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Could project management be automated for high-quality translations?
Thread poster: Edwin den Boer

Edwin den Boer  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 15:19
Member (2009)
English to Dutch
Jan 11, 2015

Companies like Smartling, OneHourTranslation, Tolq, TextMaster and Mytranslation.com are offering automated project management. The system matches clients with translators when they update their website or submit a job on a website. Some of these companies are focusing on dynamic translation of website content, but similar technology is being used for translation of documents. It would be possible for the company to only act as a marketplace, like Uber or Airbnb, but as far as a know they all operate as translation agencies, except Smartling which seems to be more of a software company.

Now in theory, automating the project management aspect of translation could mean that more money would be available to pay translators. But it could also enable bottom-feeders to lower their prices even more, while hiring unqualified freelancers or practicing crowdsourcing.

Does anybody have experience working for one of these companies? Do you receive a higher or lower rate than you receive from regular agencies? Are there other quality concerns?

I have some experience with a similar system dedicated to one end client, and the pay was good, but the system wasn't very sophisticated, so human PMs were still needed to sort out problems like projects not getting accepted by anyone.

A high-quality service of this type would require more than some generic scheduling software. It would be a 'big data' enterprise, although not as close to artificial intelligence as machine translation.

Some aspects to be considered when matching clients, documents and freelancers:

1. The client's priority for a project: speed, quality or price.
2. The rates the client is willing to pay, relative to other clients.
3. The client's prestige or market power.
4. Freelancers' ratings of clients.
5. The client's payment practices.
6. Clients' ratings of freelancers (translators and editors).
7. Freelancers' quality as measured by editors.
8. Freelancers' self-reported expertise or preferences.
9. Freelancers' specialization measured as their relative translation quality for subjects/text types.
10. Freelancers' predicted availability (probably unreliable).
11. Freelancers' rates (different rates depending on speed, time, subject, text type, language pair).
12. Freelancers' seniority (experience with the company, meaning that quality metrics are more reliable).
13. Freelancers' delivery behavior (if speed is a priority, hire only people who deliver quickly and always on time).
14. The document's percentage of TM and MT matches.
15. An estimate of the document's difficulty using other metrics, maybe a 'black box', a neural network calibrated by human ratings or translation time. Metrics like sentence and word length might not be relevant for translation difficulty.
16. The document's text type (e.g., higher price quoted for PDF or PowerPoint).
17. The document's subject matter (as indicated by the client or guessed based on word frequency).
18. Planning reliability ratings for both clients and freelancers.

Note that I'm not a project manager, so my understanding of relevant aspects may be skewed or incomplete.

Such an agency would need a large scale to be effective, because:
a. a lot of software development is required; the system needs to be improved and tweaked continuously.
b. a large database of signed-up freelancers is required, because calling that one Norwegian to Malay translator when you need them would defeat the purpose. Many participating freelancers would probably get little work.

However, as soon as it's reasonably effective, it could take on an unlimited number of clients with very low variable costs.

Sometimes I dream about starting an automated agency myself, but as you see, it's a daunting task.


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Maxi Schwarz
Local time: 08:19
German to English
+ ...
some thoughts, some answers Jan 11, 2015

Translations are done by translators, so quality depends on the person doing the work. How someone hiring the work "manages" it should not affect the quality created by the person who does the work. However, if companies succeed in forcing a translator into an unrealistic deadline, or of they hire unqualified people because they charge less, then they will be affecting quality negatively that way.

In regards to this:
Now in theory, automating the project management aspect of translation could mean that more money would be available to pay translators....

.... Do you receive a higher or lower rate than you receive from regular agencies?

Let's go from the idea that a freelancer is not an employee, and therefore quotes his fee, rather than being told a fee. If my fee is based on 0.17/word then that is my fee, period. If the company's management allows it to make a greater profit after paying me my fee, good for the company. If its management causes it not to afford my rate, then I guess they have to find another translator who will accept receiving a lower fee.

If you set your own fee then the question doesn't arise about whether you receive a higher or lower rate. You receive what you quote. But it can mean that some agencies will not hire you, while others will.


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Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 14:19
Member (2000)
Russian to English
+ ...
Prefer dealing with PMs Jan 11, 2015

I don't think this is quite on topic, but I dislike having to deal with agencies through a website which just has boxes to tick and no means of communication other than that, rather than dealing with everything through the PM.
On Friday I was given a job for which they quoted my rate wrongly on the webpage, so I had to sort this out through an email exchange with the PM. Then I discovered that the invoice they had made out for me to submit had a word count much higher than the actual job - 6031 as against 1479. So I sent the invoice to the PM and asked her to forward it. As it's the weekend, I have had no reply to that yet. This is not the first time such things have happened.


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 15:19
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
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@Edwin Jan 11, 2015

Edwin den Boer wrote:
Could project management be automated for high-quality translations?


To get high-quality translations, you first need high-quality translators, and high-quality translators won't tolerate unfavourable working conditions. (I assume we're speaking about freelancers, for whom time is money, and not salaried translators.)

A common reason why freelancers working for agencies accept lower rates is because the agency takes care of many of the administrative tasks that the translator would otherwise perform, e.g. ensuring that the files from the client are in the appropriate state for the translator, ensuring that the translator has all the resources that he needs to do the translation, etc.

A fully or almost-fully automated system will be based on the assumption that clients will always upload files in the format that the translator requires and will always provide all the required resources, and that it would never be necessary for the translator to query anything (or that the translator is able to translate a text blindly while querying things in the dreaded "query sheet", which the client will reply to once only, often at the end of the translation or when the translation is sent to the reviewer).

Also, designers of such systems should not forget that even if it is possible to automate the upload of new source text, it is something that will usually have to be set up manually by humans who are skilled in both the client's system and the agency's system, and troubleshot all the time. So while the agency using this system may save on PM costs, it will spend a lot more on IT staff costs, and while one can easily train a brand new untrained PM from scratch, the level of IT skill necessary to make such a system work would require overlapping shifts of trained, expensive IT personnel.

The systems that I have dealt with in the past and at this time all require that the translator adapt to the process, and do not offer a process that can easily adapt to the translator's workflow. Some of them require that I use a specific browser to upload and download the files, in some of them I need to click four or five dialogs just to get to the "file upload" field, in some of them it is not immediately clear which files are the ones that I should download, etc.

The system matches clients with translators when they update their website...


A big problem is that these systems often don't pay the translator minimum fees. In other words, if the update is 20 words long, the translator is paid for 20 words, even if all the actions required by the translator takes him longer than it would take to translate 200 words.

Does anybody have experience working for one of these companies? Do you receive a higher or lower rate than you receive from regular agencies?


Most of the time: lower. Even high-paying agencies will eventually pay less, because such systems are often set up on a first-come-first-served basis, i.e. the earliest translator gets the job, so translators are forced to "accept" jobs before they've properly investigated the job. Or, such systems may work on a quote basis, which means that the lowest quote will always (usually) win, which will eventually drive prices down, particularly if new translators join in.

Human PMs were still needed to sort out problems like projects not getting accepted by anyone.


Such an automated system can therefore only work if the supply is much greater than the demand, or the pay is high enough to attract unwilling translators to unpleasant jobs.

I think the most productive kind of system would be one in which the system posts jobs on its board for anyone to grab, but where PMs also get involved to contact translators manually, to ensure that the jobs are assigned quickly.handle the quoting phase (i.e. up to the point where the translator accepts the job) and the system them handles the rest, except for portions that require human interaction, e.g. queries.

a. a lot of software development is required; the system needs to be improved and tweaked continuously.
b. a large database of signed-up freelancers is required ... and many participating freelancers would probably get little work.


Yes and yes.

However, as soon as it's reasonably effective, it could take on an unlimited number of clients with very low variable costs.


No, for the system to work, the number of clients must always be much lower than the number of available translators.


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 15:19
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
@Maxi Jan 11, 2015

Maxi Schwarz wrote:
Let's go from the idea that a freelancer is not an employee, and therefore quotes his fee, rather than being told a fee.


No, that is not the difference between freelancers and employees. Employees don't get told what the fee is, because employees don't charge any fee. Freelancers work with fees, but it is irrelevant which party starts the fee discussion and makes the first proposal about the fee.


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Teresa Borges
Portugal
Local time: 14:19
Member (2007)
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Prefer dealing with real PMs Jan 11, 2015

To answer your question: it could be automated, but it shouldn’t… It will very probably reduce the PM’s workload but there’s nothing more annoying for a freelance translator when in need of an answer to an urgent question than being in contact with a robot but for being constantly reminded that “your job is due in XXhXXm”…

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EvaVer  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:19
Member (2012)
Czech to English
+ ...
Horrible Jan 11, 2015

I have one agency using such a system, which is really an auction - the client posts the job on their site and translators propose their prices. The result is, of course, that the prices get very low. There is also a "quality evaluation system" - clients evaluate delivered translations and the result shows next to your ID. But: to get evaluated, you must obtain a job first; the assessment is only valid for the specific language pair; and often the client doesn't know the target language, so that the assessment is rather random.
Resulting quality? No idea, but the system doesn't seem geared to support quality.
I decided to stop working for them altogether.


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 14:19
Member (2008)
Italian to English
No more people Jan 11, 2015

Maybe we should just do away with people altogether. People get tired. They make mistakes. They're moody. They want to be paid. They have things on their minds. Come to think of it, people just get in the way. Anything we can do to get rid of them must be a step in the right direction.



[Edited at 2015-01-11 13:27 GMT]


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Edwin den Boer  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 15:19
Member (2009)
English to Dutch
TOPIC STARTER
Interesting answers! Jan 11, 2015

@Tom in Londen: That's certainly a solution.

On the other hand, PMs tend to be quite cheerful people, at least more cheerful than translators. I like working with PMs, and I want them to have a job that's more rewarding and more valuable than sending files, negotiating rates and checking whether freelancers are available. I've worked in a number of agencies' offices as a visiting freelancer, and I noticed that even the work they talked about was pretty routine. Also, many of them were young expats expected to work long hours for low pay. In general, any white-collar work that can be automated will be automated soon, even if it's legal or medical work.

@EvaVer: Indeed, it seems to be a bad choice to focus on price and to rely on quality evaluation by the clients.

@Samuel Murray: You make a number of good points. As for queries, you must be lucky if your end clients are replying to queries in time. I don't think things could be much worse than the current practice in the industry.

A big problem is that these systems often don't pay the translator minimum fees.


I agree that it's a problem. But it may not be a big problem. The same systems usually make it unnecessary to send e-mails or invoices for every job, so you don't have the administrative cost of accepting a small job.

Even high-paying agencies will eventually pay less, because such systems are often set up on a first-come-first-served basis.


Yes, incentives matter a lot. The ideal system would rank vendors by quality and specialization, and contact the best translators first. They don't ignore quality completely. I noticed that Gengo, TextMaster and Translated.net all offer three quality levels to their clients. Unfortunately, the rate for the highest level is more or less equal to the rate that I charge to agencies.

One thing I read on Quora was that major end clients are using one of these services when speed is their priority, while still relying on traditional agencies for more complicated projects. Even bottom-feeders that use unqualified translators might be useful, as long as they translate texts that wouldn't be translated by humans otherwise, e.g. blog comments and customer reviews.

[Edited at 2015-01-11 19:15 GMT]

[Edited at 2015-01-11 19:15 GMT]


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Edwin den Boer  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 15:19
Member (2009)
English to Dutch
TOPIC STARTER
scale Jan 11, 2015

Samuel Murray wrote:
No, for the system to work, the number of clients must always be much lower than the number of available translators.


I'm not sure about that, but I am sure that 'software eating the world' will mean that variable costs (PMs' salaries in this case) are being replaced by fixed costs (developers' salaries), creating economies of scale. That's why companies like Google and Facebook are so profitable.


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Eleftherios Kritikakis  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 08:19
Member (2003)
Greek to English
+ ...
"In general, any white-collar..." Jan 12, 2015

"In general, any white-collar work that can be automated will be automated soon"

And you think there's money in that, if it becomes automated?
Automation doesn't stop at exactly the stage that you want it. It keeps on...
The end-clients themselves will buy the software, or buy even better software, to do it themselves. And even the ones who'll stay, they'll realize that the whole thing is a robot, and they'll demand 70% discounts.

-- One (at least) large NY agency is already selling an automated PM solution to end-clients, which they use themselves.
-- Picture what happens when end-clients themselves decide to machine translate their documents, then assign editing to any reliable editor (after a quick check with their local office), then to a DTP guy, and they' re all set. They don't need the intermediate guy, they won't need an agency. They'll get their own software... eventually, when they find 2-3 reliable translators and editors, they'll ditch the machine as well.

Here's my own, personal experience: automated project management eliminated my scheduling negotiation, forcing the arbitrary machine's schedule on me. As a result, I saw my health declining, favorite projects lost (because I had already committed to the machine for others), faceless competition on pricing with translators who work for a sandwich per day, zero cooperation with editors (the machine decides, and the machine doesn't know the business or how I prefer to do it), and I've been talking to a machine which accepts other terrible part-time google-translators, because their editors are lazy (I don't blame them, for their rates I'd be lazy too).
I used to enjoy the pace of this job and the negotiations and personal connections, now both I (and every single translator I know) agree on one thing: if you gave us a government job even with half the money, we'd take it in a heartbeat. I don't like this job anymore, as a matter of fact I despise it now, it's just faceless automated cheap labour.

PS. Here's your answer on the whole concept: If I go to a restaurant and see a robot serving me, and another robot making the food, I'd stay at home and prepare it myself. It'll cost me much less and it'll be more pleasant. My date would enjoy it more than the feeling of a surgery room full of mechanical arms and wheels. Why pay for that, when you can do it better yourself?

PS2. What the industry really needs, is to hire project managers who used to be experienced translators. Right now, they hire people who do not know what they' re doing. Your idea makes things even worse.


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 15:19
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
@Edwin Jan 12, 2015

Edwin den Boer wrote:
Samuel Murray wrote:
For the system to work, the number of clients must always be much lower than the number of available translators.

I'm not sure about that, but I am sure that "software eating the world" will mean that variable costs (PMs' salaries in this case) are being replaced by fixed costs (developers' salaries), creating economies of scale. That's why companies like Google and Facebook are so profitable.


I don't quite follow your reasoning -- I have no idea what you mean by "software eating the world", or what the relevance of PM's salaries are.

My point is that if the number of clients (or rather: the number of jobs) per day/hour is the same as or more than the number of translators that are available per day/hour, then some clients will find their texts left untranslated. And even if the numbers are evenly distributed, translators will tend to leave the less pleasant jobs lying anyway, because these translators are free to choose not to accept any jobs.

Then "economies of scale" won't matter, unless what you mean by "economies of scale" is that it is acceptable that a portion of services does not get provided, because the number of services that do get provided is large enough to turn a profit for someone somewhere.


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José Henrique Lamensdorf  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 12:19
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Automate routines, not management Jan 12, 2015

Edwin den Boer wrote:

On the other hand, PMs tend to be quite cheerful people, at least more cheerful than translators. I like working with PMs, and I want them to have a job that's more rewarding and more valuable than sending files, negotiating rates and checking whether freelancers are available. I've worked in a number of agencies' offices as a visiting freelancer, and I noticed that even the work they talked about was pretty routine. Also, many of them were young expats expected to work long hours for low pay. In general, any white-collar work that can be automated will be automated soon, even if it's legal or medical work.


Edwin,

Now you've shown a different stance. While project management is a typically human endeavor, in involves a number of chores that can and should be automated.

For instance, I've worked with some 3-4 agencies that use this system. There may be others like it around. Though it automates sending files back and forth, as well as covers financial matters, it has room for personal interaction between the PM and translator(s). It even hosts an assignment-exclusive "forum", in case several translators are working on the same project, either into the same or different languages. This is quite useful. Of course, the lingua franca will be the source material language, and one query answered there may solve a tricky spot in the original for all involved.

On your first item above, I make it a point to outcheer every PM on every interaction. Life should not be miserable, no matter how many people try to make it so.


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Edwin den Boer  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 15:19
Member (2009)
English to Dutch
TOPIC STARTER
APM and standardization Jan 12, 2015

@Samuel: Isn't your position inconsistent? You can't say "it will lead to lower rates" and "there won't be enough translators" at the same time. Surely, more translators will sign up if the rates are raised?

And it's not like end clients have to commit to automated project management (let's call it APM) and be stuck with all the disadvantages. I already heard about traditional agencies that send the jobs they receive during the weekend to an APM system.

'Software eating the world' means that manual labor and dedicated hardware are being replaced by software in all sectors of the economy, from taxi dispatch centers to legal assistants/junior lawyers that used to churn out standard contracts.

Currently, end clients don't have much of an incentive to save agency PM's headaches. And standardization isn't popular internally, because people like to use their favorite tools. But if it means being able to send more jobs to cheaper APM agencies, multinational companies that standardize their information workflow will have an advantage. E.g. if the same online terminology system is used for all products, PMs won't have to send glossaries in Excel files anymore.

I'm not trying to be a cheerleader here, I'm trying to add some balance to the negative replies and I think we should make the best of an inevitable development.


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Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 14:19
French to English
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PM *assistance* rather than full-blown automation for higher-end market Jan 12, 2015

Edwin den Boer wrote:
Does anybody have experience working for one of these companies? Do you receive a higher or lower rate than you receive from regular agencies? Are there other quality concerns?


I've had mixed experiences with these types of site, just as I've had mixed experiences with human PMs. At one end of the spectrum you have the sites that are entirely focussed on paying less than half the going rate and making you bid on 100-word "jobs" that need to be completed within so many nanoseconds per word.

But at the other end of the spectrum, some of these sites are essentially interfaces between clients, translators and "proper" PMs behind the scenes. The overall process is still a bit rough around the edges, but ultimately they probably do give the client what they want: an efficient process to get a quote and get a translation delivered within a well-defined time scale, with some reasonable quality control and communication process in between. Some of these systems have a "chat" feature that actually puts the the translator and end client in direct communication, so can actually make the process more efficient. And the human PMs behind the scenes are genuinely doing some of the things that you would expect a good PM to do in overseeing the translation process, just via the intermediary of the web tool. So while far from perfect, I don't think these systems are going away and if you want to still be working in translation in a few years' time, you may as well embrace the better ones sooner or later.

Edwin den Boer wrote:
A high-quality service of this type would require more than some generic scheduling software.
...
Some aspects to be considered when matching clients, documents and freelancers:
...


You're right, but I think you may be over-engineering the situation. I think a system with a *few* of these features and a few human PMs behind the scenes to iron out the niggles could potentially actually work quite well. As I say, current systems are in their infancy and have a lot of rough edges to smooth over, but I think this will improve over time.


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