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The life of a translation project manager

Unkelbach-AndreaAn interview with Andrea Unkelbach, senior project manager at Peschel Communications

You have been working as a project manager at Peschel Communications for more than 12 years now. How did you come to work in this role?

Basically, it was a question of supply and demand. I applied for an internship after graduating because I was in the position that (almost?!) all recent graduates find themselves in: I knew nothing about the daily reality of being a translator. There I was with my degree, but I didn’t really know what to do with it. So I decided to do an internship to check out all aspects of the job: writing quotes, project management, translating, proof reading, invoicing, marketing, etc.

That’s how I started as an intern at Peschel Communications. At the time, the company just consisted of two people; Anja Peschel and Ellen Göppl. It quickly became clear that I got more enjoyment out of (and was better suited to) project management than translating. As luck would have it, this was exactly what Anja and Ellen needed at that time. I began to translate less and less, and do more and more project management, until I was working exclusively as a project manager.

How did you qualify as a project manager?

Through learning by doing, through practical on-the-job training. I learned a lot from Anja and Ellen who shared their experience and insights with me. As our turnover grew, we went on to develop and adapt our processes.

Recently, I have noticed that there is growing recognition for the role of “translation project managers” in the industry. There are now training and networking opportunities specifically aimed at project managers. At the start, I felt a bit like a rare species; there didn’t seem to be anyone else with the same job description. Whenever I looked for training, all I could find were courses for freelance translators on how to manage their own projects – a very different cup of tea. Today, translation project managers are no longer so few and far between. Our numbers are growing, and with it, the choice of training courses on offer. I am very lucky that Anja Peschel places such importance on offering her staff training opportunities and I have been able to take part in seminars and conferences. Last year, for example, I attended the “Elia’s focus on project management” conference in Barcelona.

You hold a degree in technical translating for German, English and Spanish. Do you ever miss translating?

Not at all. After I finished school, all I knew was that I wanted to work with languages and at that time I didn’t know which options were available to me other than translation. Once I had started working at Peschel Communications, I realised that I much preferred communicating, being in contact with customers, organising and planning – and that this is also where my strengths lay. And I do work with languages, just not in the way I had imagined.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I get to communicate all day: on the phone, by e-mail and in person. Being in contact with customers and colleagues is extremely important to me. I cannot imagine staring at my screen all day, working on a text. As project managers, we do not delve into detail of a text the way translators do, but we still enjoy the great variety that our projects bring – there is no such thing as a standard translation project. Another thing I enjoy is fine-tuning a project plan until everything is just right. Every project has to be organised and structured individually, and there is nothing more gratifying than when it all runs smoothly

What aspects could you do without?

When a project does not work out the way I had envisaged. Of course, as part of the project management process we have to take a look at every text, but we do not have the time to examine it in detail the way translators do. This is why, every now and then, a translation requires more research than we expected and factored into the planning. Then we have to reschedule.

Another aspect is that project managers have to keep an eye on the budget as well as on the deadline. Unfortunately, it is rare that a customer says: “Money is no object, take all the time you need.” When that does happen, it’s great because we have free rein to choose our preferred translator and wait until they have time to work on the project. That kind of project is a real highlight.

What is the greatest challenge for you?

The greatest challenge is probably the fact that I am constantly making adjustments to suit changing conditions – this job really keeps me on my toes! When I get to the office in the morning, I can never be sure what the day will bring. Even a perfectly planned project will only run smoothly as long as everyone sticks to the plan. If one cog in the wheel gets stuck, I have to reschedule, because missing deadlines is not an option. And at the same time, this is exactly what makes my job so interesting. Flexibility is simply part and parcel of project management.

What would you advise graduates or students looking to work as translation project managers?

There are real advantages for translation project managers to have trained as a translator. I would advise anyone considering working as a translation project manager to try and find a university course in translation which offers as much practical training as possible. The theory provides a useful basis, of course, and trained translators are well-equipped to recognise hidden pitfalls in a project as they are familiar with the workflow of a project. Some universities have started teaching skills which are useful for project management, such as writing quotations, project planning, customer management, invoicing, and an overview of technical tools.

As I said, the range of training courses for translation project managers is growing – also for graduates starting out. These courses are a great opportunity to learn from project managers who have extensive experience in this field.

Ultimately, practical work experience is most valuable. Peschel Communications regularly offers an internship which offers an insight into all the different aspects of work in a translation company, including project management. Some interns find this area really interesting, others see it as a necessary evil and preparation for life as a freelance translator. In any case, it’s a useful skill to have.

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