Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

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.

ALTA 2013 Review - The Little Things

And for more specifics, here follows a link-list of things I heard about (for the first or umpteenth time) at this year's ALTA conference: 

 Residencies, Fellowships, and Scholarships

Free Word Centre (UK) 
Banff International Literary Translation Centre (Canada)
HALMA Network (Europe)
RECIT Network (Europe)
Fulbright program
more exhaustive list on the
ALTA website

 Translation-specific Journals, Magazines, and Presses

Words Without Borders 
A Public Space
Two Lines
World Literature Today
InTranslation (Brooklyn Rail)
Autumn Hill Books

Other Translation-friendly Journals and Magazines 

Anomalous Press
LA Review of Books: 
Quarterly Journal
Tupelo Quarterly
Michigan Quarterly Review
Massachusetts Review
Indiana Review
FIELD (Oberlin)
Subtropics (Florida)
Notre Dame Review
Cincinnati Review

 Support/Advocacy for Translators/Translations

PEN Translation Committee 
Authors and Translators blog
Three Percent blog

Miscellaneous Stuff 

Another awesome conference: ACLA 2014 
My new favorite poem: "Twigs"


ALTA 2013 Review - The Big Things

ALTA members, it's official. Because of this month's conference, I have fallen madly and thoroughly in love with each and every one of you.  Let me count the ways in which we are awesome together:

  • We like comics. Graphic novels. BDs. There's a small niche group of us who are doggedly pushing this wonderful form of storytelling in front of mainstream American readers. And it's all beautiful.
  • We are poets. Even those of us who don't think so. We care about semantics, how words sound, how they look on the page, how they feel in our mouth, what they mean and how they mean it. I always say that I envy poets, but in reality, I am one. Just like the rest of you. 
  • We give each other leads. There's none of the backstabbing that tends to plague so many creative and competitive professions. Instead, we share information about residencies and programs, about grants and awards, about other conferences, about publishers and magazines, about what works and what doesn't. 
  • We laugh together about the strangest things. E.g. Cole Swensen: "I don't have a solution for that. Well, that's not true, I do have a solution, but it's not nearly as interesting as the problem, so we'll skip over it."
  • We have big ideas. "Translation is writing, not decoding." "Exaggerate the quirks of your characters." "Focus on how you can help." "These are my words, but not my thoughts." 
  • We have an idea, then we git 'er done. ELTNA didn't exist at 8am on Friday the 18th. By 5pm, it was officially founded, and launched eleven days later.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I can't wait to be an ALTAn (Altinian? Altese? Altite?) for many years to come.

Recap: SAND Journal's Found in Translation Workshop

There once was a guy from Berlin
Who went to a workshop on a whim
He had so much fun
That when it was done
The SAND Journal meant much more to him

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to attend the  Found in Translation workshop run by the SAND Journal, Berlin's English-language literary journal. Because of the support they received from Youth in Action, it was exclusively for translators under the age of 30. This meant that I was joined by a host of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young translat0rs, raring to go. A little nervous about their blossoming or future careers, a little concerned that their work is very niche -- too niche, perhaps -- but brimming with wit and intelligence. We explored Berlin and ate marvelous food, of course, but the forums and workshops that the SAND team organized were the real highlight of the weekend.

In one workshop, we explored what characteristics of written texts could "give them away" as translations, and it was interesting to realize that even as translators ourselves, we have a notion of "bad" or "off" or "unnatural" vocabulary or punctuation as what marks a translation. And it is high praise for a translated text to read like it was originally written in the target language, that it flows well enough to be considered as belonging to that language's literature.

The next morning, we played with language. LimericksOulipo exercises, snowball poemsSpoonerisms, and anagrams were all fair game. Just to prove that yes, translating puns and humor are hard, but doable. We're all creative people.

On Saturday night, we joined Naris at Dialogue Books to introduce the new issue of SAND, and we read a little,
Then had a wandering discussion about the future of translation, ending with one guy who led a riddle

(Spoonerisms are hard.)

In the end, we had a lovely brunch on the last day. Because really, what is a weekend of working without brunch? It was a lovely and delicious brunch.

Most important, though, is the network we created. Literary translators from many different languages, all on the cusp of their careers, all looking for jobs to do and magazines to submit to and new things to write and friends to commiserate with. Our support groups have just exploded exponentially. Such connections are even more important for people like us, who work very solitary jobs. It's reassuring to know that real people are out there on the other side of your Internet connection, who are all going through similar challenges and wonders.

I'm very honored to have been a part of the inaugural year of workshops, and I'm confident they will continue to be an annual event.


(Yeah, okay. Snowball poems are hard, too.)

Everyone Is Just Like You – A Report from the 2012 Annual Conference of ALTA

I’m showing my age, and not in the way it’s normally meant. Lunch on Saturday, with a group of literary translators, was punctuated by that song from Barney and Friends: “You are special! Special! Everyone is special, everyone in his or her own way!” (Yes, the exclamation points belong there. Kids’ songs buzz with energy.)

But one thing I learned at the American Literary Translators Association conference, to my delighted relief, was that everyone is not, in fact special and individual and completely different from everyone else. Everyone is, in fact, just like you. Everyone thinks just like you. Everyone has the same fears, the same dreams, the same uncertainties, the same wishes.

  • Everyone wants to be published and widely read.
  • Everyone wants to get paid for their work.
  • Everyone dreams of having the latter two wishes intersect in every job.
  • Everyone has had to deal with that editor who insisted on a long-winded, frankly boring introduction.
  • In a bookstore, everyone bemoans a lack of money for books. And then buys books anyway.
  • While dealing with a particularly tricky passage, everyone has been smothered by the sense that they can’t translate, can’t speak French, can’t even speak English properly.
  • Everyone struggles with procrastination, or not dedicating enough time to their passions, or the overwhelming guilt when procrastinating gets in the way of passion.

So yes, everyone is just like you. At least among literary translators, that is.

I'm a published writer!

This is a huge deal for anyone, especially those just starting out.  And look at me!  I've gotten a review published in the newsletter of the ATA's Slavic Languages Division.  Woohoo!! See page 26:

But wait, you say.  Aren't you a French speaker?  Do you know anything about Russian?

Well, I've sung in Russian before, but I don't think that counts.  But...I'm a singer.  I'm interested in music, and the translation thereof.  Just read the fracking review, you'll understand.

Now, please excuse me while I jump around and squeal in sheer delight.

My First ATA Conference

Like a baby's first word, or the first day of school: such is the importance of attending one's first major industry conference. It provides a huge (and needed) boost in the attempt to form a full-time career out of a part-time passion.

For three days at the end of October, I went to Boston to see what I could learn, who I could meet, what connections I could forge. And I have to say, it was a rousing success. I've been so busy taking action based on what happened at the conference that I've only now been able to put my thoughts down in the ether ("on paper" being a bit of a misnomer...).

So, here follows, in tidbit/interview form, a general conference review, from the highly biased opinion of a starry-eyed first-timer:

Scariest/best decision: skipping the first-time-attendee orientation session in favor of a seminar on "Translating for Quebec," given by Grant Hamilton. He knows his stuff. I know Québecois is a bit different (so is Canadian English), but he pointed out so many things you must know. Geography. Politics. News. "La fleuve" is not "the river," but the St. Lawrence River. Obviously...

Worst decision: not bringing a winter hat, gloves, and snowboots.  Oh, Nor'easters, how you make life more interesting!

Proudest moment: reading poetry I had translated while living in France, from a dear friend of mine's collection.  And having people give genuine compliments on both the translation and my stage presence.  Thank you, choir/theatre training.

Strangest connection: meeting a French>English translator who lives just across the river in New Jersey, and finding out we had the same professor at NYU -- eccentric Anne-Marie.  She had her in New York, but by the time I came along, Anne-Marie had been politely shuttled to the Paris campus, to finish her dissertation.  25 years in the making.

Best celebrity sighting: Chris Durban. No, no, this isn't your normal star, but a very highly respected French>English translator who is renowned and revered among most in this profession. She is smart, sharp as a whip, and takes no nonsense from whiners. I want to be like her when I grow up.

Most interesting audience member moment: watching the discussion go way off its rails at the Arabic session on theory and framework.  I think it's a cultural thing that makes people who have grown up in Arabic-speaking countries less tactful when butting into a presentation intended to give them useful information.  The presenter, a native-English-speaking professor of Islamic Studies who learned Arabic along the way, was trying to give the by-necessity-generally-amateur Arabic translators a bit of theoretical framework, and they pushed back the whole while.  Not because they didn't think his ideas were useful, but because it just seems to be in their nature.  And at the end, most of them congratulated the presenter on surviving his trial by fire and said they would be taking some of the techniques into account while translating.  Interesting.

First moment I thought "hey, I actually belong here": Friday lunch with some of the French translators I had met the prior evening at the French Language Division dinner.  The dinner had been lovely, fun, and informative, and I had met some great people.  The next day, finding some of those people for lunch, was proof that they weren't just humoring me.  (Some people could have probably realized that during the FLD dinner.  I am, occasionally, harder to convince.)

And now, for the list of awesome things that came from the conference: - personal contacts - an invitation to write a review for the Slavic Language Division's newsletter on a session on translating Rachmaninov's art songs (seems random, but isn't: the request came from the woman who ran the literary readings After Hours Cafe) - the initiative to get involved with my local chapter, the NY Circle of Translators - two possible job offers! - a strong desire to go to next year's conference in San Diego (starting to save money now...) - the knowledge that yes, I can do this

Excellent?  Yes, I would definitely say so.