My Writing Living: Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

The literary translator who works from Arabic, Russian and German tells us how early childhood experiences sparked a love of languages, leading to a writing living which combines translation with teaching and activism

“When I was nine, a German au pair came to live with us just after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Even though she only stayed for six months she changed my life”. For literary translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, a personal encounter with a native German speaker kindled an early interest in language learning. She became, she says, “a complete language nerd”, studying both German and Russian at school, with a desire to study languages at university. Her pride in her mixed heritage also played a part. “My dad came to London from Karachi after partition and I was always intrigued by the Portuguese and Urdu in my family’s past, even though we spoke only English at home and I focused on different languages later on.”

After a degree in German and Russian at Oxford University, Ruth trained to be a TEFL teacher which allowed her to travel widely, teaching English to support her love of language learning. She subsequently did a Masters in interpreting and translation with the intention of finding work as an interpreter at the UN or at the European Parliament but quickly realised that she didn’t have the right combination of languages to do so. In any case she had decided that her skills were better suited to translation, and in her 20s she both learned Arabic and worked as an in-house translator. But literary translation was calling.

Because I’d loved studying literature at university I was curious about how books came to be translated. However it wasn’t until about eight years ago that I seriously considered the possibility of pursuing literary translation as part of my freelance career.

Literary translation is a challenging sector in which to earn a living, with the majority of translators in that field combining it with other jobs and/or types of translation. Ruth’s own career was forged with the help of the summer school at the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT) at the University of East Anglia. “It’s a prestigious institution, set up to teach literary translation as a professional activity. And I was lucky because having Arabic meant a smaller pool of applicants. There I met other literary translators and started to find out about getting into publishing”. Ruth was also offered one of eight mentorships, now run by the National Centre of Writing.

Ruth, who lives in Gloucestershire, explains that most literary translators start by publishing shorter pieces in magazines and journals before securing a contract to translate a full-length book. “My first publication was in Words Without Borders, an important American magazine for contemporary global literature which is very supportive of emerging translators”. Then, a breakthrough book translation came as a result of some smart networking. She attended an event at Cheltenham Literature Festival at which a Penguin Random House editor was speaking about his own book on Germany. “He mentioned that he didn’t have very strong German. At his book signing afterwards I gave him my card suggesting he get in touch if he ever needed a German translator. A few weeks later he emailed and asked me to do a sample for a book he’d just commissioned. That led to me translating Farewell to the Horse by German art historian Ulrich Raulff. It sold well, was BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and was also very well-reviewed: having my name mentioned in those reviews really helped”. Ruth has now translated, co-translated or contributed to around 30 books spanning adult fiction and non-fiction and children’s books, as well as playscripts and numerous shorter extracts.

Ruth’s average income from her writing:

While she continues to translate across genres and languages (translations from German currently make up around two-thirds of her work, with the remaining third being translations from Russian and Arabic), children’s books are a particular area of enthusiasm. Ruth is co-editor of three blogs about translated children’s books and YA: World Kid Lit, Russian Kid Lit and ArabKidLitNow, and she also helps to coordinate and promote #WorldKidLitMonth each September. “My activism with World Kid Lit is partly about promoting the translations that exist because publishers don’t always draw much attention to the fact that their books originate in other countries or other languages. And yet for young people growing up bilingual, it can be very empowering to read a book has been translated from a language personal to them. Project World Kid Lit also about trying to develop and diversify the market for translation by helping publishers find and assess potential books. Parallel to that I run translation and creative writing workshops in schools, something that has grown out of my work with the Stephen Spender Trust. These workshops introduce books from other countries and global reading, promoting conversations about the multilingual context in which we live. I’m keen to expand this part of my work, helping to make translation and its role in the creative industries (films, computer games, not just books) a little more present in the minds of young people”.

Given that having Arabic helped kick start her career I ask Ruth whether aspiring literary translators should seek to acquire less studied languages. “It really depends on the language combination. A major factor in terms of what is translated is the availability of funding from overseas institutions and from organisations like English PEN. If you have a language such as Arabic it’s perhaps easier to become known as a translator. But even though there is a huge body of literature in Arabic with writers in lots of different countries working in that language, there is relatively little funding available to translate it, whereas with Scandinavian works for example, there is often 100% funding available. All this really affects the market for translators”.

In any case, as Ruth explains, it is difficult to pursue literary translation on a full-time basis because of the intensity of the work, and this also affects potential earnings.  “Over the years I have come to find that I often can’t translate for more than 3 or 4 hours a day, in which time I might manage between 800-1500 words depending on the challenges the text throws up and the research required. So I need other types of work, whether it’s running workshops, writing or teaching, both to bolster my income but also because I need the variety”, she reflects.

After successfully networking her way to her first major book contract, Ruth continues to build in time for making literary connections both on social media and elsewhere to help keep the work coming in. “As soon as I had my first book contract I joined the Translators’ Association (TA) which is part of the Society of Authors and found it a very welcoming and supportive organisation. I learned a lot about the industry during my stint on the TA committee. There’s also the Emerging Translators Network (ETN) which is a very collegial online forum with hundreds of useful threads about how to approach publishers and pitch work. I have the ETN to thank for my first German fiction contract – a crime novel”.

A friend recently joked that if there was a prize for networking, I would win it. I suppose there is a prize for networking: paid work!

The #TranslatorsOnTheCover campaign, launched by the Society of Authors on International Translation Day 2021 (30 September) calls on writers to ask their publishers for cover credits for the people who translate their work. I ask Ruth whether she too believes that the highly creative work that translators do needs to be better acknowledged. “Absolutely: the quality of published translations is down to the skill of the translator or co-translators, and even before this campaign we’ve been calling on publishers to #NameTheTranslator. But sometimes it’s difficult for people to understand what the process involves. Translators have a role somewhere between creative writer and editor, and literary translation is both a publishing service and a creative endeavour. For some translators, recognition and credit is hugely important, perhaps more so than the fee. But for others being paid well enough that they can work sustainably and professionally is more important than the public recognition. Credit on the cover is important but so is listing the translator in a book’s metadata, on publishers’ websites, and in the promotional material sent to reviewers. It’s becoming more common with literary fiction, but I’d like to see more credit for translators working in trade non-fiction, often on very high-profile books”.

Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp is a literary translator working from Arabic, Russian and German into English, whose work has been shortlisted for the Helen & Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize, the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize and the GLLI Translated YA Prize. Her published translations include fiction and nonfiction from Germany, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, Russia, Switzerland and Syria. Her latest translations include The German Crocodile by Ijoma Mangold (DAS Editions), Punishment of a Hunter, a crime thriller set in 1930s Leningrad by Yulia Yakovleva (Pushkin Vertigo), and children’s book The Magical Bookshop by Katja Frixe (Rock the Boat). 

Interview by Caroline Sanderson