…and why we’re so bad at it
If you’re anything like me, you’re not specially good at following instructions. We have the best intentions, of course, but with time pressure and having several jobs on the go at once, it’s so easy to forget or ignore them. And sometimes they can be so long-winded and dull. It’s much easier to follow common sense and hope for the best, and I confess I’ve been as guilty of that approach as the next translator.
But whether or not we follow clients’ instructions can make a big difference to them. At worst, failure to do so can cost them hours spent picking up the pieces. At best, it’s an annoyance that may well affect their willingness to work with us again. And it’s not just agency customers who give us instructions, sometimes direct clients also want things done in a certain way, to particular specifications.
Why people don’t follow instructions and what to do about it, was the subject of one of the best presentations at the recent ELIA conference in Barcelona by Marco Neves, of the Eurologos agency in Lisbon. His approach wasn’t to wag his finger at lazy, miscreant translators, but rather to look for ways to make it easier for both sides to get things right.
Not surprisingly, he found that the main reason we find it difficult to follow instructions is that they are often difficult to follow. Keeping instructions short and simple is essential if translators are to take any notice of them. How many times have we been sent pages of long-winded, badly written guidelines, only to stop reading after the third or fourth paragraph full of demands ranging from the obvious to the impractical and just get on with the job? Instructions should also be proportionate. There is no point in expecting a translator to read endless paragraphs in order to work on a translation that represents only half an hour of actual work.
But, having boiled down the instructions to the absolute minimum, Marco wants to make sure they are actually followed. To find out how this, he investigated best practice among professionals whose failure to follow procedures would have far worse consequences than causing irritating extra work for a project manager or end client: surgeons and airline pilots. What he discovered was that, in their vital work, they make use of simple checklists in which they are asked questions by a nurse or copilot and answer them aloud. This, he thought, could be adopted in translation, producing simple checklists delivered with the instructions to help translators make sure they had done exactly as they were asked, confirming that they had done each necessary task.
These are not the long screeds with items to be ticked off that we all know and hate. Instead they are highly simplified and, where possible, broken down into groups of about three tasks, which turns out to be the optimum number if you want the checks actually to be carried out and not blindly ticked off (yes, I’ve been guilty of that one too). Marco’s agency sends these checklists out with its translations, but it is perfectly possible to make your own if you receive a job laden with instructions if you follow his golden rules: keep it simple and remember the rule of three.
What impressed me about Marco’s approach, and makes me believe it would be successful, is the fact that it is based on recognising that translators (and clients for that matter) are human beings and that it is far better to work with that fact than to berate one another for it. It was also a welcome attempt to tackle a real cause of friction in translator-agency relations at a conference where, for all the good intentions, the presentations often failed to rise above the superficial, obvious or just plain daft, as you can read in my two previous posts about ELIA: here and here.
Great post, Simon. This couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m teaching a module on specialised translation PT-EN on the Masters in Translation in Coimbra and just this week I was talking to my students about the importance of following instructions. Of course I was referring to homework, but was using it as a reminder of how they would need to follow their clients’ instructions in the future! I’ve already recommended your blog to them, but will be sending out an email today with this post! Thanks 🙂
Thanks, Phillippa, glad to be of service. Of course the credit really belongs to Marco for his great presentation. Maybe he’d come and talk to your students, he’s not so far away. I hope things are going well for you in Coimbra.