This is like asking what is a safe driving speed for a car. It depends on what kind of car you have, what kind of driver you are, and where you drive it. In a residential area with little children playing cops and robbers in the streets, 25 miles per hour is unsafe. On a German autobahn, you can push the pedal to the metal without breaking the law. How long you will live if you keep doing that is another matter.
I know that my typical speed on a typical patent translation is about 2 to 3 thousand words a day. I can translate Japanese patents faster than German patents, probably because I have started translating German only about 15 years ago, while my first technical translation from Japanese would be from … 1979. If it is a relatively simple patent in a field that I know fairly well such as telecommunications, I can average from 4 to a little over 5 thousand words a day. But I can’t sustain a speed like that for more than a few days.
After 5 thousand English words, the words begin to lose their meaning and my brain goes into a “brain freeze”. The brain functions related to translating stop working due to the fatigue, or perhaps it is attrition, after a long translating session. Time is definitely needed for regeneration of these brain functions, preferably 8 hours of sleep. Even if there are many repetitive passage in a patent as there almost always are, it is just too dangerous to just cut and paste them while making the appropriate changes. After a few thousand words, I can no longer see where the damn changes are hiding in the paragraph this time.
Three days ago I bought a new desktop PC as a Christmas present for myself. I know that it is dangerous to do something like that when I am on a deadline because I will inevitably kill most of the day loading software and new printer drivers onto the new PC and trying to network it with my other computers. But I figured that I can afford to kill a day because I had 4 days for a Japanese patent that would have only about 8 thousand words. Plus like so many people, I like “multitasking”, which can be quite a dangerous condition. Young people these days are multitasking everything nonstop. Last week a teenage girl was running pretty fast on a machine next to me in the gym where I work out while texting even faster something undoubtedly very important on her cell phone.
I could never have that much coordination, but I can translate while I am fine-tuning a new high-tech toy, right?
But when I looked at the calendar on my PC, I saw to my horror that it was not Thursday today, it was already Friday! I make a mistake like this every now and then because one day is just like the next one when you work in your home office, although usually I am one day ahead of time. And the patent in question was quite nasty, a lot of very complicated chemical terms and concepts, the translation was going much slower than what I had anticipated.
So for 4 hours I was sitting on my butt, pounding relentlessly on the keyboard and trying to concentrate while cursing myself for being so stupid. There is a big difference between having to translate 2 thousand words and 3 thousand words a day when the text is really complicated.
Fortunately, after 4 hours of near desperation I realized by looking at the newspaper that it was in fact Thursday and not Friday. I clicked on the wrong time zone when I was setting up my new computer! So everything is under control and on schedule now, I will finish the translation by Monday and I even have time to write a short post for my blog.
I was so happy when I got this day that so mysteriously disappeared from my life back again. A huge burden was lifted from my shoulders.
As Horace put it some two thousand years ago, “Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines”, which basically means that everything should be done in moderation, including rush translation jobs.
There is such a thing as a dangerous driving speed, and there is such a thing as a dangerous translating speed, and I don’t care what kind of memory tools you use and how much cutting and pasting there is in your translation.
After a few thousand words, I can no longer catch mistakes that I would normally never make when I am rested and ready to take on the world, or at least a major translation project.
Next time when I have the urge do something stupid like buy a new cool and time consuming toy when I am working on a tight deadline, I will hopefully remember the agony that I felt when a whole day somehow disappeared into thin air.
Because Gods may not be as merciful to me next time when it is not Christmas.