Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

The Money Question

This is the big, million-dollar question: can you actually make a living as a literary translator?

Although if I could make a million dollars just by answering that question, I wouldn't have to worry about that, now, would I?

Here's the simple answer: no.

Sorry to burst your bubble and all that. But it's very true, and we can't delude ourselves. You really can’t make a living just as a literary translator. At least, not until you’ve got a decade or two under your belt. That being said, though, it's not that surprising: this is a creative, artistic industry, so this is just like how you can’t make a living just as a fiction writer until you get your first big advance, or until you've got a few books done, or until (wait for it) you've been working at it for a decade or two (surprise).

That being said, though, there are plenty of ways to earn enough money to live off of, and not all of them are abhorrent. Cross my heart! You don't have to waitress, temp, or stock a grocery store. Unless you want to. Chances are, you can get a day job (or additional freelance work) that actually has something to do with translation, or literature, or some facet of what drew you to this career in the first place.

On to the examples! I know you were dying for some examples. That's why you're here, right? At any rate, these are all real, actual jobs that friends and colleagues of mine have. They're really real. And they get paid well enough to support themselves. I promise.

•    Academia: This has been the classic path for a while. You get tenure, benefits, funding, and a healthy amount of time to work on your own research, which can of course include translation. This is starting to be a little less of a sure thing, because of high adjunct rates and not enough jobs, but many universities are starting to be much better about counting translations toward tenure. (Some people love scholarly work, but obviously, if you're someone who sees academia as a prison, you'd do best to avoid this route.)

•    Freelance editing, copyediting, proofreading, or other publishing tasks: This can be of translated or non-translated texts. Either way, though, you're probably going to be working for more commercial houses, and probably doing a lot of what could be considered more "popular" work -- romance novels, mysteries, a lot of the genre works.

•    Commercial translation, otherwise known to the wider world as just "translation": This is the business side of things. Legal, pharmaceutical, marketing, subtitles . . . any type of company and industry you could possibly imagine, so long as they operate globally. As a fair warning (from personal experience), this can be pretty dry and dull, considering the types of writing that probably got you interested in the literary side of things in the first place. That being said, though, if there's a particular subject area that you enjoy, you can specialize and get direct clients, which can actually be fairly lucrative.

•    Salaried publishing job: This one's nice, if you can get it. In addition to actually working in the industry you'd like to be in, stretching your own editing and writing skills, and learning much more about the publishing process, you could even end up working for a translation publisher! (As of when this post was published, Two Lines Press still had an opening available for an assistant editor. So cool!)

•    Get a sugar daddy/mama: I mean, let's not beat around the bush. If you happen to be dating/married to someone who has a really well-paying job, then you don't have to worry about supporting yourself. Full disclosure: this is me. I have an engineer husband who is, shall we say, the primary breadwinner. (So instead of worrying about pulling my weight financially, I spend some time each week volunteering and giving back, translating for a couple of NGOs and serving on the ALTA board, among other things.)

So, those are the broad strokes. How about you? If you survive just doing literary translation, how long did it take you to get there? If you don't, what other kinds of work do you do? What other ideas can we give people?

How to Pick an MA/MFA Program in Literary Translation (But first, do you even need one?)

I recently made a quick trip down to NYC at the invitation of the magnificent Sal Robinson for the first event in this spring's Bridge Series: Breaking In. Moderator Allison Markin Powell led Heather Cleary, Katrine Øgaard Jensen, Mary Ann Newman, and I in a discussion about the state of getting started in literary translation. As usual, though, there's so much more to say than can possibly be covered in such brief (but otherwise lovely) events. Blog posts have fewer limitations and more links, so let's unpack some of these issues a little more.

The night's first topic was MA/MFA programs in literary translation. One of the great things we've seen in the past decade or so is the sheer growth of programs, especially with how many new programs have started being offered in the States. But here's the thing: you absolutely do not need an MA/MFA to be taken seriously in the literary translation community. There's no real prestige to having an advanced degree in this field. So if you're already getting started yourself, you don't want to take on even more student debt, or you just don't really care for the world of academia, don't fret! This is a creative profession. Your work speaks much more to your abilities than any university-issued piece of paper can.

In order to decide whether or not an MA/MFA is right for you, consider what you’re looking for. Perhaps you feel your English (or whatever language is your own target language) writing isn't strong enough, or you're hopelessly under-read in world literature. Maybe you need to cultivate the relationships and connections necessary to be a freelancer in a creative profession. Or do you need pure business help, a better understanding of how the publishing industry works? If you're just looking for one or two facets of getting started, consider the following (much cheaper) options:

WRITING PRACTICE: There are lots of straight writing workshops offered by many different organizations. Look in your area, or check out these two online:

FEEDBACK ON YOUR TRANSLATIONS: This is pretty easy to do in an exchange between two or several translators. Don't be afraid to ask people -- chances are, they'd like another set of eyes on their work, too! Otherwise, for a more formal setting with experienced translators looking at your work, try the following options:

PUBLISHING INFO: Get an internship at a publishing house. Period. It's insanely useful. Find a publisher you admire and just ask them, especially if it's a newer or small press. Otherwise, here are some good places to start:

  • New Directions
  • Open Letter (generally offers month-long internships over the summer -- email them for more information if you can't find any online)
  • Archipelago
  • The New Press (another of my alma maters, if you can call it that)

THE BUSINESS OF FREELANCING: There are books to read, and there are online courses to take. Mix and match, if you like:

CONNECTIONS: Joining an organization and talking to people, whether online or in person, works really well! Check out ALTA and ELTNA (or, for a more UK- and Euro-centric focus, the ETN; or, for a global expat view, the Translators Association Diaspora group on Facebook). Plus, look in your area for translation-related events, and strike up conversations with people there. A mentor, whether informal or through a program, could also be a big help:

  • ALTA's Emerging Translator Mentorship Program
  • BCLT's Emerging Translator Mentorship Programme (old link here; new one coming once the administration of the program changes to Writers' Centre Norwich in mid-2016)

THEORY: Well, in that case . . . maybe you should just go apply to that MFA, after all.

So if you have decided on an MA/MFA program, now you have to choose which one! Although there aren't many out there yet (at least, not in the States), there are still enough different options for everyone, from the 1-year MA at the University of Rochester (the MALTS program, my own alma mater) to the 4-year MFA at the University of Arkansas (which is also lovely, and I know many people who've done that program who would tell you so).

Besides considering things like location, duration, and cost -- which are all very important -- here are two tactics to figure out which program to choose based on what you're looking for:

  • Look at the course list: Is it more theory-based? Lots of writing workshops? Any teaching required/offered? Any courses on how the publishing industry works? What are the thesis requirements? That should be enough to tell you what the different programs have on offer.
  • Look at the faculty, and do a quick Google search on them: Are they purely scholarly? Do they have translations published for a general audience (e.g. published by a non-university press)? Have they written articles for non-academic outlets? Do they serve on boards or run outside programs? That’ll tell you more about what the program will be like and what kind of contact circles/relationships you can expect to build.

So, that's that! Customary disclaimer: This is essentially my own opinion, and it's not the whole picture. Also, it's basically US-specific, since I don't know anything about the many graduate programs that exist in the UK or elsewhere. My personal frame of reference is that I took three years off after undergrad before going to get my MA from the University of Rochester, which was an excellent choice on my part and served the purpose I was hoping it would.

But what about the rest of you? If you got an MA/MFA, did you think your experience was worthwhile? Anyone out there not get an advanced degree and really wish they had? Do you disagree with me altogether? What information am I missing? Let me know in the comments below!

The Dramatic Irony Inherent in a Simple Bio

Repeating the same story ad nauseam can get boring. (Well, when you're learning a foreign language, introducing yourself and explaining what you study and why you're in Paris to forty-five people in two days is actually a good practice drill, but that's neither here nor there.) And granted, there's a good reason that lots of people in lots of different situations want to hear how I got started in literary translation, but it still eventually gets to the point where I'm dying to find different ways to spice it up a bit.

Well, I've figured it out.

Kind folks, I now present to you: the revised bio of Allison M. Charette.

So, you know the dramatic irony when you’re watching a really cheesy murder mystery on TV, and the killer hides behind a curtain just as the detective sweeps into the room? And the detective looks everywhere, getting closer and closer to the curtains, making you want to scream at your TV set “DUDE HE’S RIGHT THERE JUST GET CLOSER A LITTLE CLOSER COME ONNNNNNN”, and then finally, after what feels like forever, he sweeps aside the curtain—but it’s the wrong one. And he looks, carefully, painstakingly, then straightens up and says “Well, that’s that! A thorough search of this room: complete.” and he turns so confidently to leave and you’re like “NO YOU IDIOT THE OTHER CURTAIN YOU MISSED THE OTHER CURTAIN!!!!!!” and you start swearing at the detective and he can totally hear you through the TV set, can't he? And then it takes another forty-five minutes for the detective to finally catch the murderer, through a really circuitous series of roundabout wanderings, and you’re like “but if ONLY you’d just searched both curtains back at the beginning, you could have a whole month of your life back!”

Yeah, that’s how I got into translation.

Let me explain: I majored in French and even took two translation courses in undergrad (the first of which was taught by Emmanuelle Ertel, who’s just the most fabulous French translation professor). And I loved it, I spent half of my psychology lectures puzzling out new solutions to the translations we were doing. But I didn't look behind the second curtain, where there was a flashing sign that said “NEWSFLASH: YOU CAN DO THIS AS A CAREER”, so I didn’t get around to that revelation until three years later. Three years, a teaching stint in France, an admin job at a language school, a soul-sucking time at a mega-agency, and a publishing internship later. That's when I finally started translating for anything more than my own personal edification. And while I'm not really looking for those three years of my life back, because there were plenty of other wonderful, enlightening things that occurred during that time . . . I really could have caught the murderer sooner.

 

Studying the Backlash

Sadly, there's a new trend that's emerged, one that disproportionately affects people who are curious and inclusive by nature: hateful backlash and threats on the Internet.

Good job, humanity.

It's the kind of thing that makes you weep, that makes you scared, but it always happens to other people. It's just in the video game industry, right? It could never happen to me. It could never happen to us writers. All we have to deal with is censorship, right? (Not that that couldn't be dangerous, too.)

But I read a very interesting article the other day, a report by Chloe Angyal, an editor at the Huffington Post. "I Decided Not To Read Books By White Authors For A Year. Conservatives Lost Their Damn Minds." Take a moment and go read it, then come back here and we can debrief.

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Hi, welcome back.

Besides the general problem I have with people hating other people, the fear of things unknown that makes people lash out in anger, and what could possibly ever lead someone to threaten the life or well-being of another human just for implying that other humans are in fact human, there's a weird dichotomy here. Angyal is receiving vitriolic backlash for publicly stating her intent to read books by non-white authors in 2016. But Ann Morgan's project (and subsequent book) to read one book from every country in the world, A Year of Reading the World, received no such hatemail. (It's true. I asked her.) Whew.

On the surface, these two projects don't seem that different. One is publicly championing "minority" or "non-white" authors; the other, "foreign" authors. Both of these groups are part of the "unknown other" for the large section of the literary world that is white Anglophones. And although Angyal has a bigger online presence than Morgan, the latter has attracted a relatively sizable following in recent years. She's even given a TED talk.

So what is it? Is Angyal's project, shall we say for the sake of argument, designed to attract racists, by explicitly stating she won't be "reading any books by white people" this year? Whereas perhaps Morgan's project played more into the concept of exotic and attractive foreigner? Is it as simple as Angyal's idea being to NOT read certain things, and Morgan's idea being to read MORE things? I'm certainly not saying (oh gods please no) that either of these women deserve any hatred or backlash. But why the difference?

I don't have an answer. I can't figure out why Angyal's getting the response she is. I enjoy being optimistic and believing that we all can just love everyone, and I'm often disappointed. I think that reading books is fantastic, that everyone can read whatever books they'd like, and that reading books by authors who aren't like you in some way can open your worldview and bring you immense joy.

But then again, I'm a translator. Of course I would think that.

Tracing Word of Mouth

Before the Internet, that's how everything spread. Word of mouth was like wildfire. Sometimes it would beat newspaper headlines to the other side of the country. We may forget it, in this era of instant tweets, but people used to talk to each other all the time.

Geez, where did we go wrong? (I kid. The Internet is awesome and creates many opportunities that never existed before.)

Anyway. I've mentioned before that the Internet is not quite ubiquitous in Madagascar. All the authors I'm working with (save one) have an email address, but response times from them can range anywhere from a few days to a few months. Word of mouth is alive and well there.

And oh, in so many ways. Let me count them.

Way #1: Random Phone Calls

Week two into my Madagascar visit, I finally get an email from an author I adore! We set up a meeting! The meeting goes great! I ask him for a favor: there are a handful of authors I haven't been able to contact yet. Does he know them? Why yes! He'll contact them that evening and give them my information.

I'm an American. I found him via email. I assume he means email.

Fast forward four days, I'm in the bus (taxi-be -- remember those?) when my phone rings. My Malagasy phone. With a number I don't have programmed into it. Who the heck in Madagascar could have found that number if they didn't already have it? It's loud on the bus, so I can't even hear her name. She just starts going on and on about how somebody I met on Saturday told her to call me because I was interested in what she'd written . . . Oh. It's only one of the most lauded authors in all of Madagascar on the other end. What's proper talking-on-the-phone-on-the-bus etiquette, again?

Way #2: That Elusive Catch

A couple months ago, I was desperately trying to contact an author whose work I wanted to put into the issue I'm guest-editing for Words Without Borders. I'd only hit dead ends. No email online, no university posting that might have a phone number, no blog that talked about her, no contact from her publisher, no nothing. And yet, her bio mentioned her prolific writing career and the radio shows (plural) that she hosts in Mada. Someone had to know her, right? . . . Right??

I ended up mass-emailing all the authors I'd met while there to see if any of them knew her. Finally, one wrote back to say that he had a phone number for her . . . but it was disconnected. Sigh.

A week later, something must have changed. She was back on the grid! I put credit in my Skype account and dialed away. After a very awkward explanation of who I was and why I loved her so much, we set a date to have a call where she would answer all the questions I had about her work. (We ended up talking for so long that time that the call disconnected because I had run out of credit on my end. It's a common occurrence in Mada. She thought an American running out of credit was the funniest thing she'd ever heard of.)

Finally, I asked her the best way to get the contract for rights to her. Did she have an email address I could send it to? Well, no. And no postal address, either. Umm. Okay. I can't send a contract via phone.

What about that other author who'd given me her phone number in the first place? Was she friendly enough with him to have him serve as printer-and-email-holding intermediary? Why yes! Lovely. Excellent. All's well that ends well.

Way #3: Just Talk to People

My very first full day in Madagascar last year, I was running on terrible jet lag, four hours of sleep, and precious little ability to take care of myself. My host family had delivered me to the founder of the first non-profit organization I was visiting, who drove me two hours outside of the capital to rural Ambatolampy. The only way to stay awake (and be polite) was to talk, and he and his assistant were fascinated by what in the world I was doing in their country. I explained my job reporting on some non-profits, and then my own personal reasons for coming, mostly having to do with literature.

The assistant bursts out laughing from the back seat. The founder grins and says, "Oh, you must meet my wife."

He goes on to explain that he's married to the daughter of General Ramakavelo, a cultural figurehead of Madagascar and probably the only politician who's ever been beloved in that country. This daughter -- his wife -- is a champion of all things artistic, and has a wide network of authors whom she champions and runs events with. They're even going to a gala thrown by the Minister of Culture in a few weeks. I wouldn't want to come with, would I? (Sadly, it ended up taking place after I'd already left the country. But I got the contact.)

Is there a moral to this story? No, not really. It's just a story.

But talking to people is generally worth it.

Mispronouncing Everyone's Name

A few weeks ago, I got to attend what has become my favorite weekend of the year: the annual ALTA conference, this year held in Tucson, AZ. (This should surprise no one.) I had an absolutely wonderful time! (This should also surprised no one. But if you are surprised, then welcome to this blog! Feel free to check everything out.)

One of my favorite parts has become almost too popular in recent years: the Bilingual Readings. Anyone who signs up in advance is given the chance to do a reading of whatever translations they've been working on or had published, along with a snippet of the original text. It's a really fun opportunity to hear unfamiliar languages spoken -- this year, along with my usual French, I heard Albanian, Armenian, Bosnian, Chinese, Croatian, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Macedonian, Romanian, Serbian, Slovenian, Spanish, and Turkish.

But you read that part where I said it was almost (but only almost) too popular? So many people have started becoming so excited about these readings that they're now being double-booked. One of the things this means is that Alexis Levitin, the fearless leader/organizer of these readings for over a quarter of a century, can no longer be the emcee for every reading (as he'd like to be).

So I helped him out this year, at the "Romance and Mediterranean" session. My job was simple: introduce the readers, read their bios from the back of the program, and make some attempt at timekeeping. Turns out, I'm pretty good at that last one, but, despite years of theater experience, kind of crap at the first two.

Most of this is probably because some of my favorite translators like listing many of their authors in their bios, which I then have to read. But I found myself doing something odd. Something, for me, unexpected. I started glossing over all the author names, apologizing, even teasing the translators for having so many hard-to-pronounce names in their bios.

Now, perhaps all of this makes sense for an American who's studied French and is asked to read a Turkish name. But I've also studied Italian and Hebrew pronunciation in symphonic choirs. Why did I suddenly start giving up on those, too?

Sigh. I'm better than that.

There's also been a lot in the media recently, from academia to Tumblr, about microaggressions. (See this tool from UCLA with explanations and examples.) Plus: privilege, and biases, and safe spaces. Lots of good articles and starting points all over the place. And it got me wondering: should we translators and editors be doing more to work on this? How much harder is it for people who work in vastly international realms to figure out pronunciation rules for dozens, if not hundreds of languages? And is that any excuse?

I've been struggling with mispronouncing Malagasy names for the last two years. Yes, they're long. Yes, they have a few unfamiliar sounds in them. But shouldn't I just be working harder and practicing? Is apologizing enough?

Andriamangatiana. Jaomanoro. Rafenomanjato. I should be getting to the point where these names slide easily over my tongue.

Sigh again.

At least I've gotten to the point where I can spell them correctly on a consistent basis.

Well, frick that, then.

A friend of mine passed away today.

Except he couldn't have been a friend, right? We only exchanged a few emails.

And it wasn't today. Today is just when the news reached me.

David Jaomanoro is a Malagasy writer who spent the last eighteen years living in Mayotte. He won the Grand Prix RFI-ACCT de la nouvelle, a French short story prize, for "Funérailles d'un cochon". That story (and one other, along with a handful of his poems) was translated into English for the bilingual anthology, Voices from Madagascar/Voix de Madagascar.

This guy was a master of short stories. I read an entire collection of his, and you know how many stories I earmarked? 90% of them. I only earmark stories that I really want to work on.

I started translating one of these stories, "Nenitou", over a year ago, before I even went to Madagascar. I loved it, but I didn't understand half of the references. While in Madagascar, I asked everyone I met if they had an email or phone number for David. No luck. He was the only author I wanted to contact that I didn't reach by the end of my trip.

Months later,  I finally found a lead online. I sent him an email introducing myself and my project, held my breath, and let it out almost instantly -- he responded within just a couple of days. I asked him general questions about "Nenitou" and the rest of his writing, and he answered with grace and gratitude. He was incredibly sharp and well-spoken, and it was wonderful to read all his explanations. I promised to send him a list of all the specific questions I had about "Nenitou".

That email was sent on December. I never heard from him again. I followed up in March, just to see if it had gotten lost in the shuffle, but still no reply.

This weekend, I am in DC, working with a Malagasy-American author on a co-translation from Malagasy (not French) directly into English. We got to talking about other authors from her country, of course, and she started listing some of her favorites. She mentioned David's prize-winning short story and grabbed the collection it had first been published in, and then said, "Oh, but wasn't he the one who died?"

I hate it when my heart stops like that. When there's ever a reason for my heart to stop like that.

David Jaomanoro passed away from a stroke on December 7, 2014 -- the day before my last email to him.

It's the strangest feeling to suddenly understand the lengthy silence, to know that your questions will never be answered, to try to mourn someone you never met and knew little about.

Anyway. There's a nice obituary in French here, and a hefty bio also in French here. The first result I found online for an English-language biography is a one-line mention in a Wikipedia list. Maybe I can do something to change that. Maybe that's what I can do.

Revert, Revise, Reconfigure: My Brain

Here’s what being non-natively bilingual means.

It means that I didn’t grow up speaking French, but I speak it now.

It means I’m proficient, not fluent. It means I speak French well enough that a surprisingly high number of people have been mislead into the assumption that I’m actually French, but I still sometimes have to ask French people about vocabulary words.

It means that I can write pretty darn well in French, but if it’s a professional thing, I’ll have a native French speaker edit it.

It means I can slip very easily between French and English. It means I can slip very easily between the US and France and England and Madagascar.

It also means that my brain is wired one way, with additional circuits that have been added as the years have gone by.

When I’m in a French-speaking environment, I think in French. (That was one of the ways that I knew I was finally becoming comfortable with the language, when I could think and dream in it.)

When I’m in an Anglophone environment, my brain reverts to its original programming. And it reverts so much that all my memories transform into English memories. Any recalled speech from a French conversation is automatically recalled in English, and if I were to want to recount the actual French words for someone, I’d have to retranslate it back to my second language in my head.

Brain circuitry is weird. I don’t quite understand it sometimes.

Security, Life, and Madagascar

Point of order #1: I realize I haven't written much about Madagascar in the months since I traveled there. I've been hard at work doing lots of translating, both of stories and novel excerpts. The first piece has been picked up for an anthology from Serving House Books, and more announcements will be coming soon! If any of you lovely readers are interested in helping out, either from a publishing or translation standpoint, please do let me know.

Point of order #2: The main reason I haven't written much here is that I've been busy. (See above, plus life.) But the secondary reason is that I'm still trying to process a lot about my trip to Madagascar last summer/fall, and consequently about the decision I made to learn more about the culture to be able to introduce it to my home culture.

Here follows some processing.

I knew that I would experience major culture shock going to Madagascar. It was going to be like nothing I'd ever experienced before. I talked with some friends and colleagues before I left to get tips on traveling to an impoverished African country as a white American female, and I prepared as best I could. I also had essentially an entire family looking after me the entire time I was there, guiding me through the city, the food, the bathrooms, the expectations, and the very very few bookstores.

Because I had help, my experience was worlds easier than I'd expected. And yet it was also infinitely harder than I could have ever imagined. I was sleeping almost twelve hours a night, and I eventually realized it was because my mind and my senses were so overwhelmed with being constantly on guard. There was nothing I could take for granted, from the electricity being on or the water being hot, to being able to communicate with people or keeping myself safe.

This is hard to explain with the proper subtleties, so let me illustrate this with contrasting stories: a few weeks ago, I was pulled over by the police on the interstate in New York. (The reason was legitimate, but also unimportant to this discussion.) Although it was my first time being pulled over while driving, I knew exactly what to expect. I know a few cops, and they all say that traffic stops are the scariest parts of their jobs. They want to have as much control over the situation as possible, because anything could happen. So if they approach a car and the driver has already rolled down the window, turned their interior lights on, and put their hands in plain sight on the steering wheel, with their license and registration within reach, they feel better. Safer. So that's exactly what I did.

And I felt safe, too. I wasn't driving on a suspended license, the cop was just doing a routine stop, and I knew why. There was nothing for me to be afraid of, and no reason for me to not trust the cop.

(I understand that much of that feeling of security is because I'm white. That's a different discussion, but for now, I'll just acknowledge that I have that privilege.)

Let's contrast this to when the taxi I was riding in was pulled over by the cops in Madagascar around 11 at night in the middle of the capital city. I was going home from a party, one that I'd only attended because I'd been assured that the host would have a taxi driver friend of his available to take me home whenever I wanted. Madagascar doesn't have an official curfew, but it's not really safe to be out and about at night, especially for foreigners. Especially for a white vazaha. So I'd arranged a ride home well before the party. But come 11pm, when I wanted to go home, the host's friend was nowhere to be found. About five young Malagasy men, high schoolers, immediately volunteered to escort me to a taxi. They were friendly and protective (and still slightly in awe of me, the American girl), and they helped me find a taxi and negotiate a good price. The driver spoke a little French, and I knew the route home, so I felt as in control of the situation as I could have, given the circumstances.

The taxi was stopped by the cops as we were driving through the central square of the city. That was quite common, a practice set up to check the registration of taxi and bus drivers, and it does help to cut down on crime. But when we got stopped, they didn't care about the driver. There was a vazaha in the backseat. So I got asked for my papers, instead.

For security reasons—actual security reasons—I didn't carry my passport around with me. I had a copy of it and my visa. But as I discovered that night, that wasn't enough. I had to have my copy certified at the town hall. Fine. I said I'd do that come Monday morning. But that wasn't enough.

"Step out of the car, ma'am."

Well, it was that, in French. Said by a very uniformed gendarme with a semi-automatic weapon strapped across his chest. For all the talk about curfew, all the talk about corrupt politicians, no one had told me whether or not the police were trustworthy. I had no idea whether to cooperate or be scared out of my mind. Or both.

Ten minutes of questioning followed, while my taxi driver got out to smoke a cigarette. The questions started rather harshly, what are you doing in Madagascarwhat do you do for a living,  where are you fromwho are you staying with (which had the most terrifyingly hilarious response of "I don't know", because although I knew everyone's first names and had memorized the neighborhood name I was staying in, I hadn't yet memorized the last names of the huge family I was staying with . . . mostly because every generation has a different last name, and last names are quite long, and 95% of the last names start with A or R anyway). Eventually, the policeman turned a little chatty, was genuinely interested in what I thought of Madagascar, and I thought that maybe he was just bored and needed something to do.

Then, another police SUV pulled up onto the curb . . . in such a fashion that I was caught between the taxi and the first policeman, getting my shirt caught on the end of his rifle barrel as my toes tried to evade the SUV tires as they came by.

More questions followed, which now included the phrase well, we'll have to take you down to the station. Definitely not a situation I want to be in. I just kept answering any questions they asked, all the while asking if I could call my "host mom" to have her bring me my actual passport. The number I was actually bringing up on my phone, surreptitiously, inside my bag, was the emergency after-hours line to the US Embassy.

Suddenly, I got a new question: "It's dangerous to be out at night. Do you trust your taxi driver?"

Somehow I figured that if I answered "no", I wasn't going to get home that night. And the taxi driver hadn't done anything to make me not trust him. So I answered "yes".

My copies were handed back to me, and I was told to have a good night.

Now, the point of this story is not to say that Madagascar is a terrifying place to be. Nor to illustrate how naive I can be sometimes. (I realized later that they were only looking for a bribe, and one that would be equivalent to about 5 USD, at that.) It merely stands in contrast to the uneventful, non-worrisome, and routine traffic stop that I experienced in the States.

Madagascar is a hard place for an upper-middle class American to be. Most of Antananarivo runs about as well as early 1800's New York City, if someone had waved a magic wand and suddenly there were cars and cell phones dropped in. There are some slum areas where sewage literally runs through the gutters, where it looks like cell phones have been dropped into the Middle Ages. Basic expectations of life are different. Electricity is not a given. Freedom is not a right. Red zones of rioting are known as easily as the names of streets (and neither are marked on maps, generally speaking). It's a different world. And from my perspective, a difficult one.

But for some people in the world, that is just their life. I went, and I stayed, and I endured, and I left after six weeks to come back home to my spring-filled mattress and my shower with running hot water and my country where political unrest means angry Internet comments instead of life-threatening protests. And while I will never claim that my experience in Madagascar gave me PTSD, I do have some lasting reactions that approximate a very mild version of similar symptoms. I have had nightmares about the night I got stopped by the police in Madagascar. I play stories over and over again in my head that people told me about boarding up their houses and fleeing for the country in front of rioting mobs. And, while I have been working on translations and talking to all the authors I met there, I haven't necessarily proffered up many stories to friends and family here, for fear of . . . well, fear.

So. That's that. I'd been avoiding writing this post for a very long time, because I don't want anything to get in the way of Madagascar's chances for entering the international literary scene. I don't want my hard, not-perfect, but still glorious experience to dull the excitement of their literature.

Because here's the thing. Madagascar isn't perfect, but Malagasies know that, and they're working on it. They're not doing it in the same way as America, and that's fine. They're not at the same developmental point as America, and that's also fine. They know they have corrupt politicians, and unsafe streets, and questionable water supplies, and racism, and children who die during the rainy season because the country roads get so washed out that they literally can't get to the doctor. But they also know about the good things they have to offer: vanilla and lemurs, of course, but also completely organic food, a really great basketball team, a proud history of unifying the island before the Europeans came, the actual honest-to-goodness friendliest people I have ever met, and stories. Oh, the stories.

And that's what I love about Malagasies, and about Madagascar. They're not quite as far along the development scale as the States, but that's okay, and they're on their way. And there are lots of very, very smart people who live there and write remarkable works. So even if part of me is scared to go back for more research, I will go, and I'll get better at adapting, and I'll learn how to do that from Malagasies. I'm under no illusions that I can fix anything, but maybe I can help English speakers broaden their horizons a bit. And isn't that why we all translate, anyway?

"Erfurt" Giveaway Winners!

Happy Monday, everyone! And let me be the first to bring you good news. I don't have an envelope in my hand, but I do have your two winners for the e-book giveaway of Return to Erfurt, Story of a Shattered Childhood: 1935-1945.

Please give a big congratulations to two winners from Twitter:

James Garza (@GarzaWords) and Debbie Garrick (@DebbieTranslate)

I'll be contacting both of you shortly with how to claim your prize.

Thanks to everyone who commented and spread the word! If you're interested in purchasing your very own copy of the book, you can. There are even options: paperback or e-book.

Enjoy!