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The department heads

The Heads of Department in charge of each department are very closely associated with planning. Their major responsibility is to manage the work requested of them, maintaining contact with the requesting departments and negotiating deadlines with the requesters. Several of them regard communication both with the requesters and within the department as being a major issue. In line with this, the telephone was frequently said to be the tool most used by the Heads of Department.

One topic which came up in discussion with the Department Heads and with the Unit Heads is the idea that not all translations are equal. The purpose to which a translation is to be put might be held to have a strong influence over the attention that should be paid to producing it. Thus, in certain cases it might be appropriate to respond to a request for translation by offering to make a quick oral translation or to give a summary, or by suggesting to the requester that he might use SYSTRAN, either as raw translation or by using the rapid post-editing service done through freelances. This idea sometimes arouses controversy, especially when it is expressed in terms of asking a translator to do a poorer job than he is capable of, which is seen as demotivating. On the other hand, it was said that the SdT needed to become more aware of the political process inside the Commission services, and that being flexible in the way that demands were responded to would help to attenuate a dissatisfaction sometimes felt with respect to the Translation Service's ability to meet the political needs of the requesters.

Another side to managing the burden of work requested is to encourage standardisation of documents and of their presentation both in the requesting services and in the department itself.

The Department Heads meet the Director-General, who is responsible for the functioning of the whole service, once a week in Brussels for the meeting of the Senior Management Committee, and transmit information from this meeting to their Unit Heads. Most consciously make a very strong effort to create a feeling amongst the Unit Heads that the whole department is working together as a single entity. One Department Head remarked that the communication issue was affected by the fact that each translation unit tended to reflect the culture it sprang from. On the other hand, several of them emphasized that once work had been passed to the translation units they tried to limit intervention to areas where they thought it indispensible, such as encouraging modernisation. The use of e-mail for transmitting information within the group was mentioned, although few heads reported using the possibilities offered intensively or systematically.

Many of those interviewed, both Department heads and others, talked about a general problem of ensuring information flow. We have already mentioned the distribution of the dossier of the Senior Management Committee and the Information Sheet which contains a summary of the main administrative news. But busy people whose lives are dominated by floods of paper will not always take the time to read general information, and may even miss or ignore specific information deliberately directed at them. Some alternative measures have already been put in place; for example, anyone who wishes may install a file in the computer network sub-directory "diffusion", and anyone can access the files in that directory. This facility does not seem however to be very much used, and it may be that it shares with ftp nodes a mysterious resistance to use. One current project is aimed at providing a web interface on all the PCs, which would not necessarily give access to information external to the Commission, but would make it easy to find any information within it. This may enjoy more success: it has been a fairly common experience elsewhere that people enjoy working the web. Another current project that has already been mentioned is the provision of a good bulletin board service. This too may go some way towards alleviating the information flow problem.

All the Department Heads, directly or indirectly, make heavy use of SUIVI. Some consult it regularly themselves, and make heavy use of the statistics to be obtained from it. These statistics can be organised in different ways by using different search keys, and this was frequently mentioned as a valuable aid. Others leave actual consultation and updating of SUIVI to their planning assistants, but nonetheless rely on the information contained in SUIVI. A few Department Heads use SUIVI not only to check on the workflow through their own group, but also to see what is happening in other groups.

Also in this context, it was suggested that who should have access to what information in SUIVI should be reconsidered, and access possibilities enlarged.

One possibility which has been suggested outside this study, although no one interviewed explicitly brought it up, is to allow more communication between the SUIVI which deals with staff records and the SUIVI which deals with workflow. This suggestion meets with some resistance from the Permanent Delegation of Translators, a staff organisation which deals with relations between language specialists and management. The main motivation for reluctance is related to the page counting issue mentioned earlier: if the number of pages produced by an individual translator goes down, this may be due to any one of a number of reasons, including difficulty of the translation, the language pair involved, unavailability of reference material, irregular work flow, absence for illness or for attendance at training courses, personal problems and laziness. Translation units are quite small: the unit head will normally know the reasons behind an apparent drop in productivity and be able to take appropriate action if necessary. Someone outside the immediate work context does not have access to the information needed for an informed judgement, and someone who understands nothing about the nature of translation may leap to too hasty conclusions.

The other main responsibility of all the Heads of Department is to ensure that translation, where necessary, proceeds in parallel into all the languages requested. The longer a document is, the harder it is to keep work on it progressing at the same rate in all the languages, especially as all units are usually working on more than one document. In the classic bad case, one unit will finish one document first, a second unit will produce a different document first, a third yet another and so on: the requester needs all versions, so for him all these documents are late. Paradoxically, within the translation units it is often the most efficient who find it hard to grasp that the department as a whole goes at the speed of the slowest unit, and is judged accordingly.

Otherwise, as might be expected, all Heads of Department experience the consequences of the kinds of texts their particular department deals with. Some, as we have already noticed, are expected to deal with a constant avalanche of urgent documents which can make planning a nightmare, others have to deal with extremely technical translation in a variety of fields where it is not always easy to find good technical advisors. Once again, an extreme case will illustrate this latter problem. The department dealing with documents on the internal market frequently has to translate proposals for mergers. These documents, each of about 50-60 closely typed pages, have a short turn-around time, about five days, are extremely technical and can deal with anything from motor vehicles to female hygiene. The documents are always highly confidential. When expert help is needed, consulting the companies concerned is obviously not permissible. The group relies on being able to find background documents and on being able to consult experts via the requesting department or the language help desk.

All Department Heads are involved in personnel matters within their own group. These include matters such as promotions and the performance review which is carried out for every member of staff once every two years. Staff are graded by their immediate superior on a number of different criteria, such as the ability to work with other people or the ability to work with computers. The grading is discussed with the member of staff in question and becomes part of his personal record.

And, of course, as in any hierarchy, each level of the hierarchy inherits the problems of the level below it; thus, for example, it was the Department Heads who first mentioned the problems associated with keeping secretarial staff, with dealing with freelance work, with encouraging changes in working methods and so on.

In addition to the responsibilities which are common to all Heads of Department, some have specific additional responsibilities. For example, one is responsible for liaison with the East European Countries about the adaptation of their legislation to Union legislation and for getting translations done into and out of the East European languages by freelance translators. Another has the additional responsibility of coordinating the Luxembourg activities of the SdT. This brings with it a certain amount of political work in the form of liaison with the Luxembourg authorities, and has also recently meant heavy involvement in the setting up of a new Translation Centre in Luxembourg, which the European Council decided in 1993 to create as a provider of translations for a number of European Union Agencies, which are dispersed geographically all over Europe (the Environment Agency, for example, is in Copenhagen, and the Training Foundation in Turin). The SdT will be responsible, initially, for technical coordination and specialist support services for the Centre.

Some of the Heads of Department regretted that they did not have the time to keep themselves up-to-date with new tools and translators' aids: it is, for example, difficult for them to be away from their department for the time necessary to attend courses and seminars. A few had solved this problem by encouraging an assistant to follow the training offered, and relying on the assistant to pass on the knowledge thus acquired.


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