September 20, 2009

Interviews with Karen: Corinne McKay

In this profile, the first in our new series of interviews by Karen Tkaczyk, we meet translator Corinne McKay (below).

For those readers who don’t know you, can you tell us a little about your personal and educational background?

After earning a B.A. in French and English from Geneseo College and the University of Grenoble, France, and an M.A. in French Literature and Culture from Boston College, I launched my freelance translation business (Translatewrite) in 2002 and have never looked back. Since then, I’ve become certified by the American Translators Association for French to English translation and have focused my business on legal, corporate communications and public health/international development translations. I live with my husband and daughter in Boulder, Colorado.

How/Why did you get started in T&I?

I was a high school French teacher and seven years ago when my daughter was born I was looking into how I could work from home and use my French. I didn’t know much about the T&I industry: didn’t know you translated into your native language, didn’t really know the difference between translation and interpreting, but I got my first freelance jobs around the time my daughter was born and from there everything has combined to produce a happy career.

Do you have a good early story about your business?

I do: a story of my naivety. I had sent my resume to all the agencies listed in the ATA database that might work with French. My first project was a certificate or diploma of some sort. I had no idea that a great portion of translating this type of document is to reproduce the formatting of the original. So I opened up an email, typed in the text in the email (not even in a Word document!) and delivered it, thinking “This was the easiest $30 I ever made!” The client was irate.

What is unusual or unique about your practice, in comparison to your competitors?

In comparison to other people I work with I’m more diversified in what I do. The bulk of my income is from translations but my clients are a pretty diverse group. One thing I have that is different is that I have several clients who are not really agencies or direct clients. For example I work with a couple of international development agencies that subcontract work from USAID or other government agencies. Those are some of my favorite kinds of client. They bring a nice balance between the advantages of an agency and the advantages of a direct client.

I also teach an online class, and wrote a book, and I do one-on-one business consulting with individual freelancers. I’m always surprised that few translators have sideline businesses publishing or consulting, or that more translators don’t write books, since most translators like to write. When one area of my business is down, another is inevitably on the up.

Is there someone you look up to in our profession as a model business person or translator/interpreter?

Yes, there are two people: Chris Durban and Judy Jenner.

One way to move up in the profession is to be a better translator. Chris Durban got me to think more about the quality of my translations and the writing process as a way to move up. Once we are established and have therefore reached an adequate level, we often sit still at that level. Chris taught me that if I want to work at a high level, my job is to produce translations better than the original and not to be scared to improve the text. She also helped me aspire to being an added-value provider, more like a bilingual communications consultant than ‘just’ a translator.

Judy Jenner is a real role model for the translator as an entrepreneur. She is not afraid of talking about money. I think all of us are in this business because we enjoy it, but there isn’t anything wrong with wanting to make decent money, or to increase our income annually. Judy helped me think of non-traditional ways of marketing myself. I’m in the process of implementing them. Examples include writing press releases, or marketing my business as 100% wind-powered.

Do you have a customer experience or feedback that you are most proud of?

I keep a file called “inspiration.” Whenever a client writes me something nice I keep it in that folder. I get feedback from people who read my book. I gave a presentation at the Northern California Translators Association in San Francisco this summer, and one attendee came up to me afterwards and said “I think of you as the guardian angel of freelance translators”. That really made my day. Then there was a client who sent me some feedback on my translation. He said “I read translations all day and yours are the ones that are most carefully done.” I have a lot of quality steps that I think a lot of translators don’t bother with (for example proof reading a hard copy) and when I get feedback like that it makes me feel that those quality steps are worth it. The clients who are also focused on quality do notice.

Does your business have an online presence? A website, blog or a profile on social web spaces like Linked In, Facebook, MySpace or YouTube?

The main sites are my business website:, my blog:, and my LinkedIn profile:

Do you do any non-profit work related to T&I?

I am an active volunteer. I am the President of the Colorado Translators Association, and am on the ATA Certification Maintenance Committee. I am also the immediate past Administrator of the French Language Division.

What are some of your greatest challenges in your business, and has the recession affected you in any way? If so, how?

I find that my work from US-based agencies is way down, but that other areas are strong, showing how valuable my diversified business is.

One current challenge: I feel like the next stage for me would be to market to more direct clients in French speaking countries, and I’m struggling with how to do that. Struggling partially because I feel like cold-contacting direct clients is of limited value, even less so when in another country. So I’m thinking of doing a marketing trip to France to try and meet with some potential clients in person.

About the interviewer: Karen M. Tkaczyk is a French>English and Spanish>English freelance technical translator based in Nevada. Her translation work focuses on chemistry, its industrial applications, and chemical intellectual property. She has a master's degree in Chemistry with French from the University of Manchester, U.K., and a diploma in French and a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from the University of Cambridge, U.K. She worked in various roles in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries in Europe and the U.S. before becoming a translator in 2005.

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