The Bride of Amman – Q&A with Translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

thebrideofamman_v6-01 (3)Following my review of Fadi Zaghmout’s The Bride of Amman, I took the chance to catch up with translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp for a chat about translating the book.

How did you get involved with the project? Was it something you pitched, or did the publisher come to you?

I picked up the book at Books@ café and bookshop in Amman, as a souvenir of a very memorable trip to Jordan. Soon after reading it, I submitted a chapter about the gay character, Ali, to Words without Borders for their 2013 queer fiction issue. This attracted the attention of Signal 8 Press and having bought the rights, the editor and Fadi asked me to translate the rest of the book.

What attracted you to the book?

Initially it was an impulse buy, one of the few Arabic novels I’ve read with no prior expectations or hype, and I was really taken by it. I was delighted to have the opportunity to translate it as I found it a very enjoyable, compelling read, but fortunately I have a terrible memory for plots so I was still surprised by twists in the story the second time I read it!

What was the most challenging part of the translation?

Hard to say. The biggest challenge was undoubtedly the fact that I started my first draft while on maternity leave with my 6-month-old son! But in terms of the text itself, as there are 5 interwoven first person narratives, it was a challenge to give each character their distinct voice. Also, this was my first translation of a full novel from Arabic and I found I had to develop a strategy to untangle the confusing verb tenses: Arabic doesn’t distinguish as clearly as English between present, past and pluperfect tenses. I’m a very graphic/visual person, so at the start of each chapter I had to draw a timeline marking the perspective from which the character was narrating events: what happened in what order, and what was the distance between events – did they happen that same day or longer ago? Most of my final drafts involved tweaking tenses and temporal adverbs.

Did you enjoy working on the book? What was the most fun?

Yes. I absolutely loved playing around with colloquial expressions, working out what each character was most likely to say on a certain occasion – how formal or relaxed their tone should be, how ironic and cheeky they should sound.

I had a lot of fun consulting translator friends and colleagues on questions such as what the girls should call their little gang at uni. The Arabic made me think of three “merry men” but a) they’re women not men, and b) the Robin Hood reference might have been lost on the novel’s non-British readers. In the end I went for the “terrible trio”, but we also considered the three musketeers, the sunshine sisters (which I thought had a nice Motown ring to it), the dream team, the gleesome threesome…

Another part which was hard but which turned into a very satisfying challenge was the song or poem in Salma’s story, where she drifts off to a mantra of voices singing in her head. I’ve always been terrified to translate rhyming verse, but I really got into this one and was pleased with the result – hopefully I’ve captured the same punchy, defiant tone, even if some of the details had to change to make it scan.

There are a lot of cultural references that are less familiar to an English-speaking audience. How did you tackle those?

I was actually relieved that there didn’t seem to be as many challenging terms as there could be! As the title suggests, it’s a story very rooted in Ammani or Jordanian culture. Personally, I love the chance to soak up cultural expressions and local words when I read books from other places, even ones originally in English, so I wanted to retain as many Arabic cultural expressions in as I could get away with. Fadi, our editor and I had a very active 3-way discussion about how to render words like “aroos, the bride, the star of the party” (it is bride, but also fiancé – a name that stays with you from the moment you get engaged) and idiomatic expressions such as “Inshallah, God willing,” and “O’balek. I wish the same for you.” Mostly we have the Arabic and English side by side, as in “George’s mum, Oum George”as that way the reader who doesn’t know any Arabic still has plenty to go on and can learn some Arabic while they’re reading! Especially with o’balek it seemed important to keep the original phrase because it has no equivalent concept in English and is laden with emotional nuance: Salma rails against people wishing it will be her turn next (to get married) because to her it just sounds like criticism that she’s failed to have managed it yet. I love her unconventional response! What’s nice is that it’s not just Arabic and Islamic culture that is conveyed – I got to learn some Circassian and also a bit of Swedish while working on this book!

How do you feel about the issues it raises? What was it like working on a feminist book written by a man?

I have a lot of gay friends and indeed the first weddings I ever went to was a lesbian one, so this novel which is one of the first from the Middle East to champion gay rights is something I’m very proud to be promoting. Fadi has been a wonderful author to work with. I have a lot of respect for him for delving into some tough themes, both in this book and on his blog – topics which few authors from the Middle East have written about. One thing I love about the book is its broad appeal: it’s a novel which on the one hand is light and very easy to read, while at the same time encapsulating some hard-hitting topics, including betrayal, rape and homophobia. Fadi must be a good listener to the women in his life, because he’s captured four very credible, strong young women, all defiant in their own way. The feedback about both the Arabic and now the English version of the novel suggests that the characters’ experiences resonate strongly with a lot of readers, gay and straight, who have lacked a voice in the Middle East and in Muslim culture.

How would you sum the book up in one sentence?
I often describe it as Sex in the City in Amman: a light, entertaining read but with some dark undercurrents. I don’t know if it does it justice but it tends to get people interested.

Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp is a British literary translator of Arabic, German, and Russian fiction and non-fiction. She is the co-translator Samar Yazbek’s The Crossing and has translated plays from Russia, Syria, and Lebanon, and several Arabic short stories and children’s books.

She tweets as @RuthAhmedzai

Fadi Zaghmout is a social-media specialist, blogger, and author. His first novel The Bride of Amman was published in the Arabic language in Jordan in January 2012, addressing issues of gender and sexuality in the city of Amman. His second novel, Heaven on Earth, was published by prestigious Lebanese press Dar Al Adab in November 2014; it is a work of speculative fiction that posits a near future where science defeats ageing. Fadi holds an MA in Creative Writing and Critical Thinking from the University of Sussex in the UK. He has been an active blogger since 2006 and has a Twitter following of around 370,000.



Twitter: @FadiZaghmout

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The Bride of Amman

thebrideofamman_v6-01 (3)I have heard a lot about The Bride of Amman as a work in progress from my translator friend Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, so I was very pleased to be offered an ebook copy for review by Hong Kong based publisher Signal 8 Press.

Here’s what they say about the book:

The Bride of Amman, a huge and controversial bestseller when first published in Arabic, takes a sharp-eyed look at the intersecting lives of four women and one gay man in Jordan’s historic capital, Amman—a city deeply imbued with its nation’s traditions and taboos. When Rana finds herself not only falling for a man of the wrong faith, but also getting into trouble with him, where can they go to escape? Can Hayat’s secret liaisons really suppress the memories of her abusive father? When Ali is pressured by society’s homophobia into a fake heterosexual marriage, how long can he maintain the illusion? And when spinsterhood and divorce spell social catastrophe, is living a lie truly the best option for Leila? What must she do to avoid reaching her ‘expiry date’ at the age thirty like her sister Salma, Jordan’s secret blogger and a self-confessed spinster with a plot up her sleeve to defy her city’s prejudices? These five young lives come together and come apart in ways that are distinctly modern yet as unique and timeless as as Amman itself.

I’d heard of it as “gender-bending chick-lit written by a man”, so it was on that basis that I started reading. I’m not sure if the comparison really holds up though, at least to the kind of thing I read as “chick-lit”. The Bride of Amman tells the intersecting stories of the different characters in chapters each written from their own point of view, and I didn’t feel that it had the dialogue or fully-rounded characters that I’d have expected. In some ways, it was more like a series of blog posts than a novel, and I wasn’t sure that the plot entirely hung together either.

For all that, it was a fascinating and thought-provoking read. It would be easy to read it from here in the West and feel smug that we’ve got this gender, sexuality, equality stuff sorted out compared to them over there in the East. But I found it challenged those assumptions too, as well as the more obvious busting of taboos that made it so controversial in the Arabic world.

Fadi Zaghmout is a social-media specialist, blogger, and author. His first novel The Bride of Amman was published in the Arabic language in Jordan in January 2012, addressing issues of gender and sexuality in the city of Amman. His second novel, Heaven on Earth, was published by prestigious Lebanese press Dar Al Adab in November 2014; it is a work of speculative fiction that posits a near future where science defeats ageing. Fadi holds an MA in Creative Writing and Critical Thinking from the University of Sussex in the UK. He has been an active blogger since 2006 and has a Twitter following of around 370,000.



Twitter: @FadiZaghmout

Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp is a British literary translator of Arabic, German, and Russian fiction and non-fiction. She is the co-translator Samar Yazbek’s The Crossing and has translated plays from Russia, Syria, and Lebanon, and several Arabic short stories and children’s books.

She tweets as @RuthAhmedzai

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Very Subtly Worded Indeed

In her day, Teffi was a literary superstar, writes Anne-Marie Jackson in her introduction to Subtly Worded, a beautiful collection of short stories, published last year by Pushkin Press. It’s easy to see why, because these are witty, yet thought-provoking tales; she is inevitably called the “female Chekov”, although some have a bite that reminds me more of Saki or Dorothy Parker. Others, are deeply moving, particularly the last one in the collection, And Time Was No More, a reflection on memory, mortality, pain and hope. Some are based on her own life (going to meet Tolstoy “to plead for the life of War and Peace’s Prince Bolkonsky”, for example, and a series of bizarre meetings with Rasputin). After the Bolsheviks came to power, Teffi moved to Paris and wrote stories of émigré society, where “lesrusses” refer to each other as “that crook” as a new grammatical particle before their names.

This particle lost its original meaning long ago and now equates to something between the French le, indicating the gender of the person named, and the Spanish honorific don … (p. 140)

There are doomed relationships and true friendships alike. Teffi skewers hypocrisy and a lack of self-awareness, and shows real warmth too. Yet, after her death, Teffi sank from view in Russia, let alone the English-speaking world.

There are several possible explanations, she was a woman; she had been typecast as a lightweight humorist; she was an émigréé. But beginning in the 1990s, nearly half a century after Teffi’s death, a new generation of Russian readers began to discover and appreciate Teffi’s special genius. (pp. 17-18)

Having been rediscovered in Russia, her stories are now coming into English, translated mostly by Anne-Marie Jackson, with contributions from Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase. I asked Anne-Marie how it came about:

It really began when Robert Chandler started compiling an anthology of Russian short stories for Penguin, Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida. At the time he had never even heard of Teffi, but a number of his friends and colleagues recommended her. Robert went on to include further work by Teffi in a subsequent anthology for Penguin, Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov.

Then in the summer of 2011, I enrolled in the first Use Your Language, Use Your English summer school. Robert was leading the Russian course and had our group working on Teffi’s memoirs (this too has now been translated and will be published next year as Memories). Later that summer, the full BCLT mentorship programme was being launched, and as I was Robert’s mentee during 2011/12, we worked mostly on Teffi. Robert sent a few stories over to Adam Freudenheim, who had worked with him on the anthologies for Penguin and was already familiar with Teffi. Adam, who had recently moved over to Pushkin Press, attended an evening of readings that we gave at Pushkin House in May 2012, and that same evening he said that they would like to discuss a book.

Robert made it clear that this was going to be my project, as he had a full load for a few years to come, which meant that I had a real opportunity. Clare and Natalia, who had also participated in the summer school, each contributed stories. Robert had already translated a few of the stories, and he translated a couple more for the collection. Then as we began approaching the submission date (the whole thing took more than a year, so I’m talking about two months or so before submission), I began working in earnest on the intro. At about the same time, Robert began sending the translated stories around to his network, so there were many readers of all kinds who were reviewing and commenting on the translations as we neared the end of the project; earlier on there had also been a great deal of reviewing of one another’s translations. It was all very collaborative

There’s so much wordplay and creative use of language it must have been a real challenge to translate. Were the stories as much fun to work on as they are to read?

It is very challenging to translate Teffi’s writing. It was a lot of fun, but could also be frustrating. I was translating in my sleep, trying to get some of the lines right! Robert is a huge fan of collaboration, and for good reason – some very good ideas came from other people who became involved at various stages

Many thanks to Anne-Marie for letting me reproduce some of our conversation and giving an insight into the story behind this wonderful book – hats off to Pushkin Press too, for making such a lovely thing to hold in your hands. In short, these stories come highly recommended.


Anne Marie Jackson has lived for extended periods in Russia and Moldova, where she was once shot dead by Chechen rebels in a Russian film.

Robert Chandler is best known for his prize-winning translations of Vasily Grossman and Andrey Platonov. He is the editor of Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida.

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Ramblings around Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall coverThere are many reasons why I haven’t been keeping up with the blogging as much as I’d like lately, to do with work, life and one thing and another, but one big one is that it has taken me a very long time to make my way through Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (4th Estate, 2009). There doesn’t seem much point in writing a proper review of it though. It’s been out for ages, and everyone has said their two pennorth already, so instead here are some rambling reflections.

It’s a book I’d vaguely intended to read ever since it first came out, but it was the TV adaptation – which we very much enjoyed – that finally prompted me to take the plunge. Yes, it’s long, and yes, it’s taken me a long time, but I found it thoroughly worth the effort. It’s probably unfair both to Hilary Mantel and to Philippa Gregory to compare it to The Other Boleyn Girl, as they are very different takes on the historical novel, and aiming for very different effects,  but I enjoyed them both, and they are both very readable in their own ways.

One of the things I appreciated about both the book and the TV version of Wolf Hall was that they don’t spell everything out for you immediately, but leave the reader to figure out what is being hinted at, and – in some cases – who is speaking to whom. It requires a little more prior knowledge of the period than some handlings, but not that much – all my understanding of the era is pretty much gleaned from fiction, but I got on fine with it. The effect can be quite similar to Mark Rylance sitting around in the dark mumbling to somebody, while they are both wearing black, but you usually get an explanation in the end.

Another thing that I liked was the way Mantel describes the famous Holbein paintings, and the characters’ responses to them during and after their completion. There was enough detail to conjure them up in the mind’s eye without battering you around the head in a “look, I’m talking about a famous thing” kind of way. Similarly, characters flit around the edge of the scene – Jane Seymour, Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris and so on – with a fair degree of irony in that their later significance is never spelled out but there to pick up on in a “let the reader understand” kind of way.

I did feel that she was perhaps overly generous to Cromwell, who was surely more downright devious and unpleasant than she allows, and harsh on More – although he gets the benefit of canonisation in real life, so perhaps all’s fair, as he was undoubtedly also a nasty piece of work.

People complain about the writing style – if you don’t like the use of the present tense, tricksy games with time, flashbacks, fast-forwards, and other muckings about, then you won’t like this either. I do though. It reminds me in some ways of Kate Atkinson, whose Behind the Scenes at the Museum blew me away from the first page.

I will definitely be reading Bring Up the Bodies, but first there’s the matter of all the other books that have been piling up in the meantime…

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London Book Fair Musings

London Book Fair 2015

London Book Fair 2015

The London Book Fair has been and gone again. It was exhausting, but fun, and I’ll write up some of the individual sessions in the next little while, but first I wanted to put down a few impressions and share some survival tips.

It’s marvellous to have a “home” at the Literary Translation Centre – the first time I visited there was nothing like this, and it was truly hellish. Yet I found that on some of the panels  speakers seemed to have a different idea of what they were about than my expectations from the programme. This year, I also made it over to the Children’s Hub twice. Once was for my highlight of the first day – a panel on inclusive and accessible children’s books from around the world that have been translated for Outside In World. They all sound beautiful, and lovely, and I want to read them all. It was great to have three translators on a panel outside the LTC and a lovely end to the day.

Star of the show on the second day was the annual translation slam featuring the “market focus” country – Mexico this year. The author and two translators discussed her text and their translations in wonderfully geeky detail, overseen with panache and good humour by all-round translation guru Daniel Hahn. The second day is generally when I find myself in the zone at these things – the first day is overwhelming and the third, exhausting. On the second day, I managed my best networking, and it also featured the Emerging Translators Network’s annual social. It was a shame to be in a gloomy pub on the most glorious day of the year so far, and two tables were woefully insufficient for the sheer mass of translators per square inch, but we can’t have everything.

The most inspiring talk of the third day was a discussion of the role of public libraries in promoting translated literature – something I’ve seen a bit of via Norfolk and Suffolk’s Summer Reads scheme, but also with a crossover with Translators in Schools that’s worth pondering some more.  The end of the third day also featured free champagne and free books, and then Persian food before a train home, shattered.

So, what are my top survival tips?

Trees in London park

My haven of lunchtime tranquility

Bring sandwiches, or find somewhere outside the exhibition hall to eat. Captive audiences result in uninspiring sandwiches at sky-high prices… In fact, getting out to a lovely sunny park to eat my lunch every day made the rest of it so much more bearable – particularly important if you’re an introvert like me! A little fresh air is also always good.

And when it comes to coffee, not all artisan coffee bars within Olympia are equal and there are (comparative) bargains to be had.

Comfy shoes! Nuff said.

Check out seminar streams beyond the Literary Translation Centre. There were some very interesting panels in the Children’s Hub and the Market Focus streams that were just as relevant.

If you want to have targeted conversations with publishers, book meetings in advance. But random, casual chats can also bear fruit.

And a note to whoever dreamt up the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party café in the children’s section. If you’re going to decorate it with teapots, you might want to consider having actual tea on the menu!


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Alain Claude Sulzer, Aus den Fugen/Catalyst

In the middle of a concert, in the middle of a piece, the internationally renowned pianist stands up, says “that’s it,” and walks out. This decision will change his life, but also those of the people in his entourage and audience in a whole array of unforeseen ways. The title means something like “apart at the seams” and having built up to the incident, we then see things start to unravel in response.

Alain Claude Sulzer, Aus den Fugen
Alain Claude Sulzer’s novel (KiWi Verlag, 2012) is told from the points of view of a series of characters. There is Marek Olsberg, the pianist himself, his agent, his secretary, one of the waiters supposed to be working at the after-concert party, audience members and so on. Affairs are revealed as people come home unexpectedly, relationships broken or patched up, there are endings and new beginnings. Sulzer handles all the threads of these stories skilfully, bringing them together into a satisfying and entertaining whole. There are also plenty of loose ends to leave the reader wondering. The book was shortlisted for the Swiss Book Prize in 2012.

I enjoyed the novel hugely and am pleased to see that it has been translated into English by John Brownjohn and published by Thames River Press under the title Catalyst (2014). As I was reading, there seemed to be plenty of challenges for a translator to get their teeth into, and I’d be interested to see the result. It’s a shame that there is absolutely no information about the book in English in any online bookshop that I’ve found though. If you’ve gone to the effort of publishing a book, it seems odd not to want to encourage people to buy it…

So I’ll do it on their behalf. This is a great book: read it (if you can find it)!

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All the Acronyms: ITI CPD in the UEA JPC

UEA was frequently observed in my day (doesn’t that make me sound old!) to stand for the University of Endless Acronyms, so it was a fitting venue for a CPD day with the ITI EARG (East Anglia Regional Group) on Saturday 7 February. It was very strange to find myself back in a seminar room in the James Platt Centre a good 12 years after graduating for the second time! (That makes me feel even older…)

Norfolk Terrace UEA by N Chadwick

Following introductions, Dr Joanna Drugan gave a talk on ‘What happens to your translations when you have handed them back to the client or the agency?’. This was based on her extensive research on applied translation in a real world context. Jo asked us about our expectations and experience of what happens when a translation is handed over to an agency or direct client, and also whether we ask about these things when we take on a new client. The subsequent discussion illustrated that there are considerable differences in approach, and that many of us were making assumptions or unsure what actually happens to our texts. Those people who had previously worked in-house at translation agencies were able to give us a valuable insight into the way they work, for example in terms of the different levels of checking, depending on what the client has paid for and the level of trust in any given freelancer. Some agencies use an approach called “linguistic validation” where the text is then translated back into the source language to see if it still conveys the original ideas, while others carry out “proofchecking” which involves project managers looking for number errors, typos etc even if they don’t know the languages involved.

Quality in Professional Translation, Dr Joanna Drugan, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013

Jo’s book, the result of ten years’ research.

Other issues raised: what about direct clients who don’t speak the target language? Do they just take translations on trust? What happens when a translator and proofreader disagree? Who has the final say? Do translators get to see the text after proofreading and before publication/handing over to the end client? Agencies and end clients often observe that translators improve the source text (ST) by picking up on errors that have previously been missed, ambiguities etc.

Then there is a lack of shared understanding of the meanings of and differences between editing, revising and proofreading – using differing terminology can result in a job being far more work than originally expected, for example. Does a client edit/revise/proofread a TL language text in isolation or with reference to the SL? A frequent approach is known as “sampling”. This involves detailed checking of a section of text and using that as a basis to decide how much scrutiny the rest will need. Problems can arise if changes are made and then not communicated to the translator. Where changes may be justified, it would be useful to know for professional development. Where unjustified – do we want our name attached to the end result?

Then there is  the impact of international translation standards – these may be very cumbersome making it impractical/inefficient to be compliant for every job. Not everything relevant to quality is actually quantifiable. Sometimes standards lead to a focus on the wrong aspects, as we see (often to our cost) with other watchdogs, such as Ofsted, which often end up “counting what can be counted, not what counts”. Mari says this is a cliché in data circles, but it’s certainly worth flagging up.

Direct clients may not engage with quality – they may consider that they have outsourced translation to an expert and leave it up to us. Agencies sometimes make assumptions on a client’s behalf about the level of service/quality/checking they require.

Jo’s take-home points were: technology is changing approaches in many ways, not just machine translation and its pre- or post-editing. We should not assume that any quality control will be carried out and this has implications for ownership, responsibility and potential for reputational damage. *

We then adjourned for an excellent lunch at the Sainsbury Centre (it has a fantastic climbing tree outside it, maybe we could use that to get the boys there while we look at art…!) before returning for an afternoon of more informal discussions. The first topic was the perennial issue of negotiation and rates. Are there legitimate reasons to give an agency or client a discount? If so, what are they? Are volume discounts OK because a bigger project means less admin, or do they mean that we are doing more work for less money and potentially losing other projects by turning clients down? Some people prefer to offer a discount on smaller projects because it means losing out on less. Others offer a discount for a longer timescale as it allows time to take on other jobs at the same time.

It was pointed out that low rates mean working more to make a living, resulting in a lack of time for CPD or funding for CAT tools, professional memberships etc. This argument might not go down so well with direct clients, who are interested in quality – somebody else might do the job cheaper, but will they do it well?

Several people said that they charge extra for PDFs and other non-editable formats. This sometimes results in the file magically turning up in a different format after all… Similarly, there was discussion of higher charges for evening/weekend work and rush jobs.

When it came to raising rates with agencies, it was noted that this might result in a freelancer being dropped down the order in a database, but that doesn’t necessarily equal losing out. You might end up getting more money for less work. Not being VAT registered can make a difference when working for agencies in countries where nationals have to register. They might then afford a higher rate if they aren’t paying VAT on top.

Tips for raising rates: quote higher prices to new clients. Keep applying to new agencies so a few lost ones make less difference. Send out a service presentation of what you offer rather than a CV. Drop bad payers. Build rapport with clients/PMs. Find other networks as a source of work, e.g. web designers who can then suggest you to their clients as they build them a new website.

The other topic was literary versus commercial translation and specialisations. I found myself explaining (my understanding of) how the literary translation world is different from commercial translation, how to find out about translation rights, approach publishers etc. Other areas of specialisation discussed were song translations – something maybe done less commonly these days, (last year’s ITD conference touched on opera translation though) – tourism and green energy/ the environment.

Tips for building up a specialisation: go to trade fairs in the subject area, read trade publications, concentrate on areas you’re already familiar with, learn as you go, do pro bono work for charities etc to gain experience, Translators Without Borders, research. Mention to existing agencies that you would like to move into a new area so that they add that to their databases. Consider doing short courses or diplomas in the subject area. Another suggestion was that where specific terminology is hard to find, it can be worth writing to senior academics in the field who are often happy to help.

UEA roundabout by N Chadwick

Woah, what’s happened here? That’s changed!

And of course, after a hard day’s talking, some of us repaired to the pub for drinks, dinner and socialising. There we collided with a large wedding party and established that cycling is faster than the number 25 bus…  All in all, it was an enjoyable and rewarding day, and further proof, if any were needed, that Norwich is the centre of the translation universe. Many thanks to the organisers, and here’s to the next one!

If you have any tips to add to those I’ve got here, do share them in the comments.

* For further reading, see: Dr Joanna Dugan, Quality In Professional Translation, Assessment and Improvement,  Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

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