Friday, 30 January 2015

Chinese Whispers in Translation Project Management

Chinese Whispers

Anglicity's previous blog was inspired by Rob and Nick Carter's art collection after Warhol. In many ways, the comparison of translation with the Chinese Whispers game was too obvious. Comparison with translation project management practices may actually be more relevant today.

Direct contact
The current translation business model closely resembles Chinese Whispers. Translation companies are very reluctant to allow freelance translators and clients to speak to each other directly. They fear that either the client will take the translator, or the translator the client. There are times in a project when the translator is the best person to speak directly with the local office.

Multiple links
Many clients are unaware of how many links there are in a translation agency production line. In some agencies, translation project managers act as little more than a mailbox. Often agencies employ other agencies. There may be a marketing agency in the mix too. The translator's project manager may be very distant from the end-client too. Even the translation agency's client may have several internal "stakeholders" behind him. So a message will pass from person to person as in Chinese Whispers and get distorted. If a translator asks a question, the message may pass through many hands and interpretations.

Anger on both sides
As a client, I often felt frustrated that my brief obviously hadn't been passed on to the translator. When I first turned freelance, I was very surprised at how angry some translators are with their unseen clients. I fear that much of this may be the result of the "Chinese Whispers" effect. 

Positive experience
Wherever agencies allowed their freelancers to contact my country managers directly, the experience was generally positive. It was a pity that this was only generally permitted in the event of a complaint. As long as the translator has the right personality and training, the experience leads to greater respect and understanding on both sides. Both parties need to ensure the project manager is kept informed at all times.

Fears and risks
What of the risks? Most marketing departments simply do not have the resources, headcount, expertise or interest to deal with numerous freelance translators. The project manager remains the most important liaison point.

Brand guidelines
There is a risk that brand guidelines are eroded in a "secret deal" between the translator and the local office. This can be monitored. And a few "infractions" can usually be tolerated if justified for cultural reasons and goodwill.

Content agency freelancers
And what of the translator? No risk at all for some. A large number of translators seem quite content to work only with agencies. They can rely on them for marketing, proofreading, a regular supply of work and income.

Client poaching?
Agency agreements can prevent any client poaching. Stealing a client could result in expensive and time-consuming litigation. In the translation community, everyone seems to know everyone else. A freelancer who gains a reputation for poaching clients will soon find their work dry up. It is simply not worth the risk.

Translator poaching?
As a client, it is simply not worth the hassle of upsetting a good multi-language vendor for the sake of a single freelance translator. Agency fears seem overstated. Often clients would like the translator to come into their offices, but remain on the agency's books.

Combined role or extra planning?
If they allow translators to work more directly with their clients, should today's project managers fear redundancy? Some translators are already very competent at combining project management and translation roles. There is nothing new here. Projects for use on multiple devices are becoming increasingly complex. Tomorrow's project manager will have an even greater planning burden. The best project managers spend time upfront to prevent problems down the line.

SME Clients
Clients who are new to translation buying need a lot of hand-holding and cultural advice. The larger companies are increasingly unable to deliver this type of service. They prioritise large multinationals. SMEs do better to work with groups of freelancers or small agencies.

Let's make professional translators more visible to clients. If more clients work directly with professionally trained project managers and translators, the status and reputation of the whole community can only improve. Fears and risks seem overstated. 

Let's reduce the Chinese Whispers.

If you would like to reduce the Chinese Whispers and work directly with a freelance translator and experienced project manager, contact

Karen Andrews runs
Anglicity Ltd. She is a
French to English
translator, content writer
and marketing consultant.
In this blog, Karen draws
upon her experiences of
working with agencies
and freelancers as a client,
translation buyer and project

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