Should You Apply for the BCLT’s ‘Emerging Translator’ Mentorship Program?

The deadline for applications to the next round of British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT) “emerging translator” mentorships is Nov. 11. Ruth Ahmedzai, who took part in the last session, answered a few questions so you’d know what you’re in for before you apply: 

downloadArabLit: So, you wrote in your initial post about the BCLT translation mentorship, ” Precisely how it will work is to be confirmed,” …How has it worked?

Ruth Ahmedzai: The mentorship programme is very flexible. How often, or indeed whether, you meet face to face will depend on whether you’re located in the same country as your mentor or on the other side of the world (I believe the scheme is open to Anglophone translators worldwide, and this year there were both mentors and mentees in the USA, Turkey, and further afield).

Paul Starkey and I were able to meet up four times over the six months, and each time in advance I sent him a piece of work I considered as polished as I could get it. He’d give me an honest critique and help unpick phrases I was still struggling with. The other two months, he reviewed my work by email. Although I regularly translated literary passages during my degree, and did an MA in literary translation, this was the first time I had such personal and detailed feedback on my work. It was a real privilege.

Some mentees had a publishing contract, but I didn’t have one specific project to work on, so instead attempted one chapter or short story by a different author for each month, which was a good way to experiment with different styles of writing. My goals for the six months were to get at least one short story published and to pitch something to a UK publisher, both of which I managed, but I have to say, I still feel I have quite a long way to go in terms of getting to know publishers and – the holy grail – securing a contract to translate a novel.

AL: Sarah Bower wrote here about a lot of “off the page” work of the mentorship, such as meeting with publishers, “industry days,” etc. Have you done some of that as well?

RA: Yes, we had a wonderful industry day, which offered the chance to hear from editors, experienced literary translators and others in the industry. As I’m a member of the Translators’ Association, I had also attended a similar event they ran last year, but this one was a small group roundtable discussion and meant we could ask endless questions and get to know each other better.

At the end of the six-month period, the BCLT held a showcase event at the FreeWord Centre in London, which was an opportunity for us all to present a sample of our work (which was also published in the journal First Lines), although I didn’t feel it was as well attended by publishers and editors as I’d hoped. Amazing catering, though.

AL: What have you worked on translating? (Then maybe I can have some follow-up questions about the particular challenges/pleasures of those pieces?) What work have you been most excited about?

RA: I started in January working on the screenplay of Casting, a comedy set in Gaza by Palestinian directors Tarzan and Arab: a lovely challenge as it was full of colloquial expressions. I translated an excerpt of Our Master by Ibrahim Eissa, which was published in the brochure showcasing the shortlisted authors for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction; an extract of The Nabatean by Youssef Ziedan; a chapter of The Amman Bride by Fadi Zaghmout, which featured in the LGBT edition of Words without Borders; some samples from Abu Omar the Egyptian by Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, a writer I’m really excited about.

Then there was a short story by Leila al-Othman, published in Banipal 47, and two tiny pieces from Ibrahim Aslan’s Stories from Fadlallah Uthman Street which I’ve not yet done anything with but would like to publish. I finished up with a sample from Mustafa Khalifa’s The Shell, which I read aloud at the FreeWord Centre showcase event – quite a moving passage to read in front of an audience! I’ve since got more and more enthusiastic about this book which is included in the And Other Stories Arabic reading group and have started pitching it to publishers.

One of the best things about the mentorship for me was the motivation to expand my portfolio for Arabic and push myself out of my comfort zone. Although I had been translating from Arabic since 2006, I hadn’t read a lot of Arabic literature – at least not compared to Russian and German. Now it feels a little odd that I’m more established as an Arabic literary translator than I am for my other languages, but I hope to balance things out eventually. I’ve been lucky enough to have some great opportunities since the mentorship ended, including writing a reader’s report for a publisher on an academic text about Palestinian cultural history, translating a piece by Samar Yazbek for the Washington Post and a couple of scenes from Lucien Bourjeily’s play Would It Pass or Not? (Bto2ta3 aw ma Bto2ta2?) for Index on Censorship.

AL: How would you advise someone who was thinking of applying for the mentorship for next year? Who does it best suit?

It’s something that will suit people from a range of backgrounds. In our group, it seemed every stage was represented: linguists straight out of uni, postgrad students, freelance translators like myself and some who were switching to translation later on in life after pursuing a career in something completely different.

BCLT mentorships are available in 10 languages – all translating into English, which should be your mother tongue or at least you should write as well as a native speaker. This year, for the first time, there’s also a non-language-specific mentorship open to translators working into English from any language not already covered by the programme.

They stress that the programme is intended for Anglophone translators with promise rather than experience. Ideally, though, you’d have dabbled in literary translation a little already, as to apply you have to submit a short sample of your translation work (not more than 2,000 words) with a commentary.

It’s worth bearing in mind that to really make the most of the opportunity, you need to dedicate as much time to it as possible, including potentially taking time off paid work if you can. The mentorship comes with possible travel grants and a fixed bursary which was a great help especially with Arabic books being so expensive to get hold of in the UK.