Teamwork: the pros and cons of being a lone wolf or a pack animal

From the outside looking in, most translators probably seem lone wolves, happily working at their desks all day with hardly any social contact. In fact, many freelancers highlight being their own boss and making all the decisions as one of the main reasons why they pursued a self-employed career.

But the reality can be quite different, even if you don’t work in an agency’s office. Because translators are increasingly realising the benefits of working together on projects and sharing their knowledge.

In the Group Translation Chats (GTC) session in January, hosted by Ellen Singer, we talked about the pros and cons of teamwork and how and when we can work better together.

Let’s start by highlighting some of the advantages.

Pros

Firstly, it’s great to have a sparring partner you can have discussions and even disagreements with as this helps clarify your ideas. In a revision relationship, revisers not only spot errors that might have slipped through despite your checks, they also make suggestions to turn a good translation into a great one. And a polished final text of printable quality will keep clients coming back for more.

You can also combine your expertise with specialised colleagues. For example, if your technical project contains a few paragraphs or pages of legal content you find difficult, you can ask a legal translator to do it for you instead of struggling yourself.

Sharing work with another translator also means you can produce a higher volume. Instead of refusing a large project, you can split it with one or more trusted partners.

Dividing a translation can also help you meet tight deadlines when it’s impossible to negotiate extra time.

If you work as a team, you can complete the entire project (i.e. TEP – translation, editing and proofreading) instead of focusing on just one phase.

Now let’s think about some of the disadvantages.

Cons

Although deadlines are meant to be sacred in our business, you might come across some timing issues if you work in a team. Some colleagues are not team players and don’t do what they’ve agreed. Instead they let you down by sending you their work at the last minute or late. Waiting for others to complete their part could impact on your completion of the next phase in a project and ultimately delay delivery to the client.

And while having a sparring partner to bounce ideas off is an advantage, differences of opinion on methods and terminology can quickly spoil a relationship. A colleague can look like a great choice on paper, but if how they approach the work doesn’t suit you, teaming up will not be satisfactory. For example, they could use speech recognition software to translate but then not iron out the problems, leaving you with more than your fair share to do in the editing phase.

Other disagreements can arise on work load, deadlines, payment terms, rate, etc., just as they can with agencies and other clients.

There can also be communication issues. When a project has been divided among two or more translators, it’s often because the deadline is tight and the client can’t wait for it to be completed by just one service provider. As time is of the essence, communication needs to be succinct and only when strictly necessary. But at the same time, the tone needs to stay friendly and professional even when the approaching deadline increases stress and nerves can begin to fray.

Many attendees highlighted incompatibility as a reason why they’re lone wolves. Getting on with some individuals in a team set-up can prove quite challenging and irksome, for example if you’re a planner working alongside a colleague with a more relaxed approach. They don’t miss others’ input because they enjoy being their own boss and prefer to be in full control of all decision-making. 

For others, subcontracting is something they actively avoid because they’re risk-averse and find it hard to trust colleagues. 

Working as a Pack

When you work on a project as a team, you’ll need to decide how to go about it and put a system in place.

A good first step is selecting a team leader. The choice may be obvious, i.e. the person who landed the client and the job, or the translator with the most knowledge of this kind of text.

Secondly, you’ll need to decide how to communicate with each other. A constant toing and froing of emails while the project is in progress is not helpful as it interrupts everyone’s workflow.

Instead, the team can timetable a meeting at certain points throughout the project to discuss any issues that arise. Or you can use Slack or another project management tool.

The team also needs to agree on how to deal with terminology across the split-up parts of the translation. This is especially important if one or more of the members is not quite up to scratch (relatively new translator, not au fait with the subject matter, etc.).

One way is for the most experienced translator (possibly the team leader) to create a terminology database, for example listing source and target terms in Excel and asking everyone to agree them in advance of translating.

The same is true for style. If the client hasn’t given any specific instructions, the team will either have to decide which style manual to follow or draw up their own guidelines.

When your work is going to be revised, if you have an issue with a term or a style question, you can highlight it or add a comment so the reviser knows you’re not sure about it. Again, it’s best to agree in advance, or let the reviser/team leader decide, how to go about indicating this type of problem.

The chat attendees were divided about whether the person(s) creating the glossary should be paid extra for this task. If they are remunerated, then you need to decide whether they’ll be paid per word, term or hour. This might depend on whether they negotiated the job and, therefore, are already receiving extra for admin, marketing and coordination.

Attendees remarked that this mark-up can vary widely across the profession, as it depends on the client, the size of the job and other factors, with agencies taking from an estimated 15% to 40% of the total price.

Although it’s certainly easier if everyone in the team uses the same software, it shouldn’t be a prerequisite. CAT tools are largely compatible these days and you can usually easily adapt to other systems. Older, more technology-challenged translators may need some help at the beginning, but they also bring other talents worth having to the table.

Finding Your Pack

It’s probably best to be on the lookout for potential partners long before a large project comes along.

Finding the right people to team up with is trial and error. And to make it work, you all need to know and trust each other and be engaged at the same level.

The chat attendees mentioned several possible ways of meeting and evaluating future collaborators.

  1. Try mentoring. Although as a mentor you’re the more seasoned translator, you may find your mentee has the skills and mentality you’re looking for, especially after receiving your input for a few months. Yet another good reason to give mentoring a try both as a mentor and mentee.
  2. Set up a RevClub with a couple of other translators in your language pair. I meet with my fellow RevClubbers twice a month. One week we critique each other’s translations (an excerpt of around 350 words) with a view to improving them and giving general tips we can apply in future. And the other time, we all translate the same text (type of mini translation slam) and compare notes.
  3. Set up an Edit Club. It’s similar to a RevClub except each member has a different language pair. My Edit Club gets together twice a month (in the weeks when I don’t have the RevClub). As there are four of us, we review two translations (only looking at the target) every time we meet up. The feedback and contributions in both clubs are invaluable.
  4. Many MA courses make you partner up for some exercises. This collaboration is not only good teamwork practice, it could also last beyond the MA as a permanent partnership.
  5. You may spot a future collaborator while on a translation, editing or copywriting course or workshop you either teach or attend.
  6. Go to other in-person events, such as conferences, whenever possible as talking to other attendees can give you an idea bout whether you’ll be compatible working together.
  7. Ask to see the translator’s past work. And obviously be wary of anyone who gives you excuses not to do so.
  8. Avoid people who are constantly on social media. They’re probably not working on in-depth projects if they have so much free time.
  9. However, despite the above, how someone behaves on social media in their responses to others’ posts could give you an indication of what they might be like to work with.

Summing Up

Even if you don’t like teamwork, and many of the GTC members attending this hosted chat said they were not keen, you can ultimately learn a lot from working with someone whose approach and skills differ from yours. Although you don’t know in advance how the teamwork will pan out, vetting the translators beforehand using some of the ideas outlined above may help you achieve a better outcome than randomly picking someone from an online database.

First image by Schäferle, second by 4931604, third by Christel SAGNIEZ, fourth and fifth by mila-del-monte all from Pixabay

If you’d like to find out more about GTC, please read The Group Translation Chats Story.

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