…The first thing that I was hopeful about was behavioral change to help curb global warming: Mother Nature keeps knocking on our door and we’ve ignored her to our own demise. Now we have been able to see how much our environment has benefited from us slowing down. I just read about a record number of hatchlings of an endangered species of turtle on a beach in northern Mexico thanks to reduced human activity.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Romina Marazzato Sparano.
Romina is president at Plainlii and an expert in plain language, translation, and localization working with a range of private and public sector organizations, including Fortune 500 companies. She designed the MATLM degree at the Middlebury Institute and teaches writing and translation strategies through Language Compass and Plain Language Academy. She is a leader at associations like PLAIN, ATA, and SEA, develops standards at ASTM and ISO, and is a judge for the ClearMark Awards.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Above all, I am a language practitioner. I write, translate, teach, and rejoice in language every day. But when my adult life started, I would have never thought that language would become my focus. There was definitely an element of serendipity — I love this word, the unexpected fortune of a fruitful coincidence. I started out in biochemistry, interested in the Genome Project, and happened upon translation because I was a language geek — I had even won some young poet awards. Translating took me out of the lab and gave me the opportunity to help scientists communicate and learn about a variety of research projects; it was exhilarating! So much so that I went back to school to get a degree in translation. From there, things fell into place: I specialized in medical translation and the technology to support the process and started working with Fortune 500 companies that were driving innovation in medical devices. I went on to launch the Master of Arts in Translation and Localization Management at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in 2005. And, in another serendipitous turn, my work in translation led me to collaborate with authors and organizations in streamlining their source, or original, texts, and that’s how I arrived at plain language.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
Oh, my, there are so many stories. But I think the most interesting story is unfolding right now, having to rethink everything from plans to goals to routines. My house is now my office and I share it with three teens all day long! If someone had written that into a script, we would have called it unreal. Also, there’s a lot of collaboration in terms of access to technical information that used to be behind paywalls. It will be interesting to see how this stabilizes after the pandemic.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! I am working on several amazing projects. The first focuses on the essence of what I do: I am writing a book on writing strategies for writers of all kinds! As I mentioned, one challenge I have faced on the translation side is the need to sort out the source text prior to translating it. This led me to work closely with authors and organizations to streamline their message and has put plain language at the center of my work. Plain language started out as an effort towards citizen access to information and services but has become synonymous with clarity in general. I am personally committed to promoting clarity in technical writing for better communication among experts (for effective research and implementation), and with lawmakers (for more meaningful legislation). We have all borne witness to the domino effect of unclear technical communication during Covid. So, I set out to write a comprehensive, fun, and evidence-based book to help streamline technical communications at any level with real examples and backed by findings from linguistics, psychology, design, and information science. Some chapters will make it to my blog site soon!
Another exciting project is the development of an ISO Standard for Plain Language (as of October, it has an official title, ISO 24495, Plain Language). I am part of an amazing group of international experts working on this to ultimately help readers find, understand, and use information easily and effectively. The effort was jumpstarted by the International Plain Language Federation on the basis that plain language is a civic right, and that clarity is a pillar of democracy. And, through this project I am now part of an informal community of experts fostering dialogue and collaboration in language standards and certifications from a variety of angles, from easier ways to share multilingual information to evaluation criteria for automated and human writing and translation. These are great steps towards bringing down barriers in the way of knowledge around the world.
The most recent project I started involves building a community to support language access and language access professionals in K-12 education. During the latest and virtual conference of the American Translators Association, a group of professionals expressed the need to have what we call a Division for professionals in educational settings. Divisions are communities with a common interest within the larger association. This new Education Settings Division will support translators and interpreters and even plain language practitioners who provide language access in school settings. The Division will promote awareness about the need to provide clear information both to parents who are proficient in English and parents who may need information in a different language; after all, no matter which language they prefer, it is unlikely they will be well-versed in all the jargon used by specialists. Our schoolchildren deserve the best support we can give them, and this includes fostering family participation in their education.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
So many people! First and foremost, I have to thank my mom — her name is Telma Piacente. She is not just an amazing and loving mother but one of my best interlocutors and an inspiration as a woman leader herself. She has overcome the odds in many ways, as a professional in an emergent field, as a woman in a male-dominated world, as a mother through the hardships of dictatorship. She is a psycholinguistics professor and researcher who continues to train students with energy, rigor, and incredible generosity.
Then, Kate Harrison Whiteside is another amazing pillar in my life. She also has great wisdom, drive, and generosity. She is co-founder, together with Cheryl Stephens, of Plain Language Association International, a networking hub to advance clarity in communication, and Plain Language Academy, an online academy to train communication professionals. I do a lot of training at companies and organizations around the world, so when Kate invited me to join her at Plain Language Academy, I was over the moon! In the past year, we have helped each other focus our training efforts, and despite the pandemic, PLA has grown to an international presence, about to launch training in Spanish and French in 2021, and we already have requests for Portuguese and Italian!
I also have to thank Richard Paegelow, one of my first bosses in the language industry, who shared with me his passion for quality assurance and gave me an incredibly solid foundation for project management. His approach to projects was, and I know continues to be, at once quality-driven, aware of the bottom line, and empathetic for the final reader.
I am also grateful to Chuanyun Bao, professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. He will always be for me Dean Bao. When he was Dean of the Translation and Interpretation School, he reached out to me to design and launch a new degree and supported me through no small amount of skepticism. With his help, I was able to repurpose existing resources from both the Translation and the International Business schools to serve a new pool of students interested in the language industry. This year the Master of Arts in Translation and Localization Management tuned 15. It has been a humbling and rewarding experience to see students make their mark in many areas of the language industry, from localization in Silicon Valley to language access at the federal government.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
I have three kids in middle school and high school, so the pandemic has certainly changed our lives. I have homeschooled at various points for a variety of reasons but finding a new rhythm for their education, their family life, and their social life under COVID has been very trying. They are still doing school virtually, so from finding a physical space for them to work at to ensuring that 24/7 cohabitation doesn’t turn us into ghosts to each other, the balance continues to be an everyday practice. Also, my husband has had to work outside of the house. On the one hand, it was very fortunate to have his business running, but, on the other, the uncertainties of having him be out, especially in those early months of the pandemic, caused a lot of anxiety. In fact, one hard aspect of the pandemic has been the evolving nature of the knowledge we have about the virus and the disease. Uncertainty is part of science, but we seldom hear public references to the trials and tribulations of the scientific process.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The biggest aspect was trying to understand why we wanted and needed to be extra cautious and explore what that caution looked like as information about the disease unfolded. I don’t think we had so explicitly stated to our kids, “look, we don’t have all the answers” before. Through the uncertainty, I had to make sure I was being consistent or giving a good rationale for why I was changing my mind. We also had to find new ways to check in with each other. We used to have a round of “favorite part of the day” at dinner after a day away from the house. Now that we work alongside each other all day long, we value the moments when we can share small experiences in small groups: our girls taking a walk down the beach, my husband taking our son for doughnuts, little moments like that.
Can you share the biggest work-related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
The biggest challenge has been to see our marketing plans disappear into thin air as industry events were cancelled. I got to attend one conference in February, and then, puff, everything changed. Plainlii is based on online B-2-B interactions, but a lot of initial contacts are made in person.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I immediately started looking for online opportunities to network. Webinars and video-meetings are now routine, but it wasn’t the case at the beginning of the pandemic. So, with the sudden shift in logistics, I turned to our local Business Council for help. I was paired with a fantastic counselor, Victor Valdez. He helped me sort out information and paperwork needed to access opportunities for women and small business owners. Thanks to his help, Plainlii is now certified as a WBE (Women Owned Business) and WOSB (Women Owned Small Business) by WEBENC, the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council and registered as such with the Small Business Administration. The amount of business reserved for women-owned and small business firms is perhaps not commensurate with the amount of work needed to get certified, but, what I found extremely valuable is the people I met along the way. Everyone involved in the certification process had great advice and was genuinely interested in helping us succeed. So, another journey has started connecting with WBENC Corporate Members and a network of small and women-owned businesses to strengthen each other!
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
This is really a tough question. I do not think there’s a “best” way. Throughout the pandemic months, I have read and heard a lot of what I call “pill advice” — that is, quick tips that mask the problem rather than contribute to a real solution. Schools and companies, for instance, advised it best to not work from your bedroom to help create some work/life boundaries. But there often so many available spaces in a home. A better angle is to create those boundaries with some sort of ritual, like getting dressed almost as if you were leaving the house or creating new routines for things that have changed, like dinner. For us, our dinner table is often “otherwise engaged” for schoolwork, so we “picnic” in the living room for dinner as a family. I also have learned to give myself permission to be unavailable. Before, when my kids were home, I was mostly mom, but now I am more comfortable saying, “sorry guys, mom is working.”
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
We are very lucky in that we are a very close family and have practice at staying together. We have traveled a lot, moved around the country — even abroad for a bit — and this has given us a sense of us as a family. We have early birds and night owls, we have pasta lovers and gluten and dairy allergies, we have war stories enthusiasts and sci-fi lovers. So, we’ve learnt to adapt and appreciate someone else’s preferences. A lot of learning happens when you step outside of your own preferences with curiosity. Especially during the summer, when the kids were off online school, we shared quiet reading time in the mornings, we took neighborhood walks as a family, and we cooked a lot together. A little yoga at night also helps!
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
I will share two reasons: the first thing that I was hopeful about was behavioral change to help curb global warming: Mother Nature keeps knocking on our door and we’ve ignored her to our own demise. Now we have been able to see how much our environment has benefited from us slowing down. I just read about a record number of hatchlings of an endangered species of turtle on a beach in northern Mexico thanks to reduced human activity. Another reason for hope is the expansion of educational opportunities. As much as we parents may be going a bit crazy with schooling at home (whether you or the school does it), I think we will see a new wave of possibilities that is barely beginning: from digitally convening far-away experts to a real classroom to helping students connect with faraway peers. I still think in-person learning is essential, because of the learning that happens inside the classroom and around the classroom. I love the serendipity of running into people with different interests and backgrounds; these encounters empower you to articulate your own ideas and open your mind to someone else’s, and this is also a great empathy amplifier. I think we can instill some of that in digital environments.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I think the best advice has always been and will always be to listen. Listening is hard. We are wired to do, to act, to intervene in one way or another. Think of the “fight or flight” response when faced with a threat. But you can also “play possum” and gauge the situation. As a mom, as a friend, as a wife, as a daughter, as an educator, as a professional, and as a businesswoman, I constantly remind myself to listen. I find that listening is a sort of multiple-choice situation: you let the person in front of you lay down their worries, their experience, and their needs, and the answer is in there somewhere, you just need to pay attention. It is a little bit like editing text: a comma, a little reorganization, or a capitalization can make all the difference. Listening with intent, punctuating the person’s thoughts by paraphrasing their words to make sure you understand can help them sort their own ideas and find their own answer.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Embrace serendipity and keep dancing. As a child, I would hear at home, almost as a mantra, that tripping over a mound may prevent you from falling down a mountain and land you in a better viewing spot. So, when something happens that trips me up — while I do, at first, let out frustration — I dust myself off and take a moment to look around and find the silver lining.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can visit our website at plainlii.com, my blog at languagecompass.com, and you can follow me on Twitter @languagecompass or Linked-in at https://www.linkedin.com/in/romina-marazzato-sparano-3618948/
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!