Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp is a literary translator who brings books into English that were originally written in Arabic, German or Russian. Here she talks to FCBG about translating Yulia Yakovleva’s The Raven’s Children and Kathrin Rohmann’s Apple Cake and Baklava, two children’s novels (9+) that touch on traumatic events in history from a child’s perspective.
Tell us about these two novels. Firstly, what or who is the Raven in Yulia Yakovleva’s The Raven’s Children?
This is a gripping story about a family in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, a very dark time in Russian history when thousands, perhaps millions, of innocent people were arrested for being ‘enemies of the state’ and sent to the Gulag labour camps in Siberia. This era is known as Stalin’s Great Terror. Seven-year-old Shura and 9-year-old Tanya wake up one morning to find their parents and little brother have disappeared in the night and they have no idea why. All they know is what they overhear the neighbours whispering: their parents were taken by the Black Raven. What can they do except go and find this mysterious Raven and demand he hands their parents back?
Historically, ‘Black Raven’ was a euphemism for the black cars driven by the secret police when they arrested people in the middle of the night. But Shura and Tanya don’t know that or why people always whisper about ‘the Raven’ as though they are afraid to mention his name. The author Yulia Yakovleva superbly captures the fear and suspicion that pervades a tyrannical police state, and as the reality Shura once knew crumbles around him, he finds himself in an unnerving other world where the walls literally have ears and eyes, birds can talk and the relatives of political prisoners become invisible, and untouchable, as they are rejected from society.
When translating I was conscious of a major difference between how the book would be read in Russian and in English. Russian children would at least be able to ask their parents or grandparents about the Black Raven and other details of Soviet life, even if the young readers themselves had never heard of them before. In English, neither the young readers of the book nor their parents would be familiar with the context. So, together with the brilliant editors at Puffin, I had to find ways to squeeze in subtle hints about the Raven actually being a car, although Shura imagines it as a scary bird-man with a touch of Stalin. We had to add these hints while still being true to Shura’s point of view and without spoiling the suspense and the mystery. There were many little things like this that made it a constant challenge to keep the translation consistent with the Russian original while also being accessible to a very different readership.
The novel Apple Cake and Baklava has three recipes at the back of the book and food in its title. What is the significance of food and recipes to the story?
This is a story told from two perspectives: Leila and Max. Leila has recently fled the war in Syria with her mum and brothers. When she loses a precious memento of home – a walnut from her Grandmother’s garden – Max helps her to look for it and the two become firm friends in the process. The title reflects the Syrian and German perspectives, but the theme of food is significant because it comes to symbolise home: recipes remind characters of the places they had to flee and embody memories of their loved ones; sharing food (baklava, ma’moul date pastries, apple cake, Lebkuchen honey spice biscuits…) is what brings people together. Baking baklava for the Christmas Fair also helps Leila’s brothers to settle in at their new school.
What I love about the book is how the children deal with the half truths the grown-ups tell them. Both Leila and Max worry about what they overhear, especially when they think they’re not supposed to know. Max overhears his Granny Gertrud telling Leila the story about her Lebkuchen recipe, which was a parting gift when she too was a refugee during World War II. Because Max’s family never talked about this before, this revelation that his German Granny was also once a refugee is as baffling to him as it is reassuring to Leila.
How accessible are these stories to readers who don’t know Germany or Russia? Are these stories primarily about those places, or are they universal stories that just happen to come from Germany and Russia?
The Raven’s Children is the first in a five-part series Yakovleva is writing about the history of Leningrad (now St Petersburg), and the city is alive in this book and a very tangible setting – almost a character in its own right. It’s ironic that St Petersburg, which was built by Peter the Great to be a window onto Europe, is full of a sense of being closed off by the iron curtain, of being a shut-down police state. But you certainly don’t need to know anything about Russia to appreciate the story and to empathise with Shura and Tanya in their scary predicament.
While the story is about Russian history and repression under Stalin, it is universal in how it deals with the psychological effect of living under leaders with unchecked power, in dictatorships where people are deprived of civil rights and of control over their own fate. What is exceptional about this book is how it focuses on a child’s (incredibly resilient) response to this trauma.
Apple Cake and Baklava is a story about leaving home, starting life in a new place and the challenge of making friends. The way that the author Kathrin Rohmann captures the social awkwardness of these 10/11 year olds reminds me that the emotions they feel are absolutely universal. But I kept the occasional German detail in my translation, such as calling the teachers Herr and Frau instead of Mr and Mrs, to gently remind readers that the setting is Germany, so that they aren’t surprised when they suddenly start speaking broken English in their English lesson! I also felt that keeping a few German and Arabic words might help the reader slip into Leila’s shoes, as it’s a little taster of how it feels arriving in a different country.
With thanks to Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp