What Happens When Translators Go on Autopilot

Personally, I do not believe specialized human translators who actively use their brains will ever be replaced by machines. But if you put your brain on autopilot and work like a machine, then you could be at risk of becoming some kind of zombie cyborg competing with full-fledged machines! Here are some common problems I have seen in myself and other translators when we go on autopilot and do not think about what we are doing.

When you put your brain on autopilot in my favorite sport

Do you see the similarities in this hilarious video? This is what a translator who accidentally quoted too short a deadline while on autopilot looks like trying to catch up!

When I put my brain on autopilot and blindly trust the GPS

Have you ever done this? I feel so stupid when I show up late to a meeting or event because I blindly trusted my GPS and was too lazy to spend two minutes actively using my brain to think about where I was going! I type an address on the GPS, don’t look at the map at all, and press go, whether in the car or on foot. Sometimes something goes terribly wrong. I get confused. I have to pull over and frantically look at the map. Other times, if I just slow down, take a deep breath, and use my brain actively, I can study the route I will be taking for two minutes and I’m good to go. Even though the GPS is on, I know where I am and where I am going, and I am not as prone to getting lost.

This is exactly what I propose you do in your translation business to avoid going on autopilot: Stop yourself. Slow down for a moment. Don’t act without thinking. Take a deep breath. Use your brain actively. Examine the context, situation, and conditions around you more closely. And then, after you have all the information you need to make an informed decision, put in a conscious effort, know where you are, and know where you are going.

Quoting a price on autopilot

X number of words equals price Y—done.”

Hold the phone! Is the text within your grasp? Do you have the subject matter knowledge and expertise required to translate it? How complex is it? Is it a list of words or running text? Approximately how long has it taken you to complete similar projects? How long do you think it will take you this time? How much do you aim to make per hour? How important is the text to the client? What do you think it is worth to them and what do you think they are willing to pay for it?

Quoting a deadline on autopilot

“4,000 words? Delivery on Friday (two days)—done”

Hold your horses! What if the client doesn’t accept your quote until Thursday? Isn’t it better, then, to quote X number of business days following confirmation? Your daily output will not necessarily always be the same for all types of texts. Think about how long this specific project will take you. Double check your calendar to see if you will have enough time. Think about and find out how urgent it really is for the client before you bend over backwards unnecessarily.

Translating a term on autopilot

“Source language term X equals target language term Y—done.”

Wait a second! If you put yourself in the shoes of the specific target group, do you understand what this term means? Have you checked whether it corresponds to standard terminology used by native speakers in the relevant industry?

Translating a sentence on autopilot

“I translated the words—done.”

But is the sentence effective in communicating the intended meaning optimizing any calls to action? Is the information clear and easy to understand? Has the sentence structure been adapted to target language conventions?

Translating a document on autopilot

“I translated each sentence—done.”

Did you adapt the punctuation and check how the text flows as a whole? Did you check it in its final layout, beyond the CAT tool’s sentence-by-sentence structure? Examine it as a whole and see if there is any room for improvement once you get a better feel for the overall context and the role each part plays in the whole.

Sending and forgetting on autopilot

“I finished a project, now on to the next one.”

Hold up! How will you ever improve if you don’t know or care what happens to a text after you deliver it? And you could be missing out on opportunities to contribute to higher quality and a better reputation. Don’t just send and forget. Forward any questions and concerns you might have. Flag anything you aren’t sure about. Leave alternative suggestions where applicable. Ask to see edits, offer to review any in-house changes the client makes (I don’t mean for free, but be proactive). Ask the client if they are satisfied. Ask how the target group responded to it.

Running your business on autopilot

“When I receive a project, I take it. Then I rest until the next one comes. Done.”

Listen up! A business on autopilot is only focused on the present. A sustainable business model where you use your brain actively is focused on long-term improvement. If you want to command higher rates in the future, find better clients, and consistently grow your business over time, you have to set aside some time now to invest in the future. This works the same as the other points above: Stop. Take a deep breath. Analyze your current situation. Analyze the market. Figure out where you are and where you are going. Take action. Invest in strengthening your specialization. Invest in networking with potential clients within your area of specialization. Update your website. Be strategic about where, when, and how you do all this. That’s using your brain actively to run your business as opposed to running it on autopilot!

I hope you found this helpful. God knows I have done these things myself in the past and I kick myself every time! But awareness is the first step. One of the biggest problems is when you do these things unconsciously. And, of course, keep in mind that my comments about translating a term, sentence, and document, and on sending and forgetting, are largely based on my own experience with translations of corporate communications for direct clients. Nevertheless, I would venture to suggest that all of these points are highly relevant for translation agency projects as well. Sometimes it’s easier to spot autopilot behavior in others, but that doesn’t mean you have to be the bad guy. Colleagues collaborating on a project can benefit from reminding each other, playing a constructive role, and keeping each other on their toes.

What do you think? Have you kicked yourself after going into autopilot? Or facepalmed when you notice someone else doing it? Was there anything that helped you steer clear of cruise control? Please share in the comments!

Header image: Pixabay

8 thoughts on “What Happens When Translators Go on Autopilot

  1. Great post!
    Like you. I’ve done most of these, and have solutions to prevent them most of the time. Thankfully, good habits built up over time help. However to make sure things don’t slip even when I’m not at my best I have some automated helpers such as QA tools checking for certain things and task reminders to make sure I do A or B for a specific type of job.
    I do consciously do one of your examples sometimes though: Running your business on autopilot.
    – When major events are happening in my life outside work (say moving house or a child with an all-consuming activity or an illness),
    – When I have a freelance feast and am trying to make the most of the potential to have a really lucrative period,
    I give myself a pass on “growing” and just take the work that comes at a time. Job in, job out, just trying to keep the receivables ticking along. Then when that phase passes, I prioritize marketing or investing in my skills and tools or the like. It works for me to do it in bursts. That’s not for everyone though, so I like that you included it in your list.

    • Thanks for your comment, Karen. Sounds like a good idea to use QA and task reminders. Maybe I could use some more of that myself.

      My workflow is fairly predictable since i do financial reports, so I can also do more billable hours during certain periods and more unbillable hours investing in my business and skills during other periods.

      However, lately I have been finding that I have no choice but to deal with plenty of correspondence, questions and meetings even during my busiest period of billable hours now that I have gotten involved in some complex direct client projects that require a lot of problem solving.

      Otherwise, I can remember referring to it as “survival mode” when I was trying to just do a lot of work without thinking as much about my business and putting off some emails and phone calls I might have otherwise prioritized more. Sometimes a flu would prompt me into survival mode, because I didn’t feel as confident to present myself well on the phone, in person or even by email while I wasn’t feeling well, but would still try to get some billable work done that couldn’t be postponed, and would try to spend the rest of the time resting instead of investing.

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  3. It is just way too easy to fall into those traps. One way I found to avoid it, is to have an imaginary Manager who has to go over each project, meaning I have a checklist and the first step is take a minute to look the whole project over.

    That does not save me from every trap but it helps a lot. Keeping my Business Persona on is not innate, but I am getting better at it.

    Thanks for the delightful and informative text.

    • Thanks for your comment, Gio. I like the idea of an imaginary manager. Maybe I will have to try that sometime. Another thing I try to do is look at my texts with the eyes of my client and of the target audience.

  4. Thanks for great post, David.

    I think autopilot, particularly the “running one’s business on autopilot,” is a problem that plagues many freelancers early on because we often only learn to think of ourselves as business owners once we have enough business to feel we merit the title. We would do well as professionals to start thinking of ourselves as business owners charting an intentional, strategic course before we even get paid for our first job. I think that would help many newcomers be a lot savvier.

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