Nashwa Gowanlock, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a British Egyptian born in Kuwait and raised between there and the UK, where I am now based. I was raised bilingual and attended a British school in Kuwait so the transition to England in 1990 following the Iraqi invasion wasn’t too much of a shock, although it was a bit of a culture shock! Most of my extended family live in Egypt and I have a very strong connection to them and the country itself, even though I never really lived there, but visit often. I’ve also lived as an expat in Qatar and Cyprus, when I worked for Al Jazeera and then AFP, but I’m now settled in Suffolk with my husband, stepson and a toddler who keeps me on my toes!
When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
It’s difficult to single out influential titles as so many books have been transformative for me. Books were both my education and my form of escapism and I couldn’t get enough of them. Judy Blume walked me through puberty – Deenie was a title that especially resonated since a few years after reading it I discovered that like the protagonist, I too had Scoliosis. I was a huge Malory Towers fan when I still lived in Kuwait and dreamed of moving to England one day where I imagined everyone went to boarding school. After graduating from Enid Blyton – and coincidentally after arriving in the real England – I went through an extended horror book phase when Stephen King and John Saul were my go-to authors.
Why do you translate?
I started translating at a very young age, probably since I started learning to speak! Since then, I have translated interviews and articles through my work as a journalist, but also extensively in my personal life. Being rooted in two cultures, I have always felt gaps needed to be filled whenever I spoke in just one language. For example, I would translate jokes laboriously, even if the humour was lost on my audience. Translating books is a more elegant extension to my attempts at breaking down boundaries.
How did you kick-start your career as a translator, what was your strategy?
My literary translation career began out of necessity as I struggled to work in journalism full time once I moved out of London in 2013 to raise a family in Suffolk. I needed to supplement my income. Since I was fluent in Arabic and English and was passionate about literature, literary translation seemed the perfect option. At first, I couldn’t believe that I could actually be paid to read and translate books! In 2014, I was awarded the Arabic mentorship with the British Centre for Literary Translation, working with Professor Paul Starkey. I then connected with the 2013 BCLT mentee, Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, and we began to co-translate a number of short stories, extracts of novels and a play. By the end of 2014, we were commissioned to co-translate Samar Yazbek’s memoir, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria, which was published by Rider Books the following year.
What was the most challenging part of translating your first work?
My first solo book-length translation was After Coffee by Abdel Rashid Mahmoudi, published by HBKU Press. One of the challenges was that it is a long book and that makes the editing stage hard going since I usually read the final draft of a translation at least a dozen times. The first part of the novel is also full of proverbs, religious expressions and sayings that are often so difficult to express eloquently in English. Since the book was based in Egypt, I was familiar with the expressions but sometimes that makes it even more frustrating as my brain won’t rest until I find a match in English.
How and why is the role of the translator important as a UK editor engages in the acquisitions process? Does funding make a difference?
UK editors don’t always have readers in the language of the book they’re buying the rights for. Translators are therefore a vital resource for offering advice on which books are worth translating, especially when so few titles are selected due to funding issues.
Is winning a Translation Prize important and why?
It is very important because often gatekeepers (publishers, translators, readers) will filter their selection based on awards lists. Winning an award raises the profile of both the authors and the titles, helps secure funding, distribution and increase sales.
What are you most proud of translating?
I am proud of everything I translate, for various reasons. Shatila Stories is an obvious choice because of the way it has helped bring to light relatively inaccessible stories of refugee writers as told by the individuals themselves. But I am proud of all the work I translate which somehow sheds a light on what I consider the highly misrepresented culture of the Arabic-speaking world.
What is your dream translation project (or have you already done it)?
Every great book is a dream translation project for me and I am grateful for each and every one.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now I am reading several books and short story collections that I am pitching and hoping will be picked up by publishers soon!
Has the perception of books in translation in both the book trade and the Media changed during the time you have worked as a translator?
I’ve only been translating literature for four years and I haven’t seen much change. There seems to be a growing interest in translating books by female authors though, which I think is very important.
How important is the relationship between author and translator; and when you’re translating work by authors who are no longer alive what needs to be addressed and how?
I always communicate with authors of the titles I translate, where possible. I like to make that connection and I often am intrigued to speak to the author whose work I immerse myself in so intensely. I also often have many questions related to the text and very much appreciate it when I work with an author who is responsive and generous.
How involved are you, in the promotion of the books you translate? Your views on social media?
I do spend a considerable amount of time promoting books that I have translated, both on social media and my own website. Literary translation for me is all about promoting literature and, therefore, publicising the books I have actually worked on naturally fits into that remit.
Nearly 80% of the UK’s publishing industry wanted to remain in the EU. In the wake of Brexit, what are the implications for book publishing and translation in your view?
It’s difficult to predict without knowing the final terms of the deal, but I imagine that arts funding will be cut, which would be detrimental to literary translation. However, I hope that there will be some sort of contingency plan that will enable us to continue to bring global literature to the English-speaking world.
Your bedside reading?
I have an ever-changing tower of books at my bedside. I read so much fiction that I like to end my day by dipping into poetry. Right now there is the Best British Poetry 2015, which was edited by Poetry Review editor Emily Berry and published by Salt, and the latest issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, edited by Clare Pollard.
Your favourite prose author?
So many! Right now I am obsessed with Zadie Smith. I listened to the audio editions of Swing Time and NW and I am now halfway through White Teeth. I have recently become obsessed with audio books and am currently listening to a new release of White Teeth, narrated by a fantastic cast. There is so much to admire in her writing and I identify with her views on the various ways of being British.
Your heroes in real life?
My children are a constant source of admiration and inspiration – both my pre-teen stepson and my toddler. They constantly amaze me with their boldness and creativity.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
Only five?! Zadie Smith, Sophie Collins (whose poetry I am also obsessed by at the moment), Marcia Lynx Qualey (since I’ve never met her yet we’ve chatted so much over email and social media), Mary Ruefle (and all my other poetry tutors if I could) and my maternal grandmother, who I never met since she passed away before I was born. Apparently I inherited her nose.
What are your favorite literary journals?
There are so many great journals out there and I try to read as many of them as possible. The ones I probably return to more frequently are Paris Review, Tin House, Poetry Review, Poetry London, Ambit, Modern Poetry in Translation, Banipal, Words Without Borders and Asymptote, which I am proud to have worked for, albeit briefly, back in 2013/4.
Your chief fault?
Having too many interests.
Your chief characteristic?
My Mona Lisa smile.
Your favourite motto?
What goes around comes around.
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