Alice Guthrie (2014 ALTA Fellow)

Alice GuthrieAlice Guthrie was unschooled as a child, growing up wild and free in a gentle rural backwater in the east of England, surrounded by books and stories and a creative family. At 14 she entered the state school system, another world entirely, where her previous intense love of sciences was efficiently banished from her system for a full twenty years. Her love of languages (she had been studying Latin at home, from some quaint 1950s workbooks, with lipsmacking enthusiasm and deep concentration, and had been exposed to plenty of French by her francophile mother) fared better, merely getting frozen for a couple of years. Despite the barren neo-Victorian paradigm of the conventional school system, and its innate dumbing down function, school was a fascinating and hugely important experience, as it exposed her to people from very different social contexts: her first real taste of the exotic Other, basically. From about the age of 15 she got increasingly excited about the prospect of travelling the world, and on leaving school at 18 she set off out into it, spending the next seven years supporting herself in all manner of amazing and so-called unskilled jobs in Greece, Ecuador, Spain, Morocco, France, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Birmingham and London (almost as different to the UK provinces as anywhere else on the list). Having grown up in a tiny village near a small town, cities have always fascinated her, along with urban slang and dialects – which she found herself learning along the way. It dawned on her, to her amazement, that she was a linguist: a humble but somehow huge revelation. Pretty much all aspects of foreign language have proved to be immensely nourishing, ever since.

She gradually became fluent in Spanish and French and began to pick up bits of Arabic – strongly drawn to its distinctive sounds and its rhythm, utterly vague about what might lie behind them culturally or indeed how difficult it might be to learn a new alphabet. At the age of 24, on realising that living abroad itself was no longer sufficiently stimulating, and feeling the need for a big new project, university education seemed the logical next step. Strangely, translation appealed even then: it seemed to have a unique glamour to it, and a nobility, that she has since learnt is only sensed by translators themselves and certainly not by the wider community! Having heard that Damascus was the best place to learn Arabic, and IFEAD the best institution teaching it anywhere in the world at that time, she managed to find a UK university that would send her there as part of her undergraduate degree, back in the blissful era before tuition fees changed the UK higher education landscape for good. Over the next eight years she wove that degree in and out of all sorts of other adventures and travails and travels – having doubled her mandatory year in Damascus, with her second year of studies at IFEAD funded by a notorious alcoholic lottery-winner from her hometown, having fallen in love with an Algerian and gone to live with his family for several months on the edge of the Sahara, having got drawn into remote travels in Canada and the Mid West – finally graduating in ‘Arabic with Translation’ at the ripe old age of 32.

By this time she was already working a little on commercial translations and some eccentric small literary projects. Since then she has gradually increased her literary and arts media translation from the Arabic, with the projects most dear to her heart being Syrian. Although it turned out that her original love for the sound of Arabic was based around the North African dialect – ringingly absent from the streets of Damascus – Syrian dialect has become one of her most central heartsongs, and attempting to carry that melody over into English has become her passion and her great privilege. Coming from an unconventional background, and from outside of the establishment, she is perhaps predictably hysterical about helping subaltern voices get amplified on the global literary stage. She’s looking forward to loads of intensity and inspiration at ALTA 2014, and is very chuffed indeed to have been selected as a Fellow.

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About Erica Mena

Erica Mena is a poet, translator, and book artist.
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