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Meet the translator: Alice Guthrie

  • By Sam Sedgman
  • 18th March 2014
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Alice Guthrie is one of Free Word’s two Translators in Residence for 2014. [read more] Over the next few months, she’ll be masterminding a series of events and activities exploring translation in new and exciting ways, specialising in her spoken languages of Arabic, Spanish and French. By way of introduction, we asked her about her work, her travels, and why she didn’t wear a watch for 18 years.

How do you describe what you do?

Ponder over words and phrases in other languages, repeat them whilst walking and cycling and cooking and in the shower, try them out in dreams, chew them over – so much so that occasionally they pop out in English.   All my work is an extension of that, I think.

Could you briefly explain how you came to learn each of the languages you speak?

Oh, it’s not a brief story at all! But it has to do with loving sounds and trying to imitate fascinating people in the hope of sort of becoming them; with working in all sorts of jobs when I was younger all over the place in languages I didn’t really speak; with not wearing a watch from 1995 to 2013; and of course with having my head stuck in a dictionary for a decade whilst drinking lots of cardamon coffee (you can guess which of the three that was).

I think we’re going to need you to tell us the full story!

Okay. I made an informal start on Spanish when I was 18, when my oldest friend and I spent six months in Ecuador, chatting with boys in the bars and clubs of Quito, but also in the remote rainforest and along the coast. I grew up in rural Norfolk, and the experience of being in such a different place completely blew my mind. Realising I wasn’t headed to university in the UK any time soon, I asked a funky Dutch woman at the beach called Mascha where the best city in Spain was and she told me without hesitation it was Granada.

So later that summer, I bought a one-way bus ticket (this was pre-Ryanair) from London Victoria and set off with £200 cash, a couple of very remote contacts, and lots of quiche my mum made for the journey. Mascha was right about Granada and it’s been one of my regular ports ever since.

I was lucky to meet some women during that first year there that are still among my closest friends, and I promptly began hoovering up their words and expressions, and was soon speaking well enough to have a great social life, loads of work, and all sorts of adventures. These included regular trips to Morocco, where I found myself hypnotised by a language I absolutely loved the sound of.

French turned out to be a kind of substrata in my mind I hadn’t really realised was there until after I learnt Spanish, and spent time wandering around West Africa, speaking French more and more. I’d forgotten how much my mum had spoken it to me throughout my years at home with her, and once I had my Spanish it seemed to blossom easily.

I found myself at the French Institute for Arab Studies (IFEAD) in Damascus, where there were loads of fascinating evening events in French put on by all the visiting French academics passing through at that time. Compared to Arabic, it seemed so easy and familiar, and I would hang out at those events, tickled and intrigued by the exquisite turns of rhetoric used by French intellectuals.

As for Arabic, I had found myself very drawn to the sound of the Maghrebi dialect, and I began to pick up little bits and pieces from Algerian friends and colleagues in Toulouse when I was a waitress there. I had also done an evening course at Southwark college during a year in London – I remember the teacher giving us seemingly random lists of words: blood and garlic were two of the first I learned.

I could see I wasn’t going to pick Arabic up along the way like I had the other two, and I was also getting bored of slumming it, no matter how interesting the places I was in. So eventually I headed back to the UK, to go to university after seven consecutive gap years. Since then and to this day I work on my Arabic through conversation, reading, writing, and working in it. It’s been crucial to have friendships and relationships in that language to really get it. As was famously said of learning Arabic, “some people manage it in a lifetime; some need longer.”

Why didn’t you wear a watch for 18 years?

The watch thing started in Ecuador when I realised that not wearing a watch meant I had to constantly ask people the time in the street – wonderful for not only learning the numbers but all sorts of other little turns of phrase, hearing different accents and just generally meeting your fellow human! I would recommend it to anyone, anywhere.

Of course, when mobiles took over that human contact began to be eroded – with smartphones, most of us don’t need to even ask directions anymore, let alone the time. Constantly asking directions all over the world was such a cornerstone of learning my languages (and lead to so many beautiful encounters in general) I wonder how students manage nowadays. But then last year, living in Norwich, it dawned on me how frequently I was fumbling for my mobile on my bike in traffic whilst racing to the train, and that I needed a watch, and so I got one. End of an era!

What do you like most about what you do?

Feeling I’ve been let in on a secret every time I understand something not in English, and like I’m inhabiting an alternate self every time I speak in another language: it’s such an intense high! It’s hard to explain to people who don’t speak more than one language, but perhaps it’s akin to playing an instrument. It’s certainly is close to dancing, and to listening to music.

I also really love making things understood: interlingually or intralingually, I think humans enjoy understanding each other, and I think I like muscling in and getting involved in that process. I’m a born interrupter.

What do you like least?

Oh, selling that side of myself to people, I suppose. Being a freelancer, you spend so much time pitching and ‘branding’ yourself  – a horrible word with horrible origins, right? I also get very shy when I have to speak to a big audience in Arabic, and so my vocabulary shrinks back into itself and my grammar runs away and hides in the toilet, which is a shame.

What are you reading (for fun) at the moment?

This week I’m reading Girls Next Door: Lesbian Feminist Short Stories edited by Jan Bradshaw and Mary Hemming and also No one belongs here more than you – stories by Miranda July.

Where can we read your work?

Digitally, you could download the wicked free app Gimbal and read or listen to my translation of Eman Abdelhamid’s story set in Barcelona and written during her residency there, or read my subtitles on these excellent ethnographic films about the commodification of heritage of ‘Rebranding the Levant’, or you could watch this footage of me reading my translation of Gazan Atef Abu Saif’s short stories shot by the Manchester Literary Festival a few years ago.

In print you can find my work most easily in Madinah: City Stories from the Middle East edited by Joumana Haddad (Manchester, Comma Press: 2008), or in Emerging Arab Voices, a bilingual reader, edited by Peter Clark.

Or you can find me in two forthcoming volumes this spring/summer: the PalFest anthology, and Syria Speaks: Voices from the Frontline, which is an exciting project.

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  • Isameldin

    I want to write to you in Arabic so you explore new zones across this rich language plateaus , especially about time ; there are stunning examples as that of the prominent Egyptian poet Ahmed Higazi ;when he came from his village : young stuffed to the full and very proud of his natives customs which welcome the strangers and the big Capital city people who only talk to you when asking about time ! I can translate it as :
    They talk to only to ask : What is it ?
    and at his seventies he celebrated his Orientalist close friend Jean Perk on his retirement appreciating his company which led him to :
    We have discovered a homeland in the oleander rose
    And pure time oozes down the valleys as seasons pass by
    We are unfortunate to be born in Higazi first phase of age and still staying at ;that why wars famine and poverty master while you are on his opposite age phase lucky and happy . Envy aside little sister ; you have inspired me to read history poetically .Thanks

  • Isameldin

    عزيزتي لوسي . بحق استمتعت بالمقابلة التي اجروها معك , تعجبني الامانة والعفوية عند الناس , اطربني قولك ان التجدث بغير لغتك بشبه دخولا الي نفس بديلة والي اسرار غير التي تالفينها وان ذلك ذو صلة وقربي بالموسيقا والرقص . كان حالي وانا اكتب لك بالانجليزية مثل حالك وانت تخطبين بالعربية , طارت كل مفرداتي وقواعد اللغة ! لذلك اقول : ان احمد عبدالمعطي حجازي الشاعر المصري الشهبر عندما اتي من قريته الريفية الي عاصمة بلاده كان حانقا علي اهلها لانهم لايلقون بالا الي الناس :
    لو كلموك يسألون كم تكون ساعتك
    او عندما يسأل عن مكان يكون الرد :
    ايمن قليلا ثم ايسر يا بني
    قال ولم ينظر الي !
    لكنه حين خبر الحياة تحولت قضية الزمن الذي اغضبه وهو غض الاهاب الي نقيضها , اثير وجمال لا حدود له . في سبعيناته وهو يحتفل بصديقه المستشرق الغرنسي جان بيرك بمناسبة نزوله للمعاش :
    واكتشفنا وطنا في زهرة الدفلي
    ووقتا صافيا يرشح في الوديان من كر الفصول
    ثم وجه الله والكون الذي يمتد
    ما بين امرئ القيس الي لوركا
    ومن دلفي الي قبر الرسول
    ولدنا في عهد حجازي الاول حيث التذمر وضيق الصبر لذا ليس لدينا سوي القلاقل والنزاعات وولدتم في فترته الثانية حيث التسامح والاثيرية فما اسعدكم والهم لاحسد بل الشكر لانكم جعلتموني اقرأ التاريخ والدنيا شعريا

  • Isameldin

    Hello Sam , I’m very sorry forgetting to thank you for making it possible to meet the freelance translator Alice on paper ; etiquette is something new with us ; Thank you Sam Sedgman .

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