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Project managers in a translation agency — what is their role?

Clients 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 client, 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 client and persuades them to place an order.
  • Client relationship manager accepts an order, confirms it with the client, 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 client relationship manager, who sends the completed translation to the client.
  • 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 client 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 clients, 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 the translation and proofreading tasks themselves. They take responsibility for both clients 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 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.

There are two different opinions about effective team management:

  1. 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?
  2. A skillful 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 the 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 only certain nuances need to be explained to them. Let us investigate the benefits and drawbacks of each of these principles.

Let us assume that a translator or a proofreader becomes a manager. Such an employee knows this field from A to Z and 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 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 confusion. 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 to the job. An experienced translator is often a more valuable employee than 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 clients. They should use appropriate words, voice tone, etc., and thoroughly think over every communication, 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 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.

The 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 clients, causing them to worry. As a result, such a project manager works about 14 hours a day, while their translators are idle, clients 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 just needs 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, client’s requirements, etc. Without translation or proofreading skills, such a manager may be unable to answer clients’ 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, teamwork 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.

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 a large global company, then the majority of its managers probably lack translation experience. 

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