Just six years after publishing her first translation, Aneesa Abbas Higgins won the 2021 National Book Award for Translated Literature for Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho. In this conversation, Abbas Higgins talks with Samantha Schnee about coming to translation in middle age and offers tips for aspiring translators at any point in their careers.
Samantha Schnee (SS): What was your first translation and how did you get it published?
Aneesa Abbas Higgins (AAH): My first published translation was What Became of the White Savage by François Garde (Dedalus, 2015). It was published through a mixture of luck and persistence. I’d recently finished a year of studying for a postgraduate certificate in the theory and practice of translation at City University London, a course I’d signed up for as soon as I retired from teaching. At the end of the course, I knew I was only really interested in pursuing literary translation, although I did enjoy the other categories of translation too. (If I’d been younger and embarking on a first career, I would probably have launched myself as a “commercial” translator first.) I was put in touch with Ros Schwartz, who had created a package of excellent advice for would-be literary translators. I spent a couple of months scouting for books I particularly liked that hadn’t been translated and experimented with various voices. I worked up some samples and started approaching publishers I thought might be interested in those books. Most of my attempts at contacting publishers and making my pitch came to nothing, but I persisted and eventually found success with Dedalus and François Garde’s book. It took several months to secure the contract after the initial contact—I started pitching samples in the summer of 2013 and finalized the contract for the translation in the spring of 2014. The book was published in the spring of 2015.
SS: What were the things that were most helpful to you when you were starting out?
AAH: Workshops, master classes, short courses, and summer schools were all very helpful. I went to book launches, events like International Translation Day, translation talks, and slams put on at the Free Word Centre in London, and of course the London Book Fair. I went to the Salon du Livre in Paris too—it was all part of my attempt to understand how the publishing/translation industry worked. I knew absolutely nothing about any of it when I began. I joined the Translators’ Association as soon as I could and signed up for other groups such as the Emerging Translators Network and EuroLit Network. I went to every translation-related event I could, networked as much as possible, followed up on every contact, and relied heavily on the excellent advice and support offered by more experienced translators. Of course, this was all pre-COVID!
SS: What happened next?
AAH: New friends and colleagues I’d connected with through all that networking sent bits and pieces of work my way. I started being asked to write book reports of French books for UK publishers. I also developed a relationship with a French publisher and translated numerous samples, blurbs, and catalogues for them. I translated a children’s picture book and then went back to searching, pitching, doing more professional development. I took some creative writing classes, which I highly recommend to all would-be translators. It’s so important to have confidence in one’s own ability to write well when translating. I started writing book reviews for various online outlets and continued preparing book reports for UK publishers. Eventually I was asked to do a sample for another novel and secured my second contract—for Seven Stones by Vénus Khoury-Ghata (Jacaranda Books). I was given a real boost when it was shortlisted for the Scott Moncrieff Prize, something that definitely added to my CV and helped to raise my profile.
“There is no such thing as the right way to go about becoming a translator.”
SS: How did you come to translate Winter in Sokcho?
AAH: I found it in my local bookstore in France (I spend several months a year in my house there). I loved it immediately and set about doing a sample and pitching it to publishers. I also submitted it to Asymptote for the New French Voices feature, and they accepted and published it. As a result of that, the publisher at Daunt Books approached me and we went on from there.
SS: How closely did you work with the author? How did that differ from working with a dead author? Do you have a preference?
AAH: I haven’t worked with any dead authors! The first two authors I worked with didn’t do email, but with Elisa Shua Dusapin, as with other authors, it was much easier because we were able to communicate by email from the start. My preferred method of working with an author is to approach them when I am working on my second or third draft with questions and queries that I haven’t solved. Sometimes I ask for clarification, sometimes for confirmation that I have not misinterpreted something that is quite abstract or ambiguous. I try not to rely on the author too much—and my experience has mostly been that authors are happy to be asked and quite willing to elaborate. Because of lockdowns and restrictions, Elisa and I haven’t actually met, but we have exchanged many emails and “met” many times via Zoom!
SS: What advice do you have for aspiring “second-career” translators of any age?
AAH: Be persistent. Don’t give up. Don’t be disheartened by rejections. Accept that luck will play a part in your finding work and that you may be passed up for projects in which you’ve invested a great deal of time and energy. It’s all part of the learning process.
Be willing to march up to people and introduce yourself—don’t be shy! There is no such thing as the right way to go about becoming a translator, and there are many different ways of being a good or successful translator. The experiences gained from a lifetime of reading and pursuing other professions are invaluable assets.
Cultivate a style or a niche that you feel you can successfully represent. I am particularly interested in works by Francophone women writers whose culture and interests originate beyond the confines of Europe. I’m of mixed heritage myself (my father is an Indian Muslim and my mother was English, and I grew up in the UK feeling very much an outsider). I instinctively gravitate toward that “outsider” view. I also like to translate books that take me all over the world and not just to France. I’ve translated books set in the Maghreb, the Comoros, Korea, Japan, Australia—very little that actually takes place in France!
Don’t expect to get rich from translating. It’s a very tough way to make a living and the financial rewards are minimal. Most literary translators have other strings to their bow. If this is your second career—after “retirement,” for example—and you have a small pension or other source of income, your translation work can complement that. But if you’re still at the stage in life where you are supporting a family and saving for the future, you’ll need to do other things too, such as teaching or taking on commercial translation. Also, if you’ve had a career in teaching, for example, which is an intensely social activity, translation can seem very solitary. You’re alone at your desk all day, living inside your head, instead of running around interacting with other people in one way or another. In pre-COVID times, participating in translation-related events was a good way of getting out and mixing, but these days it’s not so easy. Hopefully that will change eventually, but as a translator you do at least have the advantage of not having to adjust to working from home!
Aneesa Abbas Higgins translates mostly literary fiction from French. Her translation of Ali Zamir’s novel A Girl Called Eel was awarded the 2020 Scott Moncrieff Prize and her translation of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s Seven Stones was shortlisted for the 2018 prize of the same name. Other authors she has translated include Tahar Ben Jelloun, Elisa Shua Dusapin, Nina Bouraoui, and François Garde. Several of her translations have received English PEN awards, including Nina Bouraoui’s All Men Want to Know.
Published Jan 18, 2022 Copyright 2022 Samantha Schnee