Meet Our Colorado Translators: Corinne McKay

By Mery Molenaar,
CTA President

January 11, 2019

I have had the great pleasure of interviewing Corinne McKay, French-to-English translator, former CTA president, and current president of the American Translators Association (ATA). Learn more about her work, favorite book, tips for beginning translators, and how she manages to balance a busy and successful career with her “other” life.

Mery Molenaar: Corinne, you have been president of the American Translators Association for a little more than a year now. What do you especially like about the position and what challenges are you facing?

Corinne McKay: I’m generally a very positive person, but honestly, I enjoy just about everything related to serving as ATA president. I say at the end of every Board meeting, “we make a good team,” and that’s really true. We represent a diversity of viewpoints so the discussions are very energetic, but they are also respectful. I’ve learned so much from everyone on the Board, and I also feel that it injects an element of interpersonal action into my solitary freelance life, and I really enjoy that.

In terms of challenges, it won’t surprise your readers to learn that this position takes up a lot of time—in a good way, but still, a lot of time. Between my ATA work, my own translation work, my books and courses and my family, friends, and non-work interests, it’s safe to say that I’m never bored, and it’s forced me to become a better time manager, but it’s definitely a challenge.

MM: The ATA Board of Directors recently released ATA’s position on machine translation (MT) which has been a hot topic among professional translators for years. Could you summarize ATA’s viewpoint for us in a few sentences?

CM: We feel that MT has appropriate uses, but that it needs “adult supervision” (oversight from a professional translator in that language pair), and users need to understand MT’s capabilities and limitations. I often give my clients this example: I use Google Translate myself, for example when I’m going to the German-speaking region of Switzerland and I want to translate the directions to a hotel. But I’m pretty confident that even Google doesn’t use Google translate when its own reputation (marketing materials?), finances, or legal consequences are on the line.

Night Naked translated by Corinne McKayMM: In addition to your work for ATA, you are also translate non-fiction books from French into English. Your translation of Erhard Loretan and Jean Ammann’s book Night Naked: A Climber’s Autobiography was short-listed for the 2017 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. Congratulations! Can you tell us a little more about this?

CM: Sure! It was a very exciting experience. The Boardman Tasker Prize is a pretty prominent book award for outdoor adventure books, and I was thrilled that the publisher of the translation (Mountaineers Books: they’re awesome!) submitted it and it was ultimately short-listed. Perhaps not as exciting as fellow Colorado-based translator Jessica Cohen winning the Man Booker International Prize, but still exciting for me! If you’re an outdoor adventure junkie, it’s a good book: the life story of a Swiss mountaineer who was the third person to summit all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks in the world.

Jumpa Lahiri’s In Other WordsMM: Speaking of books, what is your favorite book that you have read in the past year?

CM: Some people may know that I’m a not-so-secret Italophile (I speak about 20 words of Italian, but northern Italy is on my A-list of “happy places,” and my family and I have done three bike tours there). I recently read the American author Jumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words and *loved* it. It’s the story of a year in Italy where she decides to switch her life and her writing completely into Italian, to the extent that she requires interviewers to interview her in Italian with an into-English interpreter, and she writes only in Italian. A very extreme approach, but I loved the book (and it’s a side-by-side edition in Italian and English).

MM: When I first started working as a translator, about ten years ago, I attended your class “Getting Started as a Freelance Translator.” If I remember correctly, that was a one-day Saturday workshop in Denver. Do you still teach that class?

CM: Oh my gosh, too funny! I remember you as the star student in that seminar! I don’t teach that in person any more, but I have plenty of online courses (taught by me and other people) on my website Thoughts on Translation.

MM: I am glad that you are still teaching the online course, Corinne. Starting out on a new career path can be very overwhelming, and your workshop gave me the confidence that I could do this. Do you have any advice for newcomers in the translation business you could share with us here?

CM: Sure! Remember that it’s going to be a) more work and b) more rewarding than you think. As hard as you think it will be to start a freelance business from scratch, there will be days when you wish it were that easy. For example, I applied to over 400 translation agencies during my first year in business, and it still took about a year and a half until I was replacing the income from my previous full-time job. At the same time, you will have a quality of life and a level of flexibility and self-direction that most people don’t have until they’re retired, so it’s worth powering through the startup phase to achieve that.

MM: My last question is a bit more personal. You obviously have a very successful professional career, but you are also mother of a teenage daughter. Do you find it hard to balance a high demanding work environment and your personal life?

Yes and no—how’s that for a straight answer? In one sense, no, for a couple of reasons. Everyone in my family is kind of obsessive about their passions; perhaps that’s why we all get along. For example my daughter is a competitive mountain biker, which takes up just about every waking moment outside of school and homework—she’s not often sitting around doing nothing. My husband only works three days a week and never travels for work; he’s enthusiastic about me being our primary income and he and my daughter are really close, so that’s a big help too. He has had no problem holding down the fort at home while I’m traveling for ATA. Finally, I’m clear about my priorities: my daughter has one childhood, while (let’s hope!) I have the rest of my life. And I chose to have her; she didn’t choose to have a crazy freelancer as a mother. Whenever she needs me, I’m there; for example I still leave work at 3 PM to spend some time with her after school and before she goes to bike practice, then I work more after that if I need to. We cook a real dinner and eat together pretty much every night, because we’ve made it a priority. Also, I just don’t need a lot of down time: I really never watch TV or movies at home, and I read for maybe half an hour in bed before I go to sleep.

In another sense, of course it’s hard, because you can’t be in seven places at once, and work/life balance is really a matter of tradeoffs that come at a cost. I feel like I do a reasonably good job of fitting it all in, but there are days when I feel like a hamster on a wheel, jumping from ATA work to my paying work to my online courses, answering e-mails at 11 PM, trying to listen to a podcast while making dinner while talking to my daughter about plane tickets to her next bike race while feeling like the cat hasn’t been brushed in four days and I meant to get to yoga that day and didn’t. However, I recognize that it’s up to me to either manage the juggling act or cut back, and cutting back is not really in my nature!

MM: Thank you so much, Corinne, for making time available for this interview. And thank you for all you do for ATA, CTA, and the translation industry!

If you are a CTA member and would like to be interviewed for our blog series “Meet Our Colorado Translators,” please let us know: gro.bew-atc@atc.