Your blogger, Jonathan Goldberg (himself a professional translator), interviewed Karen M. Tkaczyk.
Karen M. Tkaczyk, Ph.D. is an ATA-certified Fr and Sp>En (UK and US) freelance translator with a busy, highly specialized practice focusing on chemistry, its industrial applications and intellectual property. Karen is based near Lake Tahoe in Nevada, USA and grew up in the UK.
Jonathan: Tell us a little about your personal and educational background
I grew up in the UK and studied at Manchester and Cambridge universities (MChem Chemistry with French and PhD Chemistry). I lived in Lyon, France, for a year as part of the first of those degrees. The experience I gained working for a French pharmaceutical company (Rhone-Poulenc, now part of Sanofi Aventis) later became crucial when my career took its unexpected turn. After university I worked for two other large pharmaceutical companies in Ireland, and then in 1999 I moved to Nevada, near Lake Tahoe. There I worked for a cosmetic and medical device manufacturer until 2001. I met my French husband during the year I lived in Lyon. I translate from French and Spanish into UK and US English. I learned Spanish at school and during a period spent as an au pair in Spain.
Jonathan: How and why did you get started in T&I?
The answer is a bit corny, really. I stopped work when my first child was nine months old, after we decided that the two-career lifestyle was not what we wanted for our family. We had two more children quickly, and in 2005 I was beginning to feel like I should find something to do, but that I did not want to go back to a high-pressure job. Now comes the corny part. My husband was thinking of going independent and we read a book called “What Business Should I Start?”1 As we both went through the exercises it delivered an ‘Aha!’ moment for me: there was a whole world of freelance translators working from home. I had the necessary language skills and sufficient writing talent, and I had subject-matter expertise in a fairly unusual area. From there my translation practice took off remarkably quickly.
Jonathan: Do you have a good early story about your business?
I do – it’s about the power of networking and the importance of leaving the comfort of the home office and meeting other translators. At the first ATA event I went to, only a few months after I had decided to start my business, a very experienced translator got to know me a little and gave me four contacts that she thought would be a good fit, work-wise. Two of them became clients immediately, and one provided an on-the-job mentoring relationship that taught me the craft of translation over the next two years. If I had not spent money at a time when income was still patchy, my business would not have taken off in the same way.
Jonathan: Do you have a typical customer?
About half of my clients are US-based small or medium sized multi-language vendors that expect high quality and give me reasonable turn-around times. My family life does not allow me to drop everything for rush jobs. The balance is a mixture of agency and direct clients in North America and Europe.
Jonathan: What is unusual or unique about your practice, in comparison to your competitors?
I can think of two things. The more obvious one is my high degree of specialization. I work in the field of chemistry, its industrial applications, and its intellectual property, and rarely have to step outside that. The other area is that I speak and write for the T&I industry. Many people attend conferences for years without offering a session, and similarly read newsletters and magazines, without ever offering an article. As well as the enjoyment I get from these activities, it makes me much more visible, and I think that in turn that increases the number of word-of-mouth recommendations that I get.
Jonathan: Do you have a customer experience or feedback that you are most proud of?
I do. In 2009 I had made my aim for the year to work on my technical writing skills. In the autumn of that year, I had translated a set of pharmaceutical validation procedures. The client, who was not an expert in the field, edited them and told me, "You’ve done a wonderful job on these files. Your English is so clear that I can actually understand the technical language!” That was very satisfying.
Jonathan: Does your business have an online presence?
Jonathan: Do you do any non-profit work related to T&I?
I don’t do pro bono translation, as the multinational industrial companies whose documents I translate hardly need it! I do a lot of T&I association work, though. I am the 2009-2011 President of the Nevada Interpreters and Translators Association and I am also the Administrator for the Science and Technology Division of the American Translators Association.