Knowing How to do the Work is Necessary. But it’s not Enough.

Marcos Chiquetto mar 13 2023

The path of going from a free-lance professional to a business owner is a bigger step than it appears to be.

By Marcos Chiquetto

A few years after the 1917 revolution, which gave rise to the Soviet Union, a large automobile factory was built in Gorki.

Construction of the GAZ Automobile factory in Gorki, in the 1930s (The ancient Russian city of Nijni Novgorod was renamed Gorki by the Soviets in 1932 and returned to its original name in 1990).

The book Soviet Communism: A New Civilization?, written by Sidney and Beatrice Webb in the decade of 1930, tells us what happened:

After a widely advertised opening of the factory on May 1, 1932, the whole enterprise obstinately stuck! The huge buildings, copied from Ford´s works at Detroit, were filled with expensive machinery. Tens of thousands of workmen had been collected and placed upon the payroll. But the “conveyor” — the long belt on which the automobiles were to be assembled — refused to move. (…) The bed on which it rested had sagged in various places owing to insecure foundations. (…) And even if the conveyor could be made to move, there was nothing like a complete stock of the varied series of components which had to be successively affixed one by one, as the great belt passed along. Yet without the presence, all day long, of every one of these components, no single automobile could be completed.

So, what happened? Was it that the Soviet engineers didn´t know how to make cars? I don’t think that was the case. What they didn’t know was how to make car factories.

After correcting the initial problems, the factory was able to normalize operations, producing millions of vehicles. This is a model produced in the decade of the 1930s.

Making a car factory is much more complex than making a car: the first task includes the entire process involved in completing the second task and much more. This is true in any area: running a restaurant is more complicated than being a chef, running an auto repair shop is more complex than fixing cars, and so on.

Running a restaurant successfully is a problem that involves all of the problems of being a chef, and much more.

I learned this basic logic statement when I went from being a freelance English-to-Portuguese translator to an owner of a Brazilian translation company during the 1990s.

At that time, unable to cope any longer with the volume of work I was receiving, I decided to begin operating as a company.

First step: choose a group of translators.

This seemed like an easy thing. Following the normal procedure in those days, I ran newspaper ads seeking translators and giving my email address as the contact.

Following the normal procedure in those days, I ran newspapers ads seeking translators.

Within a few days, I had received hundreds of messages from people presenting themselves as excellent translators. How was I to choose? As our services at the time primarily involved technical translation, I sent them a test comprised of a small technical translation.

Dozens of tests arrived. After spending days evaluating them, I collected a group of collaborators. Now, all I had to do was to wait for the jobs.

Soon, a large English-to-Portuguese job arrived from an Irish multilingual agency. I distributed the work to a group of the approved translators with instructions regarding quality and terminology. Once all the deliverables were received, I assembled the complete translated package and sent it to the client.

A real company working at full tilt!

A few weeks passed, and I received feedback from the client:

Bad quality job; had to be redone by a third-party editor. Costs deducted from payment. Marked-up files attached.

I was taken aback. This was a new experience for me: no one had ever complained about my work!

Examining the editor´s corrections I realized our job had translation errors, meaning that some of the chosen professionals actually weren’t good translators. I also noticed that some translators just didn´t follow the instructions, choosing to do the job in the way they thought was best.

Suddenly I caught sight of the concept: to run a translation company, it is imperative, of course, that you — or someone on your team — be an excellent translator. However, it is not enough. A lot of other things are also required, two of which I was discovering at that very moment:

  • To know how to choose suitable professionals;
  • To take measures to assure the quality of the work.

I had failed on both points!

  • I had approved professionals based only on a simple translation test, but some of them weren’t qualified, either because they weren’t actually good translators or because they were not inclined to follow instructions.
  • I had not performed any quality assurance action.
At that moment, 30 years ago, I realized that I would have to add a quality assurance step to the workflow.

In those days, quality assurance in the translation business would necessarily be performed by a very reliable team of professionals who would actually review the translator´s work. Quite simple, except for one problem: I would need reliable professionals. Back to the first problem!

There was also a third issue: the selection process required me to deal directly with hundreds of applicants and review dozens of tests, taking up too much of my time.

So, I started trying a variety of approaches to tackle these problems. Finally, after years of trial and error, I arrived at a good workable method:

  • The email address given in the ad generated an automatic response, giving a URL where the applicant could download the test.
  • The URL was provided as a bitmap picture, requiring the applicant to open a browser and type in the address.
Automatic response, giving the test URL as a bitmap picture.
  • The downloaded package contained the test itself and a readme file, with detailed instructions.
  • The test was not a simple technical job, but a few pieces of high-tech marketing translation, which is one of the most challenging jobs in the translation business.

Someone may question this method:

— What is the point of providing a URL in bitmap just to make the applicant type it?

In fact, it was more than that. A problem was presented to the applicant in the very first step of the process: clicking on the URL didn’t do anything, because it was a bitmap. The applicant had to take the initiative to open a browser and literally type the URL in the address line without any error. If the applicant was not able to do that or just didn’t want to waste time with it, chances are that he or she might also be unwilling to learn new tools, solve unexpected problems or just be careful in the course of their work.

— Why not give the instructions in the body of the email message, instead of providing a readme file?

In regular jobs, instructions are usually given in an instruction file. If the applicant doesn´t take the initiative to read the instruction file when taking the test, he or she will most likely not read instructions when performing a job either.

At that point, even before starting the actual translation, the applicant had already taken crucial steps in the test (without even being aware of it). Then, the next step would be to perform a difficult translation job and email the translated material following specific delivery instructions.

The whole test process was a simulation of an actual job.

With this new approach, after fine-tuning a good test package and posting it on the server, all I had to do was to publish ads and wait for tests to arrive at the delivery address. Instead of receiving dozens of tests, I received just a few, sent by people who had solved a problem, had followed instructions, and had felt comfortable translating a difficult text. In the end, I ended up approving one good translation out of many tests. Comparing the number of downloads of the test package to approvals, the ratio was something like 1 out of 100 prospective applicants.

Once the candidate had passed this stage, he or she was assigned only small jobs, which were carefully revised. If the quality was good, the candidate was considered fully approved, becoming a regular member of the team.

The result was remarkable. Translators selected through this process proved to be excellent professionals, establishing strong partnerships with us over the years. Later, when we started to work with Spanish, the same process was repeated in Argentina and Chile, resulting in a reliable and stable team for Spanish as well.

A specialist in Human Resources may find this selection process pretty obvious or even childish, but it was extremely important for me: it allowed me to focus on other important issues such as the company’s overall organization, new tools management, marketing policy, etc., while the resource recruiting was carried out smoothly, almost automatically, with good results.

As the volume of work kept growing continuously, whenever necessary I invited one of our best translators to work as a project manager. Today we have a team of extremely experienced project managers who are also top-quality translators. With these resources, we are able to continuously provide many multilingual agencies with high volumes of English>Portuguese and English>Spanish translation.

Today, we no longer need to run selection processes on large groups of applicants because our team is very stable. However, in the event we need to do it, I’m sure the method will still work, with some adaptation for the current scenario such as using social networks instead of newspaper ads.

The bottom line is this: 30 years ago, I knew how to carry out a translation job. Today, I still know that, but I also know how to have it done by other people.

It’s been a long road.

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