Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

My Memoirs, Three Ways

Because I have to play my own game.

One of the things you can do in order to enter my giveaway (the contest is open through TONIGHT at 11:59pm EST) is to leave a comment explaining who you'd want to write your memoirs, if not you. There are a few ways one could go about this. The way I see it, I have three options:

1. Évelyne Bloch-Dano

Évelyne is a very well-known French biographer with many works to her name, including biographies of Proust's mother, Zola's wife, and a certain writer named George Sand. She'd make my life sound textured and romantic, delving through my emails (and grade-school handwritten correspondence) to paint a picture of the most interesting parts of my life. She wouldn't shy away from scandal--not that I've had any, mind you--but she wouldn't fabricate any, either.

There would probably be a scene dedicated to the time we met in Paris at Angelina, across from the Tuileries Gardens, and I gushed for a few minutes too long about the Mont Blanc. (I was nervous to meet her, and the dessert was amazing . . . )

2. My husband

Lots of you, dear readers, have mentioned family members, friends, or significant others who could write your memoirs, with the idea that they know you best. However, I'd have to nix this option as soon as it came to the table.

Not because my husband can't write. He can. He writes very good stories. No, it's because my husband is too biased. The man thinks I'm the best thing since sliced bread. And that's fantastic for a marriage, one might even say ideal. But if he wrote my memoirs, it would basically just be a list of my accomplishments in increasingly capitalized letters, with an increasing number of exclamation marks, in increasingly large font sizes, with an increasing number of superlative adjectives stuck in front of my name, so that eventually, an entire chapter would be a sentence of adjectives with one word on each page.

That's just bad formatting. I should spare the world that.

3. Neil Gaiman

I have no idea if world-famous, bestselling, award-winning sci-fi author Neil Gaiman has ever written anyone else's biography. I'd imagine his only interest would be in Terry Pratchett. But if I could convince him to write my memoirs, they would be laced with magic and mystery, in all the most ordinary ways. My American Girl dolls from childhood would have a strange power, my mother would probably have buttons for eyes, I would have befriended the old woman feeding pigeons in Union Square Park to start an adventure, and I'd be learning to play the carillon for use in the next war of the gods. But only in the most ordinary ways. The ocean, after all, is only at the end of the lane.


And there, that's my answer. If you'd still like a chance to win a free e-book copy of Return to Erfurt, leave a comment or spread the word on Twitter using the hashtag #Erfurtgiveaway to enter by TONIGHT, Friday, February 27, 2015, at 11:59pm EST. Winners will be announced on Monday!

"Erfurt" Giveaway

I was going through old posts this morning and discovered that, the first time I did this, I called it something ridiculous. But tradition must be upheld. And thus, please prepare yourselves for:

The Second Not-Nearly-Regular-Enough-To-Be-Called-Annual A.M.C. Giveaway!

*assorted cheers and trumpets*

The Prize: Two (2) randomly-chosen people will each receive one (1) e-book copy of Return to Erfurt, Story of a Shattered Childhood: 1935-1945, by Olga Tarcali, translated by yours truly, published by Centro Primo Levi Editions, released this month. I can't inscribe them this time, but you have the option of receiving a handwritten letter from me to go along with your book, if you so choose.

The Entry(-ies): There are two ways of entering, each of which grants you one entry (so every person can enter up to twice).

  1. In honor of Olga Tarcali, Marianne's best friend who wrote her story in book form, leave a comment on this post of who you would want to write your memoir (other than yourself). Bonus brownie points for explaining why.
  2. To help spread the word, tweet a link to this post. Must either tweet at me (@sunshineabroad) or include this hashtag: #ErfurtGiveaway

The Deadline: End of this week! Friday, February 27, 2015, at 11:59 p.m. EST.

The Rules: After the contest, I will randomly select two entrants (by assigning a number to each comment and Twitter account and using a random number generator), and announce the winners on this blog on Monday, March 2. I will then contact the winners for their email address and, if desired, mailing address. Anyone with a valid email address anywhere in the world may enter. Limit two entries per person.

The Why: This is the most important book I've ever worked on, and it's a damn good one. I'd like to share it with people.

Good luck to all!

Announcement Time!

Remember that oh-so-emotionally-challenging yet ultimately rewarding book I told you lovely readers about a while back? This one. The book that I refuse to call my "Holocaust book". The one about a German girl's exile to France, hiding in Italy, and then life in France after the war . . . the girl-turned-woman who I got to meet, Marianne Spier-Donati. One of the bravest and most wonderful women I've ever met.

(There seems to be a theme, here. The first book I translated was also about another great woman, author George Sand. Huh. Nice connection.)

Anyway, back to the point at hand. This is a publishing announcement!

Yes, that's right: my translation of Return to Erfurt, Story of a Shattered Childhood: 1935-1945, by Olga Tarcali, has officially been published by Centro Primo Levi Editions.

Isn't it pretty? It fits in really nicely with all the different series that CPL Editions has started publishing. All of the books are fantastic. (Check them out here.)

Things to note:

  1. Yes, I will be doing a giveaway shortly. Stay tuned! More info TK.
  2. If you find yourself in New York City next week, CPL Editions is reopening the SF Vanni bookshop in celebration of all their new publications. The party will be on Tuesday, February 17th, 6-9:00 p.m., at 30 West 12th St. Full announcement here.
  3. Finally, and most importantly, you can purchase the book now! Paperbacks here, ebooks here, and more info from the publisher here.

Go forth and read! (I mean, it doesn't have to be this book; you should be reading excellent things, anyway.)

OFAC's Syria Sanctions

Some serious stuff today, everyone.

As a member of ALTA's Board, I've recently joined my fellow Directors in expressing our support of PEN and other leading authors' and publishers' organizations requesting that OFAC permit US publication of books and articles from Syria.

That's a lot of surprising words for someone unfamiliar with the situation. You can go read the full press release on PEN's website, but the short version is that the Office of Foreign Assets Control's new sanctions on Syria are:

dictating that American publishers may not enter into transactions for Syrian works not yet fully completed, may not provide “substantive or artistic alterations or enhancements” to Syrian works, and may not promote or market Syrian works.

Essentially, we can't publish anything from Syria.

This is already a dreadful thing, terrible policy, and oh, by the way, also a violation of First Amendment rights. But the worst part is, all this has happened before (and it will probably all happen again). The same coalition that's denouncing these sanctions today actually filed suit against the Treasury Department back in 2004 for similar sanctions against Cuba, Iran, and Sudan. The suit was dismissed when OFAC fixed those regulations and promised never to do it again. Funny story about that.

This goes against everything that we literary translators hold dear and work for every day. No introducing readers to new points of view. No depicting a strange and wonderful foreign culture. No exchanging of ideas from the other side of the world -- which should be so easy these days with the existence of the Internet. No way to understand our enemies, and no way to understand the people living under enemy governments who are probably our friends.

Esther Allen had a project that was directly impacted (read: "postponed") by the sanctions back in 2003/2004, and wrote a wonderfully sharp piece on it for Words Without Borders. Go read it, and be happy that the regulations got fixed once.

And then, realize that the same problems are going to happen again. Anyone who attended the ALTA conference in Milwaukee remembers Alice Guthrie's remarkable reading of her translations at the Fellows Reading. Really brilliant stuff, just like the rest of the Fellows. Only now, she'd be prohibited from publishing any of it, just because it happens to be from a country that our government isn't getting along with. ALTA's level-headed president, Russell Valentino, called the sanctions a "misguided policy". I think I have some stronger words for it.

At the very least, we can all rest assured that the coalition isn't afraid to bring a suit against the government. Hopefully, we won't have to go that far again.

The PEN Model Contract (a.k.a. ALTA Mini-Review #3)

Happy New Year! Bonne année et bonne santé !

And what better way to start out the new year by going back and . . . reviewing something that happened two months ago?

Bear with me. A new year means new organization, which means that I found a note to myself from last year with a helpful suggestion to set out a bit about the PEN Model Contract on this here blog. Very helpful, past me. I wish present me had found the note sooner, but hey, better late than never.

Anyway. The PEN Model Contract is here:

Learn it. Use it. For translators, it's a document that works for and protects both you and the publisher. And although PEN does not currently have the ability to give legal advice, the contract has been vetted by their lawyers, so you can point hesitant publishers to the contract as proof of an industry standard. I've even sent the link to my non-translating author friends as an example of a legally sound contract.

"But Allison," you say, "I'm working with a publisher so big that they have a whole team of lawyers! They've got a standard contract they want me to use!"

Not a problem, my dear translator. Look: all contracts are negotiable. All of them. Period. This was a point that was brought up in the panel that was held to discuss the PEN Model Contract at last November's ALTA conference, and it's an important one. Since contracts are, by definition, an agreement between two parties, that agreement can be different for every set of two parties that comes along. But remember, too, that negotiations will mean compromise. The great thing about the PEN Model Contract is that it reminds you what the possibilities are to ask for in a contract, as well as how to word those requests in a professional way.

You can also adapt the PEN Model Contract to your own circumstances. A few examples that were brought up in the panel include:

  • splitting up payment into three stages (upon signing, upon delivery, upon acceptance of final draft)
  • payment due upon completed translation vs. accepted translation
  • calling the initial fee a "payment" instead of an "advance", which clears the way for royalties to begin from the very first copy sold
  • ensuring your name on the front cover, not just any ol' cover
  • possibility of sub-rights for the translation (a possible wording could be "Translator holds the subsidiary rights for all formats, including, but not limited to, electronic book, audiobook, film and TV rights, and translation")

Another thing that was mentioned during the panel: be wary of payment that is contingent on the publisher receiving a grant. It's often helpful if the book is supported by a grant, but you can't have your payment being dependent on a grant coming through, especially if you'd still be expected to deliver the translation.

One final note: in Europe, translator copyright is considered a moral right. The PEN Model Contract could help Americans get there, too.


***Disclaimer: None of this constitutes legal advice. I'm not a lawyer. I'm a translator.

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.

ALTA 2014 Mini-review #1: Women Taking Initiative

One of the best parts of my year is the annual ALTA conference, which took place last week in Milwaukee. And one of the best parts of this particular year's conference was the chance to moderate my first roundtable, which had a very fun name, if I do say so myself: "Taking the Initiative: How to Get Involved, Get Results, and Make Friends Along the Way." I gathered a group of translators I admire who have all started very interesting things, and I asked them to describe the process:

  • what they saw lacking in our industry
  • how they decided to fill the gap
  • what made them decide to take action, instead of waiting for someone else to do it
  • what problems they encountered along the way, and how they overcame them

We got some fascinating stories and practical advice out of it.

  • Lisa Carter talked about developing her own freelancing into Intralingo, her small business with courses for literary translators
  • Esther Allen talked about lots of translation initiatives within PEN America, including Michael Henry Heim's amazing donation to fund the PEN/Heim translation grants
  • Olivia Sears talked about how the Center for the Art of Translation was started over twenty years ago, and how the translation landscape has changed in the meantime
  • Erica Mena talked about starting the Anomalous Journal (and eventually Press) out of her own apartment, and the challenges and freedoms of not being a non-profit organization
  • Susan Bernofsky talked about how her incredibly useful blog Translationista was started, as well as some other advocacy work she does to fill the voids
  • I also talked a little about how ELTNA was started, and is continuing to evolve (on the anniversary of its creation)

Notice anything about that list? It's all women.

Now, I didn't plan the panel this way. Initially, I thought about people who had dreamed up some really cool stuff, and asked them if they'd like to come talk about it. And there was one male on my list, but he wasn't able to attend the conference this year. At any rate, about a month out from the conference, I suddenly realized that the people on my roundtable email list were all women.

Erica noticed it, too, and commented on both the panel's makeup and the fact that about 3/4 of our audience interested in hearing these stories were also women. She posited that maybe women start these things--especially if the things involved volunteering or working for free--because women are generally more giving and maternal. (Yes, we're going to be dealing with major stereotypes here. Roll with it for now.) But ALTA was founded by men, and men currently occupy the president, vice president, and past president positions on the board. That's a lot of volunteer work.

Maybe it's just that there are more women translators than men, or at least more who attend the ALTA conference and could thus be said to be involved somehow. (A quick count of participant bios show that approximately 155 women presented or read at this conference, out of approximately 252 total participants--that's over 60% women.) Or perhaps it's that I'm female, and so I'm more naturally drawn toward working or talking with other women.

Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that men operate more within the existing parameters of leadership to take charge, whereas women find typical leadership roles harder to access, so they just make their own. (This is a hypothesis. I told you there'd be some grossly overgeneralizing stereotypes.) (Also, to clarify, this doesn't actually hold water with ALTA: although the "top three" board positions are held by men, there's actually a female majority on the board, plus our female managing director.)

Basically, what I think I'm trying to say is, there are a lot of possible correlations here, and even more possible causes behind it. And we're getting into slippery statistical territory. Correlation does not imply causation.


To get back to the original topic, the roundtable was fascinating, even for those involved. Every last one of us has our notepads out and were scribbling furiously. We talked a lot about connections and reactions, how one essay can spark someone else to get in touch and do something, how the question to ask is "why not?" instead of listing all possible excuses for getting something done, and how sometimes you just have JDIs: Just Do Its. (I did apologize for the acronym-speak, but my husband's an engineer.) There was also a fascinating discussion of how more established organizations actually find it harder to drum up interest in their programs and new initiatives--CAT and ALTA being two examples--because people think they already know what the organizations are.

And on that note, if you'd like to get involved with an existing thing or have a brilliant idea for something new, come talk to me. Or talk to the appropriate person. Someone. Anyone. Literary translation, much like life, depends on fun new things being formed and developed all the time.

Want to learn more?

Literary translation is a funny industry. On the one hand, it's extremely academic, with many literary translators doing their translation on the side as they hold down day jobs as professors of language, writing, or maybe possibly (and more often, these days, thankfully) translation. On the other hand, you don't actually need any credentials to get your first job--you just need to know the right people and be able to write well. Higher education is certainly not a requirement for the field.

But if you're like me, you do want go back for that master's degree, learn more, talk to more people, gain more experience. And there's a fantastic program specifically for French to English translators that just opened up applications for the 2015-2016 academic year.

NYU's MA Program in Literary Translation

This is the program I would have done if I hadn't left NYC right when I started looking for master's programs. Run by the indomitable Emmanuelle Ertel, it's a year-long program based in New York City and Paris, two of the greatest cities for publishing. Knowing the right people can be all about location, location, and who you know already. Emmanuelle knows many people.

Plus, there are the courses themselves. I did my undergrad in French at NYU and can vouch for the amazing courses offered.

If you're interested in the program, there's even more info out there! The students of the last few years have created a blog of their studies: Plus, there's a Facebook page, which lists a lot of events that the students are involved with in NYC.

Go check them out. I promise it'll be worth your while.

Wine and Books

They go really well together.

Kidding. Well, not actually kidding at all. But that's not what this is about.

So, more specifically: book reviews and wine descriptions. They're starting to get scarily similar.

No, I haven't started reading about "hints of oak" or "overtones of caramel" in book reviews. But you know the thing about wine descriptions: there are a select few people in this world whose palates are trained enough to be able to pick out those notes of plum or dark chocolate without being prompted. For the rest of the world, there's just a simple difference between good wines and bad wines. And for the most part, it's all completely subjective. Your own tastes determine whether a wine is good or bad to you, whether you'll enjoy it or not. There are a few wines that pretty much everyone agrees are universally good, but even there, everyone may have a different reason for drinking it.

The more book reviews I read, the more I think that books are just the same as wine. There are lots of good books out there, and lots of not-so-good ones. But move beyond that almost-universal dichotomy, even ever so slightly, and it suddenly becomes a matter of personal taste. I think Perec and the Oulipo crowd are fascinating; other people can't get over the craziness. On the flip side, I really appreciate the widely-acclaimed Maidenhair, but I still haven't managed to finish it.

I read a book for a class last spring that I thought was . . . fine.* I thought the book had some pretty ambitious and admirable goals, but that it didn't really achieve many of them. But there are other reviews out there, other readers who think the book was amazing. They've used words like "vibrancy" and "liveliness" to describe the author's writing. They speak of an "authenticity" in the retelling that I didn't see. They describe the "impassioned" and "arresting" story, which are very present emotions that I didn't feel.

I know book reviews can be extremely subjective, but there's also a rather large element of authority that we ascribe to many book reviewers. It's the same kind of trust we place in sommeliers and winegrowers, the ones who know the terroir, who know the kind of volcanic soil in Sicily that give this particular wine its peat-moss quality, the lack of rain in the third week of August in 2003 that causes the elevated sweetness of that particular Riesling, the bourbon barrels that age one of California's Cab Sauvs in a specific way. They know things, so we trust them.

But if you can't taste the peach, does that mean you're a bad wine drinker? If you don't feel "arrested" by the story, does that make you a bad reader?

No. Of course not. The beauty of humankind's variety, all our wide-ranging tastes, and all that. Personal preference will always have some sort of effect on our judgment of subjective artistic endeavors, whether experienced over our palate or through our brain. As long as you can explain why something didn't mesh with your tastes--in an intelligent fashion, without making personal attacks--your opinion is just as valid as any reviewer's.



*This has no bearing on the author, whom I met--I think this person is pretty fabulous and a great speaker. I'm also purposefully not giving enough information to identify either the work or the author, since this is not about my personal experience with the book, but rather just looking at the general subjectivity of literary enjoyment.

Ebola? No problem. Go to Madagascar.

You know those games where you're a supervirus? And you try to wipe out the human race? There's one for the computer called "Pandemic 2," and you can customize your symptoms, transmission, everything. It's fun.

But you only win if you actually kill every single last human. And there's usually one problem: Madagascar. It's an island, and they're smart there. If you don't start there, you'll never get in.

It makes for good party conversation.

As it turns out, however, life might be imitating art here, too.

At the end of August, there was a Russian cargo ship that was trying to dock in Tamatave (Toamasina), Madagascar's major port on the eastern coast of the island. Problem was, the ship had made a stop in Liberia just before that. Read: EBOLA SCARE. So the Malagasy officials didn't let them dock. The ship sat there, just off-shore, until the proper quarantine period had passed. So Madagascar might actually be the safest place in the world if a global pandemic breaks out, even in real life.

If you can get in.