Don’t make a drama out of a crisis

Don’t make a drama out of a crisis

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Survival tips for when you get it all wrong

This time last week I was in a mess. Without going into dull details, on Monday I discovered I’d got myself confused over the number of words I was going to have to translate by Wednesday lunchtime and it looked as if I was going to have to find an extra day somewhere in between to get through them all. The prospects for my planned new exercise regime were looking distinctly unhealthy as I was going to be glued to my chair for the foreseeable future. It’s a sickly feeling all translators know very well. But by Wednesday morning the worst was over, and I even managed to get to the swimming pool that day. So I’ve decided to write this blog to illustrate a few things anyone can do to stop these crisis situations driving us into the ground.

1. Don’t get in a mess in the first place

Facetious but true. I had been confused by job deadlines changing at the last minute, but the information was all there in plenty of time. I just hadn’t taken it in properly. If we take a little bit more trouble to look at orders and fill in whatever diary system we use, we can save ourselves an awful lot of difficulties.

2. Ask for help

Customers are not monsters. A lot of them have been in difficult situations too and, if you have a good relationship, they’ll know you wouldn’t ask to extend a deadline unless you really needed to. So why not do it? In this case, my customer said that the Wednesday lunchtime deadline, as it was only a partial one, didn’t matter too much and I could have a few more precious hours. And if you can’t get an extension, why not think about outsourcing some of the work to a helpful colleague? Even if you don’t make money on the job, you’ll keep your customer. But be careful. It’s best to tell your customer first if you’re going to do this, and remember you’ll have to allow time to check your colleague’s work. Don’t forget help at home too. Can your partner take on any of the domestic chores you were planning to do? Could he/she fetch the children from school instead of you? In my case, my wife was wonderful and told me not to do anything around the house for a couple of days so I could concentrate on digging myself out of the hole I was in.

3. Keep calm and translate

I’m not a fan of all thosekeep-calm-and-translate-2 “Keep calm and…” posters, but in this case they express exactly what you need to do. When the crisis first hits, it’s tempting to curl up in a ball or run round the house screaming, but those are the last things you should do. While you think about how you’re going to handle the problem, keep working. Every word you translate is one less you’ll have left to do. Not only that, solving translation problems will take your mind off your deadline difficulties. Remember, though, when you do work out a solution, it’s almost certain to involve working extra hours. Rethink your plans and cancel all unnecessary activities. For me, a well-planned late shift broke the back of the job and had me feeling much more in control.

4. Ditch distractions

As well as putting in the hours, you need to make yourself more productive, and that means eliminating distractions. Do you know how many more words you can translate if you work in blocks of time and strictly limit Internet use? Neither did I, but turned out to be quite astonishing. What I did was have a quick look at my CAT tool’s word counter every 15 minutes to see how many more words I’d done. That was a good morale booster, as I watched the huge total go down, but it was also an early warning system if I was tending to get distracted. Every 30 minutes I allowed myself to check my e-mails. The results of working this way impressed me so much I’m going to try to keep it up even when I’m not under siege.

5. Just say no

Of course, distractions can also take the form of other jobs you may be offered. Even you’re translating fast and it seems as if you’re going to put things right, you simply mustn’t take anything else on. Whoever you might disappoint, when you’re in one of these situations, “no” must mean no. There are different ways of saying it though, other than the bald two-letter word, and if you are tempted to take a particular job you know you really can’t manage, it’s certainly worth asking whether the deadline is flexible. If you explain that you’re extremely busy but you won’t be at the end of the week, most customers will accommodate you if they can. If not, remain firm. You mustn’t make that hole you’re in any deeper.

6. What goes around, comes around

Sometimes you underestimate the time you’ll need for a job and sometimes you overestimate it. It’s one of the laws of translation. And sometimes you get good luck just when you need it. In my case, the stroke of fortune was discovering a large number of internal repetitions in my translation, which meant that, when I used MemoQ, the word total went down much quicker than I’d expected. I suppose the lesson here again is that I should have been better prepared. Had I analysed the file earlier, I would have known about the repetitions and perhaps I wouldn’t have been so worried in the first place.

7. Don’t forget to check

A big temptation when you’re short of time, but one that must be resisted, is to skimp on your revision and editing processes. In fact, if anything, they’re even more important when you’re working extra hours, because you’re hardly likely to produce your best translations at three o’clock in the morning. So make sure you don’t drop the revision and try to do it when you’re most alert. If you do stay up until three translating, for example, go to bed and do the editing in the morning. Your customer will thank you for it.

8. Don’t close your eyes

When you’re in trouble, there’s a temptation to see any job offer as more of a threat than an opportunity and to ignore the kind of leads you’d usually follow up in search of work. But all crises come to an end, and next week you’re going to need new challenges, so there isn’t any need to turn away work if it really is compatible with what you’re doing. So when in the middle of my crisis last week I saw an e-mail on a translation jobs list I belong to offering an interesting potential job including long-term cooperation I knew I shouldn’t give in to the temptation to scream “I’m busy” and bin it. This was a worthwhile distraction, and I took a ten-minute break to write an e-mail and send off a CV and rates. The result: I start work next week with a new customer.

9. Don’t let crisis become the norm

You’ve come through. The rush is over, you’ve had to work a late night or two, but you’ve handed the job in at the agreed time. It wasn’t so bad really, was it? Well, yes it was. Anyone can put in extra effort for a day or two, but if you do the same week after week you’re going to get burned out and produce poor work. Nor are customers and partners going to be prepared to help you time and time again. So you really need to learn from these crisis situations to keep them to a minimum. The more I work in this business, the more I realise that I can never do enough planning and preparation. Whenever I cut corners on them, I get found out.

10. Accidents will happen

However much you plan, though, a crisis can still happen. Computer malfunctions, awkward formats, madamsisbehaving files and so on can all mean you need more time that you expect for a job. So don’t be too critical of yourself when you get in a mess. It really doesn’t help and if you can identify the causes and vow to eliminate them for another time you can even take something positive from it as you race the dreaded deadline.

Which brings me back to the writer Douglas Adams, whose slogan from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sits at the top of this blog. Adams was a notorious deadline misser and it was only because he was so talented that publishers and producers used to let him get away with it. I was reminded last week of one of my favourite quotes of his. “I love deadlines,” wrote Adams. “I like the whooshing sound they make as they go by.” He’d have made a dreadful translator, of course. Listening to that whooshing is a luxury none of us can afford.


  1. Marie Jackson

    What a great article! I somehow missed it the first time around, so I’m glad you reposted it. I agree with pretty much everything here 🙂


      Thank you, Marie. I’ll keep up the reposting then.


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