from Not Your Baby
by Seluah Alsaati
introduced and translated by Sophie Ruthven
What starts off as a promising surprise encounter with the handsome Nabil develops into something dark and twisted, and Samira finds herself trapped in a destructive relationship with seemingly no way out. As she struggles to understand herself and others, she is saved by the support of friendship, guidance and listening to what she knows is right.
Inte din baby has to be one of the tougher literary texts I’ve ever translated. As a text with its origins in spoken word, there’s a lot to think about in terms of rhythm and general musicality alone. Yet making the words flow like speech also involved considerations of voice, specifically what kind of Swedish Alsaati had written in. Translation is a funny job where the ‘new speaker’ of a text really needs to remain in the background and allow the original speaker to shine, and yet to do this successfully we often have to interrogate our own style, to see if it leaves room for another’s and represents it fairly.
Samira and her friends’ voices are the voices of Järva in Northern Stockholm. Consequently, some of Inte din baby is written in these voices, and directly as spoken, but not all of it is totally phonetic, or aligns with speech. That said, the flavour of speech, the characters’ voices, are clear. I knew that any English translation would have to give readers this conversational vibe, so I relaxed some written forms, thought about how they actually sound when spoken, English with all its funny silent letters and schwas. The next problem was, however, immediately obvious: how to translate ‘non-standard’ Swedish? I couldn’t translate it into ‘non-standard’ English, whatever that’s supposed to be. This topic is thorny and prompts several classic translation questions. Can you match one part of the world directly to another? What are you saying when you use one variety of a target language to represent a specific source variety? And what is a variety anyway? The choices made often say a lot more about power and history than musicality. My solution in this case was to use the most verbal version of my writing as possible, the non-standard variety I trust myself most in. The result is probably something nebulously South-eastern English, maybe not too far north of the Thames. It’s certainly not the only thing I could have done, and there are no doubt many other ways to tackle the same problem. The process involved a number of fun drafts.
When I first started translating the extract, I was being mentored by translator Nicky Smalley, whose advice to incorporate a lot more reading out loud into the revision process really shone in this case. I’d also agreed to do a reading of the finished extract for the YouTube-based project TranslatorsAloud, with which SELTA had a ‘residency’ in 2022. I read one section at a time out loud, paring the words down to mimic speech as much as possible, before reading the whole thing through as you do when practicing music. In the end I added a lot of the standard written forms back in to reflect the balance of standard to spoken forms actually present in the source text, but I think the whole process was pretty important for the music and the life of Inte din baby, and I really hope this carries Samira and her world over to English-language readers. Because at its core this is a story about being young, being scared, and being very brave, one which I think readers everywhere can get behind.
from Not Your Baby
I need three things from a guy. One: he’s gotta know how to behave right. That means he messages back quick. If I message him and he don’t answer within three hours, I ditch him immediately. He’s also gotta know how to ask two questions in a row. Most guys manage to ask one question: ‘sup?’ But followin that up with another seems harder than keepin a pair of white trainers white.
The ones that talk too much I ditch too. I was at a guy’s place and his flat was the bomb dot com, there was a painting of 2Pac covering a whole wall. But he’s speaking nonstop as if I’m his audience. Sure he had dollar, but he had even more hot air, so I lost it. Got up to go. He ran after me like a little puppy, asking why I was leaving. I gave him a tip for next time: ‘Show some interest in your date, ask questions and listen to the answer. Then it’ll work out for you. It’s a shame, 'cause I like your flat.’
Thing number two: he’s gotta be intelligent. He don’t have to be Malcolm X, but he should be woke. He’s gotta be able to see and analyse his surroundings. He’s gotta care about other people and want to do something about injustices. I wanna be able to respect his opinions and intelligence. Not like this other guy who dances as well as Chris Brown but mixes up Palestine and Pakistan.
Thing number three: he’s gotta be able to satisfy a woman. He’s gotta understand how women work. I don’t think most guys do. They snort porn and think that all girls want it up the ass, to be fucked by three men at the same time, and that they moan the moment they see a cock. But boy, I’m not gonna make a sound for you until you start to work that shit.
If my ex had been as good in bed as he was at football, I’d have been the queen of orgasms. He shot me sexy looks from the pitch and I imagined what his calves looked like under his white socks. He’s called Ahmed, but everyone calls him Ahmed the Foot ’cause he’s so quick with the ball. He can score goals from the halfway line but couldn’t even score me properly from a centimetre away. So I asked him:
‘Do you even know what a clitoris is?’
‘Is it an animal?’
To know how to behave right, be intelligent and satisfy a woman. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Right? These abilities seem to be divvied up among different people. Either he’s kind and an absolute genius but sucks between the sheets. Or else he’s got so much going on down there that he’s got nothing upstairs. But I keep on searching for him. My dream man.
Maybe it’s him sitting in front of me on the metro right now? Oof, what an aura! His jaw, lips, eyebrows... He brushes away a lock of black hair which has fallen in front of his eyes, puts his hand back into the pocket of his Armani coat. Our eyes meet. I go red and look away. People are standing all packed together like at a gig; one woman’s drinking her morning coffee, the rest have their noses in their phones. A phone call, unknown number.
‘Is that Samira I’m speaking to?’ says the woman on the other end. ‘Could you perhaps tell me a little bit about your problem please?’
Argh, not now!
‘Don’t have one’ I answer and throw an uneasy glance at the guy in front of me. Why is he lookin at me like that?
‘You rang the health centre yesterday and we said we’d get back to you. How can we help?’
How can you help? My bum is burning! Make it stop! But obviously I can’t say that, even though it’s true. I ask her to gimme an appointment and say I’ll explain everything in person. But she insists, ’cause to book an appointment with a doctor they need to know what the patient needs help with.
‘Sorry, I can’t hear you.’
Oh no, that came out too loud, everyone must’ve heard, where can I go bury myself? The guy in front of me smiles, he has two cute dimples on each cheek. Why is he smilin, it’s not funny!
‘Where is it itchy?’
Nope, no, no, I don’t think I’ll answer that question. I’ve got the man of my life in front of me and a whole metro carriage full of people with two ears, does she think I’m gonna to answer just like that?
I hold my hand in front of my mouth so they can't hear me:
‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’
‘It’s itchy down there, can’t you hear properly?’
‘Could you repeat that please, the reception is quite poor.’
I click her off. It’ll have to burn, I can’t risk losin my future baby daddy over a ridiculous doctor’s checkup. Wanna look at him again, but without him noticing. With the window, that’s perfect. But he notices of course, meets my gaze through the reflection. Did he hear some of the conversation? If he did, I’m dead. He smiles again and this time I can’t not do the same.
After a while we stop fighting it and stare at each other, totally unashamed. I lol when I realise how corny it must look. Does he usually flirt like this with girls, and so early in the morning? He nods at my phone. What does he mean by that? He nods again and I’m still clueless. Does he want the phone? I hold out my phone and he takes it, writes something, gives it back and gets out at the next station. Come back! He’d written just one word. Nabil. And a number. Just like that, nothing more. But that was all that was needed.
A day later I’m standing at Trondheimsgatan bus stop, waiting. On the bridge which crosses the street, someone has spray painted #TTT in big, white letters. The kids on the bench scooch up to make space for amo. A few cars go past; a man is walking on the grass beside the road. The 514 comes, the kids and amo get on, other people get off. A dark-blue car drives past the swimming pool and heads in this direction. It edges in and stops in front of me. The car window rolls down, and it’s him! Oh my goood, he’s coming to meet me in a BMW!
‘Hop in,’ says Nabil and nods at the seat beside him. It’s the first time I’ve heard his voice. It’s deep, as I’d imagined. I sit down tentatively on the black leather. It feels luxurious against my ass.
‘Shut your eyes,’ says Nabil and revvs away. ‘Don’t look so shocked, twenty minutes and we’re there.’
Twenty minutes! That means crazy far away. I shut my eyes. The track playing is sick, but I can’t remember the artist’s name. Be humble, sit down, be humble, bitch sit down. Where are we going though, really? Pizzeria, kebab shop? Maybe his place. Nah, he lives in Akalla, that’s a minute away from Husby, not twenty. How smart is getting into a car with a stranger anyway? Mum would go mental if she knew. We stop, but the motor’s still running, must be a red light. I wanna take a sneak peek but let it lie.
‘You like Kendrick Lamar?’ Nabil says.
That’s what he’s called, I remember now.
‘He writes the sickest tracks,’ Nabil continues. ‘Listen, the lyrics are insane. On one track he’s rappin as if he’s his own mamma, d’you see, he’s mamma telling us how hard it was to bring up her child on her own and prep him for being a poor black man in the USA. And all of it rhymes perfectly. All the other so-called rappers can’t do a thing, they chat shit about guns and hoes but this guy, he’s the real deal.’
The car starts rolling again, turns, drives proper fast. Actually it’s pretty nice not to see. Looking at him is too nerve-wracking.
Nabil gives a speech on how hip hop has gone from being a way for oppressed people to be heard to becoming a whore for the industry. How some play it tough but don’t even write their own lyrics.
‘I write my own lyrics,’ I say.
‘Incredible, you’re the next Cardi B.’
Haha, next Cardi B, I wish. Me and my best friend Amina love her.
‘Do you also rap?’ I ask.
‘Nope, I make beats.’
‘Can anyone else listen?’
‘They’re nothin special, but yeah, you can have a listen later. Open your eyes.’
We’re outside Gröna Lund! I’m dyinggg. I’ve only been here once before and that was with my siblings, Laura and Evan. We were the biggest attraction in the place, ran around like kids, rode everything, played everything, hid when they were closing up.
‘Two rides,’’ says Nabil once we’ve gone in. ‘Who’s choosin first?’
We walk past people who are competing for chocolate, cuddly animals and toys. They’re throwing balls, shooting stuff with bows and arrows and guns. The kids’ rides are here– the Ladybird ride, Flying Elephants and the Teacups. On the adults’ side we go past the Tunnel of Love, the Magic Carpet and the Funhouse. But right now, Nabil is the biggest attraction here. Who is this man who picks up dates at the bus stop and brings them here?
‘Free Fall,’ he says.
‘Free Fall? Never!’
The worst thing I’ve ever heard, he can’t be serious. My siblings tried to force me last time, but I refused. It’s life-threateningly dangerous, that one. Everyone knows you can fall out and die.
‘Come on, it’ll be fun!’
‘No, you can take me wherever you want, but not that one.’
‘Let’s go,’ he says and takes my hand.
Oh my goood, he’s holdin my hand. It’s soft and fits perfectly in mine. When I see Free Fall rise into the sky, I’m close to shittin myself. He must sense that I’m shakin ’cause he gives my hand a squeeze.
‘Listen, you can relax with me,’ he says. ‘I won’t let anything happen to you. If you make it through this, you’ll make it through everything.’
There’s a high-pitched shriek, everyone hurtles straight down, the machine rumbles, brakes, slowly descends the last little bit. Everythin's over in a few seconds. People look like they’re gonna throw up as they step off.
I climb up onto the chair like a robot, buckle myself in: Nabil gives a thumbs-up. We start movin upwards, I stretch out towards him but can’t reach his hand. Why did I go along with this? Should’ve already said no when he asked me to shut my eyes in the car. The buildings, the water, the sky and the birds blur. We’re fuckin high up. This isn’t human. We stop, why aren't we moving? Get me out of here. There’s a jerk and we’re pulled downwards at a horrific speed. I scream for all I’ve got, my stomach clenches, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die, my hair is flapping about, my cheeks are flapping about, I cling on as hard as I possibly can. We brake, slowly descend. Finally over. I climb out on wobbly legs, the whole world is spinning. Nabil and I look at each other and laugh. He hugs me and I get another knock-out. His smell! Jeez, I wasn’t ready. He holds me steady so I don’t fall apart like spaghetti.
We sit down on a bench and he pushes away some hair that’s fallen in front of my nose. His gaze slides down to my lips, up to my eyes again.
‘You’re a fighter,’ he says. ‘Now it’s your turn, what’re you after?’
What am I after? Now it’s my gaze that slides down towards his mouth. No, concentrate Samira. There’s so much to do. The Blue Train, the roller coaster, waffles, lángos, cupcakes in a hundred different flavours... The House of Nightmares, a big black mansion with spiderwebs and neon green lights outside. It’s gonna be tamam.
‘The Haunted House,’ I say.
‘Not the Haunted House!’ Nabil’s eyes widen.
The guy will voluntarily ride a kilometre up into the air only to plunge down like a bird without wings, but is scared to death of a house with the lights off. It’s too adorable. Nabil protests when I take his hand, tells me about ghosts, spiders and vampires that jump out totally unexpectedly.
‘There are real animals in there! Swear on my life, you can get bitten by a snake!’
I buy candyfloss and ask him to open his mouth so I can see the sugar melt on his tongue, then I lead him into the darkness.
‘If you make it through this, you’ll make it through everything.’
‘Hey chill brother, why you runnin so fast?’ Amina catches up with me, she has her hand in front of her mouth. ‘It’s just a warm-up.’
As she closes her mouth, she pulls her hand away again and it’s as if the braces behind don’t exist. She was at the dentist’s right before training and, as her best friend, I have the right to be the first to see her wearing them. But she refuses to open up. It’s no biggie though. Today, nothing matters. Today I’m strong. I could run up and down Mount Everest ten times and still dribble past Cristiano Ronaldo if I got the chance. Amina is used to me being half a step behind her. I usually have to fight to keep up with her. But these days I’ve been a horse! A machine! As we cross the finish line after the final lap of the pitch, we’ve got the rest of the girls behind us. I throw myself down on the grass and Amina lies down next to me. Today I’m gonna score ten goals. Everyone’s gonna see. The new Samira 2.0. Even the weather is on my side. The sun is high fiving me.
Amina bends over and stretches out her legs.
‘What you grinnin at?’ She flinches, shuts her eyes and quickly pulls her hands up in front of her mouth. But it’s too late. I saw the tracks. And they weren’t ugly at all. But that face. I’d pay five grand to see it again. It looked like her Baba had caught her smoking a joint. Psychosis. I lol and throw myself down on my knees.
‘Stop it bro’, she says and kicks me in the shin. I lol even more at that.
‘Nah for real they’re mad nice.’
I say she should pimp the braces with diamonds. She tries to look angry, but I know there’s a smile hiding behind that.
When all the girls gather into a circle, I have to fight to stop laughing. Gunilla tells us that we’re gonna start with an exercise called Ronaldinho. It involves training ball control inside a small area with loads of obstacles.
I pinch my lips together to hold back the lol that’s sitting in my mouth like a tsunami. You’ll manage it, Samira. Don’t think about Amina. Don’t think about her wide-open eyes. Yep, look down at the grass, that’s the best protection from a lol. Focus on Gunilla. She’s saying that we should work our way through the cones with feints, without losing speed.
Gunilla points towards the cones on the pitch, I look up, see Amina by chance, the tsunami surges out of my mouth. I lol so hard that I get the other girls started too.
‘What’s going on that’s so funny?’ Gunilla don’t look happy. I bite my tongue to keep the rest in. This is supposed to be my day to shine. Not to piss off Gunilla.
‘Just ignore her,’ says Amina. ‘Seriously she’s been like this for weeks. In the classroom, at break, walla even when she’s doin a shit she’s lollin.’ Amina mimes my face when I’m shitting, then lolling, then shitting, then lolling again. Now even Gunilla can’t restrain herself.
‘Shut your mouth you’re gross,’ I say but deep down I’m happy ’cause Amina can keep a secret. She knows it’s ’cause I’ve met Nabil but she don’t say anythin about that, just makes a joke instead. And she knows that when I’m ready to tell people it’ll come from me. That loyalty is love. This is my girl. My ride or die.
Inte din baby
Natur & Kultur, 2020, 176 pages
Foreign rights: Carin Bacho, Koja Agency.
We are grateful to Koja Agency and Seluah Alsaati for permission to publish this translated extract.
Winner of the 2020 Slangbellan Award: Debut of the Year (Children’s and YA).
Seluah Alsaati is a community organiser and has written rap, poetry and drama. Inte din baby was initially written in 2017 as a monologue for Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, but was re-written as a new story in book form.
Sophie Ruthven is a translator from Swedish, Norwegian and German, as well as general language lover. Also a ski instructor and artist, she lives in Innsbruck.