The words the six-hours rule mean different things to different people.
To doctors and nurses, it means that injuries such as stab wounds and broken bones must be attended to with expert medical care within 6 hours to prevent permanent damage.
To drivers it means that “mobile operators” (which is what truck drivers are called in EU lingo) must take a break of at least 15 minutes every 6 hours.
To managers who actually know something about managing, possibly a small minority of them, it means that knowledge workers have on average only about 6 hours of highly productive time per day. People can peel potatoes, dig trenches or assemble iPads for many hours until their hands start hurting, but apparently, if your work involves lifting of burdens in your mind, your brain will start working against you after about 6 hours.
Your brain does it for a very good reason: it knows that this kind of exhaustion is very unhealthy; that is why it simply refuses to continue working as usual.
Translating from one language to another does not always impose a major burden on translator’s brain. I remember that a couple of decades ago when I was translating highly repetitive Japanese communication software manual instructions, I could turn on the radio and listen to a talk show at the same time. You could say that my brain was on cruise or autopilot for hours on end.
This type of translation is probably now done by machines (or lost souls called machine translation post-processors) instead of real translators because it is so simple. But to translate anything more complex requires my full attention. A really complicated translation, for example a court decision full of legal jargon, or a patent in a field that I don’t deal with very often, always requires a state of heightened concentration that must be sustained for several hours.
It took me a long time to realize that just like other types of knowledge workers, translators too are subject to the same 6-hours rule: most of us are able to work highly productively only for about 6 hours per day. After 6 hours of a highly concentrated state, akin to a trance when the translator is taking down divine dictation (if things go well), I am like a car that has run out of gas – I have to take frequent and progressively longer breaks for refueling.
Of course in real life, translators often have to work for more than just 6 hours a day, just like other workers, when a major rush job comes through our e-mail and makes an unexpected landing on our desk.
Nobody really cares how we do it when we have a translation with an impossible deadline as long as we do it on time and without mistakes. Make that without too many mistakes, because if the six-hours rule is ignored, mistakes will inevitably start creeping into our translations, no matter how hard we try to concentrate.
There is not much that translators can do about rush jobs, except for one thing: insisting on a rush surcharge for rush work. My usual daily output is on average about 3 thousand words per day, but when I am under the gun, I can often force myself to go as high as 5 thousand.
I always insist on a higher price for translations with a very short deadline because there is also a price that I myself must pay when I have to force myself to concentrate on a highly complicated translation for 7, 8, 9 or more hours.
Scientists agree that typical side effects of ignoring the 6-hours rule in translators’ work include, but are not limited to: translator’s dementia (TD), nausea, stomach/abdominal pain, dry mouth, headache, nervousness, dizziness, trouble sleeping, sweating, irritability, itching, restlessness, joint aches, blurred vision, fatigue, carpal tunnel syndrome, persistent pain in the back and/or the neck, memory problems, and decreased interest in sex.
I can confirm that I have personally experienced all of these side effects (with the exception of the last one).
Next time when somebody asks you for a quick turnaround exceeding the six-hours rule that would disrupt the delicate internal mechanisms operating in our brain and in our body (there also is a limit to the number of words our fingers can type per day before becoming crippled, and to the number of words our eyes can read on a flickering screen before the words start disappearing in a blurry of an incomprehensible jumble of letters), make sure to ask for a rush surcharge.
Most of the time when I do that, an urgent translation suddenly becomes much less urgent, giving me the time to do my work without upsetting the fragile equilibrium in me and in the world around me, and thus a chance to work much more efficiently.