Specialization includes knowing how the things work - Interview with translator Achille Albertelli

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This is the ninth in our series of interviews with translators from all over the globe. Translation is a very diverse industry - we want to introduce some of the people behind making the world a more multilingual place. This episode is an interview with Achille Albertelli.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

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My name is Achille Albertelli and I have been a freelance translator for more than 20 years now. I am Italian mother tongue and I work in the EN/DE/FR>IT language combinations, mainly for international agencies.

My areas of expertise (not in any order of importance) include law, business, marketing, technical documentation, software & the Internet, website localization, transcreation and publishing. I currently live in the Northern Milan Area (Italy). I have my website, blog and I'm active on Xing and Twitter.

How did you decide to be a translator? What makes you passionate about languages?

I remember having been passionate about languages (my mother tongue, then other European languages) since I went to school. I really don't know why. To me it was (and it is) interesting to know what things are called in a different country or region. I guess I already was a "little translator" as a child.

Later on, after taking a degree in modern foreign languages (EN, DE, FR), I decided to try to become a freelance translator because I was living in a provincial town, with limited roles and opportunities, where if you could speak other languages you could only hope to find employment as a secretary (if you were a woman) or as an international travelling salesman (if you were a man).

My first collaboration as a freelancer was with an agency based in Milan. I remember I used a 9.600 bps modem to connect to their computer, because the Internet wasn't there for me when I started off in my career.

What have you done to improve your translation skills in the last year?

1. Translating. 2. Translating. 3. Translating.

How do you prepare for a translation project?

In my experience, and given the constant rush that characterizes the translation business (probably because computing is misconceived as being able to remove all kinds of constraints), there is hardly ever the time to prepare for every single translation job.

Of course, after 20+ years translating, I appeal to my experience and I use proven procedures applicable to each client, as well as ongoing troubleshooting techniques as needed. Most of the times, though, you have to go into the race "cold" and start running. I do plan resources for a project where a client requests an estimation of time and costs and/or the project involves other people besides myself (such as the localization of a multilingual website).

What aspects of your job are the most challenging?

I believe that every job or profession is challenging and that its reward (other than in monetary terms) lies in meeting the challenges that it poses. More often than not, however, I get the annoying feeling that my work (i.e. translation) is taken for granted, and that all that really matters is formatting, tag correctness, compliance to procedures, concordance searches, timeliness of queries and all such things that can be 100% guaranteed only by settling for lower linguistic quality (if nothing else, for the amount of time required to comply with each of these requirements). Honestly, this is a "challenge" that I'm personally finding more and more difficult to cope with.

What excites you the most about the languages you work with?

The English language is my favourite because, among other things, I find it very pragmatical. To me, the challenge and fun of translating it into Italian consists in avoiding the sluggishness, inaccuracies and pitfalls that many EN>IT translators seem to fall prey to.

Over time, I have developed a sort of conditioned reflex, in which I can actually see the source text on my TV screen when, for example, I watch a dubbed British or American documentary film. Well, such translations are almost never satisfactory, but how many end users will be aware of their low quality? So I guess it's not simply a matter of excitement or fun, but also of (social) responsibility.

What is the funniest translation experience you can remember?

In the '90s I worked for a Japanese agency that used to fax me jobs right from Tokyo (we weren't using e-mail yet). The jobs were mainly user manuals of consumer electronics products written in English by Japanese engineers. Every fax was introduced by a cover letter with instructions. One day, I received a one-page fax.

The instructions said it was a product label prepared by the legal department of a major printer manufacturer, to be attached to inkjet cartridges for anti-lawsuit purposes. The reason why there was only one page was that the source text was so short that it could simply be added at the end of the cover page. Here is what my assignment said: “Please translate the following: DO NOT DRINK THE INK.”

What are good or bad things about freelancing?

I like the "free" part (as in "stay free") as much as the "lance" part (a lance is a knight's spear). Unfortunately, Italy has not been a favourable economic environment for solopreneurs and SMEs lately, but we still hope things can improve in the near future.

What are you wishes for 2014? What excites you, what are you sceptical about?

While there is growing demand for translation services globally, there is also growing supply and competition, resulting in a cost-price squeeze for anyone that is translating for a living.

And while Post-Editing of Machine Translation (PEMT) is a recent development that cannot be ignored, I, too, am concerned about compensation practices for post-editors, as well as various other issues including confidentiality of client content.

What would you pass on as personal advice to new translators?

It's no use being a linguist if you don't know anything about business (i.e. the ultimate "consumer" of your work) and/or about marketing (i.e. finding new clients and maintaining your existing ones). Also, specialization is not only a matter of knowing the right words to describe things.

It also includes knowing how those things actually work (and that not only for manuals or balance sheets, but also for contracts, marketing materials, cooking recipes and virtually anything else).

Thanks to Achille for the answers!