What Made Me Choose and Keep Translators as a Project Manager

Knowing how to sell your services to clients and, even more importantly, how to keep those customers, are vital to the success of any freelance language professional.

I had a short stint (about a year) as a translation project manager when I was transitioning from in-house work to full-time freelancing, waiting for business to pick up.

I managed over 100 projects, enough to have plenty of tips to share with fellow freelance translators… and a long list of horror stories.

While this advice is solely based on my personal experience, I’m sure it will apply to many project managers you are currently working (or hoping to work) with.

I generally went through translation portals to find translators and proofreaders, but I believe the process is not that different with, say, direct clients. They may be considering other translators as well, although their search methods may differ.

How I Chose New Translators

They were specialized: Before considering any other factor, I would look for the most specialized translator I could find for the projects I had at hand. Mentioning your specialization is important, and sharing a few examples of projects you translated recently can be a real plus.

I once worked with a colleague who even had a blog with excellent translation samples for the exact specialization I was looking for. I hired her without a second thought.

Their proposals were personalized: “Dear sirs I can do it” won’t cut it. Try to write a bit about why you think you would be the best fit for the project or client in question. Specialization, as mentioned above, is key, but project specifics are also welcome if you are quoting for a specific offer. If the word count is known, you can give an estimated delivery time. If a CAT tool is required, write a quick line to confirm your experience with it. Those simple things can help you stand out.

They were professional: Writing a proposal in a non-native language can be difficult, but you should at least run a quick spellcheck on your text before hitting the Send button. In terms of tone, I’ve never had a problem with those who adopted a warm and friendly tone to show their enthusiasm, but you should avoid being overly informal.

Another point to consider: professional email addresses always look better than free ones. It’s also a good clue that you’re not an impersonator. Maybe not the first thing a PM will look at, but it can give your image a little boost.

How Translators Kept Me as a Client

It is easier to retain clients than to find new ones. And as it turns out, project managers are the same! They want to work with a stable team of translators rather than chase out new ones all the time. So give them reasons to keep sending you their projects!

All of the points below are really just common sense. Yet, so many times did I end up collaborating with translators unable to follow them.

Punctuality and reliability

As a project manager, I had two great fears: 1. deliver a translation that wasn’t of the best quality and 2. not being able to deliver at all.

One thing that really amazed me when I was outsourcing projects is the huge proportion of translators who don’t deliver on time. As a translator, I have never delivered an assignment late. If, for any reason, I felt I wouldn’t be able to send a completed file on time, I would let the PM know about it immediately, so they would have time to think of a solution.

But more than once did translators deliver their work several days late without a “sorry” or any mention of the fact. I honestly don’t get it. It is just unprofessional and disrespectful of everybody involved, from the proofreader waiting for the files to the end client desperate to release their new products.

You might get away with a translation that is flawed (not that it’s a happy ending either!), but there’s no excuse for delivering late without any sort of warning. Any translator who would send their work late with no proper and prior explanation was instantly off my list, quality translation or not (and often rather than not those translations were bad).

Quality

Naturally, you should deliver quality translations. Don’t accept to translate texts you don’t fully understand, follow the instructions you are sent (a translator should at least be able to read!), and go through the basic QA steps every language professional is expected to apply. The number of translators who don’t even spellcheck their translations is amazingly high – this is also something I see a lot as a proofreader. Needless to say, such a lack of professionalism was also an instant deal breaker.

Reactivity

Try to reply any communications you get from your PMs in a timely manner. The wait for answers can be extremely stressful for under-pressure PMs, especially when the deadline is tight (…which is almost always the case, sadly). The peace of mind you give them with a swift answer is gold. No need to wait a certain amount of time to seem busy, just answer as soon as you reasonably can. If you can’t answer their request right away for technical or physical reasons, just acknowledge receipt of the message and give them an approximate time you’ll be able to get back to them.

Communication through the project lifetime

Good communication is vital for a fruitful relationship, and this though the entire project lifetime.

At the beginning of a project

Occasionally, I would send a job out with lengthy explanations and specific instructions, only to receive a very basic answer, such as “Received.” or “OK, got it.”

Being concise is great, but I always appreciated when translators made it clear that:

  1. They safely received the files
  2. They read and understood the instructions
  3. They are starting to translate and committed to deliver by the deadline

Basically, make it clear you’ve read their message carefully. It doesn’t have to be very long, something like “I confirm safe receipt of the files and instructions regarding XXX. I will start working on the project and deliver by XXX. I’ll get back to you if I have any questions or doubts” is more than enough.

This is particularly important for new collaborations. Once the trust is established, you can be a little more informal, but until then there should be no ambiguity before starting a project.

During a project

Asking questions is important when you need extra information or some explanations, but be careful with the following:

  1. Ask only when necessary: Asking questions about technical concepts you should understand as a specialist or about points answered in the reference files won’t make you look very professional. It can happen occasionally, of course, and that’s fine, but not 5 times a day. Check the document carefully, run a quick Google search, and write down your question only when it is clear you won’t be able to find an answer by your own means.
  2. Don’t send an email every time you have a question. Gather them somewhere (some PMs will send you query sheet templates), and review/send them at the end of the day.

Delivery & After

When you deliver, don’t forget to mention anything relevant (doubts you still have, notes about formatting, questions left to answer, etc.). After that, try to remain available for any client-side questions. Unless you are on holiday or don’t have access to your emails, try to answer such queries within a business day. Some translators just seem to vanish after sending their invoice – it’s never too pleasant.

Conclusion

In the end, it all boils down to two things: act as the professional you claim to be, and remember your PM is a human being too. Project management is very stressful and anything you can do to ease the pressure will be immensely appreciated.

About Anthony Teixeira

Anthony Teixeira is a professional French translator and proofreader working from both Japanese and English, and specialized in IT, software and video games. Offering his services in the industry since 2009, first in-house and currently as a freelancer, he also writes about localization best practices for the IGDA LocSIG.

  • Adami

    So you are ruling out the trully professional linguists, who are specialised in the LANGUAGES they master, and not in a field. Those translators can handle any field perfectly professionally… Frankly, I am offended by PMs who do not understand that this is a possibility…

    • Adami, I cannot agree with you in full. Indeed, a professional translator shall be able to translate almost any text. However, it is impossible to be a good translator in every field. For instance, I specialize on mining and geology translations for over 7 years, and I’m pretty sure that another translator, who never translated mining related texts before, will be able to translate it at the same level of quality that I can. On the other hand, there are many translators who specialize in medical translations and I know that they can do it much better then I. Professional translators should always specialize and good PMs understand that.

    • Being specialized in a language is a plus, as is being specialized in a field. I don’t think there is any incompatibility here. As Simon suggests, “trully professional linguists” should definitely be specializing too. You can’t be an expert in everything.
      So yes, for a very technical text, I will prefer a subject matter expert with 10+ years of experience over someone who just graduated from university with a general degree in translation.

  • Patient Xavier Nong

    Thanks a lot for this gem, Anthony.
    Many of the tips you’re giving seem so obvious. Yet, astonishingly, they’re actually neglected by many of us, especially newbies.
    Look forward to reading even more practical articles.
    Regards.

  • LUndeghe Terence

    When I just joint the freelance translation world, I thought I could translate almost everything as Adami suggests. However, I took a test for medical translation and was rated 80%. I took another for Military strategy and weaponry and was given a horrible rating too. Nonetheless, I excelled in handling legal documents, since I had taken a whole course 45 hour course in Legal translation/translation of Tender documents. I also found out that I easily excelled handling educational material(course contents, course descriptions etc.) because I had taught in Private university institution for sometime. So my point is that there is no way a translator can just jump into a field and produce a perfect translation if he/she has little mastery of the field. A perfect linguist may find the seemingly right word, but disambiguating it with similar but slightly different words requires proper mastery of the field. No hit no judgement.

    • Cannot but agree with you 🙂 Thanks a lot for sharing your opinion!

  • Jennifer O’Donnell

    These are certainly common sense tips but it’s nice to hear them re-iterated! Sometimes you forget the common sense things and need something like this to put you back on track.

    Although as I think about it I have often come across people on LinkedIn who say their native language is English, yet their grammar and spelling has been… much to be desired!

    This should also apply to project managers and translation companies, not just the translators! So many times I’ve sent an email to a PM to hear nothing back, despite reminding them. Good communication all around benefits everything.

    Thanks for another great article Anthony!

    • Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. What kind of emails do you mean? Did PMs pass over the project related messages?

      • Jennifer O’Donnell

        Kind of. One example is I was working with one company who, when I applied, emphasized the importance of communication. I though “great, this sounds like a company I want to work with”. So I applied to their ad for JP/EN translators, completed their translation test and then…… nothing. I

        emailed them several times asking who the JP PM was and how I could help, but even though they had an ad for translators and emphasized communication I heard nothing from them. After several months I just sent them email saying I was done and removed them from my client list. I’ve had this with a few companies, and even one who stopped emailed after I asked them to pay me!

        I don’t think it’s very professional of a company to say how important communication is and then not communicate with their translators. It feels like I had just been put in a database and forgotten.

        • Frenchenglish

          A lot of PMs stop responding to your mails as soon as the project is safely received. It becomes your duty to remind them about payment. Often, it takes them several days to come back to you, at times redirecting you to a different person to whom you should forward your invoice. Then they wait several days after payment deadline is passed. When you remind them, they tell you they are processing the payment and that it may take up to two weeks. We call that delay tactics. They are as bad as paying people sixty days after job completion.

        • Ah, I understand you. Unfortunately, there are many so-called translation agencies, who treat translators as a consumable or a commodity, not as professionals who are, in fact, the backbones of their companies. I suggest not to spend much time for such ‘clients’ and just to move on 🙂