Beyond the iron triangle

Beyond the iron triangle

Igor Vesler has been a manager in production and product development at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and is currently an independent consultant at Diken Research. He has been a certified Russian and Ukrainian translator and language service provider since 1975.

Igor Vesler

Igor Vesler

Emily DeTar Gilmartin

Igor Vesler

Igor Vesler has been a manager in production and product development at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and is currently an independent consultant at Diken Research. He has been a certified Russian and Ukrainian translator and language service provider since 1975.


he project management triangle (also called the iron triangle, the triple constraint, the project management star and so on) is a conceptual abstraction used to illustrate the relationships between several parametric variables of a project (such as cost, time, labor), and is usually presented as a graphic. In its simplest form, as described by Robert Swisher, the iron triangle is an Euler diagram offering the options of fast, good and cheap referring to the time required to deliver the product, the quality of the final product and the cost of delivering the product, respectively. This triangle reflects the inevitable fact of life: project parameters are interrelated, and maximizing and keeping all three elements in harmony is an unattainable ideal. One of them will always suffer.

As the concept evolved over time, and more variables were taken into account along with some refinements made to the existing ones, the shape became more complicated. The original triangle or three-component Euler diagram was transformed into a diamond-shaped, six- or even eight-point star (Figure 1).

Thus, the apparent intuitive simplicity of the original concept disappears when facing a multidimensional and risk-prone reality as in software development projects. Over time, project managers realized that this model only behaves in a satisfactory manner if its constituent project parameters remain within a pretty close proximity to their median values; any substantial drift beyond this range may jeopardize the entire project management effort and/or increase the associated risks to the point where they become unacceptable.

Variations of the iron triangle.

Figure 1: Variations of the iron triangle.

How does this work in the translation industry?

The iron triangle applies to translation projects, and we can identify and analyze some risks that affect its validity in real life situations.

It should be noted that various graphic representations of the iron triangle (as found in a number of publications on the subject) tend to provide a visual illustration of its conceptual meaning and fail to work for many real situations. The same goes for such project parameters as time, scope and resources.

Generally, when applied to translation projects, the iron triangle can be expressed in plain language in the following ways:

  • Translate something quickly and to a high-quality standard, but it will not be cheap;
  • Translate something quickly and cheaply, but it will not be of high quality;
  • Translate something with high quality and cheaply, but it will take a much longer time.

In reality, each of the above assertions might be true only if the constituent variables or their combinations permit. For example, even if the required quality of the final product can be as low as that of a raw Google Translate output, translating and processing 100,000 words in 24 hours seems to be close to impossible. By the same token, an experienced translator might agree to translate, say, 10,000 words in 24 hours by working nonstop, but the price they would ask for this exercise will substantially exceed usual market rates for rush jobs. In other words, there are certain boundary conditions and ramifications that can and will apply to each project variable.

Project variables

Time. In many industries, calculation of project completion time is generally based on some implied assumptions such as (a) all business days are the same, and (b) workforce availability is close to 100% during this period (primarily because they are in-house employees). However, in the translation industry where translators are, as a rule, freelancers, neither assumption is correct.

For example, let’s assume that on a Friday afternoon a project manager receives a large and complex legal document (say, 50,000 non-leveraged, unique words) and the client wants to have it translated by Monday morning. Theoretically, this can be done over the weekend if the project is split among several translators. However, on an average Friday afternoon, trying to put together a team of qualified translators willing to sacrifice their weekend is likely to be unsuccessful. In such a case the absolute length of the period allocated for project completion doesn’t matter: no extra money or quality reduction can make such a translation possible.

Let us also assume that in the above example, the volume is 100,000 non-leveraged words. Even if the project manager enjoys high bench strength (meaning the number of translators available to the project manager at any moment is virtually unlimited) and the project is split among several translators, the overhead (such as: efforts to ensure consistency of the terminology, style and formatting of the final document) will grow exponentially with the project volume and number of translators involved. This (a) requires additional personnel (editors, typesetters) and increases costs, (b) shortens the time available to translate the document and (c) increases the risks associated with the project. The more people that are involved, the higher the risk is that some part of the translation won’t be delivered on time or at all, which would put the entire project at risk.

Project management terms

Client. An entity or a person originating the request for translation and paying for it.

Project manager. For the sake of simplicity, we use this to collectively mean the translation agency, its account manager, project manager and other professionals on staff that may be involved in fulfilling the client’s request.

Project parameters or variables. These could include volume (word count), complexity, completion time, quality criteria and so on.

Risk factors. Circumstances and/or executive decisions materially affecting the probability of having the translation project awarded, as well as the completion of the translation project.

Furthermore, translators’ availability also varies depending on the time of the year, such as during vacation season, approaching holidays and even depending on the schedule of professional or international events (such as ATA’s annual conferences).

Another time-related factor is the duration of the project. The widespread myth that freelancers favor large projects that take substantial time to complete is usually true only if the deadline is quite generous and allows them to accept other small or even medium-size projects in the interim. As noted above, tight deadlines substantially increase project-related risks, especially when multiple translators are involved.

Scope. Of all the other project parameters, the concept of scope is the most diverse. In addition to the operations of various types necessary for completing any translation project, scope also includes a number of project-specific variables, such as the required quality of the final product. For example, for small- and medium-size plain text projects, the scope may take the form of a traditional translation-editing-proofreading-formatting process, while with a sizeable research report or a book saturated with graphs, charts, formulas, lists of references and the like, the scope also requires a number of other processes. These may include putting together a style guide and project glossary (especially when several translators are involved and/or publication quality is required), extensive use of DTP, including post-graphics review and so on. This kind of project scope requires substantial preparatory work and meticulous quality control at each and every stage, which, in turn increases the risk of missing the deadline and/or compromising the quality. Furthermore, the desired translation quality determines both the content-related requirements (such as terminology and style) and purely mechanical needs (completeness, formatting, layout and appearance) that collectively define the project specifications. That’s why factoring in these project parameters at the project planning stage is vitally important.

Failure or delays can have a variety of implications.

Table 1: Failure or delays can have a variety of implications.

Resources. These, as a rule, include humans (translators, editors, subject matter experts, DTP specialists) and software. While software is usually readily available, the availability of human resources might be a problem. For example, a client requests the translation of a highly specialized document into a rare language. Neither time nor money is an issue within reasonable limits. The project manager spends many hours trying to find qualified translators capable of delivering a text of even marginally acceptable quality. In the end, only two such translators are located but one of them is fully booked for the next several weeks and the other is going on a month-long vacation, so the project never takes off. As another example, consider an original (source) document of very poor quality, which contains some important images that require image enhancement software to be used. Finally, the most important resource is money — the project budget. Underestimating the project’s costs may have a substantial adverse impact on its economics. Failure to factor in all project variables may wreak havoc with the agency’s profit margin or even cause financial losses.

Risk. The project manager’s inability to factor in the above project constraints at the project acceptance stage may expose the agency to the following risks:

1. Risk of failure to deliver the product on time.

2. Risk of failure to attain the required quality.

3. Risk of failure to meet the financial expectations (incurring excessive project costs).

4. Risk of failure to complete the project.

Non-quantifiable risk parameters.

Table 2: Non-quantifiable risk parameters.

While the first two risk factors can be mitigated — by renegotiating the project terms with the client, for example — the third one may cause financial losses and the fourth one does reputational damage. The implications are summarized in Table 1.

Albeit interrelated, project variables differ from one another in terms of their nature. Some of them can be quantified and measured numerically (such as time or money), and some can only be categorized descriptively (such as quality standards or requirements) while still others may be purely intuitive (such as success/failure probability or degree of risk). For example, basic non-quantifiable parameters can be categorized as in Table 2.

For any specific medium- or large-scale project, it is a combination of the above parameters, rather than the word count alone that determines the quantifiable variables such as time and cost. For instance, two similarly sized projects may differ from each other drastically in terms of the time and effort required when even one parameter (such as the quality standard or presentation) is of Category 1 for one of them and Category 3 for the other. Accordingly, translator productivity will also be different and may vary from, say, 300 words per hour to 150 words per hour.

Unfortunately, this important detail is frequently neglected by project managers. When projects are assigned to several translators, some project managers simply split the source file into equal parts without giving the content of the source file any consideration with regard to these parameters.

Balancing project variables

It is common for a translation project to have some parameters firmly set even before it starts, while other parameters may still be negotiable. Still others can be monitored and managed proactively during project execution. However, there will always be limits to what can or cannot be done. For example, when the size of the project requires that the work be split among several translators, their numbers may be limited due to limited availability. Poor legibility of the source text may reduce the translator’s hourly output and, in turn, require additional manpower. The quality standard set by the client may be too high for the amount of time allocated for the project and, therefore, unattainable. For these reasons, the project manager’s primary task is to balance project variables in a way that would optimize workflow and maximize the chances of successful project completion.

There are numerous ways to balance project variables. The most common is to involve splitting the project workload between several freelancers; splitting project workload between the agency and freelancer(s); and performing different tasks in parallel. These and some other techniques will be discussed below.

The decision-making tree

Pre-translation stage. Project managers must make all critical decisions before the project is assigned to translators, and this decision-making stage is rife with the potential risk of incorrectly assessing the amount of time and resources required, which may subsequently affect the production process and increase other risks. At this stage, the manager can review the source text and determine its volume, complexity and the full scope of work to be done. Then, based on their findings, the manager will determine if the deadline is realistic and, if so, the number of translators and other professionals needed to have the text translated on time. Then, the candidate translators are selected, and the project is assigned to them.

Production stage. While the project is in progress, the manager’s decisions are driven primarily by translator queries and unexpected developments (translator’s inability to continue, revisions introduced by the client, errors in the source text and the like). Each such event is a risk factor that jeopardizes the entire project and, therefore, must be dealt with promptly and efficiently.

Post-translation stage. In this stage, the final processing of the translated components is completed and the components are assembled into the target files (graphics are inserted, the table of contents and indices generated, headers, footers and page numbering added, corrected or finalized) and checked for completeness. Other quality control measures may also be taken as required, for example, DTP and post-graphics review.

Making it all work: A case study

Project outline. The 100 pages of the source PDF file are a scanned third-generation copy of a research report that needs to be translated into English. Due to the rather poor image quality, running the file through optical character recognition (OCR) only allows for determining an approximate word count (30,000 non-leveraged words). In addition to plain text, the file also contains a table of contents, 20 tables with numerical data, 12 flowcharts with text in many chart blocks, and a list of 20 references. The required translation quality: sufficient for limited circulation. The project must be completed within five business days. The project budget allows no rush rates.

Operational assumptions. Three translators are readily available for the project and one translator has limited availability. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that the number of auxiliary in-house personnel assisting the manager with the project is unlimited, and they are all available at a moment’s notice.

Operational scenarios

Scenario 1 (Straightforward)

The manager’s initial assessment of the project is as follows:

Given the average translator’s productivity of 250 words per hour, the total time needed for the project is 120 hours or 15 days (assuming eight-hour work days). This means that if the project is split among three translators, each one will complete their respective part in five days.

Based on this line of thought, the manager splits the source PDF file into three equal parts and forwards each of them to the respective translator.

Under this scenario, the project is doomed to fail in terms of on-time delivery.

First, due to poor legibility of the source text, actual translator productivity should be expected to drop by 20% or more on average. Having to type numerical data into tables and re-create flowcharts will reduce it further, so, upon review of the files received from the manager, the translators will realize that they will have to work much longer hours for the same word count-based fee. This will lead to renegotiation, loss of time, available translators potentially bailing out of the project altogether and likely, the agency’s profit margins suffering.

Second, the manager here leaves no time for assembling the disparate pieces into the final translated file, or for post-translation processing — such as marking the headings for and generating the table of contents and reformatting. This further reduces the time available for post-translation operations and makes on-time delivery virtually impossible.

If the manager engages the fourth translator who only has limited availability, the situation becomes even worse since the time necessary to ensure consistency will increase and so will the risk of delays. Even if the translators are requested to deliver their respective parts in daily installments, this does not improve the time budget much.

Scenario 2 (Suboptimal)

Upon review of the original PDF file, the manager decides to OCR it and clean up the resulting Word file in-house to make it possible for the translators to work directly in their partial Word files. This may increase translator productivity (say, up to 300 words/hour) and, therefore, reduce the total translation time budget to 100 hours instead of 120 under the first scenario. However, since the OCR and subsequent file cleanup take time, the work files will not be made available to the translators until later, thus negating the time savings, if any, from the entire exercise. As a result, the project will find itself in the same situation as in the first scenario.

Scenario 3 (Advanced)

Upon review of the original PDF file, the manager decides not only to OCR it and clean up the resulting Word file in-house, but also to extract tables and flowcharts for in-house processing, such as correcting and, where necessary, converting the numerical values in the body of each table into the US format and adding callouts to the flowcharts. This spares the translators the purely mechanical and time-consuming work, thus increasing their productivity. Translation of the references is assigned to the translator who has limited availability. In addition, translators are instructed to mark all the headings to be included in the table of contents as such, thus making the generation of a table of contents almost immediate after all the translated sections are assembled together.

All these arrangements and corresponding instructions to the translators should be summarized in the project brief.


The third scenario employs — although not exhaustively — all of the three aforementioned techniques for balancing project variables. In addition to splitting the project among four translators and then again between the translators and the agency, with different types of work being done in parallel (the tables and flowcharts are processed in-house while the translators do what they do best — translate) to save time.

Day-to-day translation project management experience shows that the root cause of agency’s failures to deliver projects on time without compromising quality is often a project manager’s “word count” mentality and ignorance of how translators actually work. The manager’s inability to properly structure the project frequently leads to unnecessary time losses, additional (and unpaid) translator workloads, unfounded expectations and a general deterioration of professional work ethics in the industry.

One of the ways to improve qualifications of these project managers is by educating them on how the translation process can unfurl and what the specific details and parameters are for a translation project. Such training efforts can tap seasoned translators for expertise or engage them as instructors outright.