Monday, June 3, 2013

Interview with Karen Tkaczyk, PhD, French-English Chemistry Translator and Science and Technology Division Administrator

How did you become Division Administrator? What do you do?

I’m one of the three division members who worked to re-establish the Science and Technology Division in 2010. In the combination of my pair and field there was not enough support in my language division. I felt something was missing. I was not alone. We are a happy, like-minded group in S&TD. At that time, I was appointed as acting administrator. I ran for a term for 2011-2013. My role includes appointing the Leadership Council and working with them to help provide all the services and activities that the division is supposed to. Personally, I handle much of the communication with ATA headquarters to make sure that we are doing everything we’re meant to on time, and I post the tweets that we send out under @ATASciTech.

It seems that many scientific and technical translators take a roundabout path in their careers. Is that true for you? Tell us about how you became a translator with your specialization.
I came into translation as a second career. I was a chemist who had stopped working after having children. After five years at home with three little ones, I began seeking something interesting to do that would be stimulating but suit the family’s need for flexibility: I did not want to be employed full time again. I had skills inherent from having a bilingual marriage and a good enough education to make me a decent writer (I had a lot to learn, but still, in “average” terms, I was a good technical writer). As soon as I discovered that translators worked freelance I was set. I devoured guidance materials, set up a freelance practice online and according to local regulations, and then began translating appealing documents and networking until clients came to me.
I am a natural technical translator. By that I mean I like technical writing. I read trade journals in my fields. I read non-fiction for pleasure, including popular science. So I specialize because it came naturally. I speak chemistry. My chemistry degrees and prior industrial experience were a natural specialization and subject-matter expertise. I was interested in those fields and very much wanted to keep learning about them. I spend time in France most years with my husband's family and have plenty of exposure to my source language.

What is unique about your skill set? What sets you apart?
My narrow niche sets me apart. I have the immeasurable advantage of having a good feeling about the texts I deliver, knowing I can discuss them in a roomful of chemists or patent attorneys and not feel out of place. I think the sense of confidence I have in my work shows. I also detest the feeling I get when I realize I have accepted a text that is in fact something I don't understand properly. That is perhaps why I am so comfortable being highly specialized. I like to trust my instincts and am happiest when I can do that.

What are the advantages or disadvantages of being specialized like this?

Quite a few of the Science and Technology Division’s subject-matter experts are people like me who had a previous career. One advantage this provides is the speed at which a practice can take off. I found a market niche quickly and have solidified it over the years since. I didn’t go through that "How am I going to market myself? Hmm, well, let's see how it works out" phase that I know many freelancers go through. I was a chemistry translator right from day one. I often hear the time "two years" floated when people are talking about how long it takes to have a stable, established translation practice. With credentials, a tailor-made specialty and sensible business practices, I was refusing work four months after I had decided to become a freelance translator. An obvious advantage is speed. When you translate in a small number of fields, there is less background research to do, more subject-matter familiarity, and you can work at market pace more easily or turn around more translations.
One drawback is saying no a lot. You have to stay strong and refuse the work that is not in the fields that you are aiming for if you really want to get your name out as a specialist with a niche. There are many translators who specialize in a certain field but who still accept work in many other fields. I am not that kind of translator. I do tend to refuse almost everything that that's not in my predefined fields. The exceptions are rare. I can turn that into an advantage too though. When I refuse work, I refuse with a name. I refer colleagues. That pleases everyone.
Another advantage: customers are often prepared to pay higher rates when they have no one in-house who can check a translation with confidence. Working into English, that occurs with highly technical texts more than with "general" texts. When customers feel they can rely on me to get the "hard" stuff right—the complex scientific concepts or manufacturing practices—and want peace of mind, they often accept my rates even though they may be higher than usual.

What is your favorite type of text to translate? What makes it fun for you?
Most days are fun. I wouldn’t be doing this for a living if I couldn't say that. Chemistry patents are among my favorites. There's a logic and predictability that I like. Projects where I work in teams are the best though. I love communicating with colleagues to solve tricky problems, and revising the work of people I admire or seeing how they revise my work. Those are the jobs where I learn most and am completely satisfied.
How can readers learn more about you and connect with you?
My website is at Email is karen at that domain name. You can also find me on LinkedIn (, Twitter (@ChemXlator), Facebook (look for McMillan Translation) and in the division's Yahoo and Facebook groups.

I write articles fairly often. They include how my practice came into being, reviews of conferences, interviews on subjects or people I know, guest blog posts. Some of the articles are in publications like The ATA Chronicle and ITI Bulletin, but others are online. I've been the subject of some pieces too. Here's a selection of what's out there.

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