Posted by: patenttranslator | April 15, 2012

Translator’s Metabolism – An Important Principle Generally Ignored By the Public and Often Even By Translators Themselves

“We Need Your Translation Today”

I think it would be fair to say that as far as freelance translators are concerned, “we need it today” are four words that are surely among the most dreaded words in the English language, next to “you have an incurable brain tumor”, and “expect a tax audit”. Some permutations of the same sick concept are even more perverse, such as “we would need it within the next 2 (3, 4, 5 …) hours”.

And with good reason. Most non-translators (namely the rest of the world which is habitually ganging up on translators) would never even consider the possibility that unlike for instance forced labor, translation is something that cannot be always ordered by men with guns and invoked instantaneously because one of the ingredients of a good translation is …. creativity.

When I am not in a disposition that is conducive to creativity, I tend to write really dumb posts, and I am likely to mistranslate things if somebody is forcing me to translate something that is even a teeny bit complicated.

We All Have A Finite Amount of Energy Distributed by Our Metabolic Clock

Which leads me to the topic of this post – translator’s metabolism. We all have a fixed amount of physical and mental energy that we have to work with during a period of 24 hours, but everybody’s metabolic clock is ticking at a different speed for some reason.

Some people are able to stay up all night and work until the job is finished. I am on the opposite end of the scale: I get up early in the morning even when I don’t have to, generally before 6 AM, I start working about 45 minutes later, and I simply cannot translate after 8 PM.

Satori Moments/Moments of Profound Ineptness

During the first few hours, up until about 10 or 11 AM, I am very productive and I enjoy a good challenge because I still have plenty of energy, both physical and mental. That is when I usually experience my satori (悟り) moments, for example while rescuing old and complicated Japanese characters from the caves and crevices of my mind where they have been hiding for decades. If I don’t see a character for 10 or 20 years, sometime I forget its meaning, but unlike the time lost during the last decade or two, this is something that I can get back.

Compared to the morning, I have much less energy in the afternoon. I have to make lots of breaks, I take my dog Lucy for a walk, I listen to talk shows for a while, preferably on German TV because the programs on American talk show channels are incredible vapid and basically impossible to watch as they are interrupted every few minutes by a tsunami of commercials.

How can you possibly develop a train of thought when you are attacked by loud, deceptive and stupid commercials every few minutes? Or perhaps one purpose of these commercials is to prevent people from thinking.

The only talks show that I like to watch on American TV is the C-SPAN call-in show in the morning. There are no commercial interruptions and you can listen to the whole range of American public opinion. Some callers are incredibly perceptive, some incredibly dumb. Some are vile nutjobs who can still be quite entertaining. Some just call in to talk dirty to one of the two young and very pretty female moderators taking calls. They can be pretty funny too, but only for a few seconds before she cuts them off.

I am listening less and less to C-SPAN because it has many more “guests” now from the ultra-right wing “think tanks”, such as American Enterprise Institute. This is actually good for me because I can get more work done that way since I turn the TV off automatically.

Taking a Nap and Hitting the Gym Does the Trick for Me

I usually take a nap around 2 PM for about 30 to 60 minutes. That restores my energy for a few more hours of creative work also known as translation. I try to go to the gym 3 times a week, but sometime when I am really busy or when my energy level is low, it is only twice or even just once a week.

Nothing can boost my energy level, albeit only temporarily, as much as 30 or 40 minutes spent lifting weights that are not too heavy, or pedaling, but not too fast, while watching FOX NEWS, which everybody in my gym is watching on 2 TV monitors. Thankfully, the sound is off. The remaining TV monitors in the gym are tuned to sports for men and fashion and cooking shows for women.

I think that the lifting of heavy burdens resulting from what could be called linguistic confusion that translators go through while translating is very healthy for our brain. The confusion is created in our brain only for a short moment when we sort of understand what the damn thing means in one language, but we are not quite sure yet how to say it in English or another language. Some scientists say this heavy lifting may be the reason why multilingual people are less susceptible to Alzheimer’s. It’s like a gym for the mind.

You Ignore Your Metabolism At Your Own Peril

We can either recognize our particular rhythm of translator’s metabolism and plan the day so that most of the work is done when we are fresh, lucid and able to take the divine dictation from above, which would be my description of translator’s work on a good day.

Or we can ignore translator’s metabolism, either because we are unaware of it, or because we are forced to translate when we really shouldn’t be working.

But the results are then usually not very good, which is always the case when people ignore the natural order of things (道 tao), also known as the path, the way, or the principle in Taoism.


  1. […] Translator’s Metabolism – An Important Principle Generally Ignored By General Public and… ( Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]


  2. True, true, true… I generally almost always extend the first deadline with a new client, especially if it is an agency. If I am asked to complete something by 2 pm, I will almost always say, “It’s a bit tight, can I do it until 6 pm?”, even when i’d easily make the deadline. That way you show from the beginning that last-minute orders are out of the question. And here’s another tip: Say your deadline is at 6, but you’re finished severyl hours earlier. DO NOT send the document just yet. Clients have to get used to receiving documents on the deadline, not earlier. Or they’ll think you’re some wizard, and next time your deadline will be even tighter. I use Outlook’s “send later” feature for that. You send off the mail with the delivered translation, but set the actual time for sending at say, 15 minutes before the scheduled deadline. That way you don’t have to worry about it again, but you make sure it’s sent at the right time. Not too early, not too late!


  3. Most of the times, I would say 90%, urgent translations are not really urgent. Sometimes the translator will nearly kill himself/herself to deliver in time, to then discover that his/her translation lies on somebody’s desk for 2 weeks…I have learnt this and have learnt to ask to extend the deadline, most of the times it works, otherwise rising the rate will work very well too (all of the sudden they discover it was not that urgent).


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