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!

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!