Jun 27, 2011

Safe deliveries

The process of creative writing has occasionally been compared to that of giving birth, though for most of us writing, the result is less miraculous as a rule. The same is true of translation. Yet an undeniable common element is the importance of a safe delivery, and indeed with some translations, such as urgent medical instructions or nuclear safety training materials, the consequences of a failed delivery have greater potential for harm than childbirth complications. In some cases, even minor delays can have longer term effects on the health of one's business.

A typical translation assignment for a typical translator typically does not contain life-critical instructions on follow-up medication and treatment or a plan for preventing a meltdown, but it usually is important to the translation buyer and it is often important that the work be received according to some sort of agreed schedule. It should be self-evident that some reliable system of tracking these delivery schedules is useful to reduce the chances of forgotten deadlines; this system should reflect the realities of one's working life and environment. For some, sticky yellow notes on the edge of a monitor work fine. A few others still use paper notebook schedulers, and increasing numbers of professionals rely on software tools such as the Outlook Calendar, AIT's Translation Office 3000, Plunet or the Online Translation Manager (OTM) to keep an overview of their job schedule.

Once a job is completed, however, there remains the challenge of getting it to the customer. At this stage a number of things can go wrong.

First of all, e-mail is by no means fail-safe. Just because a message was transferred to the Sent folder of your e-mail client does not mean that it made it to the client's Inbox. The messaging connection from your computer to mine is not direct, and along the way many things can go wrong with host servers, spam filter algorithms, virus or DoS attacks that shut down the relay stations temporarily and more. Lately I have even seen headers from one message grafted onto the bodies of others so that a mailed inquiry with confidential documents from one agency appeared with the name an e-mail address of a competing agency. Thank God I noticed that one before responding. By now most of us have probably seen e-mail messages that arrive hours after they are sent. Or days. Or months sometimes. Or never. I have mail accounts on four or five servers, and I have experienced intermittent problems with every one of these over the years. No e-mail system is foolproof when it comes to delivery on time all the time.

What can be done? In urgent cases when I think of it, I make a personal call to the client to ensure that the mail has been received, though often the person I want to reach is out of the office, in a meeting or using the office's sanitary facilities, so the important question of the delivery's arrival remains frustratingly unanswered. I'm not fond of this approach for other reasons as well. While I do enjoy talking with my clients, often one or both of us don't really have the time for the contact, and when I call ten times in a row and all is well each time I begin to feel a bit like Chicken Little and stop at some point. Then the next delivery e-mail doesn't make it. And of course I find this out when I'm far away from my office up to my knees in mud with a rifle in my hands looking for boars or trying to keep the dog under control. Not the best time to take a panicked client call.

My personal solution for this recurring problem was to adopt a bit of agency infrastructure for my freelance business and use translation business portal accounts from LSP.net, a platform for which I also now do the English localization. I've written about this online translation management system on my blog rather often, and I find that the 30 euros a month or so the company asks for a project manager account is cheap insurance among other things. The delivery e-mails from that system so far appear to be more reliable than with my various other hosting providers (Hosting Matters in Florida, ProZ in God-knows-where and some German company), but being somewhat paranoid I do not rely on this. Like many translation business portals, the SaaS solution OTM allows me to create free login access for my customers where they can check on their own to see if a delivery is ready, then download it without my intervention. This has proved useful a number of times in the past year when clients did not receive the files and called me as I was racing down the Autobahn at 160+ kph. With just a short reminder to log into their secure private area they got what they needed in just a few minutes.

Security is another important difference with portal solutions of this kind. OTM and others offer encrypted HTTPS access, far better than the common frightening practice of attaching confidential client files to insecure e-mail. Some of my clients are well aware of the problems inherent in ordinary e-mail attachment of unencrypted files and have in the past demanded various encryption schemes, some public key variations of which have caused havoc with my Windows operating system to everyone's confusion and consternation. Another occasional client has a system of passwords for zip files that I often find confusing when I am in a hurry, and when I substitute the wrong special character as a separator for the password elements the poor fellow tears his hair out trying to crack the file. A secure connection to an encrypted online portal solves this problem. It also provides a more convenient way to transfer large files, far less confusing that dealing with FTP servers, each of which has its own unique operating quirks. Clients can also upload large jobs to such a portal, avoiding the problems sometimes associated with large e-mail attachments.

Given the many vulnerabilities of an online business, it makes good sense to take the extra step in technology and use a secure online platform for business communication and data exchange. There are a number of solutions available, and the implementation expenses and effort fall in a range where any viable business can find a cost-effective option.

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