How I translated 10K words in 4 hours (and why you shouldn’t)

man pushing hay bale: working towards productivity
Photo: Vlad Chețan

It was a lovely spring Wednesday evening, around 6 pm. I had just put the baby to sleep and my daughter was in the immaculate, Scandinavian-style family room watching an educational video about science. I, myself, was sitting peacefully in the kitchen, clad in designer clothes, slowly sipping a soy latte and reading a poetry collection.

Please. A new email alert draws me out of my daydream and into the reality around me. A sinkful of dishes, a screaming baby yet-to-fall-asleep in the crib, and a daughter watching one of those horrid toy unboxing videos on YouTube I keep telling her not to watch. Family life is not magazine-worthy, guys. Never expect them to be. I open the email, scan the content and mutter something truly un-family-friendly, because this is what it said:

“Hi Michal, I just wanted to tell you I’ll be delivering those 10K words you assigned to me on Monday instead of first-thing tomorrow morning. I got delayed and have had a fever for the past two days, and also I had a lot to do this week so I didn’t get around to it. But everything will be perfectly done by Monday. Tuesday tops.”

I know, right? I’m sure every language service provider has had this experience before. If you’ve never been left hanging at the last minute by an irresponsible linguist, go get a lottery ticket, because you are one lucky cookie. And this was a grade-A last-minute case, basically 15 hours to deadline, most of which will, ideally, be spent sleeping (if baby permits). What do I do? I could ask for an extension, but the client made it very clear they are not flexible. I could spend half the night emailing linguists to try and find a replacement, and then ask for an extension, because no freelance linguist is that loyal. Or I could do this:

Barney saying 'challenge accepted': translation is on

Luckily for me — and I’m using ‘luck’ liberally here — this job was within my personal specialty and language combination, and I had no plans that evening other than falling asleep on the sofa watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix. I metaphorically and physically threw all parental duties onto my other half and locked myself in the home office with my laptop and a jumbo cup of coffee. We’re doing this.

Type. Confirm. Sip. Repeat.

Let me get some numbers in here for scale. The industry standard for human translation usually refers to 250–500 words per hour. This differs by specialty, type of text, amount of research required, etc. and means that even at the top of the range, a linguist will need about 20 net hours to complete 10k words, not counting in sleep, food and a shower. I had 6 hours of productivity before my brain shuts down for the night.

How does one translate 4 times as fast? They go bionic. Since I didn’t have time for the futuristic operation, I reached for some computerized tools that immediately made me a whole lot faster, and allowed me to complete the entire job in ~4 hours (the other 2 hours went into review and typo correction, a crucial part of the bionic translation effort). Now, I will not say this was easy — my hands will be cramping for days and my back feels like it’s been through a spin cycle (think laundry, not gym). It is also not for everyone or every job — I have a lot of experience in super-fast typing (thanks to years of using ICQ before mobile technology changed humanity) and the job I was working on had three specific characteristics:

  • It was repetitive. These were product descriptions, so the same phrases kept coming back again and again. I used that to my benefit!
  • It was right up my alley. I knew the field like the back of my hand. This meant very little Googling was required.
  • It was NOT creative. This was the type of job machines will take over in a couple of years: dry, repeating descriptions of various retail items. No need to reinvent the wheel or do any copywriting.

Taking that into account, I first set myself up in my favorite CAT tool. If you’re not familiar with the term, a CAT (computer-assisted translation) tool is a local or cloud software designed to make translation work easier and the quality higher. By breaking text into short strings and presenting them side-by-side with their translation, linguists can focus on one line at a time. They miss less and are more productive.

It also allows the software to save the translations for each string separately, and re-insert it if that string shows up again, later on, adding both speed (again) and accuracy to the mix. For this project, I used Smartcat – use any of your personal favorites. Thanks to the CAT tool, I could recycle some of the strings along the way. Even if there were small changes to make, the software highlighted them for me and saved me the need to retype the whole sentence. Step 1- done.

Then, I went ahead and configured the ultimate super tool for anyone who’s job require lots of typing: a text expander. My personal favorite is PhraseExpress*, because it’s minimalistic and easy to use — but you can use the one you feel works best for you. Text expanders automatically replace pre-defined short texts with longer ones. They are genius, because they let you type long, tedious lines, and even paragraphs, quickly and with very little effort. All you have to do is define shortcuts or abbreviations that are easy to remember. Personally, I like to read them in my head until they soak up the meaning of the original phrase, and typing them in becomes as automatic as typing the actual words. Once you get the hang of it, you can work at light speed. I will not be exaggerating when I say that using a text expander made me 3 or 4 times as fast in this project.

Need an example? Sure thing. Let’s say my item was ‘short sleeve top with adjustable drawstring and button fastening at the front’. ‘short sleeve’ became ‘sove’, ‘adjustable drawstring’ turned into ‘adjing’, and ‘button fastening at the front’ was ‘froton’. I would type ‘sove top with adjing and froton’, the text expander would do it’s magic, and I’d already been moving on to the next string.

As an added bonus, Text expanders are also extremely useful for other uses, mostly to quickly enter the text you find yourself repeating a lot, or the content that you constantly have to copy-and-paste from your note app. For me, it’s a great way to save and re-enter addresses, business details, bank info, etc; or easily wrap up emails.

As a third (and last, and non-required) step, I activated Noisly — a little Chrome extension that provides relaxing background music to keep you focused. While I normally don’t like background anything while I work, I usually have the privilege of actually having a quiet environment. This time, however, I had the ‘greatest hits of domestic routine’ collection blasting through the wall. I love my kids to bits, but when I really have to focus, I’ll take rain forest sounds over a rendition of ‘baby shark’ in the bathtub. Sorry, kiddos. Tell it to your shrink when you’re older.

Boy scout-level prepared, I went to work. I typed, and typed, and typed. I took a break to make more coffee and kept typing. I had a bit of dinner, then typed some more. And when I finally emerged, it was 10 pm, the house was quiet, and the progress bar showed 100%. I was done.


I broke a personal record and got the job to the client on time (including quality testing and editing). I even got some sleep. But as I woke the next day, I wasn’t sure how I felt about last night. In terms of productivity, the evening has been a great success — I managed to translate a lot of content in a very short amount of time. In terms of profits, it was also a triumph: 10K words in just 4 hours — you do the math. But was it a win, really? I missed putting my kids to bed, wore myself out to the point of exhaustion and probably got carpal tunnel in the process.

Now, now, don’t be so hard on yourself, you say. It was one time. And you didn’t really have a choice. Besides, it was all Letdown McCancelton’s fault.

Sure. Though, to be fair, this wasn’t the first time I had to sacrifice an evening at home, or a part of my weekend, just so I could have a job ready on time. And this definitely wasn’t the first time I had bit more than I could chew — in normal business hours, at least. In today’s world, you’re rewarded and praised for being uber-productive. For working as hard as you can to get as much done as possible. People invest money and effort to utilize automation solutions that will save them time and work hours, but to what end?

By all accounts, we’re rapidly approaching a productivity revolution. In just a few years, I will probably be able to complete the same job in minutes, with not much more than a click of a button. So many time-consuming, technical jobs will be done by machines. Consequentially, that will leave us with a huge amount of free time, and a choice: use this time for more work, bigger profits and even higher productivity; or for personal growth, stronger family connections and an even higher quality of life. And as tempting as it is to try and squeeze in as much work as possible into that extra time, it’s important not to get side-tracked, and remember that productivity is just a means to an end. More work, or even bigger profits, will not make us happy. Doing things we love, or spending time with loved ones? That just might.

Our world is vast

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