My languages

I’m a native speaker of British English, born in Glasgow, raised in Leicester. As a literary translator, your greatest qualification and strongest asset is your expert command of the language you write in, and for me that’s my native language, English.

But I’m multilingual and multicultural, with many places I call home.

I’m half Indian, a little bit Portuguese, with family in Quebec, France and Norway, but for various reasons (and because I love a challenge) I chose three other languages to study to a professional level: German, Russian and Arabic. I’m also a language learning addict so have dabbled in others over the years, too.

People often ask me how I came to have such an unusual mix of languages, so here’s a potted history of my relationship with them.

German

I started learning German when I was 12 and because we had family friends in Dresden, I quickly fell in love with the language and was more intrigued by it than French which I started at school at 11. I am indebted to my excellent teachers at A-level who pushed us to read widely; the first literary texts I read in German were Die Verwandlung by Franz Kafka and the plays Draußen vor der Tür by Wolfgang Borchert, Andorra by Max Frisch and Der jüngste Tag by Ödön von Horváth (which we performed in German. I am a terrible actor).

This was enough to get me hooked and I applied to Oxford University to study German and Russian language and literature, where I spent the next 4 years reading as close as possible to every German classic from Schiller and Goethe through to contemporary fiction from Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

I have lived and worked/volunteered in Dresden, Hamburg, Bad Schmiedeberg, Paderborn and Vienna (where I did a two-week internship at the UN).

I started translating German on a freelance basis while still studying at Oxford, and I completed the MA and PG Diploma in Translation and Interpreting at the University of Bath in 2004. I still regularly visit Germany and read something in German every day even if I’m currently in the middle of translating a book from one of my other languages.

Russian

I went to boarding school for sixth form on a scholarship, driven by family circumstances and an obsession with learning Latin, which I planned to do at GCSE alongside my A-levels. In the first week of term I swapped Physics A-level for Classical Civilisation (where I would cheat and read the Greek and Latin classics in English 😊) and Latin for Russian GCSE. An inspired last-minute decision that I have forever been glad I made.

I’ve been reading Russian literature since 1998 – over half my life. I don’t remember precisely, but I think the first novel I read in Russian was Obmen by Yuri Trifonov, one of the first year set texts that I read during my gap year, as I anxiously prepared for Oxford. I had a place to read Russian post-A-level (they didn’t offer ab initio back then), so I spent my gap year teaching in Moscow and slogging through the first year set texts, trying to make the leap from GCSE to A level before I started.

On my 3rd year abroad I taught English at Oryel State University for one semester and volunteered at a rural community called Kitezh for the summer. My first book translation was a Russian text on child psychology by the founder of Kitezh community of foster families.

I was at my most fluent when training to be an interpreter at Bath University, when I was speaking Russian and working on UN speeches every day. I realised then that I was more of a translator than an interpreter, and translated the first few chapters of Rubashka by Yevgeny Grishkovets for my MA dissertation. I hoped to specialise in literary translation one day but it would be a few years before I was able to make the break.

I translated my first full-length Russian novel in 2017: The Raven’s Children by Yulia Yakovleva, published by Puffin in 2018.

Arabic

After training as a professional translator and interpreter of Russian and German in 2004, I then did a U-turn and joined the UK civil service as a linguist, where I immediately retrained in Arabic.

I completed an intensive course taking me to degree level in 18 months, with short study trips to Oman, Jordan and Egypt. I worked for 4 years as an Arabic translator and researcher, and gradually started reading Arabic literature in my spare time.

I was always conscious that I didn’t have a degree in Arabic, so made the most of my BCLT literary translation mentorship with Professor Paul Starkey in 2013 to publish samples and short stories from Arabic, to show what I could do. I passed the notoriously difficult IOL exam that year too and was awarded a Diploma in Translation from Arabic. I have since taught Arabic literary translation and been an examiner for the Diploma, as well as mentoring other emerging translators from Arabic.

The first Arabic novel I attempted to read, in 2005, comparing the Arabic with Ahdaf Soueif’s translation, was I Saw Ramallah (رأيت رام الله) by Mourid Barghouti – a challenging first read!

My first published book-length translation from Arabic was The Bride of Amman by Fadi Zaghmout and my most high-profile translation to date was The Crossing by Samar Yazbek, which I co-translated with Nashwa Gowanlock.

French

It was a visit to my family in Quebec at age 11 that first got me hooked on language learning, and I’ve always tried to maintain my French alongside my other languages. I have translated the occasional document, and I’ve read a few slim novels – I think the first was Bonjour tristesse by Françoise Sagan. I visit family in France regularly and can just about get by, but I don’t use French professionally.

Norwegian

I’ve been learning Norwegian on and off, very slowly, since my first trip in 1999 – when my best friend and I went cycling and wild camping the month before we started university. I regularly visit family in Bergen and can just about converse with my preschool-aged nieces!

I have always felt like I’ve got enough on my plate with three professional languages and would probably never get my Norwegian up to a level to be able to translate it. That was until I fell in love with the work of Russian author Yulia Yakovleva Holst, who it turns out also writes in Norwegian. I have now co-translated a picture book by her – A Tale of Tails (Halens historie) – with huge help from Norwegian literary translator Lucy Moffat and we are currently looking for a publisher for this fantastic book.

Ukrainian

Yes, I told you I’m a language learning addict! I’ve been learning Ukrainian since spring 2018 with teacher and translator Anna Walden. I can barely speak it, but because of its proximity to Russian and because of studying Medieval Russian literature and Slavic linguistics, I can read Ukrainian with the help of a dictionary.

I’ve co-translated a sample of Amor Fati by debut Ukrainian novelist Yevhen Khmil. Anna and I are currently seeking a publisher and hope to translate the rest of this lovely novel next year.

Dutch

I studied Dutch for a year during my MA Translation and Interpreting, and can read it with a dictionary. I managed one novella (Harry Mulisch’s Het theatre de brief en de waarheid) while I was doing a month-long internship in The Hague as part of my MA. Now I can read kids’ books and can sing Hoedje van papier, but that’s about as far as I’ve got with Dutch!

Portuguese

I also did a beginners’ course in Portuguese while doing my MA at Bath, and although I can’t read much I dip into Portuguese every now and then. I played capoeira for years with a Brazilian teacher who spoke no English, so back then I could understand Portuguese pretty well! I play samba now and it’s a life-long dream to travel around Brazil one day. I don’t know if it’s my Portuguese Goan family heritage or the music, but I’ll always have a soft spot for this Portuguese and one day (when I retire!) I’ll find time to learn more.