Managing Risk in Translation Projects

Over the past decade, risk management has emerged as a major focus of interest in private and public sector entities around the world. However, scant attention has been paid to risk management in translation. The goal of this article is to examine the theory and practice of risk management, and how they can be applied in translation projects. We will begin by considering the dual nature of risk as a source of both threats and opportunities. We will then discuss techniques for identifying and prioritizing the risks facing translators and translation project managers. We will conclude by examining specific strategies for addressing translation-related risks.

Translation is a purposeful activity requiring constant decision-making. However, the decision-making process will not ultimately lead to success unless accompanied by a proper management tool. This tool, which has been rapidly developing and actively used in many disciplines, organizations and industries, is Risk Management. In recent years, translation has turned into a flourishing industry and has appropriately forged its way into the market. Thus, like other successful industries, in order to keep flourishing and to deal successfully with all the risks inherent in the market, it needs to implement risk management processes. The business side of the translation industry, however, is not the only side in need of risk management. In fact, risk management also needs to be integrated into the actual translation production process  because the key to a successful business and industry is a successful product.

Definition of the Risk Management

Risk Management is the process of managing the risks involved in various activities. It is, in fact, a ‘rapidly developing discipline’ which applies to ‘any activity whether short or long term’ (IRM, AIRMIC, and ALARM, 2002: 1). Risk Management is being increasingly implemented in various disciplines, organizations and industries to minimize negative impact and it forms a firm foundation for decision-making (Stoneburner, Goguen and Feringa, 2002). The translation practice and industry, however, seems to be rather uninformed of the potential that Risk Management has to offer it.

In this article,  we will try to develop the concept of risk management in the world of translation and to design a proper risk management plan for the translation industry based on ISO/DIS 31000 (2009) and the Risk Management Standard (2002), the product of the cooperation between the Institute of Risk Management (IRM), the Association of Insurance and Risk Managers (AIRMIC) and ALARM the National Forum for Risk Management in the Public Sector. It is also worth mentioning that the current article is in fact an excerpt from the author’s ongoing PhD research.


The translation practice is a purposeful activity requiring constant decision-making. However, decisions cannot be made without considering the requirements of the job at hand, the client, the governing law, market, recipients, norms, culture, budget and other factors. Looking at the translation industry, we can also trace a broad range of responsibilities and decision-making situations which translation service providers and outsourcers encounter and must handle every day.

When the factors affecting the decision-making process increase, as described above, it becomes really difficult to take them all into account and to manage them in an all-inclusive manner. Without a proper risk management scheme, handling this extensive range of decision-making situations and risks, taking into account all issues affecting and arising from the decisions, can turn into a laborious task.

Also, in the current competitive market in which, more often than not, role players prefer not to share their management plans and experiences with others, it is even harder and more exhaustive for beginners to survive. They, in fact, have to pass through a long trial and error process to learn how to make proper decisions. This inevitably involves frustration, unexpected failure and loss of profit before they can gain experience to come up with a proper scheme. That is all because they have not been taught how to deal with the decision-making situations and risks involved in the translation practice and industry during their training. Perhaps it is better to say that there have not been any risk management guidelines, scheme or policy, in the first place, to be incorporated into translator training programs.

It can be claimed that the process of risk management has always been present in the translation practice and industry in the sense that translators and project managers in translation companies have always been subconsciously trying to control the risks specific to their activities. This is in fact what Pym has been trying to prove by interpreting the results of other  research studies on risk management (Pym 2007; 2008). However, it is argued here that even if the claim were true, subconscious risk management could not do more than what we see in the current situation.  We need to move from subconscious to conscious risk management to be able to benefit from the risk management process.


Risk management here can be defined as the process whereby role players in the translation practice and industry systematically address the risks attached to their activities with the goal of achieving success within each activity and across the portfolio of all activities. According to IRM et al (2002: 2), ‘The focus of good risk management is the identification and treatment of these risks’ and ‘It increases the probability of success, and reduces … the probability of failure ….’.


The purpose of the translation practice and industry is to achieve success in general.  Success is, in fact, the ‘reward’ (Pym, 2008) role players achieve when they handle their job properly. Some examples of rewards include self-satisfaction, financial reward in forms of monthly salary, bonus or a raise in the salary, successful communication, avoidance of criticism, getting published and being well received by the society, among others. Therefore, reward can be defined as the benefit that role players in the translation practice and industry expect to achieve from their activities. It is also worth mentioning that rewards can fall under various categories, three of which have been identified by Pym (2008) as financial, symbolic or social. As you can see, success is mostly mutual, which means that you benefit from your work if your recipients, who may be your manager, client or the public, are satisfied with your work.

Risk in the translation practice and industry is better considered in correlation to success. Therefore, risk would be the potential for events, decisions and consequences in the translation practice and industry, which constitute opportunities or threats to success. Risk itself can be divided into three categories of lowmedium and high, based on the probability or frequency of occurrence and the impact of that occurrence. Also factors resulting in risks or ‘drivers of risks’ (IRM et al, 2002) can be internal or external to translation activity or a mixture of both. There are five major risks which role players in the translation practice and industry constantly have to deal with, considering the types of activities they are engaged in: market risksfinancial risksproject risksproduction process risks, and product risks.

Market risks can be defined as those risks in the market which can positively or negatively affect the translation practice and industry and include, among others, market fluctuations and rivals. Financial risks are those risks which can affect the profitability of translation activity or translation companies in a positive or negative way. One example can be the current ups and downs in foreign exchange rates, which may cause freelance translators and translation companies to revise the foreign currencies they accept either to benefit from what may appear to them as opportunity or to prevent loss. Project risks refer to the risks that each new project brings, which can have a positive or negative impact on the profitability of the translation activity or company, the production process and the final product of the translation activity. Project risks include to client reliability, project difficulty, software needed for the project, word count, deadline, human resources and the like. It might be argued that the remaining two categories should fall under the project risks category; however, as you will see, owing to their importance and diverse nature, production process risks and product risks belong to a category, quite separate from the project risks category. By ‘production process’, the author is referring to the actual act of translation; thus, production process risks would be those risks which role players constantly face during the translation process, and the way they handle such risks may ultimately bring about success or failure. Finally, product risks are those risks which can positively or negatively affect the success of the final product of the translation process. Risks related to the acceptability, formatting and DTP issues of the translation product can be categorized under product related risks.

From the definitions provided above, we can categorize market, financial and project risks as externally driven risks; and production process and product risks as internally driven risks. It is important to note that, according to the definitions provided above, risks are not always considered as threats and they may ultimately constitute an opportunity for benefit and success. Furthermore, as you can see, these risks can be interrelated and the occurrence of one can intensify the occurrence and impact of another.


In order for role players in the translation practice and industry to manage risks successfully, they must go through a series of risk management processes. Close adherence and follow up of these processes, briefly described below, are crucial to the achievement of success.


Risk Assessment is defined by the ISO/IEC Guide 73 as the overall process of risk analysis and risk evaluation.


According to ISO/DIS 31000 (2009), Risk analysis is performed through:

  • Risk Identification
  • Risk Description
  • Risk Estimation

Risk Identification helps the role players in the translation practice and industry to discover their ‘exposure to uncertainty’ (IRM et al, 2002: 5). To identify possible risks successfully, role players need to have professional knowledge of their job, be aware of the conditions in the market and requirements, and know the legal, social, political and cultural environment in which they are working.

Risk Description is meant to describe the identified risks in the translation practice and industry in a structured format which explains the name, scope, nature and significance of the risk along with the role player’s risk tolerance and control mechanism.

Finally, Risk Estimation is made on the basis of probability of occurrence and possible consequences of risks in the translation practice and industry. Role players need to use the result of the risk analysis process to produce a risk profile which gives a significance rating to each risk and provides a tool for prioritizing risk treatment efforts.


Risk evaluation is used to make decisions about the significance of risks to the translation practice and industry, and whether each specific risk should be accepted or treated. The decision that needs to be made is based on the risk criteria that may include associated costs and benefits, and legal requirements for dealing with each risk.


Risk reporting and communication needs to be done at two levels: Internal and External. Internal reporting and communication involves publishing a clear risk management policy to be used by the freelance translator or the manager of the translation company when facing a risk.

External reporting works on a bigger scale and can target the publication industry, organizations, and ministries governing education and publication. Translation companies and translation departments of universities can report and publish their risk management policies and their effectiveness in achieving objectives on a regular basis, and actively take part in producing and updating risk management policies for their translation practice and industry.


According to IRM et al (ibid), ‘risk treatment is the process of selecting and implementing measures to modify the risk’. An important fact that role players in the translation practice and industry need to keep in mind is that risk treatment actions must be financially justifiable, meaning that they must be cost effective.

Risk treatment actions in the translation practice and industry need to be prioritized in terms of their potential for success and reward achievement and, as mentioned earlier, practitioners must be concerned with both positive and negative aspects of risk. Pym (2008, p. 20) has acknowledged the importance of such an approach in his law, as for example formulating how translators translate: ‘Translators will tend to avoid risk by standardizing language and/or channelling interference, if and when there are no rewards for them to do otherwise’. Four major strategies, that role players can implement in order to manage risks successfully in the translation practice and industry, are explained below with an example of each.

Risk Avoidance (avoiding or eliminating the risk): e.g. during the process of translation, you come across a complex sentence and there is the fear that some part of the meaning implicit in the original text might be lost or the reader would not be able to understand the meaning if the sentence is translated as a complex sentence. Therefore, you decide to avoid the risk by breaking the original sentence and translating it into a compound sentence. One possible reward is the avoidance of misunderstanding or the achievement of communication! This is called ‘explicitation’, according to Baker (1996, p.180), and is one of Baker’s proposed universals. However, bear in mind that explicitation is not exclusive to risk avoidance and may be used as a risk reduction strategy in another context.

Risk Reduction/Mitigation (reducing or mitigating the risk): e.g. while translating, you come across a term which does not have any equivalence in the target language and its translation turns into an awkward phrase. To reduce the risk of miscommunication, you may resort to transliteration. One possible reward is that you achieve communication!

Risk Transfer (outsourcing or transferring the risk): e.g. you have translated a book but you are unsure of market response and do not want to take on the cost for the publication. Therefore, you would try to transfer the risk by managing to convince a publishing company to publish the translation and pay for publication expenses and, in return, you revoke your request for royalty. One possible reward is that you get published!

Risk Retention (accepting the risk and budgeting for it): e.g. the publication company with whom you work does not agree to pay for the publication of a book that you have chosen to translate or have already translated; however, for some reason, you are determined to translate and publish the book and so, you decide to take the risk and pay for publication expenses. One possible reward: self-satisfaction perhaps! Also you get published!

These strategies can be used separately or in combination, based on the freelance translators and translation companies’ risk management plan.


As mentioned earlier, in order for risk management to be effective, we need ‘a reporting and review structure to ensure that risks are effectively identified and assessed, and that appropriate controls and responses are in place’ (IRM et al, 2002: 11). Implementation of this stage also ensures that our risk management plan is up-to-date and is consistent with the current translation market situation.


In order to show how risk management can be implemented in the translation practice and industry, a case scenario is created in which a financial risk is raised. The project manager of a translation company has received an offer for a translation job. After checking issues such as client reliability, job difficulty, word count, and deadline of the project, the project manager now considers the rate suggested by the client. The following table represents the project description:

Table 1 Project description

Client: Mr. X, returning client, reliable

Project Name: Bus manual

Service needed: Translation

Source text difficulty: Difficult; Technical

Word count: 30000 words

Deadline: Tight: 10 days

Software need: SDL Trados

TM: Not provided

Client’s suggested rate: 0.06 USD per word

Company ideal rate for such job baseds on Market rates: 0.08 USD per word

Rate usually paid to translator(s) of the company for such jobs: 0.04 USD per word

Other costs: 0.005 USD per word

In order to make a proper decision, the project manager must go through the risk management processes which were explained earlier. These processes are summarized in Table 2 to have a better and more organized view. The table can be prepared by the manager of the company or the project manager. It is better to prepare the table in the form of a template, for example in Microsoft Excel, so that the table design process will not have to be repeated for each new project.

Table 2 Financial risk profile

The project manager passes through a number of stages to decide on the suggested rate. These stages are presented in the following model. At each stage, decision must be made with reference to the above table. As you have noticed in the table, although the rival risk is present, the project manager has decided to avoid the financial risk since taking the risk is not cost effective without the cooperation of the translator (risk transfer)

source : Elena Dunne

Kent State University, Kent, Ohio, USA