Project management is the discipline of initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing the work of a team to achieve specific goals and meet specific success criteria. Without a solid project management procedure in place, a translation department will not perform efficiently and could potentially cost a company more time and money.
The book How to manage your translation projects by Nancy Matis, originally published in French and translated afterwards into English, is one of the few books on project management for the translation industry.
Nancy has been involved in the translation business for around 20 years, working as a translator, reviser, technical specialist, project manager and teacher, among other roles.
She currently manages her own translation company based in Belgium and teaches Translation Project Management (TPM) at three universities. She also ran seminars at numerous universities across Europe and was involved in some European projects (eCoLoRe, eCoLoTrain, TransCert), designing and evaluating training materials for future translators and project managers. She also participates in Translation Commons helping to produce mentoring guidelines.
Reasons enough, therefore, to ask her few questions on the state of translation project management.
While a project manager (PM) in the software industry has to know about software development/design etc., in the translation industry most project managers know very little about the translation process. Why is it that most translation courses don’t include translation project management in their curricula?
I wouldn’t say that most working PMs know very little about the translation process. It’s true that there are not many official classes on translation project management at universities, but the situation is improving. More and more MA programmes in translation offer TPM modules and I’m sure this will continue to expand. Many professionals are also in touch with translation schools, via specific webinars, roundtables or conferences, and many emphasise the need to include courses on managing projects, not only for future project managers but also for freelance translators. I’m quite confident that more universities will include this subject in their curricula. Obviously, the more feedback we provide them on TPM, the more chances it will spread.
On the other hand, if translation agencies hire recent graduates with no translation project management knowledge, it is their duty to train them in the process. Trusting newcomers to directly manage jobs without providing them with any guidance poses a real risk for agencies. This sometimes happens and, obviously, I can understand that not all agencies can offer official training to every single PM they recruit. Nevertheless, working in the background for a few months, assisting senior PMs and observing the whole workflow on real projects is a must for a professional TPM career as far as I am concerned.
What would you say are the most important skills of a translation project manager and why?
A while ago, I wrote an article on the skillset shared by translation project managers and translators. As I explain in this article, it is critical to understand what you manage, namely “languages”. Obviously, project managers have to be extremely well organised. They should also feel responsible for any projects they manage, be sufficiently independent to make their own decisions and smart enough to know when they need help. Communication skills are key in their everyday job, and since changes are always around the corner in our sector, flexibility and the power to adapt are crucial. In our current technological environment, translation PMs definitely need to feel at ease with computers, but they don’t need to be IT experts. They’re not supposed to be financial gurus either, but should be able to play around with figures and basic calculations for budget purposes and to schedule the tasks, resources and projects they manage. Finally, it’s quite common to hear that managing projects is stressful. That’s why project managers should manage to keep calm and clear-headed to prove to everyone that they know what they’re doing, acting as the real leader of their projects.
As a PM in the translation industry, how should you keep up your skills (and expand them) in project management?
The first answer that comes to mind is by managing a wide variety of translation projects whose degree of complexity constantly increases. I learned by doing and have mainly expanded my skills by accepting new types of projects, agreeing to challenges that often seemed crazy at first and then became part of our “standard” portfolio.
Basic and advanced training in new technologies, e-content localisation and translation project management is also organised by professionals, associations, universities, translator platforms, training organisations, etc., either on site, online or as self-training modules. They can all help PMs evolve and enrich their profile.
Finally, teaching translation students, coaching other PMs or working with interns is an excellent way to permanently broaden your own skills. For instance, students sometimes ask me questions I can’t answer on the spot. This forces me to do some research, install programs to test features or even question other professionals, agencies or clients to gain more insight. This is a great way to improve since you are forced to ponder cases you might never have thought about and, hopefully, you will be ready the day they crop up!
To be honest, I haven’t read the whole PMBOK Guide. I started consulting it only a few years ago, when one of my students asked me to be her supervisor for her MA thesis on “Risk management in translation projects”. Since she referred to the generic framework for managing projects provided in the PMBOK Guide, I decided to read it, but I must confess that due to time constraints and as it is quite theoretical, I’ve never finished it. Nevertheless, I was happy to see that the courses I had developed for years followed the five PMBOK process groups: Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Controlling.
Many explanations in the PMBOK can apply to translation project management. However, I’ve always felt that in the translation industry, we need to be in tune with the category of projects we manage and, therefore, master not only the translation process itself, but also all processes linked to the material to be translated. For instance, when involved in a software localisation project, understanding the basics of IT development and how localisation will be integrated in the whole process is essential. We are interconnected with any area we translate and must be almost multidisciplinary in our approach to understand how other industries function so we can translate for them.
Which PM path would you advise to someone in the translation industry?
Being a hands-on person, I think that the best way to learn TPM is first to be involved in production, on both linguistic and technical aspects, and get to know everything from the inside out. That way you fully understand what is required at each production step and how to best perform, deliver on time and reach the expected quality level. Once you master the roots of the process and are completely aware of what people need to perform in the best conditions, it becomes easy to manage your projects.
Of course, some people start their career directly as project managers. If they haven’t been prepared for this at university, they might need to be extremely proactive and good at self-training. Some definitely succeed in this job on their own, learning to adapt to all project types, analysing them correctly and optimising their own organisation and team building. But others need guidance, either following some formal management courses or being trained by senior PMs.
The approach will, of course, vary from one translation agency to another. The PM job description might be restricted to the pure management of projects, without any involvement in production. Requirements might, therefore, be high in areas such as financial control, team supervision and process follow-up. Conversely, in some agencies, PMs are involved in production, preparing files themselves, QAing parts of the project, answering questions, creating style guides, and so on. As a matter of fact, many PMs will experience situations in between those two extremes. Whatever the case, I think PMs should have the freedom to develop the skills of their choice, deciding themselves if they want to ally management and production or not.
What do you feel is the value of a good translation project manager?
In my opinion, the main added value of translation project managers should be their ability to properly analyse any project or request they receive. Once you perfectly understand the projects to manage, grasp exactly what the client wants, or even better, anticipate it, you become a top performer. During the analysis stage, TPMs will detail what their project comprises, how to organise the whole production, which processes to put in place, the type of resources to recruit, the material to prepare and share, the way to monitor the whole process and the means to put in place to deliver a quality project on time. Anything missed during the analysis might leave room for potential risks, which could turn into real problems later and lead to some disasters that will make clients (and even subcontractors) run away. On the contrary, if all stakeholders are under the impression that the PM is on top of everything right from the beginning of the project, they will trust them and act on all their decisions resulting in a successful outcome.
We hope this short interview can serve as a starting point for a more in-depth discussion on translation project management. Are there any PMs out there who would like to chime in or share information on the inner workings of translation project management?