Emma Ramadan, translator and co-owner of Riffraff Bookstore, talked with us about her passion for translation, her love for French literature and some challenges she faces while doing her work. She also mentioned some of her future plans. Enjoy!


  1. How did you get involved in the world of translation? Do you remember any books or authors who inspired you or led you to this field?

When I was studying comparative literature in college, I felt like something was missing. I would read a book, write an essay about it, read another book, write another essay, on repeat. I didn’t feel like I was actually engaging with the books I was reading in English or in French in any satisfying way. Then I found out there was a translation track of the major that incorporated writing workshops, linguistics courses, and of course translation workshops. All the pieces came together, and it felt like I was really getting something out of the experience of reading and writing, and also contributing something to the literary landscape at the same time. A few of my college professors who are also translators, Forrest Gander, Cole Swensen, and Robyn Creswell, were very instrumental in showing me the beauty of the field.

The first author I read that made me want to translate was Marguerite Duras. Her language was so beautiful, so rhythmic, and I connected to it on a deep level. I wanted to be able to engage with it more than just reading it, I wanted to get inside the text, deeper into the words, into her world. And so I translated some of my favorite Duras passages for fun, and it opened up a desire in me to translate professionally.


  1.   You translate texts from French to English. What would you say is your favorite thing about translating from French and what is a challenge for you in the process?

I love translating from French because the language isn’t limited to a single country or region. Translating from French means being able to read and translate books from Europe, of course, but also Africa, Canada, the Caribbean, Oceania. The reason for much of that proliferation of the French language is rooted in a dark history of colonization, but it means that today French translators are able to bring diverse stories into English from all over the world.

A big challenge I’ve faced translating French is the sonic nature of the language. The way a lot of French words sound alike when said aloud, the way French-language authors can play with rhyme or other sonic features of the language, has proved difficult to replicate in English, especially for the book I’m translating right now, Dans l’béton by Anne Garréta, much of which incorporates homophonic language and wordplay.

  1.   In your words, what is translation?

A translator’s love letter to a given work.

  1.   In your opinion, what role does translation play in the modern world?

Translation allows us to develop empathy and understanding for others in the world, to know stories other than our own, to grasp experiences outside the realm of what we are familiar or comfortable with, to challenge the way we perceive or use language.


  1.   What do you think about culture and language being an inseparable whole? What is your point of view?

There are a lot of ways in which culture has shaped language and viceversa. But I think language has always, and will always, possess the power to carve out space for those who feel at a disconnect from the existing culture. Language has always been a tool for those on the margins to create their own cultures.

  1.   How has your vision of literature changed due to your work in translation and being the co-owner of Riffraff bar and bookstore?

My translation work, and being a part of the greater translation community, has hugely expanded my notions of what literature is or can be. Some of my favorite books, writers writing about things I didn’t know women were allowed to write about, or writers using language in ways I didn’t know were possible, have only been made available to me through translation.

As the co-owner of Riffraff, I am often completely overwhelmed by just how many books are published each year. It has affirmed for me that I am very happy to be a translator, as opposed to a writer; I would much rather allow people to access the fantastic stories already being told around the world, rather than adding my own voice to the sea of books.


  1. Finally, do you have any projects planned out for the near or far future?

In February 2020, my translation of Javad Djavahery’s book My Part of Her will be published by Restless Books. It’s a really exciting novel about a young man growing up amidst the Iranian revolution, haunted by his obsession for his cousin Niloufar and swept up in the dangerous political scene of the time. In May 2020, Seven Stories will publish my translation of Abdellah Taïa’s A Country for Dying, about four Moroccans living on the extreme margins of Parisian society. And in September 2020, Other Press will publish my translation of Meryem Alaoui’s Straight from the Horse’s Mouth, about the daily life of a Moroccan prostitute who finds herself cast as the lead role in a major film. I can’t wait for all three to come out!


Follow Emma Ramadan on Twitter: @EmKateRam

Visite her website here.