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PM-ing the Classroom

Project management and translator education

By Debbie Folaron

“Hi. I need my website translated into five languages, as soon as possible, for our new launch. French, Portuguese, Chinese, Russian and Arabic. How much would it cost? We don’t have a big budget for this ...”

Professional realities

Requests like this, and countless other similar ones, are made every day around the world – sometimes to a multilingual employee, sometimes to an in-house company project manager, and sometimes to a skilled professional project manager at a translation company or agency. Indeed, the value of the global translation, localization, interpretation and affiliated technologies market continues to rise, estimated at about US$34 billion in 2013, and growing steadily (Common Sense Advisory). With much of this work outsourced, the market has seen a significant rise in the need for capable project managers aware of the challenges posed by the linguistic, cultural, and technical adaptation of content associated with contemporary communications. A rapidly transforming technology landscape raises the bar even higher for students wishing to prepare for positions in the translation services sector.

One of the default skills most rapidly learned on the job by project managers is to multitask – efficiently and productively. As part of organizational competency, it requires a thorough understanding of the various components that typically constitute a translation or localization project, simple or complex. Although every project does indeed differ – each one is temporary, with a defined scope and resources and often includes people who don’t usually work together (Project Management Institute) – certain project components and aspects of the professional translation or localization sector are quite regular, even rather standardized, and knowledge of them is extremely beneficial… plus they are, to some extent, learnable in the classroom or through instructor-led training. For those who choose not to be inducted into PM work through baptism by fire, there are now educational and training options available that can make the transition  somewhat smoother, including a recently launched complete Masters Degree in International Translation Project Management in Spain.

The subtitle of a relatively recent book entitled Translation and Localization Project Management – “The Art of the Possible” (Dunne & Dunne, eds., 2011) reflects both the uneasy reality that project management in the sector is not an altogether easy affair and the assumption that aiming for excellence is nonetheless wholly attainable. So, what is the best way to train for it? Is it in fact ‘teachable’? Some would argue that because every project is unique, the most effective teacher ultimately is experience. And although there is a large degree of truth to this view, there is also a great deal of merit to be gained from translation students acquiring specific areas of knowledge from within the classroom – especially if the adage that ‘not all translators make good translation project managers’ is taken to heart.

An important first step is to realize that while translators are of course a sine qua non for any translation project to be undertaken, the individual act of translating acquires a distinct position and role in the context of multilingual translation and localization projects, i.e., the current fare of many companies, institutions and organizations today. In this environment, translators become only one of many kinds of ‘social actors’ forming a multi-faceted team created to meet the specific demands of a given project in a given context. The team may include original content developers (Web, software, documentation, etc.), desktop or website graphic designers and publishers, programmers, various translation technology experts, terminologists, translators, revisers, and more – all coordinated through project managers in response to clients obtained independently or through salespeople. Clients themselves originate from a wide variety of ‘office cultures’ and organizational infrastructures: small-medium enterprises (SMEs), large corporations, multinationals, for-profit, non-for-profit, governmental and NGO entities. The challenge for many translation program graduates without PM training is thus one of trying to understand translation within a project-oriented structure and in terms of a project’s life-cycle.

Educational possibilities

A single project management course at university or in continuing education programs can go a long way in terms of basic orientation. For
instance, initial classes can provide activities to familiarize students with the dynamics of the professional sector. They learn about professional
PM organizations (PMI/IPMA), international quality management standards (ISO 9000, ISO 13485, ISO 16949, etc.), and certification possibilities
in general. They investigate reliable sources valuable for international translation- and localization-specific projects (Multilingual magazine and research at the Localisation Research Centre/Centre for Next Generation Localisation) more specifically. They explore online profiles, CVs,
and PM job openings (required skills and demands), etc., through databases such as the one maintained by GALA’s Localization Careers. Excellent blogs authored by translation and localization project managers in different areas of the world are accessible as well, and allow students
to reflect on and discuss the comments posted.

Ideally, coursework in the class should be both collective and individual. Individual contributions, on the one hand, might entail students creating their own hypothetical company in order to respond – as a final report – to an international Request For Proposal (RFP) of translation or localization services. Collective activities, on the other hand, might include co-managing various components of a real project for a not-for-profit organization. They could also materialize as introductory modules for partnered work in the lab, designed to present CAT/TEnT software (translation memories, terminology databases, etc.), localization tools (to process more complex formats of source content), basic programming or HTML/XML mark-up languages, machine translation (its potential appropriateness), revision processes (including post-editing), project management software, and
even some desktop publishing and graphics editing. An integral part of these activities involves researching specifications on some of the world’s languages, grasping Unicode, controlled language, and the notions of globalization (commercial and legal aspects) and internationalization in relation to translation and localization (GILT). These and many other subjects (geography too!) often prove to be a fascinating journey of discovery for students who have not yet been exposed to professional life.

The ‘intro modules’ serve not only to give students an idea of the professional skills needed by team members they will eventually coordinate, but also a working vocabulary for communicating diverse requests and demands. Likewise, they learn how to judge at which point activities best intersect and progress in order to bring a project to successful completion. They refine transferrable soft skills and enhance collaborative aptitudes for communicating, resolving problems, troubleshooting, and applying creativity to knowledge. Clients, salespeople, technical engineers and graphic designers do not all speak the ‘same language’ as translators! Honing a project team-oriented mentality is critical, and a classroom environment can offer translation students opportunities to see whether or not they are well-disposed to the diversity, challenges and dynamic nature of the domain.

Finally, as future project managers, students will also need to make autonomous decisions based on their assessments of project specifications and circumstances. These include calculating available (or not readily available!) human, material, financial, and technical resources, and organizing them effectively. The details cover much territory. How to evaluate translator competence? How to determine acceptable rates and turnaround times? How to create a comprehensive budget and manage project deliverables? How to respond intelligently to client queries about crowdsourcing, open source technologies, and machine translation? How to benefit from project post-mortems? What to do about PM burnout? To this end, classes can be significantly enriched by inviting professional project managers to come and speak about the work they routinely carry out on a daily basis – they have much to offer and many stories to tell!

Debbie Folaron is Associate Professor of Translation Studies at Concordia University, Montréal, where she teaches a class on project management for translation students.

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