Translation Project Management Tips & Resources

Technological advancements have brought varying degrees of automation to almost every industry, and they help support a global economy. Simultaneously, with this globalization, we’re translating all sorts of business documents, marketing materials, and websites from one language to many. Can we leverage innovation and replace human translators with automated translation software programs?

The answer is not yet. Language translation is an artistic process that requires an in-depth understanding of the nuances, customs, and cultural and regional differences between two languages. It requires the ability to accurately convey the meaning and expression of the words from the source. Machine translation can’t consistently produce the accuracy, appropriateness, and quality expected of professional translations.

In addition, translation work is often multifaceted and projects are becoming increasingly complex as globalization expands, requiring the skills of a multidisciplinary team. This makes translation project management a necessity. In this guide, we’ll delve into the critical role project management plays in successful translation and localization projects and what this work entails.

What is translation project management?

Translation project management involves identifying the overall project scope and requirements, resource and skill set identification, and project plan creation and management. After this plan is created, the next task is securing and managing project team members and deliverables, and then directing all phases of and elements involved in the project through to completion.

The degree of difficulty in a translation project depends on several factors, including content complexity and the project scope. Larger projects may require numerous translators, linguists, subject matter experts such as engineers or medical professionals, and others. Some or all of these potential contributors may be outsourced. This increases the project cost as well as risk, necessitating optimal control and management throughout the project.

How to plan and manage a successful translation project

In many ways, translation project management is like that of any other project. You’ll identify the project scope and stakeholders, establish and prioritize goals and deliverables, define task interdependencies and milestones, identify issues and risks, create a project plan and a budget with a statement of work (SOW), and then manage the project to completion. The goal is to meet the deadline on time and on budget, with a final product meeting the level of quality promised.

Below we’ve outlined a few initial steps related to translation projects. These steps include, but are not limited to:

  • Project Requirements: Review requirements in great detail. For example, identify the content type (e.g., brochures, instruction manuals, legal documents, medical guides), the format they’re in, and the intended audiences and languages for translation. Is experience with a specific industry or tool required? Are there regulations to review and follow? Are the source materials complete and approved internally? If in draft format, are they in the final draft or earlier in the process? Will documents, for instance, be provided as a whole or in sections in different stages? Will data need to be converted to charts or graphs? Will you have to conduct interviews or watch videos to obtain some of the information?
  • Talent: Identify the skills you’ll need for the project and assemble your team as soon as you understand the full project scope, requirements, start date, and deadline. Giving independent professionals lead time to start a project enables them to finish up current assignments and allot the appropriate amount of time for yours.
  • Expectations: Whether you’re working with a client or another department within your company, fully understand their expectations, including delivery dates. Remember to convey your expectations as well. For instance, you’ll need to receive source documents no later than a specific date and in the condition and medium promised in order to maintain a hard deadline. Be sure the client identifies a point person within their organization for the overall project and a back-up if this person is unavailable.
  • Communication: Translation project management requires strong communication skills and the ability to maintain a cohesive dialogue among team members that are often multilingual and multicultural. Clearly define how you’re going to communicate project status and reports to your team. If an issue arises, you’ll need to notify the appropriate people and potentially escalate for resolution. Define how this will be done.
  • Documentation: Prepare general translation guidelines for the team and for each role in the translation process. Create a project plan. Include project- and role-specific instructions and checklists for various tasks and processes. Include instructions and checklists for translations, editing, subject-matter experts (SME), proofreading, and localization. Provide appropriate reference materials and supporting terminology definitions to ensure consistency and high quality. Put steps in place to ensure the translators and SMEs create a glossary of standard technical or specialized terms that may be repeated in subsequent translation work.
  • Review: Analyze every aspect of the project to this point, looking for omissions. Double-check the requirements, the assumptions you’ve made, the tools and processes you’ll be using, and the required skills, breadth, and depth of the project team. Spending time upfront on this can help you avoid pitfalls that may impact your ability to deliver on time, on budget, and without compromising quality.

Browse Project Catalog for more translation services.

1. Identify the project budget

Now it’s time to delve deeper into the specifics. The last thing you want to do is underestimate the amount of work a project will require. Here are a few elements to consider when setting a translation project’s budget:

  • The complexity of the format: Translation project pricing depends on several factors, including the text’s complexity and how much layout work is required after translation.
  • The amount that needs to be translated: Translations work is typically priced per word or per page. Audio translations are usually priced per minute plus transcription costs. So, not only the volume of words that need to be translated but also the mediums you’re translating to or from affect cost.
  • The expert/technical analysis needed: The translation of complex text such as technical manuals, medical guides, and legal documents usually requires a subject matter expert (SME) in addition to a translator, which adds cost. SMEs support review and proofing efforts, and depending on the arrangement, may be available for questions from translators and linguists during the translation process.
  • The initial format versus the ending format: Formats vary widely. Understand the source material’s format and the format required when delivering the final product.  Format changes and conversions not only add extra time to the project, but they may require using specific tools which can also affect costs. Additionally, requirements such as a translator needing to update the original format will cost more than if they didn’t have to do this.
  • Consider requesting projects in bulk to save: If a project is long-term, receiving work in bulk versus on a piecemeal basis saves time which reduces cost. It also helps you better manage your team’s workflow, and gives you the ability to ensure the right resources are available when needed, reducing the potential for delays. This, too, offers cost benefits.

2. Define the scope and requirements

You should have much of the information you need to define the project scope after working through the items we’ve already covered. Now it’s time to fine-tune the scope and flesh out the requirements. This will help you create a comprehensive project plan and avoid making common translation mistakes.

Start date, deadline, and description of the project

Nail down a clearly defined start date and deadline, and communicate them to everyone involved. Include target dates for major milestones. Additionally, you should always build a reasonable, workable amount of slack into your project plan because unforeseen issues will pop up. It's important to determine resolution intervals in which these issues and potential risks can be identified. All this and more should be included in a detailed project description. It will also help you establish parameters in a translations software management program if you’re using one.

The languages

The number of languages that need translation will impact the project scope and requirements, but there’s more to it. For example, variations may be required for regional dialects, or you may need to translate into both casual language and formal language. Casual versus formal French is a good example, where different words and grammatical rules are used in each.

The mediums

Don’t assume you’ll translate from one medium, such as written text, to the same medium or format. For example, the project may require translating the text into data displayed in charts and graphs, or a video may need to be translated to text. It may even be necessary to interview people to obtain information. Determine all of the mediums you’ll be working with, map them to the required output medium, and include all of this data in your project scope.

3. Identify lead, team, and responsibilities

At this point, there’s enough information to identify project team members and their roles and responsibilities, such as:

  • Designated Project Manager: The project manager oversees all aspects of the translation project and is responsible for managing the project plan and timeline, meeting deadlines, coordinating the various project team members and leads, and project completion.  
  • Translator: Translators, also known as translation specialists, convert information from one language into another while retaining the original message, sense, and style to the greatest extent possible. Not only do they translate text to text, but from and to various mediums, such as audio to text. Most translators incorporate quality controls into their process, proofreading their translations before sending a job to a client. They may also interface with other resources during translation as required, such as linguists and SMEs.
  • Linguist: Linguists address semantics, syntax, phonetics, phonology (the patterning of sounds), morphology (the structure of words), and pragmatics (language in context). Using a linguist to review translations will help ensure the translation is as precise as possible with the original meaning and intent left intact. In other words, a linguist will review the translation and localization in a big-picture context, then refine the final product, resolving any incidences of truncation, contextual confusion, and under-or over-translation.  
  • Subject Matter Experts: SMEs are specialists that identify and flag technical issues that need to be brought to the translator’s attention and often act as a resource to translators when questions arise. SMEs have in-depth knowledge about translation topics, such as technology, medicine, and more. For example, if you’re translating a technical document from Chinese to English, you’ll want to ensure that critical technical details don’t get lost in the translation or misinterpreted. A technical SME would review the source text and the translated text to ensure continuity. Another SME may review the source text and translated text to ensure the cultural meaning is accurate.

Finding the best translators for the team

There are approximately 6,500 languages spoken in the world today. The top 13 represent speakers in each language ranging from over 100,000 million to around 1.27 billion. Still, finding the best translator may seem like searching for a needle in a haystack. Most people with translation projects consider the three options outlined below.

  • Freelance experts: Self-employed contractors and independent professionals offer a wide range of options available worldwide. They can work anywhere from a few hours a week to 40 hours and up. A majority will likely be working remotely and be located around the globe and in multiple time zones. While time zone differences may present challenges, they also offer advantages, such as a workforce working around the clock.
  • Hiring in-house talent: If you have a steady stream of translation projects between one or two languages and know you’ll have a constant need for translation resources, hiring in-house might make sense because they’re dedicated and always available. However, let’s suppose a particular project requires skills outside of their areas of expertise. If they don’t possess the expertise required for every project, you’ll need to consider one of the other two options, unless you wish to hire more people.
  • Translation companies: Translation companies offer comprehensive translation services, providing translations in many languages, localization with a native speaker, linguistics, SME review, proofreading, and dealing with translations to and from a variety of mediums. With this breadth and depth of services, translation companies typically handle large, multifaceted translation projects with a fast turnaround. While translation companies are usually more capable of handling large projects, they are often the most expensive option for translation project management.

4. Define the medium

We mentioned mediums earlier. Generally, there are three main types you could be translating to and/or from.

  • Written: This includes brochures, instruction guides, manuals, journals, books, research studies, and periodicals. Topics can range from general ads to technical, scientific, medical, financial, legal, and judicial, to name a few.
  • Audio: In some circumstances, you may be translating audio files to text or audio, or vice versa. For example, let’s say you’re translating a book in Japanese to text and then creating an audiobook in American English and British English. Since there are vocabulary and grammar differences between these English versions, you’ll likely require different translation and audio recording resources.
  • Graphics and animation: Translating for animation seems like it would be straightforward, yet it’s challenging to synchronize translated audio with the video track. Translating graphics and other visual content requires a more technical approach to translations. Instead of handling the translated content yourself, you may want to use desktop publishing experts to translate content directly from the original file.

5. Align with the timeline: Tasks and deliverables

A project manager’s role includes meeting the project objectives and completing the project on time and on budget. They ensure that your project team members understand the overall assignment, their roles as individuals, and the tasks they’ll perform. They highlight that being on target with milestone deliverables is important to meeting the deadline and lay out the consequences of failing to meet deadlines, quality expectations, and objectives. Hiring a skilled and communicative project manager who knows how to improve productivity while boosting morale and cheering on the team is invaluable.

6. Know key issues with translating

We’ve mentioned issues that can arise during translation, including translating from and to local and regional dialects, resulting in lost intention and costly mistakes. For example, HSBC bank had to launch a $10 million rebranding campaign to repair the damage done when its catchphrase "Assume Nothing" was mistranslated as "Do Nothing" in various countries.

Always check for plagiarism in the source documents and information and in translations. Be aware of each country’s copyright laws. Remember, there’s no such thing as an international copyright that will automatically protect copy throughout the world.

7. Review the work

Precision and perfection are usually expected and required with translation work. Even little errors can make your end product appear sloppy and unprofessional. Be prepared to go through more than one round of reviews and edits with translators, linguists, and SMEs. Build this into your project plan and timeline. Misinterpretation, unchecked facts, copyright issues, and more can cause a host of problems, some potentially serious. One of the final steps to include is having translations checked by a native speaker who can spot errors due to the translator’s misinterpretation of the source. Think about the number of times you’ve read instructions that have a translation glitch, and you’ve thought, “Why didn’t they check this document with someone local to the region or country who could have easily spotted this mistake?”

Next steps

Translation projects are usually far more complicated than they initially appear. A successful translation project involves multiple stakeholders and multiple steps. Translation project managers are necessary to help ensure the project runs smoothly, that deliverables are met, and that the project is finished on budget and on time and with the expected quality level.

If you don’t have the available staff or staff with the appropriate expertise to perform translations, consider staff augmentation to meet your needs. Upwork enables you to hire independent translators with the confidence and ease of using the world’s work marketplace. Learn more at Upwork.

Author Spotlight

Get This Article as a PDF

For easy printing, reading, and sharing.

Download PDF

Latest articles

X Icon