In conversation with... Nashwa Gowanlock

Hi Nashwa! Thank you for joining me today. I have just finished reading Shatila Stories, which you translated from the Arabic to English, and I’d like to ask you a few questions both on this specific book and more generally on translation. So let’s begin…

How did you get started in literary translation?

A: Thanks for reading! I have been translating since I was a child really, although translating literature came relatively recently. Having been raised bilingual I always found myself interpreting elements of my native Egyptian culture to my friends in England, particularly when it came to customs, concepts and jokes without a direct equivalent in English. I also translated a great deal in my work as a journalist over the years. But I came to literary translation as a necessity when I was looking for work that didn’t involve commuting to London after I moved away from the capital. Since I love reading and creative writing, it seemed natural to combine my skills and passion by taking part in this wonderful, growing movement and helping to make more Arabic literature accessible to English readers.

During the last semester of my MFA in Poetry, I opted to write my thesis on literary translation. The poems I translated by Moroccan Bennis were published on the Asymptote Journal the following year, in 2014. Also in 2014, I was awarded a mentorship through the British Centre for Literary Translation in translation from Arabic. Working with Professor Paul Starkey, I translated a number of short stories and excerpts of novels. The mentorship was extremely fruitful, not least in the introduction to fellow translator and friend, Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, who had been the previous year’s BCLT mentee, also working with Paul Starkey. Ruth and I immediately bonded and together we translated a Syrian play and a series of short stories, before signing a joint contract with Rider Books (Penguin Random House) to translate Samar Yazbek’s harrowing memoir, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria

How did you find yourself involved in this project by Peirene Press?

A: I was actually recommended to Peirene Press by Ruth and I am very grateful for that connection as the stories in the book are all very much close to my heart, both through my upbringing as an Arab woman, but also from covering the Middle East as a journalist.

Can you describe the process of translating Shatila Stories?

A: The publisher, Meike Ziervogel, sent me the short stories that the writers produced during last year’s creative writing workshop, in batches. With each story, I would translate a quick, rough draft initially, just to get a feel of the writer’s style and tone, before going back through it with that voice at the forefront of my mind, guiding the choices I made. I edited each story several more times before sending them back to Meike. 

Shatila Stories was a collaborative writing effort and I imagine that every author had his/her own particular voice. Was it difficult to create a consistent translation?

A: I was not tasked with providing a consistent translation. In fact, I laboured to maintain each author’s voice to keep the text as authentic as possible and to allow his or her own style and voice to shine through. The characters are so distinct and each of their narratives is told in a very personal way, that there was no need to try and keep the translation consistent. I was given the freedom to be creative with the original stories, which I relished. However, I was wary of taking that privilege too far and risking replacing their raw energy with my own voice. What I hope I achieved was to simply enhance the authors’ writing wherever I felt it needed a boost.

Did you have any contact with any of the authors? In general, how do you find that having access to the author impacts on the translating process?

A: With communication between the UK and the Shatila camp being quite difficult, the option to refer to each writer with lists of questions wasn’t available. Usually, I very much appreciate having access to the author, mainly because translation, in its essence, is a collaborative process first and foremost with the author. However, in this case, Meike and Suhir had spent a great deal of time with the writers and their stories, both in the group sessions and individually following the workshop, and were able to clarify any issues I had.

Without giving too much away, can you please describe a scene that you loved translating or that was particularly difficult to render in English?

A: There were quite a few passages that moved me, and two of the tragic storylines brought me to tears while translating them. But my favourite passage to translate was the introduction to Shatha’s story. Shatha is one of the main female protagonists in the novel and her voice is particularly sassy and wry. In her opening scene, she bemoans her life, not just because of the squalid conditions in the camp, but because of her overbearing stepmother: “Welcome to Auntie Faten, my short, fat and frizzy-haired stepmother, with a heart as hard as her face.” It is a universal emotion that any reader can relate to about a figure of authority they dislike. I very much enjoyed taking that voice and running with it to its limits. Being a stepmother myself, I’m not sure whether this reveals a rather sadistic side to my nature!

Overall, the voices of the younger female characters in this novel are confident, which is what I appreciated about these stories in that they upturn the stereotype of the subservient Arab woman. I guess this is a reflection of the strong personalities of the authors themselves.

What are you working on at the moment? 

A: My journalism work is ongoing but in terms of literary translation, I am currently reading and pitching books to publishers, with the aim of securing my next book contract soon. I always need to take a break in between literary projects as they can be quite draining.

What are you reading at the moment?

A: I have a bad habit of reading several books at once! Right now, I’m reading The Year of The Radio, by Renee Hayek, as well as Kathryn Maris’ latest poetry collection, The House with only an Attic and a Basement and listening to a recently-released audio book of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. But I dip in and out of other books all the time and my still-to-read list is long... 

Is there one type of fiction that you prefer translating? Does this reflect your preference as a reader?

A: I would say I am drawn to novels that have an element of history or current affairs, but not exclusively. I am very interested in the recent history of the Middle East and find the politics of the region both fascinating and depressing. When you translate a book, you live with it and within it for so long, that it is important to at least be interested in the subjects it tackles, even if you are not necessarily familiar with them at the start of the project. Like journalism, translation is a wonderful way of becoming an expert of sorts on subjects you may never have imagined you would encounter so intensely. 

Many thanks for your time!

You can click here to read my review of Shatila Stories and to find out how you can win a copy of the book.

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