Founded by Daniel Hahn in 2010, the UK’s National Centre for Writing translator mentoring programme aims to develop successive new cohorts of literary translators into English, particularly for languages whose literature is currently under-represented in English translation. Today we welcome three of this year’s mentees to tell us all about the mentorship and how it has helped them find their feet as translators in the publishing industry…
1. Thank you for talking to us about your experience of the National Centre for Writing (NCW) mentorship for emerging translators earlier this year. Firstly, what language(s) do you translate? Who was your mentor and how did you work together on the mentorship? And how did the programme fit in with your other work and with the challenges of the pandemic this year?
Alice: Thank you for having me! I translate from Norwegian (both Bokmål and Nynorsk) into English. The incredible Kari Dickson was my mentor and it was an amazing experience. We worked together really well, and my confidence and my skills have improved so much as a result. The pandemic did make some things difficult – it was such a shame that we weren’t able to go to the Industry Weekend in Norwich, or the London Book Fair, but thanks to the magic of Zoom I was still able to work with and get to know Kari, as well as the other brilliant mentors and mentees on the programme.
Anam: I translate from Arabic and French into English. My mentor was the wonderful Meena Kandasamy. The pandemic meant the whole mentorship had to take place virtually but this actually worked for us: during the first half I was in Austria, and Meena was in the UK, and in the second half I was in the UK and she was in India! Meena was flexible about fitting Zoom meetings around my work schedule, which in itself was a lesson in time management as a literary translator, considering that literary translation – at least at the beginning – won’t be a major source of income.
Georgia: I translate from Italian to English. I was mentored by Howard Curtis, who was exceptionally generous with his time and advice. I was nervous before our first online meeting but felt at ease as soon as we began talking about texts, and excited to find another human being who thought a lot about commas. It turns out there’s tonnes of these people, not least my fellow mentees; another great thing about the programme was meeting them.
2. Tell us about the text(s) for younger readers you’ve translated or worked on as part of the mentorship. Why did you choose them and what were some of the challenges in translating them?
Anam: I’m currently pitching a Palestinian YA novel called Me, My Friend and the Donkey by Mahmoud Shukair. I discovered it partway through the mentorship and loved it, so I decided to work on it alongside the collection for adults I was already working on. I chose it because it deals with such profound topics – loss, uncertainty, perseverance in the face of doubt – while managing to weave a lot of humour into the mix. I think that combination really works for young readers. Its biggest translation challenge is making sure those humorous moments in Arabic are just as humorous in English. Translating humour is new to me.
Georgia: La battaglia delle bambine by Simona Dolce is a middle-grade novel woven around Letizia Battaglia’s photography. I love the interplay between the images and the text, but I’m still unsure about showcasing a book which features the mafia—does it risk indulging stereotypes? I had proposed working on a coming-of-age story: Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s The River Commander, but I hadn’t realised that a translation was already in press! That was my first lesson: always check first with the publisher if the English-language rights are available! I’m excited to say that it’s coming out soon in Hope Campbell Gustafson’s translation.
3. What led you to translation in the first place? And what sparked your interest in working on books for children and young adults?
Georgia: Reading as a young adult helped me access spaces that I don’t think I could have otherwise, so I’m conscious of how crucial it is that all young people have the chance to see themselves and their experiences reflected in the stories they read and hear. Previous jobs as a children’s bookseller and nursery assistant, and a spell at the Ministry of Stories, also fuelled my enthusiasm: it’s magical when a child finds a story they can really engage with.
Anam: Georgia’s right – having more kidlit in translation means having more diverse bookshelves, making sure every child sees themselves reflected in the books they read. Also, limiting ourselves to the literature of our own language and culture is not only a massive shame, it’s also dangerous – storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to understand other people, and celebrate both our similarities and differences. That’s even more important for children and young adults. In our multicultural world, it’s vital to instill a respectful curiosity of other cultures into the next generation while they’re still in their formative years.
Alice: I became interested in translation during my BA (French and Norwegian) – it seemed like such a concrete way of using my degree, which is something I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do once I graduated. After my BA, I did an MA in Translation and it really solidified in me the joy of transforming a text; translation is creative and technical at the same time, which I really love. Norway has such a rich history of publishing really amazing books for children and young adults, and I always knew I wanted to be a part of that.
4. Has the mentorship changed the way you think about translation? How?
Alice: Since the mentorship, I definitely see translation as a more collaborative process than I did before. It’s easy to imagine translation as quite an isolated profession, but there’s a whole community of translators out there who are happy to help you, whether that’s helping you find the right word or just cheering you along. I’m so grateful the mentorship has put me in touch with so many brilliant and friendly translators.
Georgia: It’s helped me think more critically about my own position, introducing me to inspiring organizations like Shadow Heroes and their resources. It also gave me a practical insight into how collaborative the process is—now I really appreciate publishers like And Other Stories who feature the names of the editors, copyeditors and proofreaders in their books, as well as the translator and author.
Anam: Yes – Meena taught me that, after a certain point, you have to treat the translated text as a work of literature in itself. While a translator of course needs to respect the author’s choices, it can be creatively paralysing to constantly look back at the original version. Touching on Georgia’s point about collaboration, the mentorship has made me realise how translation is really not a solitary profession. All the translators I’ve reached out to have been incredibly willing to share advice and contacts. It’s this community that keeps me going in times of doubt – of which there have been many.
5. Have you translated anything since then? What are you working on at the moment?
Anam: I’m currently looking for middle-grade fiction and picture books to translate, with a particular focus on books from francophone West Africa, since I focused quite heavily on Arabic literature during the mentorship.
Alice: Since the mentorship finished, I’ve done a number of sample translations for a major Norwegian publisher, including a sample of a novel for young adults, and a few children’s books (some rhyming, which was a new and exciting challenge for me!). I’ve also been very busy with commercial translation work, which I also hadn’t done before. The thought processes for commercial translation may differ from those for literary translation but it’s still hugely rewarding, helping me gain more and more experience and improve my translation skills.
Georgia: A beautiful picture book, L’uomo d’acqua e la sua fontana written by Ivo Rosati and illustrated by Gabriel Pacheco, published by Zoo Libri. I’m also working on samples of two graphic novels telling the story of Chinese migration to Italy, Chinamen and Autunni e Primavere by Ciaj Rocchi and Matteo Demonte (both published by BeccoGiallo).
6. Which international children’s books would you love to see published in English translation? And why?
Georgia: All of Takoua Ben Mohamed’s graphic novels. When I present her work in workshops, participants always ask if it’s been published in English. Not yet unfortunately, but I hope an English-language publisher will snap them up soon. I’m also a big fan of the Bicki-Books published by The Emma Press: postcard-sized poetry books translated from Latvian and illustrated by contemporary Latvian artists. The format really appeals to small hands and they are fun for adults, too—it’d be great to see similar series with translations from a range of languages.
7. Since the mentorship, do you feel more prepared for working in publishing or getting your work into print? How?
Georgia: It’s made me aware of how difficult it is; particularly of the cultural politics governing publishing choices—Anton Hur, Corine Tachtiris and Yilin Wang wrote about this recently for Words Without Borders. I still aspire to see my translations in print, but I was also really inspired by the insight into the potential of translation as a process: it was through the mentorship I learned of the Stephen Spender Trust, and I was thrilled to be selected together with Anam for their ‘Multilingual Creators’ training programme.
Anam: Absolutely! Coming into the mentorship, I was starting from absolute zero. Yes, I had an MA in Translation, but it focused almost solely on commercial translation. Literary translation is a whole other story. I now have a solid understanding of how pitching works and how to find the right publishers. My network has also grown exponentially. Georgia’s point is important, too – resilience and perseverance are vital to keep going. And that Words Without Borders feature is a must-read.
Alice: I definitely feel more prepared for working in publishing. Over the course of the mentorship, I’ve networked and been put in touch with some really useful contacts. I have a much clearer idea of how the publishing world works, and a much clearer idea of how to approach publishers, both in Norway and in the UK. Overall, the mentorship has made me feel much more confident about my own skills as a translator – it has made my dream of having my literary translations published seem much more achievable.
Thank you all for taking the time to tell us about your work and about the Emerging Translators Mentorship!
Alice Fletcher is a Norwegian to English literary and commercial translator. She was mentored by Kari Dickson as part of the NCW’s Emerging Translator Mentorships 2020-21, and in 2018 she won the Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation. She is based in sunny West Yorkshire, and her biggest passions are languages, history and dogs – though not always in that order. Find her on Twitter at @alicejfletch or at alicejfletcher.com
Anam Zafar is an emerging literary translator based in Birmingham, UK. She translates from Arabic and French into English. She was a 2020/21 mentee on the National Centre for Writing’s Emerging Translators Mentorship. www.anamzafar.com
Georgia Wall is a translator working from Italian to English. Previous jobs as a nursery assistant, language tutor and children’s bookseller helped spark her enthusiasm for children’s and YA literature. She was awarded a National Centre for Writing Emerging Translator Mentorship for Italian (2020/2021) and has a PhD in Italian Studies (2018, Warwick). Twitter: @cascettara