Posted by: patenttranslator | July 21, 2012

Checklists for Translators – Is It a Good Idea Or Just More Fluff?

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?


  1. Steve, your 2-category checklist is almost the same as mine, with some deviations. For instance, I don’t use post-it notes. Instead, I use other tools or just write them down in a spreadsheet.

    Another deviation would be working on only one project at a time. This is most of the times not possible with my schedule. There are oft projects ongoing in parallel, so that I need to switch from one to another. However, I usually have a plan to take on each of the parallel projects, so that I don’t have to put more effort to refresh the information I need for a specific project each time I pick it up again. This happens mostly when I am working on linguistic validation projects. As to manual projects, it is quite impossible to work on 2 projects at a time.

    I believe a checklist is a good way to ensure good performance. It is definitely no fuffa, for it works in all professions.


  2. “There are oft projects ongoing in parallel, so that I need to switch from one to another.”

    I generally don’t mind or even like multitasking, like doing my laundry in addition to whatever it is that I am doing at the moment.

    But I often find it painful when I have to work two translation projects at the same time.


    • Steve, admitted, there are types of translation projects that cannot be processed in parallel. But there are some other types that you can easily and even advantageously process in parallel.


  3. Hi, another interesting post there, and I agree with you on a lot of points. I’ve always liked that you have a very clear approach to your work, and that you know exactly what you will/can do and you stick to these rules.

    Personally, I quite like having two projects going on at the same time. For example, a 5000 words computer manual is not very exciting to translate in one long session. I prefer to do half that and then translate something completely different in the afternoon, and then do the same thing again.

    The one fundamental thing for a freelance translator in my opinion: Get the **** up! An early start guarantees enough free time and a clear mind, because the early morning hours are the best time to work. It also makes sure you can start your day off with a great big breakfast and everything looks rosier after that …


    • Thank you for your comment.

      Different strokes for different folks. I get really tired when I am forced to juggle two projects on the same day.


    • Everyone is different. I do my best work later in the day and into the night. I’ve always been a night owl. I was a night guard in a dorm in college. My clients know not to contact me before 10 a.m. but can usually find me at the computer at 1 or 2 a.m.


      • I was a radio operator when I was in the army and every other week I was on night duty.

        I absolutely hated it. It turned me into an overweight, tired and angry zombie.

        Everybody is different. I go to bed before 11 PM and get up before 6 AM just about every day and I work fastest and probably do my best work between 6:30 and 8 AM.


  4. Great points! Another one for the planning stage: Tack on an extra day, whenever possible, to let the words “rest” before you proofread/edit. At least for me, this step is invaluable for rooting out those tricky passages that just don’t make sense initially.

    And @Gabriel, I respectfully disagree. For me, the best translating hours have always been after about 7:30pm. I do my best editing in the early morning, but drafts are a late-night thing. To each translator her/his own!


    • Oh, yes, I was thinking about including the rule that one should always proofread the next day rather than right after the job is finished, whenever this is possible, but then I left it out because the post was pretty long already. But it is an important point, maybe I should add it.

      And I know from personal experience that when I am working on a two projects with long deadlines, it’s best to start proofreading the first project after I finish the second project, which is to say that after several days have passed.


      I did add this to the checklist because it is such an important item.

      Thanks for the input!

      Unfortunately, I usually have to hurry to deliver the translation to the client ASAP.


  5. Very interesting! I also use more specific checklists, especially for post-translation/pre-delivery steps, for example: spell check, check to make sure heading capitalization is uniform, go through style guide (if any) again point by point, make list of notes for client (if not resolved before deadline), etc. I also often keep a list next to me of easily confused words in the particular text I am working on (for instance, Befugnis/Bewilligung/Berechtigung), phrases found during research I want to use, etc. Working on more than one project at once often can’t be helped, but I do try to work on one in the morning, one in the afternoon or evening so as not to confuse things – hard when they are something like 2 annual reports with different style requirements. Proofreading the next day is ideal, but often not possible due to deadline constraints, so a proofing checklist really helps in that case.


  6. @DainaJ:

    Please tell me you use post-it notes for terminology!

    Everybody uses those stupid CATs and I feel so lonely and unsophisticated, almost primitive.


    • @patenttranslator
      Yes, indeed. I am a post-it note addict. However, I do use Wordfast as well. Even so, when I need to remind myself of certain things specific to the job at hand, I reach for the post-its…


  7. I love the top video. Have you heard Robbie Williams & Nicole Kidman’s version of it?

    Oh, good checklist too (apart from MT which I don’t use).


  8. Have you seen Kathy Griffin doing a parody of Nicole Kidman? It’s pure genius.

    I can’t find it on Youtube but this one is good too.


    • Do you mean this one?

      Pretty long one, 44 minutes. But nice.


      • Not this one. It’s a much older clip, I saw it about 5 years ago but can’t find it on Youtube.


  9. Hi Steve, certainly these (implied/unconscious/ingrained or whatever you want to call them) checklists are a necessity. I agree with most of your suggestions, except perhaps the MT/post-its/early morning ones – I do use the stupid CAT alternative, although I am otherwise quite old-school; and I am most definitely a night person. The witches (with a “w”, not a “b”, mind you) hour will find me translating away at my PC, although I am fully in favor of the next-day-proofread routine. My brain must be really smart, because it figures stuff out for itself during my sleep that I could not the night before, however hard I tried… And I would add another suggestion to the next-day proofing thing, which is, I admit, not always practicable, due to time (and other) constraints, and that is, printing out your translation – you cannot even begin to imagine how many things you catch by reading it on hard copy that simply go unnoticed when you do your proofing by staring at the screen.
    By the way, splendid post, as always. Congrats.


  10. Yes, I also always print out the translation and look at it when I proofread, although I mostly proofread on the screen.

    Some people swear that proofreading only on the paper is the way to go but I find it too cumbersome. But I will go back to my post and add this point because it is also a crucial step – or misstep. If you don’t print it out, you risk that you may be missing a major problem.


  11. Thanks for the useful thoughts, Steve. Perhaps I’ll give the MT a go at some point.

    I use self-devised checklists – currently running at over 300 items – in a QA tool (Apsic Xbench), which allows me to root out any linguistic weeds that I may have left in my translations. As there are quite a lot of things to keep an eye out for when revising and reviewing a text, it can be useful to have a helping hand from the machine.


  12. I find MT useful because it helps me to see omissions and possible terminological problems. But I feel liberated when I have no MT, which is the case today as the Japanese patent that I am translating is quiet old.


  13. […] Model for Translations? Cool Infographics About the Multilingual & Multicultural Internet Checklists for Translators – Is It a Good Idea Or Just More Fluff? Free online tutorials for English translation from Birbeck College US Translators and UK English […]


  14. I think you’ve got the wrong idea about checklists. They are to remind you of things you might easily forget, but you are talking about working practices, which you’re not likely to forget.

    My checklist (which I never remember to use but still think it’s a good idea) includes things like:

    -Changes to source document included?
    -Query replies included?
    -Revised in Word?
    -Target language defined?
    -Spelling/grammar revised?


  15. “They are to remind you of things you might easily forget, but you are talking about working practices, which you’re not likely to forget.”

    That’s a good one.


  16. I seem to have said something funny, but I can’t see why.

    Your checklist would consist of
    -Say No To Crazy Rush Jobs
    -Work Mostly In My Field
    -Use Machine Translation

    -The Meaning Is All-Important
    -Pace Myself
    -Create A Pleasant Working Environment
    -Work Only On One Project At A Time
    -Proofread The Next Day
    -Proofread Also On Paper

    But when a piece of work comes in, do you really need the checklist to remember to check if it’s a crazy rush job, or if it’s in your field, or if you’re already working on a project?

    Hospital checklists deal with basic things like “Have you washed your hands?”, “Have you got all your instruments?” (before sewing up the wound, to avoid leaving things inside the patient). The equivalent for a translator would be making sure you have proofread, spellchecked, etc.


  17. But when a piece of work comes in, do you really need the checklist to remember to check if it’s a crazy rush job, or if it’s in your field, or if you’re already working on a project?

    Yes, the checklist in my mind helps me to say no to a job because my experience tells me that I will later regret it if I accept the translation.

    Most people commenting here seem to have some kind of their own checklist.

    “I think you’ve got the wrong idea about checklists. They are to remind you of things you might easily forget, but you are talking about working practices, which you’re not likely to forget.”

    Checklists were design because people constantly forget to do when needs to be done in what you call “working practices” in all kinds of professions, from nurses and doctors to air traffic controllers.

    Sticking to a simple checklist can sometime prevent a major problem.


  18. […] 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. …  […]


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