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Featured Article from The ATA Chronicle (March 2008)

Good Chemistry: Getting a Letter to the Editor into Print
By Lillian Clementi

It was the opening Karen Tkaczyk was waiting for. A chemist-turned-translator and regular reader of Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), she had been looking for an opportunity for over a year to write to the influential trade publication and point out the importance of translation in chemistry.

“When the November 12 issue came and I saw the headline Translating Drug Research, I thought, ‘Ooooh—this is us!’” she told The ATA Chronicle. “Then I read the article and realized it was really about translational research, the process of moving pharmaceuticals into clinical trials. The article was interesting, but had nothing to do with translation.”

Fresh Burst of Inspiration
Tkaczyk (pronounced KAT-chick) was undeterred. “I had seen the posters of newspaper clippings and letters to the editor at [ATA’s] New Orleans conference, and I thought it was valuable exposure for the profession. And I had just attended a public relations panel session in San Francisco, so I had a fresh burst of inspiration.”

Tkaczyk contacted fellow chemists-turned-translators Matthew Schlecht and Cathy Flick to ask if they were interested in sending a joint letter to the editor to the publication.

Short and Pithy
With Schlecht and Flick on board, Tkaczyk drafted a letter for their review. “We kept it focused and to the point,” said Schlecht. “Readers have a short attention span, so it had to be pithy.” Then Tkaczyk contacted ATA. “Early on, we acknowledged that we wanted input from the Public Relations [PR] Committee,” Schlecht said. “It was really helpful,” Tkaczyk added. “We know chemistry, but we don’t know PR, and it was great to get a response from ATA.”

The ATA Message
ATA PR Committee members Chris Durban and Lillian Clementi provided guidelines for writing an effective letter to the editor, and edited the writing team’s draft. “The material was excellent,” said Durban. “All we did was trim it a little and focus it more tightly on the ATA message.”

The Association’s PR message contains four key ideas:

1. Getting translation/interpreting wrong can cost you.

2. It pays to get it right.

3. It is a mistake to rely on bilinguals; hire a professional.

4. ATA can help you find the right professional for your job.

The final version of the letter to C&EN’s editor included all of them.

Nuts and Bolts
After an introductory paragraph identifying the original article and pointing out the importance of translation in the chemical field, the letter tackled the first two elements of the message head-on: “Poor translation is costly. Errors compromise safety, intellectual property, and image as well as the bottom line…. [C]hoosing the right translator can ultimately save money and grief.”

“It is important to stress the financial aspect,” Schlecht told The ATA Chronicle. “I was a research chemist for 20 years, so I have seen this from the other side. There was always pressure to pinch pennies, but translation costs are really a drop in the bucket compared to marketing and the patenting process. A lot of problems that come up later can be nipped in the bud by an accurate translation.”

Paragraph three covered the third element of the ATA message, stressing the need for subject area expertise with a catchy, industry-specific example. “Being bilingual is no guarantee of written fluency or translation skill,” it read, “and highly technical material requires highly developed subject area knowledge. If you don’t know an alkane from an alkene—let alone understand a reaction scheme or patent abstract—chances are you can’t translate it.”

The fourth paragraph provided useful information for translation consumers and pointed them to ATA as a resource for finding a qualified translator—with another reminder of the importance of investing in a quality translation right up front. “Be sure to budget appropriately: you’ll get what you pay for. The American Translators Association maintains searchable online directories ( that can help you match a skilled professional to your job.”

An upbeat closing reiterated the importance of translation and the skills required to practice it well: “Highly specialized translators like us combine both chemistry background and language skills to get chemists past the language barrier and meet a growing need in an increasingly competitive market.”

Once Durban and Clementi’s edits had been incorporated, the writing team made final style changes and sent it off. “We felt it was too edgy,” Tkaczyk said, “so we toned it down a bit.” In early December, C&EN notified Tkaczyk that it would publish the letter. It appeared on the magazine’s website on January 14, 2008, and ran in the paper issue of January 21.

Exponential Increase
“The inside knowledge that Karen and her colleagues brought to the effort was critical,” said Clementi. “We know PR, but we don’t know chemistry. Alerting the editor and readership of a major trade publication to the importance of translation is valuable not only for the three chemist-translators, but for the profession as a whole.”

During the PR component of the ATA Board’s January Planning Day, Clementi cited the C&EN letter as an example of the powerful contribution members can make to the PR effort. “If all of us showed this kind of initiative,” Clementi told the Board members, “we could increase our exposure exponentially.”

New Mandate
Efforts to involve members more actively in the Association’s PR initiative will increase as new ATA President Jiri Stejskal hits his stride. Under his administration, the Board is likely to broaden the scope of ATA’s PR program, combining its successful media strategy with a variety of member-oriented projects. As part of this new mandate, the PR Committee plans to provide members and regional groups with how-to kits for outreach activities ranging from networking at business events to organizing pro bono projects—all designed to raise the profile of the individual or group as well as the profession as a whole.

If you have an idea for an outreach project in your community or industry, please send it to the PR Committee at with the subject line Outreach Idea.

Making the Cut

“The bar is set very high on letters to the editor,” says ATA veteran Neil Inglis. “Because they have to sift through hundreds of letters, editors are far less patient than even their readers.” He recommends following these guidelines to tip the odds in your favor.

DO adopt the “sandwich format” recommended by Inglis:

1. A first paragraph briefly identifying the original article and praising the journalist for his or her insights (or, at the very least, for raising the issue in the first place).

2. A second paragraph correcting errors or expanding on partial information, with an anecdote if possible.

3. A third paragraph closing with an uplifting message or practical tip and looking ahead to the future.

DO keep your letter short and focused: at most publications, screeds over 300 words go straight into the circular file.

DO include a distant address if you can. Among them, Tkaczyk, Schlecht, and Flick covered three states and three different time zones. “Some publications adore receiving letters from far-flung readers around the globe,” notes Inglis. ”It flatters the editor’s ego and demonstrates circulation to advertisers.”

DON’T include a lengthy list of degrees or professional qualifications. Get to your point right away, or you will not make the cut.

DON’T whine, complain, or play the victim. Replace the negative (“Translators just do not get the respect they deserve.”) with the positive (“Savvy clients know that an expert translation gives them a strategic advantage.”). “If you don’t get no respect,” says Inglis, “people may assume there is a reason why. Surprise them with self-confidence.”