letter that are too easy and some that are too hard. Each individual key needs to have its own individual mechanism (these are usually called “switches”).

There’s very little worse than trying to type on a glass screen for any length of time. You need that tactile resistance so you know when the key has been depressed. You should be able to type by sound, without the need for reading as you type. You should be reading what you are ABOUT TO type. Don’t get me started on those rubber keyboards either, yuck.

Rule 5 – Get the Right Keycaps

The keycap is the plastic bit that covers the switch. It’s what we might call the actual key on the keyboard. Keycaps should be firm enough not to bend or do anything weird when you press them. They should be the right size for your fingers (you don’t want to be pressing two keys at once because of your fat fingers, nor do you want to feel like you are having your fingers tortured when you type).

You probably want two switches under the space bar or longer or bigger keys like the carriage return, or at least a special mechanism, you don’t want to have a spacebar that only works if you hit it just on that perfect spot.

Rule 6 – Test, Test, Test

Once you are looking at a bunch of keyboards that fit your needs, the next step is to test, test, test. The problem is that the best mechanical keyboards can usually only be purchased from specialist stores online like THIS ONE.  So it’s pretty hard to physically get your hands on them. The only answer I can suggest is talking to other freelancers and seeing if you can have a play on their keyboard one day. There are millions of meetups for translators which are really useful for things like that.

Rule 7 – Throw Keyboards Away PROPERLY

Don’t put your old keyboard in the bin. What a waste. Repair it for as long as possible. Buy new keycaps, replace switches, wipe the circuits with alcohol if you spill on them. Keep them running. Let’s not add to our environmental damage unnecessarily. If you need to get rid of the keyboard, at least take it to a charity shop.