Project Managers in a Translation Agency — Who Are They?08.09.2016 © Copyright.
Customers and translators do not always fully understand the role of a project manager within a translation agency. It may seem to others that a project manager, or PM, is just a dispatcher who gets files from a customer, sends them to the translators, and then sends the translated files back to the client, thus performing some simple records or exchanges. It may also seem that such work does not require any special skills: merely making calls to database contacts, sending correspondence, and meeting deadlines. However, is that the case? Let us take a closer look.
Let’s start with the meaning of ‘project manager’. Currently the word ‘manager’ is often used for jobs that are not related to management at all. Sales assistants are called ‘sales managers’, recruiters — ‘HR managers’, bookkeepers — ‘finance managers’, and secretaries — ‘office managers’. However, a manager is primarily an administrator, whose focus is to manage staff and make decisions in non-standard situations. That is why, if an employee does not manage anyone, and just performs standard corporate procedures, as instructed by their chiefs, they then cannot be called ‘managers’.
Translation agencies differ greatly from each other in terms of procedures, organizational structure, and corporate culture, with different companies interpreting the notion of project manager’ in their own way. The main difference exists in the specific role each employee has.
For example, some agencies have the following workflow:
- Sales manager finds a customer and persuades them to place an order.
- Customer relationship manager accepts an order, confirms it with the customer, and hands it over to the PM.
- PM then addresses HR manager, and the latter assigns and approves the project performers.
- PM assigns tasks to translators and proofreaders, and has their work delivered.
- PM hands the translation over to the customer relationship manager, who sends the completed translation to the customer.
- Finance manager joins the process at one point, registering orders and issuing invoices.
With such a workflow, a company has only one genuine manager: the CEO who created such a customer order-processing system. The others are just subordinates, performing predefined roles. That is why, all the above listed ‘managers’ can be named: ‘vendor’, ‘order taker’, ‘scheduler’, ‘personnel officer’, and ‘bookkeeper’.
But in some other translation agencies, top executives delegate to mid-tier employees not only the performing of certain roles, but also taking different managerial decisions, including team building. Project managers in such an agency are independent workers: they communicate with customers, make agreements on deadlines and service fees, personally pick the team for a project, address arising issues: technical, organizational or personnel related, complete financial accounting, and sometimes even perform translation and proofreading tasks themselves. They take responsibility for both customers and the executive, for all aspects of a project, and any issues arising during the workflow need to be solved by them in the majority of cases. Top executives generally do not interfere with their work, unless there is a critical reason for it, but rather evaluate their work by financial and other results.
These are two totally different managing approaches. In the first example, the focus is on hierarchy and meticulously unscrambled rules. While in the second one, the focus is project managers' self-starting, mutual trust, inventiveness, and internal incentivization. Each of these approaches has its benefits and drawbacks, and is used by every company to some extent. But each of them requires people with totally different personal qualities. Some companies need ‘soldiers’, who would not break already constructed and balanced systems. While other companies need ‘architects’, who would not agree to work within too-tough limits, but at the same time would not go to the executive crying “Help! All is lost!” in every minor, non-standard situation, or if there was a lack of instruction regarding a particular case. In the following chapters we will take a look at the second type of employee, since only they can be considered true managers in terms of the classical meaning of this word.
Where Translation Project Managers Come From
There are two different opinions about effective team management:
- A project manager should be familiar with their subordinates' work, otherwise, how can they evaluate their professional integrity, and take appropriate steps to strengthen the team?
- A skilful manager can effectively manage any team in any field of work. The most important aspect is managing people. The type of work is a matter of less importance, since specificity of a particular field can be quickly learned.
If the first principle is adhered to, then translation project managers should have experience in translation and/or proofreading. But if the second principle is followed, it means that any competent person with team management experience can do this work, but just certain nuances need be explained to them. Let us investigate the benefits and drawbacks of each of these principles.
From Translator To Manager
Let us assume that a translator or a proofreader becomes a manager. Such an employee knows this field from A to Z, understands how the work is performed, which software must be used, how it functions, and how to solve software-related issues. They know when a translation is really time consuming, and when a translator or proofreader just works slowly. Based on their experience in translation or proofreading, they can become a good mentor, and therefore have authority with their subordinates. Moreover, they can translate or proofread a small order and thus speed it up by reducing the amount of associated procedures. It may seem that such a PM would be a perfect match, and that an employee with such a wide set of skills would help to avoid lots of organizational confusions. However, there is a reverse side.
By appointing a skilled, experienced translator as PM, an executive loses this good translator from the team. Ergo, a new translator may need a lot of time to become accustomed with the job. An experienced translator is often a more valuable employee than as a novice manager. That is why such a move is often inappropriate for an agency.
Besides, not all translators can do managerial work, since it requires many additional skills and personal characteristics. For instance, a translator can work perfectly all day without speaking to their colleagues, but a manager should continuously communicate with translators, proofreaders, and customers. They should use appropriate words, voice tone, etc., and thoroughly think over every communication, in order to avoid misunderstandings among project participants. A translator is responsible only for themselves, whereas a manager is responsible for the whole team, and should not make any excuses based on their own lack of experience: if there’s an issue, it is their fault. A translator performs tasks, while a manager makes decisions and sometimes needs to choose between mutually exclusive options. A translator usually has one or two tasks, while a manager can have dozens of them at the same time. Moreover, it is important to prioritize these tasks correctly and distribute them between employees.
Inability to quickly take control of a situation can cause catastrophic results. For instance, a manager can start translating or proofreading a large text, believing that nobody can do this work better. In addition, because of this, they could be unable to distribute other project-related tasks to their team in time, and they could forget to write back to customers, causing them to worry. As a result, such a project manager works about 14 hours a day, while their translators are idle, customers call all the time, and deadlines are missed, snowballing into huge problems. Also, the only choice an agency executive has is to appoint this employee to their former job.
Taking the above mentioned into consideration, translation agency executives should thoroughly deliberate appointing a translator or a proofreader as PM, since an individual approach is required in every particular case.
A translation agency can employ PMs who have never worked in this field before, but have similar job experience in other companies. The main benefit of such an approach is speed: there’s no need to spend time trying to find a good translator, teaching them for several months, etc., as appointing an external PM means that an agency retains all their expert and experienced staff. It is enough just to pick a suitable resume, hold an interview, and fill the position shortly after. It is a quick and relatively cheap option.
But there is a problem—an employee, hired in such a way, may not comprehend the agency structure, and may not perform their work with proper quality straight away. It is not enough for a translation project manager to just send letters with the words ‘Please translate this file and deliver it to me’. They should be able to use dozens of specialized programs, unfamiliar to many translators. They should learn all the peculiarities of performing translation projects; know field standards, customers' requirements, etc. Without translation or proofreading skills, such a manager may be unable to answer customers' questions regarding text and would need to address a qualified translator, even if the project consists of only two words. Besides, unlike a translator or proofreader, who has been working at a company for a long time, a novice manager may not be familiar with a new company or industry’s corporate culture. For this reason, they can fail to pull together with the team.
Authority is of great importance as well. Whereas employees continue to perceive a colleague, promoted to a new job, as their ‘mate’, a newcomer can appear to them to be alien, or an outsider. If they don't find common ground, team-work can be ineffective, filled with mischief-making and behind-the-scenes actions.
If a translation agency decides to hire external PMs, it should thoroughly develop educational and corporate culture adaptation programs for them. Otherwise, such employees can remain competence-lacking and aliens in the translation agency.
Which is better?
There is no definitive answer to this question: such a decision depends on organizational structures and the corporate culture of a specific translation agency. Both approaches can be successful in this field, but rarely can they be combined within one company. The bigger a translation agency grows, the more often employees without translation experience come into it. If a translation agency consists only of several workers, and its executive used to be a translator, then its managers are likely to be former translators. However, if it is large global company, then the majority of its managers probably lack translation experience.
Problems and Solutions
The perfect translation project to manage is as follows:
- Acceptance from customer,
- Assign translator and proofreader
- Completed work delivered to customer,
- Financial information registering, and project closing.
- Recording all project info in the project management system (e.g. Protemos)
But this is far from happening all the time, and managers often need to be utterly inventive in order to cope with unexpected problems.
Deadline Missing by Translator or Proofreader
The translation process is usually part of a meticulously designed workflow, assuming strict deadlines for particular stages. For instance, a customer needs their product instruction printed, or their website composed. They might need their leaflet prepared for an exhibition, or require a call for bids documentation to be filed. In all these and similar cases, a translator passes the work to designers, marketing experts, programmers and other specialists with approved working hours. That is why, failure to deliver a translation in time, creates a significant problem with the customer, disrupting their plans, which can lead to more time and a loss of money.
A translator can solely cause ‘the butterfly effect’. For example, a product instruction will not be printed in time, causing a delay to the launching of the product. Realizing this, PMs do their best in order not to be even one minute behind time. Nevertheless, sometimes the translator fails to meet a deadline. In such cases, a PM needs to apologize to the customer, and decide how to obtain the translation as fast as possible, taking into account the impossibility of providing it instantly. Sometimes, delay reasons are purely technical, e.g. a power cut. Sometimes they are disciplinary, e.g. a translator was unable to estimate the time, or assumed that a delay of several hours would be acceptable.
It can be even worse: a translator disappears and cannot be reached, although a deadline is missed. Moreover, if a customer asks, “When do you plan to deliver our files The deadline was an hour ago!” then a PM gets into an unfortunate situation: it is unknown what has happened to the translator, or if the translation has been started at all, and what new delivery time should be reported in order to avoid making apologies once more.
Sometimes, a translator is afraid to confess their lag and tells the manager something like: “I will keep up with the schedule by working all night long.” The manager believes this and promises delivery on time to the customer. But the translator says the next morning: “A catastrophe occurred; I need two more days...” Since the PM assured the customer that the text would be submitted on time, he/she needs to explain the delay, search for an appropriate solution, and attempt to save their and the company's blushes.
To avoid such situations, managers try to involve reliable translators who meet deadlines, and if they risk assigning a task to a translator who let them down before, then they would probably communicate a delivery time that is much in advance of the real deadline.
Rush Jobs and a Lack of Translators
Work loads in translation agencies can be utterly unpredictable: in the morning, managers may be puzzled about how to engage translators, while in the evening, they may receive several large orders simultaneously and search for vendors feverishly. A customer may send an urgent project, and 20 translators may need to be quickly involved to perform it.
Customers do not know each other and do not agree order schedules with each other: orders often arrive simultaneously without an approved schedule.
For this reason, translation agencies may lack reliable translators to perform projects in time, and managers need to involve reserve translators—freelancers, including those who are rarely addressed, or those who may appear unreliable. If a translation agency has not trained and checked these reserve translators beforehand, and the PM is unable to manage such a suddenly expanded team, it may lead to a bulk of problems, requiring stacks of time to solve them and causing emotional stress.
Working With Newcomers
To avoid unexpected problems, PMs prefer working with their constant team of proven translators. That is why, before assigning tasks to newcomers (even to those who were tested formally), they take a lot of precautions. Translators are afraid of unfair and non-paying agencies, while managers within agencies are afraid of incompetent translators.
Nevertheless, managers need to expand their team in order to have reserve resources, in case of rush jobs and the unavailability of proven vendors. Therefore, project managers gradually involve newcomers. One of the most difficult and time-consuming aspects of working with newcomers is training them. Rarely do newcomers have usage skills of the necessary computer-assisted translation (САТ) tools, know an agency's requirements, or particularly a customer's ones, and rarely are they quick to understand everything. Mostly, a PM spends a lot of time explaining every detail and ensuring adequate comprehension.
Usually, a PM assigns 2–3 small tasks with minimal risks to a newcomer, evaluates the result, and then either engages them more often or terminates working with them. These first tasks help to determine the extent to which the translator is technically competent, whether the translator is ready to learn, identify any communication problems, and determine if their work is of high quality.
No matter what advertising materials and advertising boards inform, translation quality issues occur within every translation agency. The only difference is that these issues are successfully resolved in certain agencies, while being ignored in others. Issues can conventionally be divided into two categories.
- Obtaining unsatisfactory translations from a translator, and fixing it before delivery.
- Quality claims by the customer, both objective and subjective.
Project managers have to deal with both of these issue types. It may occur that even a proven translator delivers strange text, similar to machine translation, not to mention newcomers. A PMs aim is to ensure that such texts are not delivered to a customer, and to provide quality control of the translations being delivered. Besides, if critical quality issues are detected, a project manager needs to carry out explanatory work with the translator, to avoid the same issue occurring again.
If the customer makes quality claims, then the PM needs to analyse the situation and determine how feasible these claims are. If it emerges that the customer is objectively right, then the PM will take responsibility for the translators' work, offer problem- solving advice, and then make a ‘post flight analysis’ with vendors. However, if the claims are subjective, and translators performed their work well, it would be necessary to build a constructive dialogue with the customer, explaining the agency’s point of view.
Since discussions on quality are often accompanied by conflicts, it is important for the project manager not to over-step the boundaries of business communication, and always be polite while messaging and talking, always address the facts of the matter, even in a heated debate, with emotions running high. Otherwise, it can lead to losing the customer or offending the translator, who can conclude that the agency is ‘rough and unjust’.
Technical Difficulties And Crashes
Modern translation agencies use lots of hardware and software that should all work correctly in order to produce a quality translation, delivered on time. However, unexpected power cuts, office flooding, server crashes, etc. can obstruct meeting deadlines. Hard drives on a translator's computer can become damaged, or stolen, or a necessary software program may fail to launch. Sometimes customers send files in hard-to-treat formats, and such files need to be made suitable to be worked on.
Most of these problems can be solved by technical specialists, but the consequences need to be addressed by project managers: they explain the situation to the customer, ask for a delay, reassign the task to another translator, provide the vendor with another computer, etc. In addition, problems with computers and programs can occur to project managers as well.
Additionally, customers sometimes assign tasks that require certain technical skills, or learning how to use a new program. For example, it may be required to perform translation in a specific text editor.
Some technical tasks arise every day, and the better a project manager can solve them, the more productive their work will be.
Technical competence levels, quality translation understanding and requirements vary by customer: some provide detailed instructions that must be followed strictly, while other clients just send files without clearly worded requirements. It may happen that formal compliance with customer's instructions lead to mistakes in translation. Nevertheless, every one of these cases requires a project manager to complete the project in such a way, that the customer is satisfied.
There are a lot of difficulties that may arise in any given project. Sometimes, following a customer's instructions can worsen a translation, and the customer should be asked to change these instructions. Other times, a set of additional questions needs be asked, to clarify a client’s requirements. In some cases, a customer refuses or has no time to provide an answer, and PMs make decisions by themselves, only later asking if the task has been performed correctly. It is important that both the project manager and the customer gain an understanding in all of these situations, otherwise the customer may not receive the result they expected.
A project manager should control the economics of any given project, and ensure the correctness of amounts, as agreed on with the customer and translators. Sometimes, the volume of work and its cost can be outside the agreed terms, and in order to achieve break-even for a project, it is necessary to negotiate with the customer about the project's cost increase, or someway to cut down on expenses for task performing.
Colleague Interaction and Discipline
Generally, several project managers’ work in any one translation agency: they closely communicate with each other and often address the same translators. They can even ‘compete’ for translators in periods of increased workloads. In such situations, it is very important to be able to strike a happy medium in solving issues together, and not to dispossess translators without permission. That is why, a skill of conducting conflict-free teamwork is very important.
If a translation agency does not put its employees' roles within narrow boundaries, then a translation project manager's range of roles, responsibilities, and competence is broad enough. PMs can make different mistakes in the course of their work due to a lack of experience or attention. However, one of the most critical mistakes is performing tasks instead of their subordinates, and distrusting their skills. A manager, who used to work as a translator or proofreader, can sometimes be afraid that nobody could perform a task better than they, and that translating or proofreading by themselves would be more secure. As a result, they can develop a syndrome of ‘ridden down horse’: by working several hours overtime everyday, and hesitating to delegate the work to others, a project manager fails to meet deadlines, and their team does not enhance both in terms of quantity and quality. Moreover, they do not progress as a business, and the company risks becoming insolvent. At some point, a nervous breakdown may occur to such an employee because of working too hard and carrying too much stress.
The key project manager's skill is delegating work to their subordinates. Competent delegating is not just handing the duties over, it is time, and effort spent understanding the work. It may be simpler and faster for a manager to perform many tasks by themselves, rather than assigning them to others. Nevertheless, if considering the long-term perspective, it is a ‘dead-end road’, since other employees' skills are not improved.
Another important characteristic of a successful project manager is acting outside the box (within reasonable limits). Described above are situations and problems that most PMs are obliged to deal with, often overlapping. Sometimes, it is necessary to involve a new translator, or do projects with unfamiliar themes. There are occasions when PM’s must familiarize themselves with unknown software or programs, or invent an entirely new project-performing algorithm. If managers avoid non-standard solutions, they may not personally or professionally grow, and risk losing present and future customers.
As we can see, a translation project manager's work is complex and demanding. Customers and translators at times set non-trivial tasks, the performance of which requires considerable stress resistance, a creative approach, and an inventive faculty.