Meet Our Colorado Translators: Riccardo Schiaffino

By Marion Rhodes
CTA Social Media Coordinator

August 18, 2014

Imagine translating without the help of the Internet – or the computer for that matter. The tools that have become indispensable to today’s translators haven’t been around all that long. Today, we talk to a translator who has witnessed the changes in our industry over the past three decades: Riccardo Schiaffino, an ATA-certified English into Italian technical translator and president of Aliquantum, Inc., in Denver.


Marion Rhodes: You’ve been working as a freelance translator for nearly 30 years. How has the industry changed over the last three decades?

Riccardo Schiaffino: It has changed almost beyond recognition: Thirty years ago I started working (and only for agencies in my own hometown), using a typewriter. All assignments were on hard copy. All I had to help me as reference material was in hard copy as well: the dictionaries I had at home, photocopies of some printed glossaries, plus, in case of dire need, whatever was available at the local library. Fortunately, I lived in a major city, and the library had a fairly rich collection – but even there you could only request a couple of books at a time, chosen from a card catalog. No electronic searches, of course (no computers of any type, in fact). If you couldn’t find what you needed there, you had to make do without.

The first big change I saw was from the typewriter to the PC (after a brief interim experience with a dedicated word processor): Now instead of editing my translations on paper, retyping everything for a final draft to deliver to my customers, I could edit my translation directly on the computer – a big time-saver!

The second major change snuck up on us, and didn’t seem such a big deal back then, but now I think it was the most revolutionary change of all. I’m speaking of the Internet of course (I was online on BBS’s using a slow modem even before there was a World Wide Web).

The last major change was the arrival of CAT tools. The first for me was Dejá Vu (I was one of their very first users – the serial number on my copy of the program was, if I remember correctly, 27). I think I bought that early copy of Dejá Vu back in 1993, so I’ve been using CAT tools for over twenty years.

I said that I believe the Internet is what really revolutionized our profession – even more than CAT tools. Before the Internet, we were limited to our local market, now we work routinely for customers all over the world. But of course now also our competition is not limited to the few translators living in our hometown: We compete (and collaborate) with colleagues from all over the world.

Even more than the enormous expansion of our market, however, what the Internet has done to change our profession is make available materials of all types. Now our problem is not so much finding reference materials, but being able to distinguish the good ones from the sea of chaff available online.

MR: In addition to translating and running your translation company, you also teach translation at DU. What do you see as the biggest challenge for new translators today?

RS: The biggest challenges are the same as before: learning well one or more foreign languages, and learning how to write effectively in our own language. I find that a surprising number of students – and my students all already have at least a bachelor’s degree – arrive to translation without knowing how to write well.

Another challenge new translators face is learning how to work as a business: I think that universities could help more in this, with some practical courses. This also is not a new challenge, but it has become more pressing now that we work in an international business environment.

Finally, a new challenge for new translators is the ever-increasing role of technology in our profession: With some limited exceptions (translators who only work for certain sectors of the book trade, for example), I think that new translators need to learn how to take advantage of CAT tools and other new technologies if they want to thrive.

MR: What’s your take on machine translation and the direction new technologies are taking our field?

RS: Machine translation has a few limited roles: It is useful for gisting, and may in some instances be useful for companies prepared to spend a lot of money to fine-tune their MT engines and resources for a specific application.

Machine translation may also help some human translators become more productive – but only when used by someone who already is a good translator, and who knows when a MT suggestion might be useful, and when not.

On the other hand, I don’t believe at all in the so-called “post-editing” model, in which some unfortunate soul is tasked with “improving” the swill MT has produced. The large translation agencies and most of the software companies that are trying to fob that model on their customers are not, in my opinion, honest: They minimize the very real problems of such a model while hugely overpromising its alleged benefits.

MR: Getting back to business, how do you market your own translation services?

RS: Badly. Marketing is not our forte – we mostly rely on word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied clients, or on customers who find us after looking through the ATA (or sometimes CTA) member lists. We are planning to do something about this, and improve our marketing in the future.

MR: Your blog, About Translation, is pretty popular among translators. Did it also help you achieve your initial goal to attract clients?

RS: No, it didn’t – because I started without planning what to do with the blog. So I began to write what interested me as a translator – and that has meant that my blog’s readers are other translators.

A bit of advice to other translators who plan to start a professional blog or Facebook page: Think carefully before you start about the readers you want to attract. If you don’t, you may end up with the wrong audience.

MR: What’s the key to a successful blog?

RS: Writing something that interests you: If what you write bores you, it will also bore your readers. Even if About Translation isn’t a source of new customers or marketing leads, I’m happy with it: I can write what interests me, and probably the blog wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has (it’s going to be ten years of About Translation next February!) if I had forced myself to write a different type of articles.

MR: You’re an expert when it comes to translation quality measurement and have given many presentations about this topic, including at the ATA Conference. What are some QA tools every translator should know about?

RS: Xbench is an excellent tool I recommend all the time (by the way, I’ll be giving a new presentation on Xbench at the next ATA Conference). Even the free version of Xbench is very useful, both as a terminology management tool and as a QA tool – but I really recommend the commercial version: It offers more and better QA tests. Xbench is great because it is well documented, and its programmers go out of their way to be helpful when you contact them with some problem or a suggestion for some new feature.

Another dedicated tool I find useful is QA Distiller, and then, of course, there are the QA functions provided by most CAT tools.

Finally, two tools I recommend to anybody who writes in English: StyleWriter and PerfectIt – they help you write more concisely and more consistently.

MR: Is there anything you’d like to tell new translators that you wish someone would have told you in the beginning?

RS: Translation can be a lonely profession: You sit at your computer all day, and could spend days without interacting with anybody, if you are not careful (I’m fortunate, in this respect: My wife is also a translator, so we work together). Also, new translators should be aware that this is not a profession one can master quickly: Five years are a bare minimum, and the more experience one has, the better. Finally, new translators should realize the importance of business skills: As I said before, university courses on translation do little in this regard, but knowing how to work as a business is essential.