The productivity conundrum

The productivity conundrum

Can I do more?

I spent a good deal of the recent METM14 conference talking or thinking about productivity because it’s one of the most intractable puzzles affecting my everyday work. The problem is that I don’t seem to have become more productive for a very long time, not really since I first got involved with CAT tools (first Déjà Vu and now MemoQ). In fact, with the extra checks and processes I now build in to ensure better quality work, the danger is that I could be becoming even less productive, not more. So I prioritised productivity, attending a workshop on a way of speeding up Internet searches, a series of sessions on machine translation and a lunch on the very subject of productivity.

Michael Farrell

Michael Farrell

I wish I could say that the result was startling inspiration. However, with one or two exceptions round the edges, I seem to be hard up against a productivity wall. The main exception, which I can see speeding up my work a little, is a gadget called IntelliWebSearch. It’s a piece of software, developed by Michael Farrell, that launches Internet searches directly from whatever program you happen to be working in, whether that is Word or a CAT tool. It does require a little setting up and I’ve still got work to do in that department, but I have no doubt it will be saving me time in the future.

No magic solution

Another type of software that many translators swear by as a productivity booster are speech recognition programs, particularly Dragon Naturally Speaking. However, I have various problems with using these. First of all, I’m a very fast typist, a legacy from my newspaper days. And the brief presentation made at METM14 by Andrew Steel gave me the figures I needed to show that the Dragon is no magic solution to my productivity problems. He said that speech recognition boosted his drafting speed, when translating, to 1,500 words an hour – precisely my average speed with my fingers. In fact, on a very good, hard-working day I can go even faster. So speech recognition may be the answer if you’re one of those who bash away with two fingers, but it’s not going to be much use for a touch typist like me. Anyway, as I share my office, I can also foresee other problems if I ever decide to talk to my computer and, for me, the dragon will be staying firmly in its cave.

productivity_wordcloudSo where else should I look? Another session at METM14 was spent listening to presentations on machine translation. Some translators are now, sometimes controversially, using Google Translate or a similar machine translation system to provide first drafts of translations for them to work on. But it was clear from a presentation by Mary Savage, a translator who does use Google Translate, that the versions it produces still need a great deal of fiddly editing before they could be handed in by a professional translator. In fact, from what I could see, very often I would end up deleting the machine translation and starting from scratch, not saving any time at all. Once again, my fast typing means that it’s often just as quick for me to translate as it is to edit. And if I did edit the machine translation, I would have to work very hard to ensure that some of Google’s more subtle and insidious mistakes didn’t become my own. We may all one day end up as machine translation editors, but for the moment I don’t consider it a viable option.

Controlling distractions

So what do other translators think? I went to a lunch arranged to discuss productivity with a small group including two of the translators I’ve already mentioned, Michael Farrell and Andrew Steel, as well as my fellow blogger Rob Lunn, writer of Legally Yours from Spain. We enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion, touching on the areas of diet and exercise as well as time management and software options, but the conclusions were largely disappointing, beyond general agreement that it was very helpful to use a version of the now famous Pomodoro technique to control distractions. In fact, talking to the others, I discovered I was using something very like it without even knowing much about it other than the name, aiming to work solid for half an hour before allowing myself a short break to check my e-mails and Facebook page.

Rob Lunn

Rob Lunn

It is certainly important to prevent getting sidetracked by the Internet when working, but sometimes the so-called distractions are actually an important part of a translator’s job. Leaving the e-mails for half an hour at a time shouldn’t cause too much damage, but much longer could cost money. More than once I’ve missed out on jobs through taking ten minutes to reply to an e-mail. However, not spending too much time surfing seems like common sense to me, rather than a radical approach to the productivity dilemma.

So after looking hard at some alternatives, I’ve found few real answers to the conundrum. Do any really exist? If you know of something that’s worked for you or for someone you know, why not share your ideas here? If there are enough good ones I’ll turn them into a new blog post, with name checks and website links, if you like, for everyone who contributes. Over to you.


  1. Well, unless you know that you’re not as productive as you could be, I don’t see why we should try to increase our productivity endlessly. At least it seems intuitively impossible for individual human beings to become more and more productive all the time.

    As DNS is unlikely to ever be viable for my native language, it’s one big advantage forever out of my reach. Then again, I’m a fairly fast typist and on a hunch I’d say I type faster and think faster when I write as opposed to if I was forced to say everything out loud.

    As for time and distraction management, they may be revelations to beginners but not really for someone who’s already been working for a couple of years.

    I considered IntelliWebSearch but it didn’t really fit my way of doing research (or would require a long learning period).

    So yes, I feel your frustration, and personally I focus on trying to make my accounting and bookkeeping and things like that more productive, rather than my actual translation work. It’s an area where many translators seem to struggle and feel demotivated, and which can definitely suck energy from you if your methods are not productive.

    • Thanks for your comments, Elina. You make a good point about the impossibility of continuously improving our productivity. With me, it’s really been a case of hearing about various things that I hadn’t tried which were supposed to help and discovering, on closer examination, that they’re not going to help very much. Depending on the comments I receive on this blog, I may well simply have to accept my current levels are the best I’m going to be able to achieve in the foreseeable future. I also agree about DNS. The interesting thing I discovered the weekend before last was that the figures as given by Andrew Steel actually back me up: if you’re a fast enough typist you’re not going to improve very much. IntelliWebSearch is definitely worth a try, though. I spent a couple of hours at the weekend setting it up and it’s working well for me now. There isn’t much learning involved in terms of using it, you just need to set up all your favourite searches with the wizard and attach them to buttons.

  2. Hi Simon! I can’t report finding any magic solution since our MET lunch, although I was reading this week about how bad multitasking apparently is for productivity.

    I suppose it’s fairly obvious that trying to do two things at once could just be a recipe for doing two things badly, but apparently just changing task too often can negatively affect productivity — as if there’s some kind of mental tooling-up time that means it takes a while to get going on the new task.

    By chopping and changing, apparently we’re less productive than if we stick with the same task. A bit like what Kevin Lossner talked about in one of his talks at the conference about how swapping between CAT tools always means lower productivity immediately after switching — even if you’re very familiar with both tools.

    I found this interesting as I might have thought changing tasks would be good for productivity in that the variety might spark you up a little.

    I’m not sure how applicable this is to our work, particularly, as you say, since we have to answer emails on a fairly regular basis, but it might be something to think about.

    Specialising is another thing that can help, although there are limits to how much you can specialise barring going to work in-house, in which case you might end up not caring so much about productivity anyway 🙂

    I agree it’s probably a case of diminishing returns, although I’ll keep an interested eye on this post to see what people come up with.

    • Thanks for the comment, Rob. I do try to avoid multitasking but, as you say, it’s not always practical. From what people are saying both on here and on Facebook, the productivity wall I feel that I’m up against may well be a real one, as there seems to be no magic solution to the problem at the moment. And that means any chance of increasing income is going to have to be down to pushing up rates or working longer hours.

  3. I had a rather similar attitude to you concerning speech recognition programmes (I’m a fast touch typist too) until I read Kevin Hendzel’s blog post <a href="""">. I’m only type at 40 words per minute, but Kevin gave an example where he dictated 147 words in one minute – that’s almost 9000 words per hour (albeit dictation, not translation)!

    IntelliWebSearch sounds great, but unfortunately it’s only for PC users.

    By the way, I wrote a blog post last year called <a href=""""> in which I shared some of my own productivity tips, but it’s actually more about avoiding distractions.

    • Thanks, Catharine. 9000 words certainly would be incredible, but I’m more inclined to believe Andrew Steel’s drafting speed as a more realistic estimate of what’s possible in practice. As for IntelliWebSearch, contact Michael Farrell, because I’m sure he told us that people with Macs do use it, I think with PC emulation software. And I’ll certainly take a look at your blog.

      • I refuse to use PC emulation software on my Mac. It would be like putting a Reliant Robin engine in a Porsche!

        • I make a point of never arguing with anyone about their religious beliefs. 😉


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