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Corinne McKay: “What happens when the higher-paying work comes back and you’re already busy?”

I’ve been lucky to catch a star French to English translator Corinne McKay between the jobs for a brief interview. I’ve been an avid reader of Corinne’s popular blog Thoughts on Translation for quite some time and couldn’t miss an opportunity to ask her a few questions this year—2012 is the year when Corinne celebrates her 10 years of success as a translation professional. With her blog being a go-to source of powerful information about translation, over 5,000 copies of her book How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator sold, and her online training course receiving great customer feedback, Corinne is undoubtedly a respected thought leader in our industry. So, I was excited to know how she feels about her career after reaching a 10-year milestone, with a particular interest in some of the challenges we all face as translators. This post includes the first 10 questions of the interview.

1. Knowing what you now know, would you consider starting a translation career today in 2012 despite the increasing competition from machine translation and downward pricing pressure from translation buyers?

A: Yes, absolutely! There is still a huge volume of work out there for really good translators who market themselves assertively, provide excellent customer service and focus on the high end of the market. I do think that for translators who produce “good enough” translations, machine translation is a threat. If a client is happy with a “good enough” translation, it’s a lot more appealing to get it for free than to pay for it. But I think that for those of us who work at the high end of the market, for clients who really see translation as critical to their business, there is more work out there than we can handle. For example the US Bureau of Labor Statistics just predicted that the need for translators and interpreters in the US will increase over 40% in the next 10 years. So whatever the influence of machine translation and price-obsessed clients, there is a ton of work out there.

2. Do you believe that at some point in the future, perhaps after hundreds of years, machine translation will get so good that human translators will no longer be able to compete profitably?

A: I’m not really sure! I think that right now, most documents that are machine translated fall into two categories: content that is so tedious that humans don’t want to work on it, or content that would never have been translated before machine translation existed. Honestly, high-end translation work is so hard for humans to do that I can’t imagine a computer doing it successfully, but in 50 or 100 years, who knows. I’m 40, so I tend to think in terms of the next 30 years of my working life, and I don’t see machine translation squeezing us out anytime soon.

3. Being in a service industry, do you feel like you strike a right balance between great customer service and your own satisfaction with work (e.g. you may dislike that an overseas client calls you at 10pm, but put up with it anyway to make the client have their way, hence ensuring quality customer service)? How often do you have to sacrifice one for another?

A: I am fairly protective of my personal time and my non-work life; I do work at night fairly regularly, but only because I choose to spend time with my daughter in the afternoons rather than working. However I do not work on weekends unless absolutely necessary, and then I try to limit it to maybe a couple of hours on Sunday night. For my best clients, those that pay very well and treat me very well, I will go above and beyond when they really need me. But I think that it’s acceptable and even necessary to have a life outside of work so that we are truly energized about our jobs when we are working.

4. What tips can you share about how a translator can get through the periods of little or no work both financially and emotionally? Is it right to accept projects at a lower rate when desperation sets in?

A: A few years ago I wrote a post for my blog entitled “Lowering your translation rates, why or why not?” and it generated a lot of discussion. I think it’s a hard choice: in one sense, working is better than not working; in another sense, if you look for lower-paying work, you’re likely to find it. And then what happens when the higher paying work comes back and you don’t have time for it because of the lower-paying work? I think that the best defense is a good offense: translators love to complain about the feast or famine cycle of freelancing, but how many freelance translators really keep up a steady flow of outbound marketing? For example if you asked 100 freelancers how many of them send out at least one inquiry per week to a prospective client even when they’re busy working, I would guess that maybe 2 or 3 of them would say yes. The other 97 or 98 market only when they don’t have work, or rarely market at all. So I think that if you set a goal of sending out 5 inquiries to prospective clients every week, whether you are busy or not, you won’t have to deal with the issue of cutting your rates to find work. And always remember, you only need enough work for you: you don’t have to find enough high-paying clients to keep 10 people busy!

5. Do you quote on a project when you know that the client also requested quotes from several other translators who are likely to offer lower rates?

A: Sure. Preparing a quote only takes a few minutes and I provide one to anyone who asks. If a client wants to pick the cheapest person, that’s their prerogative.

6. What kind of translation projects do you particularly like?

A: I do a lot of international development translation for entities that fund development projects in French-speaking countries in West Africa. This is my favorite kind of translation for two reasons: it combines a lot of different subject areas (public health, agriculture, demography, hydrology, social psychology, etc.) and it has a tangible outcome that I feel positive about.

7. What kind of translation projects do you particularly dislike?

A: In general I love my job, but I really prefer projects that require good writing. Dry, technical documents are really not my thing.

8. What percentage of your work motivation is financial?

A: I think that lots of freelance translators feel that it’s unacceptable to say that they do their job for the money. I love translating and working with words, but I wouldn’t do my job if I didn’t get paid for it, or if weren’t paid well for it. If I were making mediocre money as a translator, I would rather do something more physically active or more social. For example I’d rather be a service dog trainer or a gardener. Part of what I love about translation is that I can make a healthy income and still have time for my non-work interests (like my family, outdoor activities, animals and gardening!).

9. How often do you translate a part of a project while the other part is being translated by another translator?

A: Fairly often. I work on a lot of large international development projects that are translated by large teams. As long as you use a good TM that someone cleans after every project, and a good glossary that one person oversees, it works!

10. Would you like to see your daughter become a translator one day?

A: She’s more of a science and engineering person so I think that’s unlikely…but in general, yes, I would encourage young people to go into translation and interpreting!

Look for more insights from Corinne in the second part of the interview!


  • Natalie says:

    Thanks for posting this interview! Corinne’s blog is among my favorites as well and as an aspiring translator (I just graduated from university with a history and Russian language degree), her book was very helpful to me as well.

    • Thank you for your feedback! You have definitely chosen a right book and a role model to follow. Stay tuned, we hope to be consistently creative to keep our nose to the wind.

  • Cassy says:

    That was an excellent interview you had with Corrine. She’s a role model as a translator. I like the way she handle every situation she encountered in this translation business.

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About the Author

Roman Mironov
Roman Mironov
CEO & Founder

As the founder of Velior, Roman has had the privilege of being able to turn his passion for languages into a business. He has over 15 years of experience in the translation industry. Roman has helped dozens of clients increase sales by making their products appealing for speakers of other languages.