The seven habits of highly effective translators

Greater than 6 minutes, my friend!

In 1989 Stephen Covey wrote the now famous book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. The book was highly successful, with more than 15 million copies sold in 38 languages. In his book Covey conveyed the message that highly effective people have seven habits or routines that lay the foundations for their success. In this blog post I describe seven habits that can make translators highly effective.

The importance of being effective

On social media many colleagues share how their day or a certain project is progressing, broadcasting the challenges and problems they are struggling with while trying to complete a job on time. It is a highly identifiable struggle. Which translator never experiences a point at which completing the job seems be a mission impossible? And which translator never postpones a job because of a state of mind, a lack of motivation or the fear of delivering a translation that is below par?
Yet jobs must be completed and it is important to do that effectively. Postponing or delaying jobs indeed means that you fill your time with other – sometimes less important – tasks, making it an even bigger challenge to complete the job on time. More important is that a great part of the delay period cannot be invoiced at all, leading to less effective work weeks and perhaps a financial problem at the end of the month.
Being effective is therefore about doing your work on time. However, being effective also requires some skills that can help in realizing effectiveness. Only with the right skill set can translators complete a job effectively. A lack of certain skills can still result in a great translation, but it also means that the job is not done as effectively as possible – which can have its financial consequences as well. Below are seven habits that can help translators to be effective and successful in their jobs.

Personal productivity rate according to

Habit 1: Knowing your mother tongue

Knowing one’s mother tongue as a habit can sound very strange to professional translators. Indeed, knowing your native language is one of the most important aspects of being a professional in your job. Yet there are many translators out there that lack knowledge of their mother tongue, despite having been a professional translator for many years. Count the many spelling and grammatical errors, the syntactic problems, and the style and punctuation errors you have come across during your work as a freelance translator and you know that this is absolutely true.
Being well-skilled in your “target language” is a requirement in your job as a translator, but it also enables you to do your work effectively. Translating requires you to think, translate and type, and having to look up certain spelling or grammar rules will impede the pace at which you can work. While speed is not the most important part of a translation job, language rules should be as natural as the alphabet to translators. With the right knowledge of your mother tongue you can do your job at the right pace with the quality that is expected.

Habit 2: Knowing the source language

The rules that apply to habit 1 apply to knowledge of your “source language” as well. While professional translators cannot know every word in the language they translate from, they should know all spelling and grammar rules in order to judge a text in the source language. Only by knowing these rules can they quickly judge how a source sentence is constructed and what it actually means – including all the applicable nuances and possible alternative translations. A lack of judgment in the source language can lead to errors, jobs returned for correction and time lost time for judging all possible translations. While these pitfalls are not always entirely avoidable, good skills in the second language ensure that jobs can be done quicker, making translators more effective.

Habit 3: Knowing translation technologies

In a time of abundant translation technologies, knowledge of these technologies is not only unavoidable, but also indispensable. Professional translators should at least know how to use CAT tools as these software programs enable them to do a job more effectively: they can apply translation memories, use term bases and run quality checks automatically, which makes them more efficient. Because they do not need to format the translation, they also win a time gain on that front. If you want to increase your effectiveness even further, you might consider learning to work with more than one CAT tool, because not every one handles all file formats equally well. An extra advantage of that approach is that it enables you to take on more jobs, and gain a better foothold in the translation industry.
Apart from a knowledge of CAT tools it is also a good idea to delve into other emerging technologies like machine translation. Even if you would prefer to stay clear of these technologies, knowing how they work and how to apply them in your work might help you to organize your work somewhat more effectively. While applying machine translation doesn’t necessarily lead to improvements in speed, it will make your work more effective if you combine it with other technologies, like auto suggestion and automatic translation.

Habit 4: Knowing how to organize work

Being a translator doesn’t mean that you are spending the whole day translating. You also need to take care of project management, translation memory and term-base management, invoicing and other small tasks. That requires some organization, both on your computer and in terms of time.
Having a structured way to do your work and to organize files and projects in folders will make you more effective. It would, for instance, be a good idea to collect all translation memories in a folder ‘Translation memories’, so you can easily connect to them from your CAT tool instead of saving them in project folders which you need to delve into in order to find the former translation memories. Whatever approach you choose, make sure it fits into your lifestyle and is making you more effective. Organizing things can also make you less effective if you need to click through a bunch of folders or need to open up new software and folders every time, so consider the best option before you act. In the end being organized can make your work life more effective, leading to a time gain and a better financial return.

Habit 5: Knowing what to do and what not to do

This habit sounds like an open door as well, but it is important to stress the impact of not knowing what to do in terms of your work balance. Taking on a job that sounds interesting but does not fit into your specialities or time frame is an example of a wrong habit that wreaks havoc on your effectiveness. It would be better to determine exactly what your specialisms are, so you don’t find yourself in a field in which you lack experience and knowledge – leading to procrastination and time spent on research that you otherwise would not have done. On the other hand, taking on work in your areas of specialization will increase the pace at which you can complete jobs as you do not have to research each and every term.
If possible, it may be a good idea to choose to work only for particular clients because you do not have to switch styles, tone and terminology, all of which also impact your effectiveness.

Habit 6: Knowing when and where to work

Some translators are morning larks, others are night owls. Some are digital nomads, others love to always work in the same environment. Make sure you know when and where you are most effective. Night owls do not perform at their best in the early morning, which could lead to frustration and procrastination, while for morning larks the evening is not their best time to say the least.
A little study of your personality can result in great insights that improve your effectiveness. It nevertheless requires the right conditions: working in a shared work environment can be inspirational, but not having the right resources at hand or being distracted by people surrounding you may, in the end, only impact your effectiveness negatively. Make sure you set the right parameters to do your job well. If you need to spend some money to increase your effectiveness it might be well worth it.

Habit 7: Banning distractions

Using a computer means distraction is everywhere: in your head, at your desk and mostly on the internet. Bring a halt to these distractions by investing in software that can block websites during certain times or by maintaining a clean desk policy. You might find that a clean environment will highly speed up your effectiveness. So spend some time or money to make sure that your effectiveness is increasing. It might result in better financial returns or more time to spend with your loved ones.

That said, working life should not revolve only around effectiveness. While effectiveness is important, quality of life is important as well to keep the fun in a translation job. A lack of fun will, in the end, have an impact on effectiveness so it is an important aspect of the job. And if on a certain day you assess your effectiveness and see that you did not fulfil your expectations, you can always try to catch up on another day. But as effectiveness in a job can result in completing it early and still having time to enjoy and relax, it is still an indispensable habit for any successful translator.

Pieter Beens

About Pieter Beens

Freelance translator English-Dutch. Works for high-profile clients worldwide. Professional. Punctual. Passionate.

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