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!