On the 21st of February 2019, Comma will run a brand new event called Manchester in Translation (MIT), in partnership with Multilingual Manchester, at Z-arts in Hulme. This will be a special day of free workshops and talks offering advice and insight into the world of translation, and an opportunity for budding translators – or those with a passion for working between languages – to develop practical skills for literary translation in particular, learn about the life of the translator and discover ways of getting yourself published.

There will be three, free language-specific workshops taking place in the afternoon: Arabic, Polish and Chinese to English. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp will be running the Arabic-English workshop. Ruth is a British literary translator working from German, Russian and Arabic into English. She has translated novels by Fadi Zaghmout, Hanna Winter, Kathrin Rohmann and Yulia Yakovleva. Ruth graduated from the University of Oxford in 2003 and completed an MA in Translation and Interpreting at the University of Bath. She translates contemporary fiction, nonfiction (particularly history, travel and nature) and children’s books.

ruth ahmedzai kemp profile pic

We decided to ask Ruth some questions ahead of MIT to provide an insight into the career path of a literary translator, and to showcase her advice to those wishing to follow in similar footsteps.

  1. How did you get into literary translation? What were your first steps?

I’d always wanted to be a translator and went straight from my BA degree to a Masters in Translation and Interpreting at the University of Bath, graduating in 2004. But although I spent most of my first degree at Oxford translating and critiquing literary texts, it took me a while to realise that literary translation could be a career. So I was a general commercial translator for several years before I began specialising in fiction and literary nonfiction.

Three fantastic experiences set me on my way: the Emerging Translators programme run by New Books in German, the literary translation summer school at the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT), and the Emerging Translator Mentorship – a remote programme run by the National Centre for Writing. With the help of Professor Paul Starkey, I published my first translations of Arabic literature in 2013 and I’ve never looked back. Since then, almost all of my work has been literary or related to publishing in some way.


  1. What is your advice to budding translators trying to break into the industry? 

For all translators, whatever specialism you intend to pursue, I recommend teaming up with another translator to co-translate or to edit and give feedback on each other’s work. You can join one of the ITI regional groups to meet other translators locally even without joining the main ITI. Colleagues have recommended the ITI course ‘Setting Up as a Freelance Translator’.

In the UK, the benchmark professional qualification for freelance translators is the IOLET Diploma in Translation, or a Masters in Translation, but depending on your language combination and the subject area you’re focusing on, a qualification isn’t always necessary.

Read constantly (both your source and your target language) and read critically.

For budding literary translators, build up as much experience as possible of commercial/business translation first or at the same time as working on literary texts, because you want to be as good as you can be at your craft when you start getting pieces published. Publications can market your ability, but they also expose you to criticism if your work isn’t up to scratch. All kinds of translation and editing are valuable experience.

In terms of getting to know the publishing industry, good places to start are the Literary Translation Centre at London Book Fair, International Translation Day at the British Library, and the translation summer schools at Warwick University (new in 2019!) and theBCLT in Norwich.

There’s tonnes of advice on the websites of the Translators’ Association and the US equivalent, ALTA (both worth joining if you intend to specialise in translating books), and on my website.


  1. You’ve translated literature for adults and for children across a range of languages (Arabic, Russian and German!). How does your approach to translation differ depending on the project?

For me, it depends more on the type of text than the source language. If I’m working on non-fiction (which personally I count as literary translation), I often need to do a lot of research and checking so I prefer to be online for the first draft. With fiction and children’s books, I like to be offline for the first draft so I’m less easily distracted. Working offline gives me more freedom about where I can work, so I often take my laptop to the library or a café for a change of scene.

Sometimes I read the text through first and sometimes I don’t – there are benefits to both approaches. If it’s a very challenging text, I prefer to print out the original and scribble notes on it as I piece together the first draft. Otherwise, I tend to work from the source text on the screen, displaying my English translation in a window above the original. With picture books, though, I feel it’s essential to have the physical book in front of me, to see the layout of images and text on the page.

What is always the same, though, is the seemingly endless rounds of edits!


  1. We now have more recognition for female authors and translators (such as Translating Women and the Warwick Prize) and movements like #namethetranslator, but do you think more can still be done to make the translator community more visible? 

The Warwick Prize and Women in Translation month are wonderful initiatives highlighting the irony that more women than men work in publishing, study languages and translate, and yet many more books by men than by women are published in English translation. The problem is not so much representation of female translators but rather of female authors who for many reasons are less likely to get commissioned for translation.

As for the visibility and credit of translators in general, yes, I think there is a lack of awareness across society of the integral role translators play behind the scenes in so many aspects of our lives, and of the importance of investing in professionals to do an excellent job. Non-specialists are often only aware of translation when it’s done badly.

It’s always great to see reviews of translated books, but disappointing when the review fails to mention the translator. Mind you, some reviews neglect to mention the illustrator even in the case of picture books, as in this recent example.It’s not just a matter of recognising a translator’s creative input and copyright, it’s a pragmatic issue: public credit is essential to running a business as a freelancer. How do you get future work if you’re not credited for the work you’ve already done?

Often it seems the problem stems from the metadata fields available to the publisher behind the scenes and the data they include in advance information sheets. So it’s a question of convincing people at all stages, from publishing through to literary criticism, to recognise the distinct value an individual translator brings to the translated text. It’s been brilliant to see solidarity between translators and illustrators on this issue (see #picturesmeanbusiness on Twitter).


  1. What have been some of your recent favourite books in translation that you’ve read? 

This year has been so busy with translating books and reading ones in my source languages that I confess I haven’t read in translation many this year. Some recentish ones that I’ve loved include A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, translated by Charlotte Collins, and Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated by Rosalind Harvey. I’ve given both to several friends and relatives. I’m mad about history and historical fiction, and one of my favourite historical novels in translation from Arabic is Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan, translated by Jonathan Wright.

Click here to book your place on Ruth’s Arabic-English workshop. You can also follow these links to the Chinese and Polish workshops; please note that there is a limit of 12 spaces on each workshop and you will need to answer a few questions to apply. The free morning of talks and panels is unreserved but you can register your interest here.


3 thoughts on “Interview with Literary Translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

  1. Pingback: Teaching at Manchester in Translation – Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

  2. Pingback: A look back at 2019 – Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

  3. Pingback: #WorldKidLit Wednesday: The Raven’s Children |

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