Yesterday morning I was contacted by a large, well-known translation agency about a very large job. About 250,000 words spread out over about 60 documents of various types, due this afternoon—about 30 hours after the initial inquiry was sent.

Obviously they didn’t expect one translator to do all of this. In fact, very large jobs on very short deadlines are the MO for this agency—let’s just say their name rhymes with “trance perfect”—but this is an extreme case, made more extreme in that the job is due Christmas Eve.

I’m not an especially fast translator. I’m faster than some, slower than others. I can do 2,500 words in a day without breaking a sweat under reasonably good conditions, and I can manage 4,500 if I’m highly motivated and working with good source material. Let’s say I’m around the middle of the bell curve.

I didn’t accept this job and didn’t see the source material (not because of the time of year, mostly because I knew the job would be a rathole), but I can make a few guesses about it. It’s discovery material for litigation. It’s internal company information containing a lot of insider lingo that is not explained anywhere and will often pick up where another document left off. The job is being parceled out willy-nilly to a lot of different translators, by a coordinator who quite possibly does not read Japanese, so there may be no attempt to give each translator a cohesive package (assuming that would be possible at all).

In short, not great source material.

As to motivation, this agency pays OK, but not magnanimously. They do nothing to cultivate personal relations with translators. So there’s no special motivation for a translator to go the extra mile in terms of quality or quantity. If anything, the reverse. Although I don’t know much about the agency’s inner workings, I get the impression they do not have much of a translation-checking process. And for a job this big, on such a ridiculous deadline, it would be impossible to enforce consistency across all the translators, so even a translator inclined to do a top-notch job would know that the work would wind up looking like a hodge-podge anyhow.

So all around, I’m guessing they’d need 100 translators who are available on Christmas Eve. If they’ve got a checking process in place, 20 or more checkers. It takes a hell of a lot of chutzpah to get a call from a client who asks for 250,000 words in a couple of days and say “OK.”

I wonder if they’re trying to compete against machine translation. That’s a chump’s game. I wonder what it would take for them to say “no” to an unreasonable request from a client.

Finally, I wonder why the client was making this unreasonable request in the first place. It is possible that there really is such a short window between when the client received the documents and when they need them translated, but I’m doubtful. It’s possible that the client has been trained to have unreasonable expectations through previous contact with this agency. It’s also possible the client said “as soon as possible” just out of habit, and the agency has responded by treating it as an urgent request.