Low-Tech Pleasure and Pain


Pretty much all of the tools and information I need to function in my personal and professional life are on my computer or the Internet. But I have a low-tech habit I need to kick.

I’m still clinging to the little red leather address book in my purse and finding stray business cards in the most unlikely places (or not finding them at all when I need them). This is starting to drive me crazy, a good sign that I need to take the plunge and find a good way to organize contacts on my computer. I don’t know why I’ve resisted this long.

This is one last low-tech vestige of my workflow that slows me down some, but the pleasure I derive from it more than makes up for for the slight loss of productivity.

When I was in grad school learning how to be a translator in the mid-90s, I pictured my future self flipping through fat, heavy dictionaries, translating in blissful silence and solitude, and occasionally doing research in libraries. But it didn’t quite work out that way. Before I started working on my thesis in 1998, I was pretty much an Amazon-only kind of Internet user. When I suddenly had to understand the microbiology of milk for my thesis, I became the real thing.

I honestly have no idea how translators functioned before the Internet. You often need to rapidly assimilate terminology and concepts that are specific to industries you might have little or no knowledge of. I’ve had to achieve a working understanding of anything from coal-fired power plants to textile manufacturing to GPS systems in cars. Keeps things interesting, to say the least.

In addition to doing all of my research online, I also use online dictionaries and specialized glossaries. But my low-tech weakness is that I still love to use my old, hardback dictionaries. My partner, a completely paperless translator, makes fun of me, but I can’t help it. It’s a sensual thing. I love the weight of dictionaries, the feel of that delicate paper, the sounds of the pages turning and flipping and slapping, the way they smell… I won’t give them up.

In your work and life, what are your low-tech pleasures and pains and why have you stuck with them?


Brandie Kajino

I use a Blackberry for my calendar, contacts, shopping lists and some tasks. I also have a russell+hazel binder for some “low tech” notes. I have some tabs in the notebook for meeting notes (which I transfer to Outlook later), blog ideas, a phone log for phone conversation notes (much better than gum wrappers and the back of receipts) and a general “inspiration” tab when my brain starts working. I’m a kinesthetic-type person, so something about holding that notebook in my hand with a smooth writing pen makes this girl swoon. ;)


Pamela Poole wrote: Half the trouble is I can’t write anymore. I used to have nice handwriting but it’s gone completely down the tubes since I only ever type. I can barely read what I write. Only my signature looks the same as it did 15 years ago!

I have this issue as well. It was especially hard on my handwriting after obtaining my first Palm Pilot and becoming proficient in their Graffiti entry system. I used it so much during the day that I found myself writing in Graffiti when I had to take pen to paper!


Pamela, I think the risk is we might become OVERdependent on the web. I still haven’t forsaken my good old dead-tree dictionaries. Now, if I tell you I’ve been a professional translator since… 1972 (36 years!), you’ll say I’m just the old school type. However, I’m pretty much of an early adopter when it comes to “technology”, I’m even a “geek” of sorts, at my age :-) But I think it’s a bit risky to put all your eggs in your digital basket!

Pamela Poole

Hi Sabela. I carry a notebook around in my purse but I hardly use it. Last thing I wrote in it was some IKEA furniture names… Half the trouble is I can’t write anymore. I used to have nice handwriting but it’s gone completely down the tubes since I only ever type. I can barely read what I write. Only my signature looks the same as it did 15 years ago!

Pamela Poole

Hi Jenn. I think I saw a video demo of your product not long ago. It was definitely intriguing. I’ll take a closer look. Thanks for the info!

Pamela Poole

Hi jopincar. I keep one of those mini legal pads next to my computer, but it’s not a structured thing, I usually use it to jot down phone numbers I’ll need only once, random ideas, or things like CALL MOM… What is a project punch list?

Pamela Poole

Hi Kelly. I understand your magazine thing. I buy them rarely now, because they can get to be an expensive habit and I feel sorry for the trees! But when I do get one, usually for a plan trip, it’s a real treat!

Pamela Poole

Hi Rob. You’re right, you sometimes need the full dictionary entry to get the right nuance. I especially like the Petit Robert with all its literary examples! My partner has an electronic edition of it, but I’ll stick with mine.

Sabela Cal

Hi Pamela,

I´m a translator as well —English to Spanish— and hardly ever use my paper dictionaries these days. I find the Internet invaluable for researching and archiving things, and as I am a bit of an information hoarder, I am always using tools such as delicious and Evernote to keep track or everything.

However, I also share your attachment to paper and have all these notebooks for all kind of different purposes. A Moleskine as a day-planner, a simple Muji notebook for terminology-related notes, several Miquelrius Cartone for paper and magazine clippings, another for photography that I find inspiring… And my ScanSnap scanner helps me digitise paper when I need to. Some people might prefer to have only one method for everything, but I see no contradiction in using different ones for different purposes.


Hi Pamela,
Your paragraph on the little red leather address book inspired me to post a comment:) NeatReceipts is scanner and software combination that enables you to scan and digitally organize all the paper you encounter in your personal and professional life (full disclosure – I’m an employee). Despite the name, it has an organizer dedicated to business cards (in addition to receipts and documents). You can scan in all of your business cards and our technology reads the information off the card (name, address, email, phone #s, etc) and populates fields accordingly. An image of the business card is preserved in the database and your contacts are search-able, so you can quickly find the information you’re looking for. I truly believe NeatReceipts will help you ditch that last low-tech component of your workflow and wanted to pass the word along.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me directly at jchoi@neatreceipts.com.



I still keep my project punch lists on a hand-written notepad next to my keyboard. I’ve tried keeping it in excel or a text editor and I even have mutliple montiors, but for some reason, I keep going back to the physical notepad.

Kelly Sims

I have a thing for magazines. I know that virtually all the information in them is available online, and that I can read it anywhere I go. But I still have the desire to flip through those pages. I still enjoy grabbing one and plopping down in the grass at the park for a read.

Interestingly, I find that my retention of information lasts longer on things I read that way, versus things I read online. I don’t know why.

Rob Grayson

Hi Pamela,

Being a freelance French to English translator living in France, I enjoy reading your posts as they’re very “close to home”, geographically and figuratively!

Like you, I wonder how on earth I could have been a translator without a high-speed internet connection. Of course, the downside is that if ever your connection goes down, you’re doomed. (This happened to me a year or two ago – imagine having to research terminology using dial-up!!)

I also use one large paper dictionary plus a couple of smaller ones and a few other language references. I suppose I could purchase an electronic dictionary, but I do feel that a paper dictionary has an important advantage over pure electronic reference data (other than your view that it feels nice and substantial, which I share): you can easily read the full entry for a word and related words, rather than being tempted to just take a very narrow dictionary entry out of its wider context.

In short, I feel the best approach for me currently is a combination of high and low-tech.


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