ITD and ITI – a whirlwind weekend, part 1

The past weekend was full of firsts for me – I was on the panel for one of the seminars at this year’s International Translation Day conference at the British Library; I attended the ITI German Network’s annual workshop and social weekend for the first time, and in the course of it, I participated in a translation slam for the first time.

Having got out my irritation at comments from the opening session at this year’s International Translation Day conference, I was intending to write up the rest of the day. Kristen Gehrman has saved me the bother, however – you can read her excellent notes here. So instead, I’ll write a little about the rest of the weekend.

British Library and blue sky

Takes something special to be indoors on a day like this!

“My” panel was on self-publishing and how it can work for translators. I’ve written about this before, but since then, have had less positive experiences, which act as a cautionary tale, the moral of the story being to remember your own advice! In the latest instance, I failed to establish clear ground rules at the beginning of the process, or to define “reasonable” when it comes to incorporating author feedback into my translation. My key piece of advice from my old post is:

… make it clear right from the start that as the translator I retain copyright over the translation and thus have the final say over what goes into it. Obviously we both want to get it right, but there has to be a cut-off point somewhere if it comes to haggling over words or beloved phrases.

There was also discussion of potential platforms for self-publishing one’s own translations, but the technicalities are rather beyond me. The important thing to note is that you must have the rights cleared, approval from the author or their estate etc. before you can do this.* There was also a note of caution around the fact that conventional publishers might not be willing to pick up books that had previously been self-published, as that might mean they were ineligible for prizes and/or funding. It has happened though – the panel was chaired by Stefan Tobler of And Other Stories, who published Southeaster after it had been self-published in Spain by translator Jon Lindsay Miles. The difference there being that the AOS edition was still its first UK publication.

And of course there’s the issue of whether or not you’re prepared to put your name and reputation to the book in question…!

Anyway, the seminar was well-attended, and generated a lot of interest and discussion. And as always, there was plenty of coffee, plenty of lunch, and plenty of time to eat, chat and get out into the fabulous sunshine. The day was rounded off by drinks, at which point the low ceiling of the bar area made things almost deafening, and eventually, a small but select group of us made it to the pub for dinner and more discussion of things literary, linguistic and translational.


  •  No translator on the opening panel => idiotic remarks per previous post.
  • Milling around space is too small compared to the capacity of the lecture theatre.
  • Lack of ordinary tea!

Apart from that, the conference was as fabulous as ever and here’s to 2016.

* For more on this, see this post by fellow panelist Tina Tenneberg.

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On being more than a dictionary: translators as poets

I’ve jusInternational Translation Day Flyert got back from a weekend of translation events, socialising, networking. There was the annual International Translation Day conference at the British Library, and then there was the ITI German network workshop. They were both great events and I will write about them shortly. But at the moment, I am feeling increasingly cross about a remark made during the opening session at ITD.

The discussion was on the “Rise of the Reader”. I can’t remember how it came round to this, but somebody spoke about “exciting collaborations” between translators and poets, where the translator provides a literal version of the text and then the poet “turns it into literature”. This isn’t a new idea. It was around when I was doing my MA years ago, and I was offended by it then.

The thing is, I thought we’d moved on. I thought the work we’d done since then (by we I mean the translation community, advocacy organisations, individual translators, events like ITD itself etc) had successfully promoted the idea of the translator as writer in their own right. Indeed, that idea was stressed at all the other sessions I went to that day.

“I am a writer. I just don’t have to come up with my own stories!”

So why celebrate such a backward step? Why put the translator back into the role of a mere hack while a “real” poet or playwright turns their words into “literature”? I don’t translate poetry very often; it isn’t a field I feel very comfortable in. But if I do, I produce a rough draft, a literal version, and then I, not someone else, turn it into a poem. Or, if I don’t feel that I can, then I find someone else to do the whole thing from scratch.

Everyone’s favourite lazy cliché is, in full, that “poetry is what gets lost in translation”. But I don’t believe that. And if other people do, we need to educate them out of it, not go along with the idea. Otherwise, we are just dictionaries, just doing Google’s job for them. Whereas if we believe that a human translator is needed to tease out nuance, understand metaphor or allusion or whatever, then we should also accept that a human translator also has the skill to be a poet, to make literature.

French and English dictionaries

A translator is more than a walking dictionary

If someone sets out to translate poetry, they should have confidence in their own writing ability. They should be a good enough poet that their translation is literature. When I translate a book, I have confidence in myself as a writer, and it should be the same for poetry and theatre translators, and for the people who commission them.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not opposed to collaboration, I can see how an English-language poet and a translator-poet working together could produce something very interesting and exciting. But let it be a relationship of equals, of two poets. Otherwise, we’re undermining ourselves, putting ourselves at the level of a machine, whose translation needs post-editing.

We have more to offer than that; we just need the confidence to stand out and say so.

Dictionary image by Tim Green, (CC BY 2.0)

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Love in Small Letters


Love in Small Letters by Francesc Miralles, tr. Julie Wark, Alma Books, 2014

I saw this book in the library as I was looking for lighter reading matter to take on holiday, and it seemed like it would fit the bill. Cats on the cover are always a good start.

Samuel is something of a loner and as new year comes around that seems unlikely to change. Yet a stray cat, which he names Mishima, comes into his life, prompting chance encounters that in turn bring about other new developments and friendships.

According to the author bio, Francesc Miralles has “published extensively in the self-help, coaching and inspirational field” and that certainly shows in the text. Samuel is an academic who finds himself ghostwriting an anthology of inspirational quotes, and the book is full of characters offering nuggets of wisdom in the Paulo Coelho vein. I found it a little tiresome to be honest, and rather getting in the way of the story, but there we are.

It is translated from the Catalan by Julie Wark, and while she generally has a light touch, I found some of the linguistic choices interesting. I’m not sure that “nap” and “siesta” carry quite the same connotations, and I presumed that the repeated references to an “afternoon snack” related to a specific context that wouldn’t be conveyed by afternoon tea, or similar. It just jarred slightly for me as a phrase.

I was puzzled by the absence of acknowledgment for quoted authors and their translators. I would have thought that there was a duty to honour the translator of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, for example. Maybe these excerpts were translated by Wark from the Catalan versions, in which case that ought to be specified somewhere, surely? I have done similar myself, but not out of choice, and would always prefer a pre-existing translation done by someone with access to the full text and context.

These quibbles aside, this was an entertaining and mildly thought-provoking book, that is maybe not quite as profound as it would like to be.

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Aufräumen – Angelika Waldis

Aufräumen (Piper Verlag, 2014) means “to tidy up”, and Luisa is having a clear-out. But the first thing that needs to go is her husband Alfred – an “artist”, who despises yet sponges off her – after almost 40 years of marriage. Then there is her son-in-law who has worn down her daughter, and the incompetent doctor who blighted the whole family’s lives with a botched operation on her other daughter. So she buys a little bottle of poison and sets off by train to begin this overdue de-cluttering.

Angelika Waldis, Aufräumen (Piper Verlag)

I prefer this cover, I think

Angelika Waldis tells the story of Luisa’s travels and intentions interspersed with an account of the many events and tragedies that have brought her to this point. It could make for very heavy reading, and yet somehow it doesn’t. There is a deceptive lightness about the beginning of the book – at first I thought it was going to be a rather dark comedy, which it certainly is not – but although the mood changes, the ironic, humorous tone is there throughout to prevent it from becoming overwhelmingly depressing. Above all, this book is beautifully written, with carefully crafted sentences. Indeed, one of Luisa’s hobbies, her distraction from the sorrows of her life, is to collect less felicitously expressed phrases from newspapers and magazines etc.

At times, as the NZZ reviewer Beatrice Eichmann-Leutenegger has pointed out, you wish you could shake Luisa, now aged seventy, for having spent forty years in the wilderness of her marriage, especially as the pattern seems to be repeating for her daughter. Yet at last, she has broken out. Will she really go through with her plan though?

This is not a crime novel. Instead, it goes deeper, as a reflection on mortality, aging, mental health and how to deal with the curve balls life can throw at us. I found it sometimes hard, yet never difficult, and it lingers in the mind, leaving the reader with unanswered questions but on a note of hope.

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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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