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!

Interview with a project manager

Launching this new category, we interviewed Izabel Arruda to get some insights into the role of an essential player in many translation projects. Izabel is a localization project manager and she kindly shared some of the experience she has gathered along her journey dealing with both clients and translators.

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TCZ – Izabel, as a project manager, you are the human component of the liaison between a translator and the end client. You (and your agency) are seen by translators as their client, but at the same time you work directly with end clients. How could you explain this position to those who are not familiar with this side of the translation industry?

Izabel Arruda – It’s an interesting position. We intermediate the process, but our job is a lot more complex than it seems. We send and receive files from translators, but that doesn’t represent the core of our profession. We are responsible for negotiating deadlines and budgets with our clients, developing the translation or localization project strategy, training translators, introducing them to our online translation platform, and making sure they are comfortable working on it. We also get feedback from reviewers on the work of new translators, so we can rate them in our database. We must check every file to make sure the job was done according to our client’s expectations. And, finally, we take care of many administrative tasks, such as issuing purchase orders and invoices, creating job numbers, and making sure all numbers match.

Translators and editors are the most important part of the process, without a doubt, but we are responsible for every step of that process. If a translator delivers a poor text, it could be because s/he is not good at the job, but our client doesn’t know the translators and didn’t choose the resources. We did. So it’s our responsibility.

TCZ – And if a client is happy with a project, can s/he request that the same team of translator and editor do the job every single time?

IA – Yes, that happens very often. It’s great if we can get good translators to commit with our important projects. I work with a particular client who likes to interview the translators himself and only works with the same three translators per language. This works very well for us if the translators agree.

Sometimes we have a good experience working with a translator and just keep assigning jobs from the same project to that person. It’s an informal way to engage them in a project. I think this happens more often than the first case.

TCZ – You worked as a translator before “changing sides,” I mean, becoming a PM, right?

IA – I did, yes.

TCZ – Could you share a few lessons you learned as a translator that you use at your new job (preferably those that might be relevant to translation buyers)?

IA – Most definitely. Many project managers are former translators, and a lot of them still work and consider themselves translators. This is key at a translation agency. I don’t think I would be as good at coordinating translation projects if I hadn’t been a translator myself. I know it’s impossible to deliver a high quality translation of a 20-page scanned contract in 24 hours. I understand there’s this thing called “time zones,” and I can’t expect an editor from Russia to respond to my urgent request at 3 PM Pacific time.

You might imagine these are obvious assumptions, but they are not. It’s important to know how the translator’s mind works!

TCZ – I see. An analogy just came to my mind: my sister is an orthodontist, and I just realized I have no idea of what’s feasible or what’s utopia in her area, or what results to expect from different braces or techniques… I can’t even predict how long it takes her to fix someone’s smile. It’s very common for clients to come to you (and to me, too) without basic knowledge about our field. Do you think it’s part of your job to educate them?

IA – Absolutely. Clients come to us looking for a service and we are happy to provide that service, but translation is not as straightforward as buying a product in a shop. Not all clients know what their needs are when they look for a translation company. That’s when we need to step in and develop a translation and/or localization plan.

Even though I don’t understand how my orthodontist fixed my teeth, I know what he did and why. Not all clients need to know the “how.” So there are basically different levels of understanding required by different clients. If I think clients need further understanding of the process (or if they ask for it), I’m happy to share that information with them.

TCZ – What quick tip could you give other PMs for improving their relationship with translators?

IA – Always provide very clear instructions to your translators. There is a lot of tension going on during a translation project, so communication must be clear.

TCZ – And what quick tip could you give other PMs for improving their relationship with clients?

IA – Be honest with your client from the very beginning. Clients are more flexible and understanding than people imagine, and they appreciate honesty. And try to go the extra mile. It pays off!

TCZ – Now, to wrap up, would you share a quick tip for clients when dealing with PMs?

IA – The more information, the better. Send reference materials along with the text to be translated. They will help PMs and translators do a better job. And try to send all instructions and requirements before the translation process starts. Changes along the way will cost more time and money.

TCZ – Thank you so much for helping me launch this interview section for the blog, Izabel!

IA – It was my pleasure!