Translator Flow

Flow is defined in Wikipedia as "… the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity."

I knew about flow before I knew about the concept of flow. I used to call it "crankage" — that state where the translation just flows, you're just cranking it out. When I learned about flow, I set out to observe myself in my work, to learn how to get into it sooner and for longer, and keep from going out of it.

Flow gained

To me, flow in is all about effortless concentration. Concentration because you've got to hold a lot of information in your head, while simultaneously formulating the equivalent information in English. Effortless because like hitting a rock while skating down a big hill, anything that derails your concentration is going to bring the whole thing crashing down.

To get that high level of concentration, I find that my mind has to be rested. I need to be relaxed and comfortable, and shut out the distractions. Exercise helps — lately I find that a midday walk really helps me get focused for the rest of the day.

I also need to be familiar with the subject matter, be confident about my ability to write in the target field, and feel free to use my best judgment. Running up against a term I don't know or a concept I'm unsure of is like hitting that rock while bombing Suicide Hill on my skateboard at 40 kph.

Flow lost

Have you ever had one of those dreams where you're about to learn some profound truth? The big doors open, the truth is revealed, and you finally grok it.

And then your dog starts licking your face because he wants out. The truth sinks away, like a stone in the ocean, until all you're left with is the ripples.

That's kind of what being in flow and being disrupted from flow are to me.

When I get interrupted from flow, it's like a bubble has popped. I look at the six-line sentence I was just translating — the one I had formed an entire translation for in my head, which I was just about to type out — and I can barely make sense of it now. I read to the end of the sentence, and the beginning is already fading from my memory.

The two biggest things that bring me out of flow are interruptions and failure to understand the source. This is why I try to encourage my clients to use email instead of the telephone whenever possible, and why I try to stick with fields I'm familiar with. The interruption might take a couple of minutes, but tends to kill my productivity for a while after that.

Flow maintained

When I'm in flow, it's like I'm writing the document myself, not translating it. I barely notice the original Japanese — it's like some sage adviser whispering in my ear. On the other end is my rapt audience, listening to my story unfold.

When I'm out of flow, and review my translation, I often think "hey, that was a pretty good translation," even though I've usually written the first translation that came to mind. I think that drawing on your intuition often results in a better translation than analyzing it to death. Of course, that only works if you actually know what you're writing about. I could never pull this off translating something out of my field. When I know the field, doing the translation is like one of those mystery books where you figure out everything in the first five pages, and then spend the rest of the book going "yup yup, I'm so clever." 🙂


Flow is different for everyone. I know some people who say they work better in a buzzing office, while I prefer a nice, quiet office, with maybe some Steely Dan or Dreams Come True in the background. Others feel stimulated by tackling a wide variety of material, while I like to stick to a few fields.

I've also personally learned not to push it. I get a lot more done and feel better when I work for spurts of an hour or so, punctuated by rest. Another thing I've learned is that the ability to maintain concentration is like a muscle that gets stronger when exercised. As I push 40, I feel the loss of physical stamina since my 20s — for example, I can't pull all-nighters like I used to, and if I do I pay for it — but my mental stamina seems better, if anything.

I also think that this is very relevant to freelancers, because when you've learned to produce better translation faster, you'd prefer to be compensated for the added value you're producing. But it's hard to convince a boss to pay you for the value you add when he thinks he's paying you for warming a seat. It's not impossible — I've had a couple of in-house offers paying roughly what I make now, when you count benefits — but I prefer to avoid the argument by simply charging for my work, and not my time.

8 comments to Translator Flow

  • This is so true, Ryan. I have never really thought about it, but you are spot on with your analysis. There are days when I am “in the flow” and it just comes naturally – and then there are days when I can’t put a sentence together without struggling. Luckily I have more of the former than the latter. And truer words were never spoken about interruptions breaking the flow. I couldn’t put it any better myself. Great post!

  • […] practices, Random musings, Translation. trackback Ryan at the GITS Blog has a fabulous post on Translator Flow. Rather than me summarize his insights, I encourage you to check it […]

  • I completely agree with your comment on incorporating exercise and taking breaks. As a former competitive tennis player (=my previous life), I know that recovery is essential to performance. I work out once a day and get up from the computer at least once every hour. It really helps me clear my head and it’s also good for my eyes (and my dog, who likes to get petted, and my clothes, which like to get folded). I also find that I am much more in the flow (tennis analogy: in the zone) when I am working on a project I am truly passionate about. Sometimes it takes a bit of time to develop the passion (it’s then when the pushing-yourself-endurance comes in), but it’s worth the extra efforts. And it is so true: some days feel like pulling teeth. I might blog on the translation/exercise importance soon; you inspired me!

  • This sounds very familiar. Another thing which I would add is the importance of people in your environment understanding and respecting the need for concentration. I work very strange hours: neighbors are long since accustomed to seeing the lights on in the office at 3 am. This is a habit developed over decades, because when I used to do a lot of programming work in my home office – another task requiring great concentration – I was interrupted throughout the day by my then-wife, who felt an obsessive need to tell me jokes and impart other “important” information, even when I had requested a period of time alone in my closed office to work. Each time, the carefully conceived program structure in my mind was obliterated, and I had to start rebuilding it from the ruins. Though the situation isn’t as extreme usually in my translating tasks, I do find that sharing an office as I do now can be challenging if the other person needs frequent help or feedback while one is working on a difficult text. But I also find that with good communication and respectful quiet when it is requested, this shared environment can also be very good at breaking linguistic logjams and getting back the “flow”. Like many things, it is a matter of balance.

  • Dear Mr.Ryan Ginstrom,

    I am truly amazed by the complexity of your blog and by the simple, deep and straight person behind it.

    Generally it is difficult to write about this issue, let’s call it ‘state of things’ unless one lives and feels it.
    And you both live and feel this ‘flow’. Moreover you can transmit it to other people as a lighthouse shows the way through darkness.

    Although I am only a beginner in the field of Japanese Studies, please, I would be very honored if I you agree to stay in correspondence with me.

    Sincerely yours,


  • Mr Stark

    Mr Ginstrom, I would very much like to correspond with you. It would be valuable to me if you could contact me. There is much to discuss. Such as the past and the future of flow. I have WRESTLED with this for quite some time.


    Joshua Stark

  • Thanks for the post.
    I have something to add too. 🙂
    Sometimes, when I get down to work, it seems an ordeal.
    I also noticed that when I look at somebody working, it seems to me that the work is so simple and that I could do it quicker (just let me sit down and do the job).
    That’s why in cases when the work seems an ordeal, I try to look at myself working from outside. The main thing is to relax, not to be on the nerve, and you’ll surf the flow! 😉

  • @Mykhailo

    Good point! I also notice that when I’m in the flow, it’s like I’m riding shotgun to my own brain. Maybe there’s something similar going on here, having to do with stepping outside yourself.

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