Several years ago I read in the New Yorker an interesting article titled “The Checklist” by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and public health researchers who teaches at Harvard Medical School. The idea of obligatory checklists was introduced first in the aviation industry where small mistakes can in some cases mean the difference between life and death, for example as a pilot’s checklist for how to handle takeoff and landing in normal circumstances, but also how to handle a crisis emergency when you have to make a critical decision very quickly.
As Dr. Atul Gawande describes it in his book, “The Checklist Manifesto”, during the course of a study conducted in 2008 when checklists were introduced in eight hospitals, all eight hospitals saw the rate of major postsurgical complications due mostly to secondary infections drop by 36 percent in the six months after the checklist was introduced, while deaths fell by 47 percent, without spending a single additional dollar.
Should individual translators use checklists in their work as well? I think so. I think that most of us already do use them, perhaps unconsciously, in our daily work.
The checklist that I personally have in my mind, without needing to write it down, could be divided into two categories:
A) The A category is about planning – namely things to keep in mind before I start translating.
B) The B category is about execution, namely things to keep in mind after I start translating.
Items belonging to Category A (or the Planning Stage):
1. I Say No To Crazy Rush Jobs Even When I Am Hungry For Work
I don’t accept crazy rush jobs, especially for projects that are parceled out to a number of translators and then stitched together by an agency coordinator who may or may not know what he is doing. Given the inevitable pressure and aggravation, the premium paid for these jobs is quite small and the danger that something will go wrong and I will not be paid, or worse left holding the bag when I am the agency, is quite high. What are the chances that pizza that was baked by 4 or 5 cooks will taste good? Slim to none. And what are the chances that a translation that was hammered out at a breakneck speed by 4 or 5 translators will actually makes sense? Slim to none again.
2. I Work Mostly In My Field
I do not accept work in certain fields when I don’t know much if anything about the subject. For instance, I generally don’t accept translations in the field of finances and economics. Since I made a conscious decision more than two decades ago to translate only or mostly technical subjects, I don’t really know much about the terminology in quite a few other fields and only accept work in these field if the text appears to be really quite simple. Of course, appearances can be deceiving and what at first looks simple enough may be very complicated. But I do sometime translate from fields that are new to me if the text does not seem to be too complicated because I do want to keep learning about the world around me through my work, and also because I have bills to pay.
3. I Plan Each Day Of The Job In Advance
I know that I can translate comfortably between 2 to 3 thousand words a day. On a good day I can translate more than 3 thousand words, on an exceptionally good day more than 4 thousand words, or even close to 5 thousand words. But I also know that I can translate at such a high speed only for a day or two because the next day I will be exhausted. Therefore, if I have a translation that I think will be about 35 thousand words, I will quote a rush turnaround time of 10 working days for the whole job.
4. I Use Machine Translation Liberally
I have written many posts in this blog on this subject. Personally, I think that MT is the greatest invention since sliced bread. Most of the time I can now locate and print out an MT version of a patent that I am translating from Japanese or a European language except when the patent is more than about two decades old. If I don’t have an MT version but I do have the text for translation in file format, I run it through Google Translate or Microsoft Translator and then use the printed pages basically as a dictionary. But I try not to be dependent on MT because I understand that MT is not really a translation. I probably use MT too often and I often find it liberating when I don’t have to access MT.
Items that would belong to Category B (or the Execution Stage, after I start translating):
1. The Meaning Is All-Important
I always try to understand the original text as much possible. For example, I write the meaning of each unknown abbreviation on post-it notes and stick them on the bottom part of the monitor because I know that if simply copy abbreviations that are meaningless to me, this increases the chances that I will mistranslate something. I also look up for example the meaning of each medical term in Greek or Latin, write it down if necessary and try to remember it. I always try to keep the subject of the paragraph in mind because I know that if I don’t do that, this again increases the chances of mistranslation. I need to be able to see both the forest and the trees when I translate.
2. I Try To Pace Myself
I know that I am very productive early in the morning when I am fresh and that I often finish half of my usual daily minimum quota of 2 thousand words by noon. After that, I need to take longer and longer breaks, go for a walk with my dog, take a nap or hit the gym. If I don’t respect the natural cycle of my brain and my body, this will also increase the chances of mistranslation considerably.
3. I Try To Create A Pleasant Working Environment For Myself
This means for example that I listen to music: oldies, new age, classical, country – anything that I perceive as pleasant and relaxing and that does not have a heavy beat to it. But it also means that I need to turn the music off when I am translating a very complicated passage, either because I have to concentrate as much as possible on complicated terminology, or due to extremely discombobulated sentences in the original text.
4. I Try To Work Only On One Project At A Time
I tried to experiment with working on 2 projects on 2 different computers, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, usually in 2 different languages. It is nice to be able to switch from Japanese to German, for example, because each language has its special rewards as well as different pitfalls, but I think that this method is unproductive. It is always better to finish one project before starting another one. There is a lot of information that is present mostly in our subconsciousness and when we switch to a different project, it takes time and effort to recover again information that should be accessible automatically.
5. I Always Proofread The Next Day Whenever Possible
This is because something magical happens during our sleep. Well, it’s not really magic: our brain continues to wrestle with the same problems that we were wrestling with during the day when we are soundly asleep and our subconsciousness often provides the best solution by the time we wake up. That is also why we catch more mistranslations and typos in our work if we proofread translations next morning. There are sayings about this in a number of languages, such as La nuit porte conseil (The night brings advice) in French, Ráno je moudřejší večera (The morning is wiser than the evening) in Czech, or “Let’s sleep on it” in English.
6. And I Always Proofread Also On Paper
Although I proofread long translations mostly on the screen, I always print out the translation and double check each page also on paper during or after proofreading on the screen. I do know that for some reason it is easier to see mistakes on paper than on the screen, and not only formatting mistakes.
Which brings the number of items on my checklist to the magic number 10.
Although every translator obviously has different needs and requirements, I think that every translator could probably use his or her checklist, just like a pilot, a surgeon, or a nurse. It does not need to be written down, and it is often by necessity an aspirational checklist rather than a set of rules that must be always strictly enforced.
But I think that it is a good idea to have one.
What do you think?