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Rethinking productivity for independent translators

There are days when I feel like I must be the least productive translator on the planet, so imagine my surprise when I received a call asking me to write an article on productivity from an independent translator’s perspective.

By David Warriner, C. Tr.

Now, productivity, it seems to me, is something of a buzzword these days. Type the word into your search engine of choice and the sheer number of articles telling you how you can improve or measure your productivity is astounding. What’s more, there are so many definitions of productivity out there, all of which seem to be context-dependent, that I won’t even try to quote an authoritative source here. For the purposes of this short article, I’ll simply explain what productivity means to me and what I imagine it means to other translators who freelance. Simply put, being productive means doing what you have to do in the time that you have available. If you manage to do more than you expected in the time you anticipated, let’s say you’ve been very productive, and if you end up getting less done than you hoped you would, you might feel you had an unproductive day.

Balance the gainful with the practical

Before I started my own business, I used to manage a small team of in-house translators. It was straightforward to measure the team’s productivity based on the number of projects we delivered and the number of words we translated. For us independent translators, it can be tempting to look at productivity through the same lens, but the reality is quite different from working in-house. Not only do we have to translate the words on the page, there are also no end of other tasks that eat into our work time, such as client relations, project management and business development, not to mention billing, accounting and reporting and remitting taxes. In my experience, running a translation business as a sole proprietor and filing taxes as an individual involves essentially the same responsibilities as being incorporated and operating as a company, other than some differences in reporting requirements. The key thing to bear in mind as an independent translator is that the work you do, and the time you spend doing that work, will be either gainful (generate income) or practical (a business requirement or a necessary evil, depending on your perspective).

It can be easy to feel that time is productive only when you are working on a translation and can bill the client for the job. It took me time to see that spending time during the work day to catch up on billing, answer emails, pay cheques into the bank, back up files and update glossaries—all activities that don’t generate income per se—is just as important as the work that can be billed to clients. Productivity is not something to be measured in dollars alone. For me, being productive as an independent translator is about finding the right balance between the gainful and practical aspects of my work. If you tend to feel unproductive when you’re not working directly on a job for a client, perhaps it’s time to shift your focus.

Find what works for you

Productivity can be a very personal concept, as Ludwig von Mises suggests in his 1927 book Liberalism: “The concept of productivity is altogether subjective: it can never provide the starting-point for an objective criticism.” Therefore, two translators who complete the very same workload in a given day may well have very different views of their own productivity: one may feel productive, and the other may feel rather unproductive. As this page from ProZ.com illustrates, there are countless tools and tips that promise to improve translators’ productivity, and not all of them will work for everyone. For you, boosting productivity might mean translating more words in a day, or it could mean checking more things off your to-do list, reaching weekly or monthly income targets or optimizing the way you manage your translation projects or accounting spreadsheets. As an independent translator, it would be unrealistic for you to measure your productivity against an in-house translator’s by simply comparing numbers of words translated, since you must also take into account the additional business tasks related to your practice. By the same token, there are likely many differences between your translation practice and the way other independent translators run their businesses. In my humble opinion, defining your own benchmark for productivity is the key to feeling productive.

As I mentioned above, thinking of your administrative tasks and other business responsibilities as generating a practical gain can be one way to boost the feeling of productivity. Another can be to view professional commitments and business development activities, such as sitting on a committee and going to networking events, as investing time in your business that may lead to financial gain in the future thanks to the contacts you develop. I wouldn’t call that being unproductive.  

Figure out what motivates you

Sometimes, however, it doesn’t matter whether you view certain tasks as being productive or not, you just can’t seem to get anything done. According to this article by Charles Albano, there is a positive relationship between motivation and productivity. It seems logical that feeling motivated will foster productivity, and, in turn, feeling productive will boost motivation. Figuring out what motivates you might just help you feel more productive.

For me, physical exercise is an essential factor in staying motivated so that I can be productive. If I don’t get out of the house in the morning for a walk or a bike ride, it’s hard for me to find my groove for the rest of the day. This idea is no great secret, in fact. When asked how to improve productivity, international business mogul Richard Branson once famously replied “Work out,” claiming that regular exercise gave him at least four additional hours of productive time each day. I also find that planning to go to a lunchtime yoga class can give me the drive I need to have a productive morning, as will giving myself the occasional afternoon off to go surfing.

Motivation may also involve social factors. I have it on good authority from a highly reliable source in the counselling field (my wife) that feeling connected and accountable to colleagues can increase motivation. Since independent translators tend to work in isolation at home, many of us may feel more motivated when we take the time to meet with fellow freelancers for coffee, call a colleague to debrief (or vent!) after a challenging project, or pick other translators’ brains online through platforms such as the OTTIAQ member forum. Collaboration with other translators on large projects, or implementing a mutual translation/revision agreement with colleagues, may also be ideas worth exploring.

Finally, from experience, I would suggest that goal-setting can also be a powerful source of motivation. If you work well with a carrot dangling in front of your nose, you might find it helpful to check your sales figures regularly and reward yourself when you reach your weekly or monthly targets, calculate your income for a new job as soon as you receive it rather than waiting until the translation is done, or celebrate paying a large cheque into the bank by treating yourself to a little luxury.

There are many benefits to being an independent translator, including freedom and flexibility. The next time you feel your productivity sliding, why not take a moment to think about what productivity actually means to you? If you don’t like the answer, try shifting your perspective a little. You are your own boss, after all, so doesn’t it make sense for you to work to your own standards when it comes to being productive?  

David Warriner, C. Tr., translates from French to English. Upon completing his studies at Oxford University, he came out to Quebec for a year and never really left.  After spending the better part of ten years in Quebec City and Montreal working as an in-house translator and team coordinator for two major Quebec  insurance companies, he relocated a few years ago (without too much persuasion from his better half) to beautiful Victoria, British Columbia, where he now runs his thriving microenterprise W Translation somewhat productively.

David-Warriner-C.-Tr


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