Productivity for translators: an overview

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A survey on productivity among professional translators held in 2010 revealed that the speed at which they worked was something to which translators were paying attention. 23.7% of those surveyed said they measured their speed carefully, while 52.6% said they had a good idea of their speed.

Were they getting any faster? Most said yes. 23% of translators reported a 10-20% increase in their words-per-day output in comparison with two years ago. Smaller but still significant numbers of translators reported even greater increases in output: 14.3% reported a 20-30% increase, 10.9% reported a 30-40% increase, and 8.3% reported a 40-50% increase in productivity. 83% of the translators surveyed had been translating for five years or more, 53% had been translating for at least ten years.

What was helping these translators increase their words-per-day output? Were there other factors which were helping them to increase their overall productivity? Almost all translators pointed to greater experience as a factor in productivity, but large percentages of those surveyed indicated other key elements, such as improved terminology resources (58.1%), beginning to use or becoming more proficient with translation memory tools (54.2%), expansion in the translation memories used (30.0%), typing/computing faster (33.6%), personal development (38.3%) and becoming more specialized (57.3%). Some saw increased productivity as a result of optimizing their work space or environment, or by wasting less time on administrative tasks. The incorporation of new technologies, such as dictation software, or the use of machine translation (MT) were also factors which helped increase translator productivity.

Overall, translator productivity is on the increase. One of the results of this general increase in productivity is a gradual reduction in rates for translation work. Translators who position themselves on or ahead of the productivity curve will find it easier to maintain and increase their overall income, even in the face of rate reductions which may be produced by the improved productivity of the majority. A simpler way of putting it may be, "Get ahead or get left behind" when it comes to productivity.

What about quality? Some may argue that "faster work equals lower-quality work". Do not confuse increasing your productivity with delivering lower quality, however. When looking to improve your productivity, think in terms of finding ways to work and to translate more quickly and efficiently, while maintaining and even raising quality.

Increasing your productivity requires a certain level of investment. This can be a monetary investment (for example, purchasing/upgrading special software or an ergonomic keyboard), or an investment of time (learning how to use a new program or tool, forming a new habit that will result in better efficiency). While it can seem that "I have no time" to try or learn something new, this kind of investment can actually pay itself back in the long run in time and money saved.

Aspects of productivity for freelance translators may be divided into two general categories: those which are directly translation-related (e.g. translation software, training in the field, etc.) and those not directly related to translation (e.g. invoicing, computer equipment, personal organization, time tracking, etc.). This overview takes a look at the areas and factors which play into a translator's productivity, and how each can be used to improve specific or overall productivity. It is not intended as an exhaustive description of each, as most of the sections below will warrant their own in-depth articles which deal with the given tools or activities at length.


Translation-specific factors in productivity

CAT tools

If you are not already working with Computer-aided Translation (CAT) software, start doing so. CAT tools can drastically reduce the time spent and increase word per minute output on most translations. Various brands and types of CAT tool exist, and many online resources and forums can help orient you as to which CAT tool(s) may be right for you. When choosing a CAT tool, factors to keep in mind are client demand (are clients requesting translations using a specific CAT tool or tools?), usability, integration with other programs, completeness of the included tools and options, and cost. Many CAT tools have trial versions available for download; take them for a test run before deciding which to purchase.

If you already work with one or more CAT tool, make sure you have taken the time to become a familiar as possible with the tool(s) you are using. Are there any "hidden" features or shortcuts in the tool that you haven't been using but which could save you time? Some translators may view the CAT tool(s) they use as a necessary evil, instead of as one of many tools which can boost their productivity substantially. Taking the time to explore on your own, study the available documentation or tutorials, or take some advanced training on the tool(s) you are using can pay off in increased mastery of your CAT tool(s) and in productivity.

Software / document management

Just as it pays to master your CAT tool(s), mastery of your other software (directly related to translation or not) can benefit your productivity. This can range from taking full advantage of the organizational tools of your email client to exploiting the features of a spreadsheet or simple text document.

Many tricks of the trade in file manipulation can be put to use to save time. Many of these are available free online, and some can be learned quickly through short courses.

Perfect your safety net of term resources

A potential productivity-killer and downside to working at a computer and on the Web is that distractions and getting side-tracked are just a click away. If you find yourself starting a Google search and then realizing that one thing led to another and now you are browsing something completely different, or you went to find a term ten minutes ago and now you are on Facebook, there may be room for improvement in how you use your online resources.

Organizing your online resources and having them "within easy reach" will allow you to go directly to finding that difficult term or reference. If you notice that you are visiting a certain page or site with relative frequency and it takes you two or three clicks of the mouse to get there, can that be reduced to just one click? It may not seem like a lot of time is wasted reaching that page, but those clicks, and that time, can add up. The same goes for offline resources-- have those you most frequently use within arm's reach.

Using the results of term searches to build strong, organized glossaries can take a bit of extra time but also save you time in the long run.

Improve your research skills. Search engines are powerful research tools that can become even more powerful if you know how to use them to go straight to the term or resource you are looking for, for example, or less productive if you are hitting and missing with your search words/formula.

Get trained

Experience will increase your productivity. Experience can be gained through simply working, of course, but also through training and specialized courses. Getting trained (or further trained) will help both with productivity and with marketing your services. If you've taken the basic or intermediate training for your CAT tool(s), don't stop there-- go for advanced training and make sure you are getting the most out of your work tools.


When asked, "What advice would you give to other translators seeking to increase their translation speed?" many translators' reply was "Specialize!"

Specialization can have benefits when it comes to marketing your services and meeting clients, but it can also be key in increasing your productivity. Specialization allows you to focus your work in one or a few fields and build your experience and resources (such as TMs) there. The more familiar you are with your specialized field(s), the faster you will be able to work. Compare this to taking on translations in a myriad of fields, where added time may be spent, for example, learning or finding terminology with which you are not familiar (and which you may, or may not need to use again).

Recognize time-consuming projects. Make them worth your time

In replying to the productivity survey, one translator stated, "I know which projects are more time-consuming and I don't accept them unless I am compensated accordingly."

When approaching a project which looks to be time-consuming because of its complexity, length, file formats, etc., ask yourself if it is worth your time. Would a series of "faster" projects yield more, even if the total size of them is greater?

Of course, a project may become more time-consuming for you when you are less familiar with the field, less familiar with the file format, etc.

The importance of networking

Don't overlook the ways in which you can leverage networking to benefit your productivity. Having a network of trusted colleagues you can turn to for help can in some cases save time. Some have found it beneficial to build a translation team which can work on projects, each team member lending their particular strengths or skills to the effort.

Try speech recognition software

Many translators recommend speech recognition software when it comes to increasing productivity. Various programs are available, and some operating systems now incorporated some speech recognition features. A favorite among translators appears to be Dragon Naturally Speaking, a product issued by Nuance Communications.

Configuring, "training" and learning to use speech recognition software can take some effort, but many assert that the advantages outweigh this initial time investment.

Don't overlook the advantages of intelligent use of machine translation

Machine translation, or MT, continues to improve. MT has been incorporated to some degree into some translation software. While some translators still resist the use of MT in the translation process, others agree that, if used intelligently, MT can represent a time-saving asset in many cases.

Non translation-specific factors in productivity

In general terms, there are many factors, some large and some small, which can affect productivity. Regardless of your translation output when you are translating, attention should be paid to increasing your efficiency in administrative or other tasks which take up time and energy. Reducing the time you spend on trying to find files on your computer, or on tracking invoices, etc., means you have more time to actually translate (or do whatever else you want).

Work environment and set up

Many will agree that your work space is important and can help set the stage for increased productivity. Even if your work area is not a dedicated office but a corner of a room in your house, there is always room to create a more efficient work space.

Some points to consider:

  • Watch how you are seated; invest in a comfortable chair that supports good posture.
  • Watch where you are seated; sit with your back to the wall (instead of facing it) if possible.
  • Keep your keyboard at a height that doesn't cause strain while you work.
  • Start organized and stay organized. If you have a problem with papers and books which accumulate and clog up your desktop, invest in some shelves or baskets to keep things stowed away when not in use.
  • Don't let your work area become a repository for items which don't have a place elsewhere-- limit what is in your work area to what is essential to your work and what makes the area more comfortable.
  • Don't ignore the details-- just as you don't want superfluous stuff, you do want the essentials-- if you have to keep getting up to get something or answer the phone while you work, consider incorporating this into your work space.
  • Natural light is preferable to artificial light.
  • Personalizing your work area is good, cluttering it with knick-knacks is not.
  • Keep distractions out of your work space. This may involve coming to an arrangement with the family that you are not to be disturbed while you are "at the office".

If over time your work area has gotten "out of control", try a big spring cleaning to bring things back to a bare minimum, then experiment with adding a few items at a time (a plant, piece of furniture, etc.) to really gauge how they are affecting your work environment.

Other possibly productivity-increasing items for your work area may be:

  • An extra monitor
  • An ergonomic keyboard

Work routine

One of the advantages of freelance work for many is the freedom to work when you want. This can also work as a disadvantage when it comes to maintaining an efficient and productive work routine.

Many find setting and keeping a set work routine beneficial to their productivity. A routine which includes breaks, or specifically scheduled times for handling administrative or non-work issues can help you to concentrate on your work more fully and give a bit of structure to the work day.

Administrative tasks

Set up an organized system for all your work tasks. This includes performing administrative tasks at a scheduled time in your work day or work week and optimizing the way you tackle those tasks. Keeping your files organized by using a naming standard and specific location/folder on your computer is a small but time-saving technique which will help you avoid the "Now where did I save that file?" scenario.

Tools and programs exist to help with such tasks as invoicing and book-keeping (the Invoicing tool, for example, has helped many translators organize and standardize their invoicing).

Some find it more efficient to delegate certain administrative tasks. Hiring an accountant, for example, even if it is not on a full-time basis, can cut down on the headache of doing the books and leave you more time to translate or dedicate to other tasks.

Optimize your use of communications

How you make more productive use of your communications will depend on how you generally contact or are contacted by clients. If you perform all of your work-related communications by email, for example, having a telephone in your work space may become an unnecessary distraction.

Email, or the way email is managed, can be time consuming. Reading and responding to email is only part of this equation; many spend unnecessary time checking and re-checking their email, or locating past emails that have been filed away inefficiently (or not filed at all). Most email clients have valuable filing systems to organize your email, and labeling and filtering which can help you to pre-organize incoming emails. An important feature is the email notifier, which lets you know of a new incoming email, usually via a pop-up or balloon notification and optionally a sound, from your computer taskbar. Even free email accounts can be used with this kind of tool: examples include the Gmail notifier for Gmail accounts and the Yahoo notifier for users of Yahoo email. An email notifier will let you know when you have new email and can give you a peek at what (usually the subject line, sometimes a snippet of the first part of the message), allowing you to decide if it is necessary to drop what you are doing and attend to it, thus helping to prevent time wasted on continual checking and refreshing of your inbox to see if you've missed anything new or urgent.

Some find it more productive to set aside specific moments of the day in which to handle non-urgent emails, as opposed to handling each email as it comes in.

Try time tracking to see where you can improve

Various programs for tracking your time, many of them either free or with free ("lite") versions, exist to help you analyze how you are using your time and see ways to improve. They are worth trying, at least during a brief period, and can give you a more concrete breakdown of where your time is going (e.g. browsing the Internet, email, instant messaging, or to specific programs or document types). Some are able to give a specific breakdown, to the point of reporting that you have spent 7.25 hours on the the Word document "Shopping_list_10".

Use your downtime wisely

When you are not working, there is still plenty to do, of course. But try to set aside some time in those gaps between projects which you dedicate to investigating or learning how to use new or existing tools at your disposal which can be applied to increasing your productivity. Organize and "prune" your email account, or train your voice recognition software, or spring clean and optimize your work space.

Further reading

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Discussion related to this article

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Productivity for translators: an overview

Albert Stufkens Identity Verified
Local time: 21:42
Member (2008)
Dutch to English
+ ...
Recognition softwareJun 30, 2010

Having worked with Nuance Naturally Speaking for years I find that the farther removed a text is from general language the less effective/efficient such software becomes.


Jared Tabor
Local time: 16:42
Doesn't training help?Jun 30, 2010

Hi Albert,

My experience with this is limited, but wouldn't "training" the software for the specific field or fields resolve this (assuming you're not working with different specific language each time around)? It's probably a bigger time investment, but I wonder if it would pay off.



Werner Walther Identity Verified
Local time: 21:42
English to German
+ ...
Speech recoginition software: IBM and linguatecJul 1, 2010

Neither of you has been seriously working with speech recognition software. You cannot be working "for years" without updating the version. I have been a speech recognition software user since approx. 1996, but I had to change both hardware and software every other year. Training the configuration and (my secret) software always one version behind the hardware potential (that means requirements for hardware less ambitious) are both a must. My choice was always IBM, first Voice Type, later Via Vo... See more
Neither of you has been seriously working with speech recognition software. You cannot be working "for years" without updating the version. I have been a speech recognition software user since approx. 1996, but I had to change both hardware and software every other year. Training the configuration and (my secret) software always one version behind the hardware potential (that means requirements for hardware less ambitious) are both a must. My choice was always IBM, first Voice Type, later Via Voice, for Germany in the linguatec versions, but in English, French and Spanish as well. Mistakes are, after training and intensive use, not more than 2 percent, this means three, four or five words per page, and this with a dictating speed at 300, 400 or 500 percent of typing. But you have to stick to a strict discipline in pronounciation, when you dictate. Estimated productivity increase is between 300, 400 or 500 percent. Entering a new word (better word form) into the system dictionary is fast and easy. I can truly recommend it.Collapse


Carol Chen Identity Verified
Local time: 03:42
English to Chinese
Proz just goes this wayJul 1, 2010

Actually, regarding points mentioned above, Proz just tries its best to provide a good platform for translation, both in technique and management.It goes the way which promotes the translation industry.


Jean-Marie Clarke Identity Verified
French to English
+ ...
The translator as machineJul 12, 2010

I've been translating since 1984 and have kept up with technological developments, but not as far as using CAT tools, which would only further clutter my work environment (visual and virtual). Has my productivity increased correspondingly and significantly? I doubt it, if I factor in the time I spend trying to master and maintain my hardware and software. I translate mostly texts about art, sometimes technical, and a lot of my time goes into trying to figure out what the writer means. A translat... See more
I've been translating since 1984 and have kept up with technological developments, but not as far as using CAT tools, which would only further clutter my work environment (visual and virtual). Has my productivity increased correspondingly and significantly? I doubt it, if I factor in the time I spend trying to master and maintain my hardware and software. I translate mostly texts about art, sometimes technical, and a lot of my time goes into trying to figure out what the writer means. A translator's work does not consist only in juggling with terminology, it also has a lot to do with thinking clearly and writing well. There may be areas in which this is not the case and mechanical aids function well, but then it is misleading to lump all translators together, as the Wiki article does. What I read in between the lines is that increased productivity will entail lower rates and more pressure to perform ever faster and faster. The race is on. Whar will come first: the translating machine or the translator as machine?Collapse


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