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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The ideal translation agency – Part I

This post and the next one were originally published in the Adventures in Freelance Translation blog, by Christos Floros, who kindly authorized this republication. I’ve divided the article into two parts to facilitate the podcast publication. This topic should be of interest to many translation clients—after all, a large number of them are translation agencies. Thanks again, Christos!

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What makes a good translation company to work for, either as a freelancer or an in-house translator? This question comes to me from time to time, but I haven’t found the answer yet. An excellent presentation by Karen Tkaczyk at the 52nd ATA conference, entitled “How to make translators rave about your company,” made me think about this a bit more. After taking into account my experience with translation agencies, I compiled my 10-point wish list regarding the ideal company I would like to work for.

1)      Educate the end client

There are times when the translator is a point of reference for the language s/he translates into. The professional translator who specializes in a certain field is expected to have good knowledge of the language, slang/idioms, culture, field, etc. Sometimes the end client asks for something that cannot be delivered, for example, to fit a slogan translated into Greek in the same space as the original in English. If I inform the agency that it cannot be done without “chopping” the translation beyond recognition, I expect the project manager (PM) to pass this information to the end client. I have occasionally heard a lot of excuses from PMs, or even agency owners, as to why they don’t want to do that: they are afraid that they may lose the client; they don’t want to “upset the client”; they’ll take it up with them at a later stage (coded response for “not in this lifetime”); they’re willing to find someone else who’ll follow the client’s instructions and won’t mind shortening the target text, et cetera, et cetera. Few translation agencies bother to properly educate clients and explain why their instructions sometimes may jeopardize the quality of the translations.

2)      Aim for a good margin of profit without squeezing the translator for all s/he’s worth

I totally understand that profit is a main concern for every company (and for freelancers, for that matter). What I don’t understand is why so many translation companies choose to make low bids in order to win the contract and then expect to balance the loss by squeezing the translator. I’ve come across agencies in Europe that advertise their services online in a specific area (such as gambling & gaming) and offer extremely low rates to the end client. It is highly unlikely that the agency will be able to cover the rates of a specialized translator.

3)      Know your subject areas

In the same area in which I specialize (gambling & gaming), I’ve come across agencies that have no knowledge of either gambling or gaming. In these cases, a lot of specific questions were left unanswered because the PMs didn’t know what I was talking about. They also wanted to hide their ignorance from the client, so I was left in the dark more than once. Their usual reply was to search the term in Wikipedia… What’s the point of advertising that your agency is the leading specialized provider in poker translation if your sales people (i.e. PMs) don’t know anything about poker?

4)      Be technology savvy

Don’t laugh, but I’ve also come across translation agencies that insisted on using Trados without knowing what Trados is! I got suspicious after a few technical questions and some irregularities. For example, they had no idea of ini files that are needed in order to open .html or .xml files through Tag Editor. Another time, they sent me a 100-word MS Word document for translation. My translation memory (TM) showed 0 no matches, 50 reps, and 20 fuzzy matches. They paid me for 70 new words and 20 reps (no idea how they calculated that). One of the advantages of any TM software, especially to translation agencies, is cutting the cost for repetitions, but there is no point in asking for something that you don’t know how to use.

5)      Pay on time

Good relationships are based on honesty. I am more than willing to accept (or consider accepting) longer payment terms if the agency informs me beforehand. If they claim that they have a 30-day policy and pay me after 90 days, something is wrong. If they have the same 30-day policy and pay me in 10 days, I’ll be more willing to work for them in the future. It’s as simple as that. Yet more and more agencies blame the “economic climate” and delay their payments…