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American Translators Association (ATA): Business Smarts-Learning to Work Better

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American Translators Association (ATA): Business Smarts-Learning to Work Better

Learning to Work Better


Dear Business Smarts:

I just got a phone call from a client asking about a job that was due at 10:00 a.m. European time. I had completely forgotten all about it. I offered to do half of the nine pages at no cost, but they decided that their quality assurance person would do the whole thing. Obviously I have lost them as a client, but what are the potential legal ramifications of missing a deadline like this? I am completely sick about this.
— Stressed out in Ohio

Dear Stressed:

First of all, while your oversight was certainly aggravating to the client, you are unlikely to face legal consequences for forgetting this particular job. Unless a million dollar deal was hanging in the balance based on your translation, your client is unlikely to sue you for a missed deadline. Your offer to deliver the job late at half the cost was a good-faith attempt to save the situation. Further-more, you responded immediately and honestly instead of dishing up a feeble excuse, which should also count in your favor. Apologize nicely and then move on. You have since let us know that you and the client came up with a reasonable solution that was amenable to both parties. They were also pleased with the translation, and have continued to send you work. All's well that ends well, but you may still want to think about making changes to avoid such situations in the future.

Your first priority should be to assess your working situation. You admit that you are stressed and sometimes take on more work than you can reasonably handle. Imagine yourself for a moment in the role of a supervisor. Would you assign to an employee the workload you expect of yourself? Why or why not? Think about why you are so overloaded with work that some things are not getting done properly. Do you have trouble saying no? Are you worried that turning projects away may leave you scrambling for work in the future? Are you under financial pressure? Is your stressful situation temporary or do you constantly work under pressure? How does that impact the quality of your work?

Then take a few moments to assess how you manage your projects. Some translators we know track all their jobs in an Excel file, while others use dry erase boards or Post-It notes. There are many solutions available, ranging from very simple to highly technical products. They all have one thing in common, however: a data system is only as good as the input it receives. Observe your current habits for recording incoming and outgoing projects. How could you improve this method to make it more effective? The solution has to be a good fit for you and accommodate your preferences.

Regardless of the procedures you adopt, pay particular attention to basic time management. Review your e-mail inbox every day to make sure you have acknowledged all new projects and recorded the deadlines. It is also very helpful to implement a specific starting and wrap-up routine for your working day. Instead of starting every morning by immediately typing your first job, take some time to assess your work priorities for the day and the week. At the end of the day, take a few minutes to wrap up and evaluate your progress, rather than translating until your fingers are twisted in a knot. A satisfying way to complete each work day is to define your priorities for the next one.

"Sustainability" in the use of resources has become a buzzword in many industries. As a freelance translator you should also try to make your career sustainable, in the sense that you can keep yourself employed for the remainder of your working life. This requires not only a steady flow of work from satisfied clients, but also the absence of permanent stress. As a self-employed contractor, you have more control over the conditions of your working life than many others do. Take advantage of this unique benefit by setting up a working environment that fits your needs and that can be sustained over the long term.

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Thanks to Dierk Seeburg. Reprinted from The ATA Chronicle: March 2007, p 41