Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

ALTA Mini-Review #2: French readings

Another thing I really enjoy about ALTA conferences is the Bilingual Readings, which have been organized for the last umpteen years by the vivacious Alexis Levitin. Although there were almost double the number of readers who signed up as compared to any other year, the schedule ran very smoothly, and there were constantly opportunities to slip into a room and hear translations being read from Farsi, Latin, German, Yiddish, Swedish, Chinese, Thai . . . really anything your little heart could desire.

Almost anything can happen in bilingual readings. People can read works-in-progress, trying them out in front of an audience for the first time. People can read straight from published works, celebrating their excellent translations--last year, Rita Nezami read a translation of hers that had just landed in The New Yorker. Sometimes, the original authors are present, which makes the reading even more linguistically rich. All of us in the audience who don't speak that language just get to sit back and bask in the sonorous rhythms of foreign poetry.

This year, I read from a short story by Hélèna Villovitch in a French session that included poetry, fiction, and non-fiction; writings from France, Belgium, Morocco, and China (!); and authors ranged from Baudelaire to the Oulipo group to contemporary journalists. Everything was wonderful, as usual, but two readings stood out.

Lara Vergnaud read an excerpt from an Ahmed Bouanani novel set in a prison. As you might expect, the prisoners had all given each other nicknames, which ranged from Fartface to (if memory serves) Windshield Wiper. The excerpt sounded like a hilarious misinterpretation of Orwell's Animal Farm with a heaping of poorly understood religion thrown in. At one point, there was a prayer that seemed to invoke everything under the sun, from random deities to food, all echoed with a chorus of "Amen! Amen!" that came from a willing helper in the audience, used to quite amusing effect.

Also, Chris Clarke read a story from Oulipo writer Olivier Salon that was a kind of reverse (or possibly additive?) lipogram: every line took out one more letter, starting from the end of the alphabet, until the last line was just a sustained "Aaaaaaaaaaa!" Our treat here was that Jean-Jacques Poucel also helped out by reading the original French. It was fascinating how Chris was able to maintain a similar sonority to the French under the same letter restrictions that sometimes make vastly different sounds than English letters.

Submissions for bilingual readings at the 2015 conference in Tuscon are already open! See here for more information if you're interested.