Project Management Inside and Outside the Translation Industry

by | Oct 17, 2018

Machine translation and post-editing weren’t born yesterday. This much we know. But, guess what? Project management wasn’t born yesterday either.

Project management began in the years between the two World Wars. Its development as a discipline peaked during WWII, when the Unites States needed to maximize its war effort. With the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of Europe, project management and related disciplines were applied to large and complex projects: for example, the construction of dams, roads, and other infrastructures. Then came large-scale industrialization, followed by the work of Taichi Ohno, and eventually the Total Quality Management (TQM) program.

Have you seen the movie “Apollo 13”? Gary Sinise plays Ken Mattingly, prime Command Module pilot, who is grounded due to exposure to German measles. After an in-flight explosion cripples the spacecraft, he’s asked to devise a procedure for its safe return. He is expected to devise a complete power-up from scratch of the completely shut-down Command Module, something never intended to be done in-flight. Mattingly steps in and reviews all of the project documentation, procedure by procedure, to find the one that allows him to help the crew solve the problem of power conservation during re-entry. It’s a great moment in the movie (an all-time favourite in my household) and a great example of an integral part of project management: the contingency plan.

Project Management Outside the Translation Industry

Today, project management has its own international standard. ISO 21500:2012 defines the principles of this discipline and offers an overview of the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK), the Bible of project managers.

In both the standard and the PMBOK, project management is described as a discipline that involves “initiating, planning, executing and controlling the work of a team of people towards the achievement of a specific goal, or sets of goals.” These goals could be the development or production of products and/or services. Through project management, activities are conducted using tools, skill sets, knowledge, methodologies, and techniques to meet the requirements of the projects.

Project managers play a high-profile role requiring cross-discipline competencies and a balanced combination of soft and hard skills. They must be able to develop a higher up view to link the project team together and reach the set milestones. Technical skills and knowledge take second place: A project manager doesn’t have to know everything about everything, but they must be capable of setting up and leading a team of specialists (engineers, programmers, developers, architects, designers, etc.).

Project Management in the Translation Industry

Now, let’s take a look at the requirements listed in job ads for project managers in the translation industry.

In most cases, a translation project manager (TPM) must have:

  • Knowledge of two or more languages (preferably the ones most requested by the language service providers’ key clients)
  • Knowledge of as many CAT tools and other translation technologies as possible, and well as of the typical productivity software tools
  • Eye for detail
  • Communication skills
  • Planning skills
  • Budget management skills

Among the tasks of a TPM we find:

  • Managing contact with existing and potential clients, linguists, and other project stakeholders
  • Preparing quotes for projects
  • Preparing files for translation
  • Selecting freelancers and other vendors
  • Reviewing and revising translations in the languages that they’re proficient in
  • Setting QA requirements
  • Maintaining term bases and translation memories

A TPM is a chameleon. Based on the above tasks, they will act as the account manager, sales manager, vendor manager, reviser, quality assurance manager, terminologist, data manager — all in one.

Because of these very specific translation skills and the lack of the typical PM skills, a TPM might have a hard time finding a job as project manager outside the translation industry. This begs the question: Do you think that a competent, PMI-certified project manager from another sector could find a place in the translation industry? Here’s my two pence worth: Project management is a highly transferable skill. So yes, it is highly possible to go from running the launch of insurance products to managing a translation project management on green manufacturing. Core project management skills (tracking project, running project meetings, risk management, to mention a few) are the same regardless of the industry. What do you think?

Translation Project Management Now and in the Future

Thanks to translation management systems, nowadays many of the core functions of translation project management can be left to technology. The project workflow can be streamlined and automated and, if necessary, customized to a client’s needs. Term bases and translation memories can be updated in real time and shared among the translators and revisers. Estimates and invoices can be generated automatically. There’s also enough room for a certain degree of customization on the client’s side of the platform.

In a not too distant future, as machine learning will do the lion’s share of the work, translation project management as we know it  — together with translation vendor management — is unlikely to disappear, but will certainly need to be deeply redefined and reshaped.

Just like translators, TPMs will have to reinvent themselves. Besides perfecting their soft skills —already a hot topic — they might take the creative road and become global brand managers, multilingual content managers/producers/curators, multilingual web producers, etc. Alternatively, they might choose more technological skills: for example, data management, data visualization, agile methodology, TQM, HR management, etc.

Are TPMs ready for the future? The good news is that the discipline of translation project management has found a place in the curricula of a good number of translation departments/schools in the attempt to offer other skills set to future young translators. The bad news is that it is still taught based on the soon-to-be-outdated skills that are listed above.

Dare I say it’s time to look outside our industry, develop a new curriculum — and maybe even a proper certification — for translation project managers?

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