Translator interview: In The Belly of the Queen

New Books in German speaks to Grashina Gabelmann, translator of Karosh Taha’s novel In the Belly of the Queen.

Karosh Taha’s second novel, Im Bauch der Königin (DuMont Verlag, 2020) was recommended for translation by New Books in German, and will be published in Grashina Gabelmann’s translation as In The Belly of the Queen by V&Q Books on 1 April 2023. The novel is a coming-of-age story with a twist, set in the Iraqi-Kurdish community of an unnamed German city.

The novel tells the stories of two teenagers, Amal and Raffiq, who recount the events of the summer of their final year at school, interspersed with memories of growing up in their close-knit Kurdish immigrant community. The novel can be read from either end of the book: one half containing Amal’s version of the story, and the other giving us Raffiq’s perspective.

Sheridan Marshall: Thanks for taking the time to talk to New Books in German, Grashina. You have a very busy schedule – can you tell us how you came to be a literary translator, and how it fits in with the rest of your work?

Grashina Gabelmann: Thank you for doing this interview with me. Becoming a translator is something that happened naturally through my other work. I am co-founder and editor-in-chief of Flaneur Magazine, a site-specific magazine focusing on one street per issue in different cities throughout the world. Our small team will spend two to three months on location researching and meeting lots of local personalities and artists of all disciplines. The whole process takes over a year and the end result is a literary, fragmented and very subjective storytelling of the street. The magazine is always in English and in the local language. The first issue was in Berlin and the second in Leipzig so I did most of the translating from German into English myself. I never officially learnt how to make a magazine or be an editor and I never officially learned how to be a translator but it was just something I threw myself into in my early twenties and I had all the freedom to experiment and learn. Gradually I was asked to translate for other projects and my portfolio and experience grew.

What have been your most interesting translation projects so far?

Definitely this book as it is the first novel I have translated.

How did you come across Karosh Taha’s work?

I knew of her work through mutual friends.

In The Belly of The Queen is an extraordinary novel with an original approach to its narration. Can you talk us through your experiences of translating it?

I started with Amal’s story, for no particular reason. I read her story quickly; the absence of speech marks, the run-on sentences, the sharpness of her observations made me pick up the pace as a reader and I almost immediately began translating sentences in my head while reading, which hadn’t been the plan. The unconventional flow Karosh has managed to establish for her character Amal is powerful and determined, which helped me get into the character’s mind from the moment I picked up the book. I translated her entire section before even reading Raffiq’s. I wasn’t sure if doing so would limit my knowledge needed for translating but it felt right at that moment and, frankly, stepping away from Amal wasn’t an option.

This isn’t to say I recommend the reader to start this book by reading Amal’s section; it just happened to be how I experienced the book. During the course of translating and going through several rounds of editing on my own and then with Angela and my publisher/editor Katy, I read the book from both sides several times until I was essentially reading in a circle – sometimes clockwise and sometimes counter-clockwise and, by doing so, I was fully able to dive into the experiment Karosh underwent in choosing this unconventional book format.

There were many terms and customs I was not familiar with and would research them during my translation process. This of course is essential to really understanding the characters and the story and I loved that the novel taught me a lot of things.

Grashina Gabelmann

In The Belly of The Queen addresses the complexities of daily life for a community of Iraqi-Kurdish immigrants living in Germany. Did you have to do any research into Kurdish traditions as you were translating the novel?

There were many terms and customs I was not familiar with and would research them during my translation process. This of course is essential to really understanding the characters and the story and I loved that the novel taught me a lot of things.

What were the particular pleasures and challenges of translating this novel?

I especially liked translating the language used by the teenagers in the book, not only of Amal and Raffiq, but also of their friends. I liked capturing their flow, vibe, and their particular slang. This felt really playful.

Who is your favourite character in the novel and why?

Shahira is of course fascinating not just for Raffiq and Amal but also for the reader and translator. Both stories somehow revolve around her yet her presence is subtle. I think the beauty of Shahira is her ability to take on a different role for each reader and every time the book is read. To me she is more like the sky: the sky holds the weather, lets it happen and isn’t hurt by it – it just is. I also feel drawn to Amal’s mother who turns to religion after her husband leaves her as a way to protect herself from the men in her neighbourhood. She is a very powerful character though seemingly so fragile.

Which scene or episode in the novel did you most enjoy translating and why?

What immediately comes to mind are passages that bring Amal closer to her mother: when Amal has just aggressively scraped nail polish off her fingers after being made fun of and her mother comforts her.

There are also several stories within the two stories like tales Raffiq’s father used to tell him. These brought yet another tone into the novel, which was enjoyable for me to work with.

Who are the contemporary German-language authors whose work has not yet been translated into English who you would most like to recommend for translation?

Ralph Tharayil whose debut novel Nimm die Alpen Weg was published in March 2023, Fabian Saul whose debut novel will be published with Matthes & Seitz next year and Senthuran Varatharajah.

Which book would you like to translate next?

The books of the above-named authors. I would also love to translate Karosh’s first novel and any future work she will publish. I think it would be exciting to forge a long-term relationship with a writer’s work.

Grashina Gabelmann is editor-in-chief and a founding member of Flaneur Magazine, a site-specific, interdisciplinary, and award-winning publication focusing on one street per issue. She writes psychogeographic prose and works as a translator.

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Grashina Gabelmann photo credit: Mario Heller