The psychological lifecycle of a project

Previously on Neechin, I’ve covered a few topics on project management, but mostly from the perspective of managing them from the cold management perspective. But you can’t forget that we’re dealing with people, and most importantly, it’s the people that will make or break a project, no amount of paying attention to processes, schedules, and other management tools will make up for when people fail.

The start of the project

This is the most exciting part of the project. The project has just started, staff has just signed on, and everyone feels like they can change the world with their bare hands. Even the longest of scripts seem like it’ll be done in moments, no technical hurdle is too great, no sacrifice in time too large. This is generally the most productive spurt of time for a project. It is also generally the least planned out portion of the project.

The most wonderful thing about this phase is that there’s so much energy around. Things really do get done quickly in this period of time. The downside is that there can also be a lot of wheel spinning, putting that great energy to waste.

Some of it is just unavoidable, how could you know that the engine needs a huge hack in the back to get working? How could you know that some of the people on the team that you thought were competent really weren’t?

Some of it can be mitigated. Things like translation conventions, if they exist, should be hammered out as clearly as possible. File formats, where things are stored, how to contact each other, whether you leave honorifics like “-san” or “-sama” in, or do you implement them some other way, how is spelling standardized, what the speaking style of various characters will be like, and so on.

Part of the project manager’s job is to provide solid direction for all the energy in the team, so that the least amount is wasted doing unproductive things as possible. Don’t have someone waste their energy building the project web site right now, you’ll be translating and editing for another 3-24 months, let the guy do something useful like edit graphics or do editing. Keep an eye on how everyone’s working, making sure that you can head off any stupid debates before they get in the way of productivity.

The long haul, when the honeymoon ends

Some projects, namely the extremely short ones, might not actually reach this phase. The initial spurt of energy is enough to carry the team over all the major hurdles, and they finish before they run out of energy. However, for the rest of us, this isn’t true. Like it or not, the initial high will end and cold reality will seep in. This is the graveyard of projects, many enter and don’t make it out to the other side.

For us translators, it’s roughly when you stop sitting at your keyboard, excited to take on the next 300 lines of the script in a single sitting. It’s when you look back, and realize you’ve spent the past 3 weeks worth of nights alone working on a script, and that you’re only 20% through, the point where the reality of the sheer scope of the project sinks in.

Distractions start becoming an issue. You’ve gone for a period of time without going out with your friends, or passed on that game you wanted to play, that book you wanted to read, that series you wanted to watch, but they’re calling to you now.

For the other staff on the project, this is when their roles become progressively marginalized. They’re “waiting for the scripts.” There’s only so much work to be done without the scripts, and so after a while, those people will find themselves out of obvious things to do.

At this point, the initial passion for the project will have to be tempered with discipline. No one in the world is going to make you do this work, this isn’t even like the business world where you’ve got a deadline to meet. No amount of nagging from people on the Internet can force the translator to do their job. They can just as easily stop listening and disappear. Ultimately, it’s just the translator versus themselves.

How do you survive this graveyard? It varies with person to person. However, the most important thing is probably common to all of them, passion, or perhaps, stubbornness. Just because the cold reality of the sheer scale of a project sinks in and puts a damper on people’s spirits, it doesn’t mean that the initial passion that fueled that productive start has died. Hopefully. It has just cooled, and you have to put effort to draw results out now.

How individuals deal with this of course varies. There are some who will continue working, plodding forward, come wind, rain, or oncoming traffic. What drives them, I don’t know, but they exist. Similarly, there are those who respond to a bit of pushing, some who respond to encouragement, some to praise. Then there are some who just don’t respond and die on the vine.

As for myself, I take a cue from some writers who say, “Every day, sit down and write at least one sentence.” Since deep down, regardless of how tired, overworked, or otherwise occupied, if I’ve decided to do a project on my own, I love it enough that even doing one line will usually become a few hours of work before I realize it. Of course, there are days when I get one line in, and fall unconscious into bed, but that’s just how life is.

What does this translate to for the project lead? Well, for one thing, they need to know that this phase is coming, and there’s no dodging it. It’s not a failure on their part when morale dips simply because people realize how much work they’ve signed up to do. The trick is to make sure it doesn’t get out of control.

The worst thing that can happen is that bored staff complain too much and make the atmosphere worse. Whether it’s lack of work, or someone being slow, whatever it is, if the bitching starts up and there’s no one around calming things down every so often, the bad mood plays off itself will suck the life out of anyone who still is feeling positive.

The lead’s role now should be to figure out what works for the people they’re working with, and keep them going. Find something productive and useful for the free members to do, make sure everyone is still working and not getting crushed under the strain, whatever it takes. Exactly what is an exercise left to the reader.

Incidentally, this is also another reason why I recommend having a small team whenever possible. There’s only so many translators on your team, and they can only work so fast, most of the other roles on the team will wind up having slack time while the translators work, even if you find new tasks, it’s unlikely you’ll find enough to keep everyone busy. If you have too many people lying around with no work to do, the chances that someone who’ll whine and negatively affect the morale of everyone else goes up.

Surviving to the end

Finally, after plodding through the project, line by line, day after day, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Usually, with the end within reach, there’s a renewed sense of life and energy. It’s almost over! Just one more push! A few more all nighters and it’s over!

Of course, this high can appear at various points. Usually I’ll notice one when a major section of script, like a scenario is about to end, and of course at the very end before release. It might be tempting to use these milestones as a way to break up the monotony and strain of a really long script, but a word of caution — after clearing the section, you’ll have to come down again and realize you’ve got another significant chunk of script to do, and that in itself is a strain. So don’t make weird artificial milestones just to try to make things “more easily digested”, it’s probably going to backfire. Strike a kind of balance.

The thing to be careful about is to make sure you don’t drop the ball in your excitement. There’s lots of temptation to “get it done soon”, but if something unexpected comes up that forces some delays, it can be very tempting to go ahead anyways with a hasty hack. I’d really really recommend against that.

Remember, in VN translation, or really any translation that involves storytelling, like manga, or anime, you’ve got one shot at telling the story right. That is, once they’ve read the story, the chances that they’ll read it a second time drops significantly. Even if they do, it’s not quite the same an experience as the first time. Don’t drop the ball and ruin that experience with something not well thought out after all that effort you just put in.


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