Arabic's Magical Formulas: Interview with Francisca Mcneill

At ITA, the latest crop of mentees were announced for the Writers Centre Norwich's annual literary translation mentorships. In the last of our series of interviews with the recepients, our publisher, Deborah Smith interviewed up and coming translation star Francisca Mcneill.

What's your connection to the language you'll be translating from? Are there any other languages you know, or have even tried translating from?

I didn’t start out with a connection to Arabic – it was a bet. I’d never heard it before, didn’t know anything about it, didn’t know anything about the Arab World; I was more into Scandinavian languages and Italian. And I always watched German TV, on top of the American, British and Dutch TV I grew up with, so those were the languages I really liked playing with. But I always got excited about language learning – all my friends knew about it because I’d constantly bother them with stuff in different languages and I’d send them letters with sentences I’d made up and stuff. So one day a friend of mine said, “I bet you can’t learn Arabic”. It was the first and last language-learning bet I ever took. I did it without knowing in the slightest what I was in for: up to that point I had looked at languages as something to write with, to express yourself with, to have fun with. But some time into learning Arabic, after I’d decided to study it formally, I realized that this “language” is not just a language: it’s a wealth of magical formulas, a mystery that cloaks a huge empire, and the amount of knowledge that can be found in this language is just astonishing. I completely changed my direction in life when I started studying it: I went from wanting to become a musician to wanting to become a translator. The other languages I’ve tried translating from, in a literary capacity, are mainly Russian and German, but I’ve also translated some stuff I’m hoping will be published somewhere at some point, for example Manifestation by Swedish writer Vio Szabo (published by Mix Förlag) – a bitter short story about one person’s gender transformation in a Swedish activist “commune”. I’ve learned how to read several other languages, and I do use those for commercial translation, but I think it might be better to reserve my literary skills for those languages whose literatures have really influenced my life. I’m still dreaming of getting to translate some Flemish and Swahili literature some day, as well.

What's the appeal of literary translation, and how did you fall into it? What's your path been like so far?

I do love taking on other people’s voices when I translate, and trying to catch all the little nuances, references and hidden meanings that exist in literary texts. The challenge of literary translation is not only to render all those things correctly and stylishly, but to discover them in the first place. It’s an exercise in understanding, and I’ve found that trying to translate a story makes my understanding of it that much deeper. That makes literary translation a bit like a treasure hunt. But I didn’t “fall” into literary translation – it was a conscious choice, and I think that might be the same for a lot of people, because making a name for yourself in publishing is hard. You have to really persevere to be able to even translate one book for one publishing house once in your life, so only a very lucky few accidentally end up being full-time literary translators. So I think my path is fairly straightforward and similar to that of a lot of aspiring literary translators. I knew a few languages, studied translation at university, found out what types of things translators do, and started doing all those things. I’m not special. But I think literary translation is. Literary translation is an art form, and that’s a draw for me because I feel like art is the highest thing we can strive for in our society. What appeals to me about it as well is the fact that stories stay with people. Storytelling in general, including as part of other creative outlets besides books, has such a huge effect on the world. Stories can create our entire realities (just look at the stories Donald Trump tells himself). A translator has the hallowed job of introducing new ways of thinking, new knowledge, to new audiences. What’s not to like about that?

Do you have a favourite author whose work you'd love to translate? What kind of writing appeals to you? As well as your aesthetic preferences, are there any other issues - gender, social class etc - that would make you keen to translate a particular author?

For the Writers’ Centre Norwich Emerging Translators Mentorship I am focusing on works by Jordanian/Egyptian writer Ghalib Halasa. I’ve been studying his writing for so long it’s become like a pipe dream to publish any of his works in translation, but I am hoping that this mentorship will change that. It was actually his translations that introduced me to his writing: I did my MA thesis on the Arabic translation of one of my favourite books – one of my teenage bibles – The Catcher in the Rye (by J.D. Salinger). Ghalib Halasa was the person behind that translation, and naturally I got curious as to what else he had done. He is dead, but not to worry, because I have been holding séances with his spirit to make sure he is happy for me to promote his works... The type of writing I normally go for is actually pretty antiquated in comparison with Ghalib Halasa’s. Whereas he was a very controversial figure who was always pushing boundaries, the other writers I’ve drawn inspiration from were very much accepted by their contemporaries. I tend to read things from way, way back, and I’m definitely more about story than style. I’ve read nearly everything by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for example, and the authors who have influenced me most are probably him, William Faulkner, H.P. Lovecraft, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson - and those last two are known better for their essays. Even Dostoyevsky wasn’t exactly known for his wonderful style. But in the past few years I have come to realize that the canon consists mainly of white, male, Christian, dead authors, and obviously the movement around that now means it is a great time to start enriching our writing with some fresh perspectives. So if I could choose a literary project I would have to go for something that plays with ingrained, one-sided perceptions – that would interest me. I can’t think of any specific author that I would like to put forward; maybe Vio Szabo, although I’m not sure they published anything this last while. Maybe others across the world who write about transgender issues. I’ve always had a huge respect for the drag community, for example, which I think is another community that gets left out in mainstream literature. RuPaul of Arabia, anyone?

 Aside from literary translation, what do you do?

Too much stuff, to be honest. I’m always busy with something language-related. Right now I’m writing a thesis as part of a Leverhulme-trust funded, full-time Linguistics PhD that’s part of the project Morphosyntactic Variation in Bantu: Contact, typology and change with Professor Lutz Marten, Dr Hannah Gibson and Dr Rozenn Guérois as well as others at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London) and other universities. At the same time I’m doing this WCN mentorship and an editorial internship at London media company White Label Productions. I’ve also been responsible for the Translation Society at SOAS, which I founded in 2014, but I’m hoping to pass on the torch very soon (volunteer applications welcome!). On top of that I do freelance translation work for some clients from Russia, Germany and the Benelux, Sweden, the US and the UK, and I recently founded a company called BOOM Linguistics, which promotes creative language work and creative translators. When I get a free moment I usually play guitar, go to concerts, stand-up comedy shows and films, or just explore a bit on my motorbike (although it’s no cakewalk driving in London). I travel a lot, too, mostly to see friends and family, but this year has been pretty good for tourism as well: I visited Kazakhstan and St. Petersburg (Russia) for the first time, and I’m about to go to Sicily.

The talented Francisca Mcneill

The talented Francisca Mcneill

Francisca Mcneill is a translator and linguist currently based in London, England. Her professional interests include languages of the less powerful, literature challenging normalized thinking, and cross-overs between different forms of art, including interactive media and music. Her growing arsenal of literary languages includes Arabic, German, Russian, Swedish and French. She is currently investigating languages of the Kilimanjaro area (Tanzania and Kenya) as part of a doctoral research project at SOAS University of London. Get in touch with her at instagram or twitter @linguafrancisca.