How (and how not) to cope with big projects
A couple of weeks ago I won my freedom, or at least that’s what it felt like. I finally completed a series of big translation and revision projects that had kept me in what amounted to professional lockdown for more that two months. I’m now once again able to take on the projects I want without worrying about where I’m going to find the time to do them. I don’t have the pressure of knowing I still have thousands and thousands of words to translate and revise by a week on Thursday. And it feels great.
It was certainly a very unusual way to start the year. I’m used to January being a bit of a struggle, with things gradually picking up into February and March. 2018, though, has been different. It actually started last November with a phone call. Was I interested in translating a book? Well, as it turned out to be a historical study right up my street, of course I was. So I found myself one morning in Barcelona’s atmospheric Ateneu meeting the author and the publisher of the book.
“This has always been a place for conspiracies,” said the publisher, looking round the lounge where we sat with our coffees. “They still go on in here even today.” My eyes followed his gaze around the leather armchairs and into the dark corners of the room. I could well believe it, especially in the feverish political context of last autumn in Catalonia. But the only conspiracy we were hatching was for me to translate the best part of 100,000 words, one of the biggest jobs I’ve ever tackled. I had plenty of time to do it, and the deadline wasn’t rigid, but it triggered a series of events that led to my becoming “trapped”.
My big mistake was to fill up all the “gap days” I’d negotiated when agreeing the deadline for the history book so that I’d also be able to take on a little other work every week. The problem was that almost immediately along came a client demanding to pay in advance for a job that would fill more or less all this time I’d set aside. I felt I couldn’t say no, and the lockdown began so I was more or less forced to turn everything else away for two months.
Then another client popped up to remind me that I’d promised to revise his book, which was almost as long as the one I was translating. This wasn’t so much a last straw to break the translator’s back as an enormous tree trunk. I resisted. I even went as far as to sound out some colleagues about the possibility of them doing the job for my client and I told him it would be out of the question for me to do the job by the deadline he had given me but that I could arrange for an alternative. But it was no good, he wouldn’t budge: it had to be me. At this point I discovered that his deadline was more flexible than I had thought, so I gave him the earliest possible date I could, more than a month later than the one he had initially told me, and astonishingly he accepted. Now I was saved, but the lockdown had been extended by almost two weeks. It was going to be a long winter, especially as I was rapidly developing symptoms of the flu and somewhere into all this I had to fit in a trip to England to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday.
But I set to work, and really I can’t complain about the progress of the various projects. The work was interesting, I managed to keep my discipline and do it by more or less when I said I would, and the clients behaved exquisitely and paid their invoices almost immediately. There was simply no way I could have turned them down. But I also feel I didn’t always deal with the big projects especially well. So for anyone who is suddenly faced with a 100,000-word project here are some tips I learned, or was forcefully reminded of:
- Negotiate a generous deadline. Here, I was fortunate that my clients were willing to be flexible, but perhaps I could have pushed things even further and eased my situation by asking for another couple of weeks.
- Negotiate a good rate and never give discounts just because a project is big. I was happy with what I was earning from both these jobs and neither author asked for a reduction, but it is very important not to give one. Big projects bring their own particular problems, particularly concerning our ability to maintain consistency in all areas of the translation. That means anyone agreeing to work cheaply on a big project is highly likely to end up producing shoddy work and also liable to lose money on the project, compared with what they might have made on smaller pieces of work.
- Negotiate payment in installments. If you’re working on the same job for a period of several weeks or months you won’t want to wait until the end to be paid. In this case, I asked for three equal payments, one in advance (because it was a big job and I’d never worked for the client before), one in the middle of the work and one at the end. This worked well and the client turned out to be one of the prompted payers I’ve ever come across.
- Don’t panic. Seeing you’ve got 100,000 words to translate is daunting, no matter what the deadline. It’s easy to panic, but it’s something you need to avoid. Divide it by the number of working days or weeks you have available to do it and it suddenly seems much more manageable. Then all you you need to do is work in the same way as you always do and it WILL get done.
- Be disciplined. One of the big dangers on a large project is getting behind. Somehow, because the work is set out in front of you day after day, there’s a tendency to let things slip. If that happens, you not only end up missing the deadline, you lose money, because you probably wouldn’t have let things slide with short jobs and tighter deadlines.
- Learn to say no. I definitely should have done more of this. With hindsight, filling the “gap days” I’d managed to negotiated with another big job was a bad mistake, however enticing it might have seemed. Some work also came in that I couldn’t say no to, from regular direct clients and I had to make time to do this too, which meant working some weekends. For me, this is one of the most stressful aspects of being in the lockdown situation. It got to the stage where I hated looking in my inbox for fear of finding a mail from someone asking me to do another job. Not feeling like that any more is a huge relief.
- Refer work to colleagues. Some would say outsource, but I don’t like doing that because in those circumstances I would feel responsible for the work delivered. The last thing I need when I’m busy is the stress of having to project manage and revise other people’s work, even if I know them well. On the other hand, referring clients to colleagues who perhaps need the work and allowing them to deal directly with the client is an absolute pleasure and sometimes a necessity.
- Put off the unnecessary. While I had these big projects I’m afraid all non-essential e-mails went unanswered and all requests for forms to be filled in were unheeded. I also cancelled all marketing, not so much for reasons as time, as for fear that it might succeed. Despite the fact that one of the principles of marketing is that it should be consistent, even when you’re busy, in this case the last thing I wanted was for a new customer to suddenly appear.
- Don’t neglect your health or family. Despite the fact I had all that work to do, I did manage to continue my regular visits to the swimming pool and spend time with my wife and son. When I’d done my quota of work for the day, I forced myself to stop thinking of everything still to be done on the project. I tried to get ahead if possible without working unreasonable hours, but nightshifts weren’t going to solve anything on a project of that size.
- Remember there’s life and work after the big project. There comes a point, with a week or so to go, where it becomes possible to start saying “yes” to offers of work again, but sometimes the word “no” becomes so ingrained that you continue to turn projects down when it’s not really necessary. That’s a mistake, because you don’t want to suddenly go from frantically busy to having nothing to do.
Following this advice will help avoid the worst of the stress inevitably associated of accepting a large project. However, it probably won’t prevent the huge sigh of relief when it’s all over.
Can I add a number 11? Allow enough time for revision. If you normally do short jobs – say 2,000 words tops – then you might not normally account for revision time, after all, a basic 1,000 word text can be revised in a couple of hours max. Revising 100,000 words, on the other hand, takes at least a couple of weeks. It’s easy to forget this and start working towards a target that is only two or three days before the deadline!
Assuming the client gives permission, I do outsource, as I have about four translators whom I know I can rely on to always do a good job. But of course I’m ultimately responsible, so I’ll always make sure I have time give it a read through.
Now back to reading the final proofs of my 59,000-word project that I was working on in January and February…
You’re quite right to raise that, Tim. I felt I had included it in the part about deadlines, but it’s good to spell it out.
Great advice Simon and how exhilarating to be in such high demand!
Thank you. And high demand is great, as long as you can cope with it!
Thanks for this article, Simon. Another problem I encounter with big projects is burn-out. I often try to program in a few days off after the final delivery, to help get my brain back down to normal temperature!
Thanks, Gwenydd. I usually find I’m OK if I get some different work to bring a bit of a contrast.
That’s one of the most useful articles I’ve read recently! Thank you, Simon. I liked point 2: no discounts because big projects bring their own problems. It’s interesting! I’ve never looked at it from this angle.
Thank you, Oleg. The thing is, translation is not mass production where the initial investment costs on a machine tool can be spread over the number of parts produced. It’s a service, not an industry, so discounts for volume make no sense at all.