Here at Translators Family, we spend a lot of time praising the virtues of translators – and rightly so. If there were no translators, there would be no translation agencies – in fact, there would be no translation at all. The businesses of the world would be locked into a single language forever and ever. A terrifying thought, we’re sure you’ll agree. But as important as translators are, their job simply wouldn’t be possible without the support of another key role – the project manager. These are the people we want to talk about today.
Another theme we talk about a lot is the idea that translation is a business just like any other. Bearing that in mind, we can say with some confidence that if you’ve come from the business world to read this, you probably already know the kinds of things that a project manager tends to be involved in. It’s true that, whatever the industry, a PM’s job will always cover a few general areas. They act as a bridge between the project team and the outside world, prioritise tasks, allocate resources, manage scheduling and take care of other administrative and organisational issues. And if we’re talking more specifically about the translation industry, yes, a project manager’s job does meet all of these criteria – in the abstract. But in practice there’s a little more to it than that, because the specifics of translation work mean that certain specialist skills are required. Without them – without a good project manager, in other words – a translation project could falter or even fail entirely.
So what does a translation project manager (or PM) do? We can answer this question by working through a hypothetical example project. First, the PM receives an enquiry from a client in the engineering sector. There’s a training manual that needs to be translated from Polish to Ukrainian: can it be done? The PM discusses the situation with the client, identifying things like the client’s budget, the source and target language, and the expected deadline. If the agency offers any additional services, such as layout and desktop publishing or extra QA steps, the PM may also offer these to the client. For this step, then, the PM needs a good mixture of soft skills such as sales and customer relations expertise, coupled with a deep understanding of the translation process that allows them to determine whether or not the client’s expectations are realistic – and, if necessary, to work productively with the client to adjust those expectations as required.
Once the job is confirmed, the next step is to find the right translator for the job. A PM working for a professional agency will likely have a database of hundreds or even thousands of freelance translators at their fingertips. Every one of those translators will have their own specialist subjects and distinct qualifications, so the PM’s job is to sift through all of these names to find the perfect match. In this case, our PM is looking for someone whose source language is Polish, whose target language is Ukrainian, and who has as much experience as possible with engineering-related texts. And if that perfect translator isn’t in the database yet, the PM will need strong research skills to find them – and then they’ll need to put those negotiation skills to work again, in order to agree a rate that suits both the translator and the client. At this point, the PM should also clearly communicate all of the client’s expectations so that the translator understands exactly what’s required.
Now the job has been assigned and the translator has started work – but the PM’s role is far from over. The translator may need to ask the client a few questions over the course of a project, perhaps to clarify the meaning of one or two sentences or to establish the client’s preferred terminology. In this case, the PM’s role is to pass messages back and forth between the client and the translator, providing a single point of contact for both sides. And if either side fails to provide any necessary information in a timely fashion, the PM’s job is to follow up and keep chasing after whatever details are needed to get the job done.
Speaking of timeliness, PMs also need to be proactive about monitoring the deadline for this project and all the others that they’re currently managing. Few PMs have the luxury of only handling one job at a time! Instead, they have to juggle priorities as emails fly in and out, keeping track of all kinds of different requirements without letting anything else slip through their net. And if a project deadline passes without the translation coming in, the PM needs to be proactive about finding out why. This is a rare occurrence, of course: a good translator will make every effort to get every translation in on time, and proper time management is a core part of a freelancer’s job description. But sometimes mistakes are made, and when that happens, it’s the project manager’s job to get the project back on track as quickly as possible. Customer satisfaction is a top priority, so the PM will need to keep the lines of communication open on both ends: getting updates from the translator as often as possible about the progress of the translation, and keeping the client appraised so that they know when they’ll get their document back.
Once the translation is finished, the PM’s next job is to organise the quality assurance (QA) process. Sometimes, they may even do the QA job themselves. You see, the most valuable project managers of all are the ones who have experience working on the other side of the coin – in other words, the project managers who are also qualified translators. Many of the skills that make a good translator also make a good translation project manager: a second language, clear communication skills, a strong business sense, an eye for detail… A PM who is also a qualified translator can therefore make for an ideal proofreader at the end of a project. As long as our hypothetical PM is a native Polish speaker who is also fluent in Ukrainian, they can judge whether this translation is both accurate in the target language and faithful to its source. Alternatively, if a subject-specific expert is required (or if the client simply wants more than one person to check and correct the document), the PM can use their extensive contact database to once again find the right person for the job. As before, the PM should ensure that this phase of the job is completed on time and that any issues are resolved as quickly as possible.
Finally, the document is ready. It’s been translated, checked, even double- or triple-checked where necessary. The project manager can breathe a sigh of relief and congratulate themselves on another job well done. It’s taken a wide range of skills to get them to this point, and outstanding teamwork from everyone involved – with the PM leading the way from start to finish. Now, hopefully, you can see why good translation project management is so valuable: it really is the glue that holds the whole process together.