Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

International Translation Day!

Happy International Translation Day, everybody!

We celebrated early in Tana. ITD, celebrated every year on September 30 (the feast day of St. Jerome, patron saint of translators), falls on a Sunday this year, and there is zero point trying to organize anything on a Sunday in Madagascar. Besides church.

So yesterday, we all took over the bar at Madagascar Underground for a Café littéraire de la traduction — the very first celebration of ITD in the entire country that we know of. There were writers, translators, slam poets, writers who also translate, translators who also write, a singer-translator, and a really awesome number of people who are ready to take a flying leap into literary translation.

Also Mexican food, which is something of a novelty here. I got to introduce several people to the concept of burritos. But I digress.

This event was probably the most joy I’ve felt in my entire stay here in Madagascar. Clearly, I’m passionate about literary translation, so anything that focuses on that is good by me. I also got to talk about my experience in translating “Beyond the Rice Fields,” which is always fun. It was especially rewarding to be able to tell a bunch of Malagasies just how much Malagasy we kept in the English translation, and how many American readers are learning about their country.

But it was also so excellent to be able to share the knowledge that I have of translation and the industry with a bunch of people who are dying to get started, if only they had a direction to go in. Most of the questions during the Q&A session were some variation of “I do X for a living but I’ve always been interested in translating books/poems/literature. How can I start?” That, I can help with.

Some other choice moments and quotations from the afternoon:

  • Tsiky, a writer who’s just starting out in translation, said that “Une langue est toute une universe,” a language is a whole universe.

  • In response to a question about his translation process, one of the slam poets (Joak Kely, I believe) said “Il faut de la patience et il faut de l’amour,” it takes patience and love, to translate.

  • Fara, another writer here, was asking me about how I handled certain things in translating “Beyond the Rice Fields,” so I whipped out the classic translator’s line, “Ça dépende du contexte !” It depends on the context. Most of the audience laughed — they understand.

And probably the coolest part of the whole event wasn’t even a scheduled part of the event: There was a journalist from Viva, a bilingual TV station, who came to report on the event and interview a few of us. Less than four hours later, there was a really flattering segment in the evening news of us and our event. Two segments, in fact — one for the French-language news, and another 30 minutes later in the Malagasy-language news. So now I can say I’ve appeared on Malagasy TV, which is already pretty cool. But what’s even cooler is that I got a message from one of the younger writers right after the program aired. She’s a law student at the university, and her family hasn’t really understood or accepted “the whole writing thing.” But her mom was watching, and the young woman’s appearance on the evening news made her mom very proud and started to legitimize the writing work she’s doing.

The literary scene here is growing. It’s gaining attention and acceptance. Happy ITD, indeed!

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.

Something really cool happened last night.

I showed up to Open Letter's first fall event in their Reading the World Conversation Series (more info about the next free event on Oct. 1 here, if you're in or near Rochester) . Chad Post, Open Letter's director and soccer aficionado, had warned me that his guest, the French author Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès, spoke English fine, but might need a little help.

I hadn't realized that was code for "Allison, you should grab a mic and sit on stage with us to interpret as necessary." 

It's no secret that I will never be a professional interpreter. I'm too much of a perfectionist, and I don't think quickly enough on my feet. Both well-known facts. At least to me. The world at large must have missed that memo. 

Because there I was, sitting on a little elevated platform with a warm, funny, and world-renowned French author, trying to keep up with Chad's rapid-fire English and catch any sudden switches of Jean-Marie's speech from halting English to fluid French, fielding questions from the audience. And none of it was perfect.

But it was good enough. 

It didn't matter that I gave two or three English choices for the one French word Jean-Marie queried me on. It didn't matter that I didn't have more context than "La preuve est...?" because the odds of "preuve" being "proof" were heavily in my favor.  It didn't even matter that I couldn't perform as a professional interpreter would, because in the end, he didn't really need me. I was there as a crutch, a cushion, a smiling safety net. And if that provided enough comfort for him to tell his wonderful stories of falsified biographies, hypocritical publishers, and thinly-veiled dick jokes, then I did my job right.

Still, I'm not ever going to add "interpreting" to my list of professional skills. I have too much respect and awe-filled admiration for interpreters to do that.