Guest Interview: Translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp Shares Insight on Translation Rights & the Bologna Children’s Book Fair

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Spotlight image: Ukrainian children’s books at the Ukrainian publishers’ stand at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

The 61st edition of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair took place April 8 – 11 in Bologna, Italy. Cynsations reporter Elisabeth Norton interviewed translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp about her experiences at the Fair.

By Elisabeth Norton

Why did you attend BCBF this year?

I was invited to speak on a panel at the Translators’ Center about diversity in children’s publishing (see a video of the panel “No language left behind, no book left behind”), so that made it easier to decide to travel to Bologna this year, at the point that I was weighing up the cost against the potential benefits.

I’m a literary translator based in the UK, and have often been to London Book Fair – to meet publishers face to face, network and catch up with other translators, and research potential publishers to reach out to for future projects. But the expense of travelling to Italy and the accommodation makes it that much harder to justify: is it really worth the cost and effort for literary translators?

It’s hard to quantify, but I’d say yes. The first time I went in 2022, I travelled there with Claire Storey, fellow literary translator and at the time co-editor of World Kid Lit, the hub for global literature for young readers. It made the whole thing so much less daunting, and was both reassuring and energizing to have a friend to meet at regular intervals throughout the fair for updates and impressions. And to be able to nudge each other to be brave: go and talk to that person!

This time I was arriving on my own but I knew I would have friends and colleagues to meet and catch up with, I had a moderately busy schedule of meetings with clients old and new, and most importantly for me at the moment I had plans to meet with some of the Arabic children’s publishers who I’ve been in touch with for years but had never met in person: Rand of Tamer Institute, Ramallah, the occupied West Bank, Taghreed and Salwa of Salwa Books in Jordan, and Amina Hachimi Alaoui of Yanbow al-Kitab in Morocco. Amina’s publishing house was this year awarded the Bologna Prize for the Best Children’s Publishers of the Year 2024 (Africa). Congratulations to all at Yanbow al-Kitab!

Ruth with Amina and Lawrence Schimel, author and translator

How was your experience at this year’s fair the same or different from past fair(s)?

The main difference for me was the professional journey I’ve been on: two years ago, the first time I went to Bologna Book Fair, I was a literary translator gradually researching how literary agents work, whereas this time I went as a literary translator who had decided I was going to become a literary agent myself.

Back in 2022, it was gradually dawning on me what a key role literary agents play in determining what gets translated into English (and what doesn’t). That year I spent a lot of time at Bologna attending talks about agenting, meeting literary agents representing various markets, even in languages I don’t translate from, for the sake of research for World Kid Lit, and to find out more about agenting generally.

I then spent a lot of the next two years trying to persuade some energetic and enterprising literary translator colleagues that they ought to become literary agents because – especially for Arabic authors – there is a dearth of specialist agents. There are a couple of agencies representing adult authors but no literary agents for children’s and YA writing – despite Arabic being the written and publishing language of over 20 countries. It’s a vast market that is almost entirely unrepresented by translation rights professionals.

Fast forward to this year when I finally decided that this really is a gap in the market that needs to be filled, and it’s going to be me who does it! So after months of research, generous advice and encouragement from colleagues, and initial conversations with Arabic-writing authors I’d love to represent (and potentially co-translate together with other translators), I arrived at Bologna this year deciding I was going to talk about my new agency, Azulejos, in the present tense. This wasn’t just a project I was thinking about setting up, it was actually happening.

The terrifying thing was to come home and realise that I actually have to get on with it now! One month later, my company is registered and I’m ironing out cooperation agreements with some of the people I met at Bologna. Hopefully the next time I’m there, I might be signing my first rights deal. A year seems a long way off now, but it feels like a year goes by very quickly in publishing.

What was the highlight of the fair for you?

Making friends through books! At the Translators’ Center, I spotted a familiar book on a table: Milch ohne Honig by Hanna Harms (Carlsen, 2022). I thought, “Oh! That’s my translation. But it can’t be – it’s in Italian!” It turned out the lady standing next to me was Roberta Scarabelli, the book’s Italian translator and she was celebrating the recent publication, just as I had the week before with our English edition! We had a lovely conversation, and then met again at a dinner hosted by CEATL – the European umbrella organization of literary translators’ associations. What a lovely serendipitous connection.

Roberta Scarabelli and Ruth

This and so many encounters at Bologna reminded me that behind so many fabulous books for young people is a network of passionate booklovers working often across national borders and language barriers to bring the best stories and illustrations to new editions in other countries

Although I’ve been to Bologna before, and London Book Fair perhaps eight or nine times, this year was the first time I had the pleasure of meeting in person an editor I’m currently working with on a project. It might sound funny to many professionals, but in translation it’s quite common to never meet your clients face to face! And while I had often met an editor or the publicity team at a publishing house long after finishing a translation, e.g. at the book launch, I had never met a publisher during the very lengthy process of getting a book to print.

I had an absolutely joyful meeting with Joy Bean of Arctis Books, for whom I had recently translated Christina Wolff’s The Ghosts of Pandora Pickwick (Hummelburg, 2021); I had her edits waiting in my inbox to review the week I got home from Bologna, but in the meantime it was good to talk about her interests and wishlist as a commissioning editor, and think about which Arabic author I might send her way!

It was also a pleasure to meet Genya of GenyAgency and Satenik and Yana of Meow Agency, two literary agencies I’ve enjoyed working with recently on samples; for Meow I was in the middle of two samples of queer romances by German YA author Nina Kay.

Ruth with Satenik and Yana of Meow Agency

And the other highlight was the book launch of La Bambola – the Italian translation by Leila Mattar of Taghreed Najjar’s لمن هذه الدمية؟ (Whose Doll Is This?). This YA/adult crossover novel is the very moving story about a Palestinian-American high school graduate finding her roots, about her grandmother Leila being reunited with her treasured doll that she’d had to leave behind when her family fled their home in the 1948 Nakba, and about a cautious sort-of-friendship between Leila and Nurit, the Jewish Israeli who moved into Leila’s family’s house as a little girl, after the foundation of Israel.

It’s a book I’m keen to help find a home for in English (a brilliant, long sample has been translated by Marcia Lynx Qualey), and it was so inspiring to hear Taghreed talk with such beauty, eloquence and compassion about these human stories at such a painful, fraught time.

from right to left: Leila (translator), Salwa (publisher), Taghreer (author) and Maria (amazing interpreter!)

As a translator, what advice would you give to other translators about attending the fair?

If you’re based in Europe, consider travelling to Bologna by train rather than flying. I’m a supporter of Fossil Free Books and Tree To Me: two initiatives aimed at making the publishing industry more sustainable, indeed carbon neutral as soon as possible. Coming from the UK, it takes two days to get to Bologna by train, but if you can justify the stopover with a research trip to some bookshops or libraries in, for example, Paris, Geneva or Zurich, why not take the chance to explore the utterly stunning train routes through Switzerland?

I stopped in Zurich for a day on the way home and was very grateful for the time to unwind and mentally digest after three days of stimulation and conversation.

On a similar note, if you are comfortable with walking, and can find accommodation near enough to BolognaFiere, I recommend traversing Bologna by foot rather than taking the bus. The public bus system is relatively easy to use, but the buses to the book fair site are crammed, and after a busy day surrounded by humans, many of us need to get away from the crowds for a while. Walking the back streets into the city, or even hiring a bike to make your own way to the book fair and back, can be an energizing way to unwind after the hectic whirlwind of conversations and schmoozing.

Beautiful Bologna

As for the book fair itself, take a water bottle and lots of snacks as the food vans are pricey; happily there are water refill stations though it’s not always easy to find them. I recommend taking a photo of the site map and saving it as the wallpaper/screensaver on your phone, or saving it in an easy to find place. I seemed to have a mad panic five minutes before every meeting, trying to navigate from one hall to another. It is a logical layout, but it’s also very easy to get turned around and forget which hall you’re in!

And some advice about any book fair. Use it as an excuse to reach out to editors who you might be shy to write to normally, and write to request an appointment three months in advance; editors’ schedules book up fast. Ideally you’d have a book in mind that you’d like to tell them about (think an elevator pitch, or a project proposal you can summarize quickly and with enthusiasm), a shortlist of recommended authors and illustrators to tell them about, or some recommendations of publishers and agents in another publishing market to share.

The role of a literary translator is rarely just translating; we have to be enterprising and imaginative about how to interest potential publishers in the books we’d love them to also fall in love with!

Bring more business cards than you imagine you could ever possibly give out, and don’t be shy: give them all out and get talking to people across the publishing landscape.

Think of the contacts you make at a book fair as seeds that might take a while to germinate. You might need to water them with a few informal emails when you have some news or book ideas to share, but with time these seeds sprout in unexpected places. As Julien Chung pointed out, it’s not only editors and publishers who you want to remember you; sometimes it might be a recommendation from a fellow translator, an agent or an illustrator that leads to a translation project.

And bear in mind that however much your head is spinning after what seems like a thousand conversations in three days, the editors you spoke to will be even more overloaded. So don’t forget to follow up with a friendly email a week or two later to remind them who you are, your interests as a translator, and the services you can offer.

Cynsational Notes

Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp is a literary translator, teacher and publishing consultant working mainly with Arabic, German and Russian. She is founder of Azulejos Agency, a new boutique literary agency specializing in translation rights for authors writing in languages other than English.

Ruth is a passionate advocate of world literature for young people and diversity in children’s publishing and education. She is managing director of World Kid Lit, children’s literature consultant for various literature festivals, and writes about global reading for young people at Words Without Borders, SCWBI magazine Words & Pictures, and World Literature Today.

Ruth translates fiction and nonfiction from Arabic, German and Russian for English-language publishers worldwide, and has a particular interest in history, historical fiction, works for children and young adults, and diverse and inclusive literature, including works by authors of colour and immigrant writers, queer writing, and texts exploring neurodiversity, disability and diffability.

Elisabeth visiting Korea_Pavilion

Elisabeth Norton is a neurodiverse author and poet. As a reporter for Cynsations, she covers international aspects of children’s publishing. Originally from the US, she lives in Switzerland where she teaches English as a Foreign Language and writes poetry, picture books, chapter books and middle grade novels in verse.

Her poetry for young readers has been included in several anthologies, including Things We Eat (Pomelo Books, 2022) and Imperfect II: poems about perspective: an anthology for middle schoolers (History House Publishers, 2022). She serves as the Assistant International Advisor (Outreach) for SCBWI. You can find out more about Elisabeth and her writing on her website.