Tips for Surviving Your First Mistake in a Translation Agency

Nobody is perfect – and at some point, everyone will make a mistake. The only question is “when?” Even professionals are not safe – but the thing about mistakes is that they help you learn. It’s important that you accept these mistakes, take responsibility for them – and use them as a stepping stone towards being a more successful person.

Still, there’s more than saying “I’m sorry, moving on” behind such a mistake. In order to protect your job as a translator in a certain agency, there are certain steps that you need to follow. This guide will help you through your first mistake so that you can be safe, learn from it, and then move on.

  • Letting the Client Know Right Away

Some people prefer going by the “If I don’t say anything, maybe they won’t notice” method. If you’re lucky and no one notices, then you’ve lucked out; you just have to be careful that it never happens again.

However, this may also go the other way, with the client finding out by themselves – or from other sources – that there is an error in the text you have translated for them. The next step would be them coming at your agency, roaring thunders and lightning, threatening they are going to sue.

To prevent this from happening, you might want to take some initiative. If by any chance you realize the mistake before the client does, do not hope for a miracle and pretend the mistake does not exist. Instead, make sure that you contact the customer right away, giving them notice (hopefully) before they use those documents.

If you do this, the client will also hopefully see that you are an honest person – one who places the interests of the client over their own.

There’s no guarantee that you won’t have to suffer from this mistake – but taking this initiative might just soften the blow. This way, you might get away with just a warning instead of being fired.

  • Explain Yourself – Not Excuse Yourself

There’s a very big difference between explaining what happened and making excuses for yourself. People choose translation agencies over freelancers for this exact reason – simply because they expect transparency at all points.

A client is more willing to trust an honest translator that brings all cards to the table rather than one that seems picture perfect – but also seems to be hiding something. Most people have an eye for these kinds of people.

Start by explaining why this mistake happened – but don’t make it sound like you are looking for excuses. If you’re trying to put all the blame on external factors, this might not sit well with the customer.

Instead, put your hands up (in a manner of speaking), admit it was your mistake, but also make them see that you learned from it. Show them that you can move forward with this mistake and use it as a stepping stone.

How well this explanation will be accepted, it will all depend on the severity of the mistake. Obviously, if you compromised the work of your client, it’s clear that they might have a bone to pick with you afterward.

However, if you do manage to show them that you’ve learned from your mistake, they will obviously appreciate your honesty. This way, there’s a high chance that this client will use your agency again in the future.

  • Offer to Fix Things

You’re working for a translation agency now, so your mistake is the entire company’s mistake. Unless you “clean” the black spot on the image, it will stay dirty and compromise the reputation of the company.

Obviously, this does not only mean that you have to fix the text you messed up. You will actually be expected to do that, considering they paid your agency to get the correct text.

Instead of just fixing things on the spot, you might also want to fix them on the long run; fix the relationship, not just the text. If the customer is still not happy, offer them a discount for their next order – or even throw some freebies in the mix.

Offering your services completely free of charge might not be the ideal scenario for you; however, if you risk losing a potential customer, it might save you hassle and money in the long run.

Instead of thinking of it as wasted time, think of it as an investment for the future. If the client leaves unhappily, then there’s no way they’ll be using your agency again. Furthermore, there is also a high chance that word will spread, placing a big dirty spot on the company. You don’t want a mistake like this to hit the breaks on your career.

Final Thoughts

Mistakes are always bound to happen; that’s how we actually learn and become better about our job. But remember that every mistake you make will reflect on the agency that you are working for.

If you follow these tips, you may be able to prevent a small mistake from growing into a full-blown disaster.

Translators and project managers: together we fall, together we rise

In the last ten years, activities related to professional translation have been undergoing substantial transformations, mostly brought about by new computational tools. Intermediate and final customers, in a kind of “cyber fever,” began to look eagerly for digital replacements for “expensive” human translation, regardless of any deleterious effects on the product quality or on the activity itself. The concept of “good enough is good” has become widespread, to the detriment of “good” in absolute terms.

As translators are at the business frontline, the effect on them and on translation processes is evident. However, one backstage role was hit hard, without most of the industry paying much attention to it. This role is essential to the health of translation as a professional activity and as a business. I’m talking about the translation project manager, better known as PM.

Translation as a business has peculiarities that distinguish it from other services. However, there is something common to all of them: the need to manage knowledge, time, effort, and money. In this respect, translation companies seem to be going against the current. While companies in other industries seek to reduce costs by hiring professionals whose expertise covers all production stages and who are, therefore, multitaskers, many translation companies, relying purely on computer resources for document management—especially those embedded in CAT (computer-aided translation) tools—dismiss skilled project managers and replace them with mere “word distributors” who have little or no knowledge of the actual job.

This happens simply because, as far as the cash register goes, this new class of PM weighs less on the payroll than the skilled one. Some more prudent companies have removed the word “manager” from the function title, which they now call “translation coordinator.” Others, however, shamelessly keep the title, and that only adds to its devaluation.

Perhaps translators who work primarily on projects involving localization and automatic translation tools have resented this phenomenon less. I often say that these areas are becoming “ecological reserves” for a rare, endangered species, i.e., the qualified PM. Nevertheless, even in these areas, the lack of qualified PMs is felt.

For those who believe I’m too exacting, I offer the example of an announcement by Morgan Hunt, a British recruitment agency. It was published recently on The Guardian online and called for a translation company “Senior Project Manager”:

Some might say, “Hey, don’t be sullen. What they want is a senior project manager. A professional at this level must have all these qualifications.” Although there is some truth to that, it is equally true that a junior project manager should have at least some of those skills. Nevertheless, whatever subset of these one might choose, it would be hard to find these attributes in most of the PMs hired by agencies nowadays.

Others might argue, though, “Hey, it’s not like that. Many companies give due importance to the PM, and there are very good PMs in the industry.” There are indeed. Yet what I’m talking about here may not be the normal scenario, but it’s one that, at least in my opinion, often exists.

To be fair, translators must acknowledge their contribution to the current state of affairs. How many times, when participating in a translation project, have they accepted parameters that are foreign to the scope of the translator’s task itself? When they take part in a translation project that clearly involves a team of translators, they may (and should) be careful to reject any kind of instruction that transfers responsibilities from a project manager role to another. A classic case is the “My dear translators, when it comes to terminology, you must talk to each other, okay?”, in which the distributor rejects for him/herself the responsibility of providing an appropriate terminology base and puts it all on the translators’ shoulders.

Translators also need to differentiate the true PM from a mere text distributor impersonating a PM. This way, they can accurately measure the relationship risks that a project may pose, since a text distributor who actually thinks s/he is a PM can cause irreparable damage to the client–translator relationship.

That said, and once translators have done their part, what they should expect is that the translation market’s main players—translation companies and their end customers—will start treating the project manager role with the deference it deserves, and start demanding the necessary qualifications of those on the job. Otherwise, the main players will be contributing to a failure to characterize translation as the intricate and valuable product it is, and also will be endangering the survival of translation as a profession and business.

A first step could be acquiring the same perception as the agency in the example from The Guardian. By the way, I don’t know what company they refer to, but I sure would love to have them as a client! If only it were so!

The ideal translation agency – Part II

This is the second half of the text originally published by Christos Floros on his blog. Check out the first part if you haven’t read it yet.

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6)      Be available to your translator

I once worked on a large job with a tight deadline for a European agency. I came across a tricky term and wanted to discuss it with my PM. I was in a hurry, so I called him on the phone. No reply. I sent him an e-mail at 1200 GMT and a reminder at 1630 GMT. What I got was a rude reply the next morning: the owner of the agency wrote that I delayed the delivery and pointed out that I should have contacted them on Skype in order to get a prompt reply. What kind of agency has no access to phone or e-mail during business hours, but is always available on Skype? Go figure…

7)      Be flexible

Flexibility is, in my opinion, one of the greatest qualities in a person and in a company. I try to be as flexible as I can in order to accommodate the needs of my clients, but unfortunately I cannot say the same for many of the companies I’ve worked for. Many times I get the feeling that the PMs don’t want to help translators. There is no other way to explain why issues that can be resolved very easily get mixed up in an unnecessary back-and-forth process that results in wasted time from both parties.

8)      Be real and professional

Have you ever worked for an agency whose PMs are also the CEO, the CFO, and the COO of the company? If not, let me enlighten you: there is something disturbingly wrong about it. I don’t really see how the CEO of an agency can act as a translation project manager. I also question the professionalism of such an agency. The same goes for a managing director of a translation company who once appeared in a professional conference in his tracksuit, with his hair all messed up, for an appointment with one of the industry’s leading experts on machine translation (MT) and services. I saw that with my own eyes and I still feel sorry for that MT expert…

9)      Communicate efficiently in English

You may find this difficult to understand, especially if you are not working with agencies outside the USA, Canada, UK, and Australia, but the quality of the English in some of the correspondence I receive is very poor (to put it nicely). Spelling and grammar mistakes in professional e-mails just don’t look good, especially if they are directed at translators, who are trained to spot mistakes immediately.

10)      Be willing to defend the translator

There are times when the client comes back with negative feedback on the quality of the translation they received. In such cases, I believe that the ideal course of action from the translation agency’s point of view would be to complete a third-party review, to politely ask the translator about the issue, and then to provide feedback to the client in order to clarify the situation before accusing the translator of any mistakes that might be just stylistic changes made by the end client. When the occasional mistake happens, most of us are very concerned about that. We all strive to deliver error-free translations, seeking to not jeopardize our relationship with the agency. Yet some agencies prefer to accuse us in order to protect their reputation without examining the issue in detail. In the eyes of such agencies, it’s always the translator’s fault…

It is difficult to find a translation company that follows all 10 points on my wish list. The reasons for that are practical, moral, and empirical. If you don’t have enough capital, you are bound to delay the payments. If you don’t know what’s best for you in the long term, you are bound to make mistakes in the everyday running of your company. If you are not experienced, you are bound to make mistakes that could easily be avoided.

This is true for both freelancers and agencies. After all, we are all business entities and focus on the longevity of our business. The way we choose to act now will, one way or the other, affect our prospects down the road.

I’d love to hear other translators’ views on this. What is your ideal translation agency to work for? Are there any specific attributes on your wish list?

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