There is a widening of the eyes and a gasp of indignation on my behalf when, on being asked how my work has been going during these eccentric and surreal times, I reply that I’ve received requests to work at half price and experienced huge delays in payments. As if this were somehow more shocking that the loss of employment, loss of home or loss of sanity due to isolation that many others have endured.
The importance of communication
But this is not the forum to share my views about the pandemic, the lockdown, the effects on health, the economy and the education system. I am simply reporting on what the past few months have been like for someone like me: a freelance translator used to working from home and sharing a home with others less used to working at home or away from their colleagues, and what this has shown me. The truth is that I do not mind the underpayments, late payments, excuses for partial payments as much as might be expected. It merely reinforces what I have always believed: that communication is one of the most important attributes of the workplace. I work with and for some diligent and dependable people who took pains to explain their situation to me, and when people are prepared to be honest about their difficulties it becomes much easier to understand and tolerate. Companies are experiencing supply chain and cashflow problems; individuals are suffering loneliness, a kind of incarceration and anxiety. Staff who work in company accounts departments are not necessarily present in the office to process invoices and payments. We all have to be a little flexible and patient.
Once the predictable January slow period, when it always takes the industry some time to warm up after the New Year, was over, I had plenty to do. To summarise without going into more detail than non-disclosure agreements will allow, I translated sections of a book on which a clown duo wished to base some sketches they were developing, some never-ending rare disease-management protocols written by the French National Health Authority, and (the most challenging project I’ve completed so far), a series of comments written by one Ancient Greek philosopher in the 6th century A.D., commenting on the theories of other Ancient Greek philosophers writing a few centuries B.C., on the squaring of the circle, the being and the non-being, the magnitude and the multitude. These diverse projects constituted welcome distractions from the reality of not seeing friends, holidays cancelled and not having my usual September music festival to look forward to.
A more structured day
It was all engaging but laborious work that required focus and a certain amount of resolve. The philosophy was particularly difficult due to the primeval, convoluted writing style and the endless sentences. When faced with a long project, my approach is always the same. I divide up the word total by the number of available working days and calculate the percentage of the document, or of the series of documents, I must complete by the end of each day to meet the agreed deadline, making an entry into my diary to give myself a concrete target. Sometimes this means working without breaks, grabbing something quick and indigestible for “lunch” without really stopping, and pushing on until the designated percentage for that day appears in the bottom right of my screen. But I began the lockdown period living with 4 other family members, all accustomed to working in an office environment, face-to-face with colleagues, and with a much more structured day. I have to say that this has now changed the way I operate.
Like much of the population, I found enormous comfort in nature, and our almost daily late-afternoon walks into the countryside virtually on our doorstep that I never knew existed, which all or some of us would undertake, was a wonderful chance to unwind after several hours of staring at a screen. This meant taking the crucial step of setting and sticking to a finishing time instead of lurching onwards towards a specific work volume before logging off. Living in a small family unit meant regular mealtimes, actually taking a break for lunch and sitting outside, not working in the evenings; unexpectedly, I became a little more creative when it was my turn to cook. And although I rarely managed to take a Sunday off, our Sundays normally began with a long run along a local disused railway line. Perhaps emboldened by the temporary reduction in traffic, the deer, occasional badger or, after nightfall, fox we spotted on our walks, or the curious rat or family of young rabbits that hopped around the garden, offered a heart-warming spectacle (see photo above).
Relaxation…. and ergonomics
At first I thought I’d panic at the prospect of not fitting the requisite volume of work into my day, but I realised that it actually helped to have some landmarks. As a former teacher I am used to a bell schedule, a strictly defined day structure. Yet since working from home, usually alone, I have lapsed into a nose-to-the-screen, fingers-to-the-keyboard, sprint-to-the-finish style that can’t possibly be effective. The regular breaks, the more nutritious meals, and the limited working hours actually improved my concentration and output. I found that I got more done if I knew I had to finish by 4.30pm to go for a walk in the woods. The relaxation cleared the mind. Moreover, those around me who were less used to working in the house also drew my awareness to a matter I had altogether overlooked: the question of ergonomics.
Since some of the projects I translate are concerned with manufacturing, I have translated a number of policy documents on health and safety at work, yet I had never thought to consider this in relation to myself. Such documents tend to focus on limiting the number of hours in front of a computer screen, ensuring good light while not sitting facing direct sunlight, having the desk surface and keyboard at a suitable height and, possibly the most important, protecting against lower back problems by using a suitable chair. None of this had ever crossed my mind. Due to network variability I tend to move around the house and work in different places on different days, so I don’t tend to stick to the same chair or table. It was only when one of my family members started wearing blue light filtering glasses and another, seated at an upstairs desk on a piece of furniture hardly more serviceable than a deckchair, complained of developing back problems within 20 minutes, that I began to think. This prompted me to purchase a more comfortable swivel-chair, with adjustable height and padded support for the lumbar region, and a much larger monitor, making small-font text much less of a chore.
This raises a question. With so many people working at home now, how have others managed to find a comfortable, peaceful area to work in, free of noise and distraction, with the correct office equipment? Not everyone has their own photocopier, or even printer, and I suspect that many are constrained to work on tiny laptops or tablets. This lockdown, and those I have kept company with, have taught me how to improve efficiency and productivity essentially by taking better care of myself. There is a world outside my computer, and it doesn’t do any harm to glance up and gaze out of the window sometimes. I am much more fortunate than many.