Q&A with Translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

By   Jantien Abma 5 min read

We spoke to Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, a translator in the whitefox network, about the differences between Russian and Arabic, her most challenging project to date and her advice for those considering a freelance translating career.


1. Before you began translating literary works, you worked for the UK government as an Arabic linguist and Middle-East researcher. What motivated this initial decision to dedicate your professional life to a specific language and culture?

It was partly a decision motivated by circumstances, as there was a shortage of Arabic linguists in the civil service at the time and the opportunity came up to retrain. As a compulsive language-learner I couldn’t resist applying and was amazed when I was accepted onto an intensive Arabic course for professional linguists where I was paid to study full-time and eventually reached approximately degree level after 18 months. I have always been interested in the politics and history of Asia and the Middle East, so this was a great way to learn more about the region and the culture. Also, my grandfather was an Urdu speaker and I have always dreamed of learning the basics. I thought Arabic might be a good step on the way. I now know that I have enough on my plate with Arabic and my other languages, and Urdu will have to wait until I retire!

2. How did Russian enter the equation?

I was actually a trained German and Russian translator and interpreter before I made a complete U-turn and started all over again with Arabic. I have been reading German for 2/3 of my life (since secondary school), Russian for half my life (I started in sixth form) and Arabic for a 1/3 of my life – since my mid-20s. A total language geek at 16, I originally planned to do Latin GCSE alongside my A-levels and switched to Russian at the last minute. It was an inspired choice and after my first visit to Russia on a school history trip I knew it was a language and culture I couldn’t live without.

3. What has been your most challenging project to date, and why?

I think it would be my most prominent book translation, The Crossing: My journey to the shattered heart of Syria, an account of the ongoing war in Syria by exiled Syrian journalist and novelist Samar Yazbek (Rider Books, 2015), which I co-translated with Nashwa Gowanlock . It was a very difficult book to work on: the worsening crisis made it a very time-sensitive text, so it was a tight deadline, which was tough with such a complex text and with so much political context to research. But above all, it was emotionally challenging: the narrative is dense with heart-breaking scenes of war and personal tragedy. And yet the author manages to depict shocking brutality in a way which is somehow crushingly beautiful.

4. Can you name a few facts that are interesting about the Russian language from an English speaker’s perspective?

Russian is extremely expressive, with a single word often able to convey many more nuances than a roughly equivalent English word. This is particularly true with verbs, which in Russian always have two different forms: a slight modification, such as an added prefix, an extra syllable in the middle or a change in vowel, can indicate whether a verb was carried out once or many times, whether it was finished or abandoned incomplete, whether it was a vain attempt or a successful action. Many nuances can seem impossible to capture in English, so sometimes we translators have to compensate with an adverb or another detail sneaked in elsewhere. Russian texts also inevitably expand when translated in English; an English translation can be perhaps 20% longer than the Russian source text. Perhaps that’s why Dostoevsky and Tolstoy’s novels are so huge!

People often ask me to compare Russian and Arabic: which is harder to learn? Or easier, if you’re optimistic. Russian has slightly more vocabulary in common with English than Arabic does; many of the cognate words are actually from French, and if you know German you will recognise a lot of Russian vocabulary too. Arabic, on the other hand, has very little vocabulary in common with English, other than very recent loan words. Russian is at least Indo-European, but the grammar of Slavic languages is very different from Romance and Germanic languages. Russian, like Latin or Greek, is heavily inflected, meaning that there are masses of verb and noun endings to get your head round. Great for someone who likes spotting patterns, but it means the hurdles for the absolute beginner are tough as you can’t express yourself easily without learning a lot of grammar first. It is much easier to get speaking right away in Arabic, by contrast, as the structures at a basic level are fairly straightforward (I explained in an article for the British Council blog why Arabic is more accessible than you’d think).

  1. You are currently busy translating several projects, has your freelance career always been this busy? How do you find the freelance way of working?

Yes, it has always been busy, but initially I juggled language teaching with translation until I built up a range of clients and had a steady stream of translation and editing work. I love teaching and still make time for university workshops, but I had to stop teaching in schools when my publishing work took off. For the last five years, I’ve had the added complication of small children, but it’s made me realise that there’s no better career for someone who wants to be flexible enough to spend time with your family. I’m lucky that my three languages mean a constant stream of interesting work, and for Arabic in particular recently there has been a surge of interest in contemporary fiction and drama, so I have had some wonderful opportunities to translate exciting new writers.

6. Any advice for people looking to get involved in freelance translating?

Be prepared for it to be slow initially; it might be wise to start out while working part-time in another job. And even when you have regular work, it can be a long time between completing a project and actually seeing the money hit your account. Like any freelancer or entrepreneur, a freelance translator needs business and marketing skills to succeed and make a sensible living. Fortunately, there are some very supportive professional organisations, e.g. in the UK there’s the Institute of Translators and Interpreters (ITI), the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIoL) and the body representing literary translators working in the publishing industry, the Translators Association, which is part of the Society of Authors. Depending on your specialist area, one may be more relevant and useful than the others, but all offer excellent CPD, insider job alerts, networking opportunities and essential support in a challenging sector.