Your Career in Translation

Anam Zafar, Exeter alumn and Translation Editor for Cadenza Academic Translations, and Freelance Literary Translator

Anam Zafar graduated from the University of Exeter in BA French and Arabic, 2018. She’s currently Translation Editor for Cadenza Academic Translations, and is also an award-winning Freelance Literary Translator. 

What have you been doing since leaving Exeter, and what are you doing now?

I’ve done a range of things since leaving Exeter. Since before Exeter, I have been a keen volunteer for various charitable causes, and knew that the humanitarian and development sector was a possible career option. At the same time, I loved my degree, and wanted to be able to use languages in my career. I especially enjoyed translation, which we got to try out in the final year of University, and in final year I decided that I wanted to do an MA in translation.

I wanted to have a break from academia before the MA, so I first worked and volunteered for a year in the humanitarian and development sectors to see what it was like as an employee rather than a volunteer, and to see how my languages could come in useful. I began the year as an intern for Islamic Relief (in Business Development) and was then employed by them temporarily (Archives), before going to Greece for three months to volunteer in refugee camps. Although all these roles needed language skills to a certain extent, I realised that unless I found an actual translation job within the humanitarian and development sector, I would rather engage with the sector as a volunteer. I also realised how much I missed intense language work, I knew that I definitely wanted to do the translation MA. Therefore, one year after graduating from Exeter, I joined the University of Leeds Applied Translation Studies MA course.

“The literary translation work is going well so far: I’ve won some translation awards, been longlisted for another, and have had work published in literary journals.”

The MA made me realise how much I enjoyed literary translation (translating novels and short stories, rather than translating business documents or articles). I knew it was very hard to make a decent living from literary translation alone, but I was determined to fit it into my career somehow. So I decided I would try to become a freelance translator, where I could balance commercial translation work with literary translation work.

After finishing my MA in summer 2020, I went straight into an internship with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna (Editing and Terminology), and at the same time was awarded a literary translation mentorship from the National Centre for Writing. I didn’t do any actual translation as part of the IAEA internship, but I realised how much I enjoyed related language work such as editing English-language articles. I wanted to find a part-time in-house translation position with a translation agency after this internship, to build more experience before going freelance, but at the time there wasn’t anything going in my language pairs.

Instead of spending months applying for jobs, I decided to become a freelance translator straightaway (Jan 2021). I did this for eight months, and was then offered an in-house position as an editor for an agency I was already freelancing for: Cadenza Academic Translations. Now, since September 2021, I work for Cadenza four days a week editing academic articles that have been translated into English from French and Arabic, which leaves time for literary translation on Fridays and some weekday evenings.

I also deliver creative translation workshops in schools with the Stephen Spender Trust. The literary translation work is going well so far: I’ve won some translation awards, been longlisted for another, and have had work published in literary journals. My objective going forward is to work with publishers to translate and publish full-length books from Arabic and French into English. I’m interested in adults and kids literature, including novels, short stories, and graphic novels. I’ve appeared online at some literary festivals this year, and also volunteer for World Kid Lit.

Why did you choose this career? And what do you enjoy most about your work?

As my passion for languages increased during my BA at Exeter and my MA in Leeds, I knew I wanted to use languages in my career. After my internship at IEA where I did a lot of editing, I also realised I’d be happy adding editing to my career. With Cadenza Academic Translations, I enjoy how much I learn about the world on a weekly basis, and being on top of the latest research in the humanities and social sciences by getting to work so closely with academics and their papers!

My colleagues are all equally passionate about languages and editing, and I appreciate the conversations we can have about the placement of punctuation or whether or not to capitalise something – conversations many other people in my life may not appreciate so much!

“With literary translation, I enjoy the creativity needed to recreate a story or a novel in another language. I am a very creative person, and I appreciate being able to use this aspect of myself in my work.”

With literary translation, I enjoy the creativity needed to recreate a story or a novel in another language. I am a very creative person, and I appreciate being able to use this aspect of myself in my work. I also enjoy the freedom that comes with choosing your own projects: if I enjoy a book in French or Arabic, all it takes is to make sure no one else is already translating it, and I can get going with trying to get an extract published in literary journal, or pitching the whole work to English-language publishers. I’ve also made some great friends through the literary translation community.

With both aspects of my career, there are chances to network and socialise, and these are very important to succeeding and finding out about opportunities. But the work itself is very much ‘head down’, which I’m totally fine with. If I enjoy my work, I prefer being left to get on with it and don’t mind sitting in front of the computer on my own for most of my working time. I also appreciate that my career allows me to work from home.

What did you enjoy most about your programme and what was the biggest highlight?

I had some inspirational tutors who genuinely cared about our progress. I enjoyed speaking lessons a lot. The biggest highlight was my year abroad in Jordan, during my Second Year. I think it was a good idea to send us abroad in second year, because our Arabic level improved extremely quickly, which we were then able to hone for two more years when we got back to Exeter.

What skills and experiences have been most useful for your career?

The translation classes I had in my final year at Exeter, for both Arabic and French, were vital to getting me where I am now. The grammar lessons were also vital, because as a translator and editor, you must be able to understand the text in the original language inside out. While I’m only involved in written translation and not spoken interpreting, I still appreciate the spoken language lessons I had in both languages. This allows me to communicate with authors in my literary translation work.

“Do all the homework and attend all the classes – it really makes a difference to be fully committed.”

What advice would you give to a current student who wishes to pursue your career?

Do all the homework and attend all the classes – it really makes a difference to be fully committed. Don’t be afraid to reach out to translators and other types of professional linguists online. As a student, I did this a lot, and it helped me to understand the industry and to work out if this really was the career for me.

What are your plans for the future?

I plan to stay at Cadenza for at least a few years. I also want to continue developing my literary translation work. I’d love to translate some full length works, and will continue pitching to publishers. I also want to continue with translation workshops in schools, and start speaking on panels and giving presentations to encourage emerging and potential literary translators.

Find out more about Anam on her website