In this episode of The Chemical Show, host Victoria Meyer talks with Karen Tkaczyk, director of Life Sciences Regulated and Enterprise Solutions at MasterWord to share more about her unique combination of industrial and service experience as she helps chemical, energy, and life science companies do business globally with minimal risk. Victoria and Karen discuss the importance of technical expertise in language translation services, talent shortages influenced by the pandemic, the impact of geopolitical events on translation services, and the importance of breaking through language barriers in business relationships.


Learn more about the following in this episode:

  • The challenge of languages in Chemical and Material Science industry
  • The role of translation in global businesses
  • How the pandemic accelerated AI and Technology
  • The Talent supply chain 
  • Local language is critical to the Customer Experience
  • Translation services as a risk mitigation tool


Translation and language services play a crucial role in bridging communication gaps in a globalized world. From helping businesses expand internationally, to ensuring safety compliance and protecting intellectual property, it’s a fascinating and ever-evolving field. Join us this week to learn more!

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Mitigating Risk in Chemicals Through Language Translation with Karen Tkaczyk

Hi. This is Victoria Meyer. Welcome back to The Chemical Show. This week, I am speaking with Karen Tkaczyk, who is the director of Life Sciences Regulated and Enterprise Solutions at MasterWord, where she helps chemical, energy, and life science companies do business globally with minimal risk. Karen has a really unique combination of industrial and service experience. She’s a PhD chemist and a linguistics wiz, particularly in French. And today, she does lots of technical translation. So it’s a really interesting space in the industry and one that is really highly needed. Karen and I are gonna be talking about translation services, COVID’s impact on the supply chain of service workers, and much more. Karen, welcome to The Chemical Show.

Well, thank you for having me, Victoria. It’s a pleasure.

It’s great to have you here. Let’s start with your origin story. What’s your origin story? What got you interested in chemistry? And ultimately, what got you to what I would consider a nontraditional field for a PhD chemist?

Right. Absolutely. What got me? Middle school, the teacher doing demonstration of how metals react in water. We were learning about the periodic table in no flame color, whether they fizz- that was my first love chemistry.

I really liked blowing up soap bubbles, creating a gas into soap bubbles and boom, they explode.

Lovely. Well, how surfactants work is fun and lovely as well. Yeah. But I still remember potassium burns with a violet flame and magnesium is that bright white. Anyway, that was when I fell in love with chemistry. I also always loved languages. So I was trying throughout high school to study both. As much science as I could, leaning towards chemistry and as much language as I could. My undergraduate degree in the UK would be an equivalent in the United States of a Chemistry Major with a French Minor. I spent a year abroad working in a pharma company, Rumpur Langk. It’s now part of Sanofi Aventis. I loved chemistry all through that time. I was the kind who went to organic chemistry in college and fell more in love with organic chemistry and kept going in that direction. We all know the clear split. Right? So I loved it, and I went headlong into that and went on to do a PhD in organic synthetic methodology in Cambridge with the late great doctor Stuart Warren, he died last year. Early on in that PhD though, I realized that I didn’t want to be in academia, I wanted to apply the science.

So when I got out I worked as a development chemist for what was then SmithKline Beecham, near Cork in Ireland. Still loved chemistry, but we moved to the states. My husband and I wanted an adventure. So when I moved to States, I got a job in a cosmetics and medical device company. Think lotions and potions, wind gels, moisturizing. That was broadening my experience, broadening my industrial experience. Formulation chemistry is a different kind of chemistry than the heavily organic, synthetic, pharma, life sciences stuff I had started with. So that was really my early chemistry career. Then when I had kids, that’s where the switch started. I did go back to work, but then I decided I didn’t want to work. I took a break, had 2 more kids. That was where, as a housewife I discovered freelance translation. So I became a linguist at that point translating chemistry. So that was really where the switch happened.

Yeah, and I guess I don’t often think of translators having the academic and chemistry prowess that you have, but that’s really interesting.

In this world of language services, you’ll find people who specialize in automotive or in legal or in whatever it is, because you can’t translate something you don’t understand. Right? For instance, I don’t like reading contracts in English, even if I have to sign them. So I wouldn’t want to translate one. You can’t translate a chemistry patent or even a safety data sheet if you don’t understand the chemistry. So there’s a whole world out there of engineers and scientists translating for the language services industry with subject matter expertise.

That’s really interesting. So tell us a little bit about Masterword.

Masterword is a Houston based company in the business energy corridor. It’s a full service language services company. So what is that, you’re asking? It provides translation for written word documents, spoken word like interpreters in meetings or wherever you are, subtitling, voice over, sign language, braille. So it’s language services in the broadest sense that you can think of. It’s any language, anywhere. It’s public and private sector, and we got our start in the energy industry.

We’re woman founded, woman owned. My boss, the CEO, is a Russian American who got her start helping in the energy industry doing projects in the former Soviet Union. So it began with a Russian-speaking American, and 30 years later, we’re pretty much any language, anytime, any sector. You can imagine anything, the hospital systems need interpreters, your courts and local government to corporate America and taking corporate America global. The works.

So it’s really interesting. In fact, that’s a good lead into my next question. Which is when and where do companies use translation services? Particularly thinking about the energy, chemicals, and material science industries. When and how do people know that they need services and how do they find you?

Well, how they find us, is usually word-of-mouth these days because we have enough accounts in the field that it’s like, “Who are you using? I can’t do this in English. How do I do this in Korean?” Whatever the situation may be. So they translate anything from, let’s say, sales and marketing materials. Something that they’re trying to get into a new market or they’re trying to biz dev, the standard stuff, and you can’t always do it in English. There’s a line we use, “Can’t read, won’t buy,” and it particularly affects B2C, but in our B2B world, there are situations where English doesn’t cut it. If you’re in corporate America trying to take your business global.

Then it’s also useful for your employees, a lot of it is about mitigating risk and safety. Are the people on your plant, your rig, your site, native English speakers or not. To give a simple example, is it really okay that the safety notices are only in English or that safety training is only in English or should you really be giving that in another language as well? So that’s another good example. Then you can go all the way down to labeling. Safety data sheets, product data sheets, you might have regulatory driven translation needs depending on the nature of the product you’re selling. Oh, and IP is the other big one. Your patents. Where are you filing your patents? Depending on your patent jurisdiction, you might be filing it only in English, but you might be filing your patents in another language. So IP is another area where people come for translation.

We’re in such a global business environment and as an American English-speaker, it’s easy to think. Well, English is the business language. But we all know it’s not around the world. Right?

Well, it is a lingua franca, and it’s also the starting point, but it’s not often the best endpoint depending on the nature of your clients and your business and which country you’re in. I mean, you could be trying to do business in Quebec, Canada. In Quebec, it’s regulated. You have to use French and English. So we do a lot of translation into French for Canada for a lot of American companies.

I could see that. And I think even just, as you mentioned, sometimes the operators, the manufacturing, the lab workers don’t necessarily have the same language skills that the engineers or the business leaders have. Some maybe have multiple language sets, but others don’t. And I know I’ve run into that myself. When I was at Shell, I was in the Netherlands often. You kinda become used to the fact that everybody I talked to that’s Dutch speaks English really well. Then I would get around some manufacturing or some lab workers or some of the operators and find out, oh, yeah. They don’t have the same English skills I could talk to them, but the translation’s not there. So that whole aspect of working in a global environment and needing to adapt to everyone’s language.

I have done exactly that this year. A plant had a shutdown because their operators had been trained in English, not in the other language they needed to be trained in. So we translated the slide decks, and then we sent interpreters in to interpret live during the training. This was a mission critical type situation, so I was there supervising. It was exactly the situation you’re describing. Where the graduates, the engineers, the leaders, they’re all bilingual, but you just can’t count on that for everyone.

Absolutely. So with the pandemic and the events of the past 3 years, we have been talking about the supply chain challenges that have come about as a result of that. I think we often think of that as goods. You know? My order is not showing up. The chemical products aren’t getting where they need to be and we’re still seeing the after effects of that. How did that affect service businesses such as Masterwork?

So immediately, the main effect was that everybody cut their budgets. So that was the first, in spring 2020 when we were all in pivoting mode or catastrophe mode. Budget cuts were the first thing initially. Then also, if you think about our business being written word, sure, we can do it, but the spoken word, interpreters in person, that couldn’t happen anymore. So we had a technology shift within the language services industry where it’s now completely normal in a meeting like this for the interpreter to join your Zoom call and for the listeners to choose between the channels. The English language channel or the channel of the interpreter who’s on the call, and so we had a technological shift in our particular industry.

Okay, so now I’m curious. Can you do that on Zoom, or is there is it another app?

All the platforms, yes. You can. Absolutely.

I see. I can turn off who I’m listening to?

You can switch yes. You can switch from the English Channel to the Spanish to the Chinese, the Arabic, or whatever channel it is you need to listen to. Yeah. All the major platforms we might use for online meetings do that, and then we have our own platform. Some customers prefer to use our platform because then we handle the technology behind the scenes and who’s showing up in the meeting links and stuff. Other customers prefer to do it on their own system. But, yes, you can certainly do that.

So there was that sort of technological pivot that we had. It was like an existential crisis for the interpreters of the world who had been used to traveling to the site to work with people. Suddenly, they were sitting behind a desk looking at a screen all day. So that was one part specific to language services. More generally for service providers in the supply chain. Well, the budgets died, and then everyone started to settle. So then we’re like, okay, what’s next? Our revenue dropped hugely in 2020, and it rose again nicely in 2021, then we had sharp growth in 2022. So we can tell that customers are coming back. They know they need us. They’re growing again themselves. So that pattern is probably realistic across the board for many service providers because people just stop not just language services, whatever other professional services you’re buying.

Did it change your talent availability? I know that one of the things we’ve certainly seen over the past several years is a shift in talent availability. Actually, maybe two things with that. One is just the availability of talent. Is there a talent shortage? Number 2, because now that you talk about using Zoom in lieu of in person translation, Is your industry staying the same? I don’t wanna go back to work, or do I go back to the office or go back to traveling? So how is this affecting talent and the norm with the talent base?

So first of all, does the talent exist? It depends on the language combination and the subject matter. I would say generally speaking, if you want Spanish in North America, there’s not really a talent shortage. You just need to pay for the right person with the right subject matter expertise. However, you tell me you want a rarer language, then, yeah, we’re starting to get into shortages, especially if you want credentialed people. So there are shortages, not across the board, but in the more specialized, the rarer languages or the rarer subject needs.

What we did find more than a challenge shortage is that when inflation hit, the linguists wanted to raise their rates, quite rightly. Because the linguists are the little guys who’ve been squeezed, and they didn’t want it so they started pushing back in significant numbers as we saw this global inflation. But then it’s like, okay. How can how much can we raise our rates? How much can we tighten our margins? Where are we going with this? So how that’s affected us is that we can still find linguists, but can we raise our prices? Are we are we squeezing our margins? That’s the eternal debate that is gonna be the same for all sorts of players.

Right, and that’s every businesses’ great debate.

That’s really been the big battle. So here’s a good example. When Russia invaded Ukraine we had to close our Russia office, among other things. We had to get out of Russia like a lot of people, but also we couldn’t use any linguists based in Russia. So all the linguists we were using for translation into Russian, which is, of course, not only for Russia. We may not be doing business for Russia anymore, but we still got projects in Kazakhstan or other Russian speaking countries. So we had to raise our rates for Russians specifically because we were mainly using US based Russian speakers and Russian translators and they charge much more than the global population of Russian speakers. So there’s an example where we had a geopolitical situation that meant we made a blanket decision to raise rates for that single language because we had to since we decided we would use largely US based or Ukraine based Russian speakers.

Where do most of your translators reside? Are your translation services clustered by region?

So for instance Texas is a whole cluster, because we do a lot of in-person stuff in the state. However, all over the US, we have providers in many languages, and then we also have providers all over the world. Let me give you an example of why. If you are trying to do business in Vietnam, the Vietnamese that the Vietnamese speakers in Vietnam speak is not the same as the immigrant Vietnamese population in the US. So if I’m helping a company sell to Vietnam, we need Vietnamese translators who are in Vietnam. If my colleague who handles health care contracts for Masterword is helping a hospital system in downtown Houston provide Vietnamese, he needs to use Vietnamese linguists who live in the US and who understand the differences between the two types of Vietnamese. So the answer is we’ve got people everywhere, and according to the account we’re dealing with, we know which set of linguists we need to provide for that account.

Is it that slang or colloquialisms work their way in, or is it that the actual formal language is somewhat different?

It varies depending on the language. Let’s use English as an example since all your listeners will have that as a core. It could be sports idioms. It could be the way we describe holidays. You know, there’s no Memorial Day in the UK. Or there’s you don’t talk about cricket here. So it could be that kind of thing, but it could be a political matter. For instance, what kind of Chinese are we translating into? Is it gonna be language that Taiwanese people approve of or mainland Chinese people or Hong Kong Chinese. So there’s political considerations as well as the obvious things like holidays and date format or time format. It might not be the same in Vietnam. They might use a certain date and time format, while here, they’ve adopted to use the US system. It’s a whole sort of package of things that we call localization. So you’re making something fit for the locale concerned. It may be that grammar is different. For instance, the UK and US, we use certain different grammatical structures.

And the spelling is certainly different. Right?

It certainly is. And there’s just things that sound wrong in a certain culture or context that sound right in another culture or context, and it’s all about having the right linguist for the context. So it’s always about what the fit for the context is.

So let’s talk about the customer experience because it’s something that talk about regularly on The Chemical Show. How do you and Masterword think about this, is there a Masterword way? When you think about the wide variety of customers and freelancers and employees, how do you define customer experience? How do you create or do you even try to create a single customer experience?

No. Because we have to adapt it for each vertical that we’re selling to. The way you would sell to a public sector versus private sector is radically different. So there’s no single Masterword way. Do we have the customer experience in mind, customer focus, of course. But we have entirely different sets of marketing materials, for instance, for the market where we’re going after. I’m typically helping corporate America go global, or a service provider try to do business with a US company.

The problem I’m trying to solve is growing their business, or sometimes it’s internal. It’s how can we have our employees better trained and our global employee base better trained. So that’s the kinds of problems I’m solving, and you can imagine what my customer focus would look like. We talk a lot about risk mitigation. We talk a lot about things like, is there a risk to your reputation? I gave an example of a plant shutdown. That’s a pretty severe example. The other easy examples are patent litigation cases, because it wasn’t translated properly or people made assumptions. So I’II often sell based on risk.

That’s interesting and in fact, I would not have thought about translation services as a risk mitigation tool, and yet it’s obvious. Once you bring that up as one of the considerations, it’s obvious. Particularly when we think about training, the safety data sheets and all of the product information and usage information, hazard and risk assessments. It’s obvious that it’s a risk mitigation tool. But it’s not one I would normally have thought of first.

People tell us we’re the biggest industry you’ve never heard of. You don’t think about us until you need us. When people realize, oh wait, we have translation bloopers, that’s when we make the news. Right? When someone has a catastrophe, because the product brand name is a swear word in another language or whatever the case may be. So this is not an unusual response, Victoria. But you’re right, it’s so obvious when you put it out there. Isn’t it? There are barriers in communication, and the work we do removes those barriers, and that does typically mitigate risk.

How does AI fit into your world? I mean, this is such a hot topic. I’ve just recently done an episode where I interviewed somebody who has a science based AI company on the podcast. I was looking online with one of my daughters earlier this week who is heading to Japan for a school trip, and I was helping her do some research on some of the locations that she’s going to, and what else could she be doing if she’s got free time . As we were researching I’m looking for the English button on the website. And she’s like, you just hit that Google translate button. Which is obviously an AI based tool. How does AI fit into this? And is it gonna take away your job?

So first of all, if you do that, if you just click it, whatever it is it’s translating, you’ve just given them your intellectual property. So don’t do that in anything other than translating the menu and working out the directions to get to the museum type of context.

So I should not load my proprietary documents into Chat GPT? Okay.

Exactly. Some contract that somebody sent you for review, you can’t, no. Of course, many large companies will have paid versions. There are paid versions that are secure that you can use. So to take a step back though, to answer your question, I think we’re kind of ahead of the game on AI because we’ve been dealing with machine translation and the supposed threat of machine translation. For years, for decades. So now the language industry is looking at this thing and thinking oh, look everyone else is seeing how it makes dreadful mistakes. Everyone’s catching up and seeing the catastrophes that it can produce. So that’s fundamentally where we’ve been for a while.

What I would say is there’s absolutely cases where the output of raw machine translation when you run it through a paid IP protected version of those softwares, can give you the gist of something very fast. So someone scans in 200 pages of engineering drawings for a potential project you’re looking at. Of course, run it through and see what you get. You might find that the chunk in the middle is the really important part, and you send that on. Right? So that would be looking at raw machine translation for gisting purposes. Then there’s what we call post editing, where a human takes that raw translation and tidies it up and double checks it. So that is a workflow. It’s perfectly valid workflow. We typically have both that workflow and the human translator, editor, proofreader workflow for clients, it’s just according to need. Your latest marketing campaign needs human touch. Right? It’s got some creativity. It needs to have some polish to the language. Something you’re reading for information, you can machine translate it and then we’ll have someone edit it, tidy it up a bit for you. So, that’s the way I look at it. It’s a tool, and like many professions or industries, the people who use the tools best will thrive. The people who don’t use the tools well will fade away.

Yeah and I think it’s kind of the order of importance is, as your point is, how critical something is. If it’s a menu throw into a translator, and it’s close enough.

Exactly. It doesn’t matter. It’s all about is there a risk to your reputation or your brand. I mean, where are we on the scale? The risk that you don’t like your dinner is rather different than the risk to your brand.

So, do you see yourself and other companies using AI even more to support what you do? Are you at a static point, or is it an inflection point in the translation industry as well?

In terms of considering whether or not to offer it or suggesting it for the appropriate scenario. When we get a document from someone and they tell us the purpose of the translation, we usually know the answer. I can take one look at something and at a purpose and say, “Well, we’re doing that for this, aren’t we?” So it’s not an inflection point. Are we using it more? I would say that clients are more aware. So more potential clients are asking us, “Do you just do AI for this?” And we do get the occasional client who comes in with an estimate and they get sticker shock.

We had a consulting company for an engineering company come in where they had these beautiful slide decks that they clearly use for all their pitches to energy companies or chemical companies. They were an engineering firm pitching to larger companies, and they got sticker shot. I mean, beautiful slide decks, complex content, complex images, but that’s a lot of work for humans to do that. And they said, well, we’re just gonna run it through AI we don’t have any budget for this. I just thought, that’s such a shame, how long did it take you to create these pitches? And now you’re only gonna do that to pitch this in another language. So it’s that kind of question. Yes. We encounter people who just don’t have the budget and haven’t thought about the language needs. Like every service provider, you don’t make every deal. We see the whole spectrum of people who say, “Oh, never ever touch AI or machine translation for any of our jobs.” all the way to people who are saying, “What can you do to cut my costs?” We have, like most businesses, the whole spectrum.

What’s next on your horizon for you and for Masterword as you look ahead at 2023 and into 2024?

We’re looking at growth again this year, which is nice, because there are a couple of giants in my industry who are approaching the billion dollar mark. There are a couple of giants who we are competing with. They’re not growing this year, but we are. So we’re doing something right. What we noticed among our service providers was a strong increase in cybersecurity needs in the supply chain, that’s something else that’s come out of the pandemic. So we have just finished being audited for ISO 27001, which is the IT related ISO certificate. We’ve had the basic ISO for years and the niche ones, but that has happened. And what’s next is there’s one specific to the medical device industry. So that’s the life sciences, the med dev sector is another sector that I’m very comfortable with. So the ISO certification related to the medical device industry is next on my radar because that will help me in growing that side of the business.

So what do the ISO certifications do for you guys?

In supply chain, everyone has a quality management system and it’s much easier to be onboarded as a supplier when you follow the same quality management system. It’s that simple. So lots and lots of service providers have quality management systems for ensuring traceability, and all the other things that quality management systems provide. So we’ve had one of those for ages. There are niche ISO standards for machine translation or health care interpreting and we have those. But like I said, cybersecurity is something we noticed a big push on. So we’ve been improving our internal IT systems. We qualify for diversity supplier obviously, since we’re a women owned company and lot of companies are trying to increase their diverse supplier base. We are just seeing huge amounts of questions related to cybersecurity and our IT setups. So having the credential ticks the box faster than having the pro director of IT actually answer questions. If you can see the credential, it checks the box.

Well, good. This has been fascinating. Thank you, Karen. Thanks for joining us today.

Well, thank you for having me. It’s lovely to talk about the service provider side of the supply chain because like you said, we always think about the parts that aren’t where they need to be, when they need to be.

But without the words the parts sometimes don’t matter.

That’s right. This has been a real pleasure.

Thanks for joining us, and thank you everyone for reading today. Keep listening, following, sharing, and we will talk to you again next week. Cheers.


About Karen Tkaczyk:

Karen Tkaczyk helps chemical, energy and life sciences companies do business globally with minimal risk. She has a unique combination of industrial experience followed by almost 20 years in the language services industry. 

After earning an MChem in Chemistry with French from the University of Manchester, UK and a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Cambridge, UK, Karen’s early career was as a development chemist in the pharmaceutical industry in Ireland. Once in the USA, she gained experience in cosmetics and topical medical devices before establishing and running McMillan Translation, where she was a freelance translator tackling chemical subject matter.

Karen is available to discuss your language needs and broader matters related to her unconventional chemical career.