Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Willful Blindness

It's an interesting thing, being in a country that's so different from what you know. Especially as a white Westerner in a poor black African country. There are a lot of misconceptions that come along with that, and I think that many/most of them come from a lot of reductive travelogues that have been written over the years. Over the centuries, really. This started way back with European explorers keeping journals that detailed the "primitive" "native cultures" they "found." The whole assumption that European culture is more "civilized" has led to a whole host of other ignorant assumptions about anybody who doesn't fit that norm.

But it's an extremely pervasive narrative, especially having been educated in the States. And, just like systemic racism, it seeps into your brain and starts messing with your own thoughts, convincing you that your experiences in, for example, Madagascar, aren't valid unless you just see the extreme differences between that culture and your home, all the poverty and want and lack and oh-how-quaint-life-is-here.

I fell victim to that the first time around four years ago, definitely. (Sadly. I'm sorry.) But now that I'm back, I've started actively looking for things to disprove my earlier assumptions/misconceptions. Here's what I've got so far:

  • Yes, there are in fact addresses. Kind of all over the place, on all sorts of different buildings, in both the city and the countryside. It's standardized, too, even if there isn't daily/regular mail service like at home.
  • Ditto for street signs. Either official or not, there are a bunch in the city for specific streets. And then there are signs on main roads that point the way toward different neighborhoods (in the city) or towns (in the country).
  • Yes, there are women who drive scooters and motorcycles. It's not just men. Remember, helmets and protective gear tend to be (and should be!) pretty gender neutral . . .
  • There are women breastfeeding EVERYWHERE -- although to be fair, I was pretty blind to this in every culture until I had my own child.
  • Yes, there are actual grocery stores, the way I normally think of them, instead of “just” markets. There’s even a Malagasy chain. (It’s called “Supermaki.” The maki is the classic ring-tailed lemur. :-D)
  • Yes, there are plenty of other vazahas, even in non-vazaha areas. (Although, this trip, I truly do still have yet to see another white woman.)
  • There are even funeral processions, cars with their hazards on following a hearse and everything.

So yes, even if I feel out of my depth here, completement dépaysée, that doesn't mean there aren't any similarities between here and home. Just because I didn't ever set foot in a supermarket last time, doesn't mean I can't go buy more shampoo here if I run out. And I don't have to go to a special Euro-import store, either. It's just normal.

I will no longer be willfully blind to the parts of Malagasy society that overlap with American society, and I can actively work against the misconceptions stuck in my own brain. Life here is just life.

I don't even need to sleep under a mosquito net. (Yet.)

Let's talk about taxis-brousse and taxis-be

These things:

From the Canal blog

From the Canal blog

Well, that, except much more crowded. And without the little eyes on the front. And not a cartoon.

So, more like this:

A trip to the countryside with a humanitarian organization in Antananarivo

Taxis-be (public transportation in the city; "be" means "big" in Malagasy) and taxis-brousse (long-distance regional or national travel) are gigantic vans, most that can fit upwards of 30 people if they squeeze in tightly enough (which they all do). Every single one is old, clanky, and practically falling apart. In Antananarivo, the drivers all obey the unwritten rules of the road, where there are no stoplights, few street signs, and a very confusing system of right of way. The "conductors" who take the fare tend to hang outside of the van's doors as it starts driving, closing the door from the inside halfway down the road. Oh, and the fare is . . . unknown? Known only to the locals? Definitely not written down anywhere. All in cash, too, so vazahas (foreigners) could easily just hand over some random bill and be taken advantage of. And in the above style of taxi-be, there's usually planks of wood that the driver passes back for people to sit down in the aisles when it gets crowded.

And it always gets crowded.

I'm very very very glad that I'm so short for an American. At nearly 5'3", I'm of average height for a Malagasy -- and I just barely fit in the seats. My knees tend to knock against the bare metal of the seatback in front of me, sometimes a bit painfully.

Basically, a taxi-be should be the most terrifying experience in the world. Nothing about it says "comfort" or "safety" or "the better way to travel," not by a long shot. It's loud and crowded and utterly unsafe.

And yet.

(There's always that "and yet.")

It's just how things are here. Everyone takes taxis-be, from poor to rich (unless they travel with bodyguards). The lack of personal space is normal, not uncomfortable. The drivers know exactly what they're doing, and how to thread their way in between alien-seeming traffic patterns. There's not enough space in Tana for anyone to drive fast enough for seatbelts to be necessary. Everyone pitches in to pass money back to the conductor, who will always give you the right change. They'll answer any questions you have, too (although mostly in Malagasy).

This is the culture, these are the norms, and just stop looking at things through your Western goggles now, won't you? It's hard, I know. It's hard for me, too. But not everything that's different from what we know needs fixing. Welcome to the other side of the world.

Why Art Museums Exist

Yes, other artists in varying stages of budding can sketch there. All the more power to them.

But art museums really exist because the visceral power of art cannot be fully transmitted through photographs and copies of the original. There's a whole other argument about why such power is important to our lives, but I'll leave that for another time.

Suffice to say, I went to the Musée d'Orsay over the weekend, simply because I was in Paris. It's my favorite museum in the world, so I go when I can. They had a new temporary exhibit on the fifth floor: the private collection of Marlene and Spencer Hays, American art collectors with a love for 19th- and early 20th-century French paintings. Most of them are back on their home soil for the first time since being sold at auction. It was a glorious discovery of new-to-me (and new-to-the-public) works, by both known and relatively unknown artists. Matisse and Caillebotte rub shoulders with Fernand Pelez, Jean-Louis Forain, and other people I'd never heard of before.

One painting that especially caught my eye was Odilon Redon's "Vase de fleurs et profil." Or it might be more accurate to say that the rich and brilliant colors drew my gaze like a tractor beam, holding it there for many minutes. The backdrop was a wash of sunshine, light as particle and wave and paint all at once. I've been in love with Monet's waterlily paintings for a while, because of the thickly-painted brushstrokes, but this was on a whole other level.

Then, there was the vase itself. It wasn't so much a vase in the normal sense as a sphere-shaped cradle of flowers itself, springing more delicious flowers out from its womb. It's a big jumbled pile of flowers that, instead of giving a feeling of confusion, feels like the lushest nature bursting free of its silly little mosaic-tiled container.

And then, finally, the aforementioned "profil," the hint of a woman off to the right. But not a ghostly hint, a memory, like so many other lightly-sketched faces in paintings. She was a light whisper of a woman, a glowing entity in herself, like a muse or a tree-spirit. Dryad? Naiad? I can never remember.

At any rate, a new rule was instated at Orsay, about two years ago, that forbids any photographing of anything. Period. Let's gloss over for a moment why I'm so irked by that, and instead just note that I respected this rule. I did not take a picture of Redon's painting, no matter how much I had fallen in love with it. It also wasn't one of the main works in the exhibit, so there wasn't a postcard that I could buy to remind myself of its glory.

And thus, when I got home, I rushed online to find an image of the painting that had captured my attention and praise. I found this:

(image found  here )

(image found here)

This is nothing. This is a shadow. A dull, two-dimensional shadow of the actual painting. This inspires nothing in me. It's pretty. It's nice. That's all that can be said. I wouldn't give something like this a second thought. Oh look, what a cute butterfly, maybe. That's it.

Of course, this is not to say that any picture I could have taken with a camera would have done the work justice, either. But that's exactly my point. Such a visceral, immediate reaction can only come when faced with the work itself, in person. And for most people, for everyone in the world who can't afford that kind of prized art, museums are the one chance they have to experience such awe and wonder, such a coup de foudre, falling in crazy love at first sight.

My dear Musée d'Orsay, I do begrudge you your recent decision to forbid any photographs of the works within your walls. But thank you all the same for existing, for giving the works an opportunity to sear their images into our brains and memories. Images cannot do them justice, anyway.

Don't complain. The tables will turn.

Every time I come to France, I struggle with the...well, what should we call it...the brash entitlement of customers in the face of stubborn bureaucracy of administrations. And it's inbred. They're born with it. Whereas Americans have online articles explaining how to complain about poor service, the French just naturally push back against authority. Maybe they have to, because of the ridiculous red tape here. But that's another idea for another time. So I take it in stride when we're applying for my monthly bus pass and the woman hands over a protective plastic sleeve for my card, which my companion immediately also asks for, since she never got one. And another man storms over, out of turn, to demand his own, complaining about how damaged and worn out the cards get without one, and then you have to pay for a new one, and you'd think with all that money they're getting, they could at least provide protective plastic sleeves for everyone...whew.

I also take it in stride that the biggest sporting goods store in the biggest mall in town would have two workers manning the four self-checkout registers, which only take credit cards, and one lone cashier for the 20-minute-long line of other customers waiting to pay with cash or check. And the mumbling and grumbling that everyone in line is doing. Including my companion. Including her son, whom the trip was for. And I take in stride that everyone, including my companion, will express their displeasure orally with the lone cashier, who I'm starting to pity. And that my companion will grumble even more when a manager is called for a price check, which takes another few minutes.

And all of this, after half an hour of being wonderfully helped by the staff on the floor. But nevermind that.

But the tables do turn sometimes. After all of that, and after ringing up a whole cart's worth of goods...her wallet isn't in her purse.

Panic. Ever so slightly. (We don't have the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with us, of course. We might panic.)

But instead of turning their backs when the tables have turned, everyone in the store willingly and generously rallies to help. Team members are dispatched to the areas where we were, the cashier works with us to accept another method of payment, and the reception desk explains how to contact them if it's discovered that her wallet isn't at home.

Which of course it is. Sitting on the kitchen table.

We all thanked them profusely for their help.


(P.S. Seriously, thank you, Decathlon. You were very helpful.)

A Thing I Did Not Know Until Today

Or: France has fewer sexual taboos than the US does

Today, I perused Wikipedia in French, to help with some quick research about Lolo Ferrari (English page here), the woman who holds the world record for largest artificially augmented breasts. I swear this was relevant to my work. Promise.

Anyway, you know that box on the right that lists a summary of basic info, usually biographical for entries on people? It includes things like birth date, marital status, place of residence, most well-known works, and the like.

Well. Apparently, for French actors and actresses who sometimes act in more adult films, there is even more information listed for general consumption on Wikipedia.

Height Weight Hair color Eye color Measurements (side note: how the frick does a 54F exist??)


Sexual orientation

Yep. I'm such an American to even be taking notice of this.

(Also, there's a topless picture of said Lolo Ferrari on the French Wikipedia page, from a film she did that was shown at Cannes. Go France.)

Santa makes me happy.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. So he can make people happy. As usual, half of the things on my Christmas list this year were books. (The other half was divided between music, knitting supplies, the odd gift card, and a new heavy winter coat -- I live in upstate NY now). This is both because I love to read and because it's my job to read and write. I buy lots of books for myself and frequent the library and read articles online, but Christmas always means that I get even more books than usual. Which I love.

So, without further ado, here are three of this year's favorites:


This year, I even got something useful in my daily work: the Collins Robert French Dictionary. This thing is a bible, both in size and scope. It's bilingual, and as close to comprehensive as a print dictionary can get in this digital world. It's going to replace the pocket dictionary currently on my shelves.

But, you ask, why? Didn't I just read that this is a digital world? Why is this necessary?

And that's a valid question. For me, it's a matter of variety and security. Different dictionaries tend to have slightly different definitions, and being able to research many options for one word can sometimes make the difference between an okay choice and the best contextual choice.

And as for security, well, I usually use lots of online dictionaries, both free and subscription-based (I'm currently on a test run of the Oxford Language Dictionary online) because they're faster. But the Internet is a fickle creature, and can crash, disappear, or not be available on travels.


In October, I went to the ALTA Annual Conference in Rochester, and heard Marian Schwartz talk about her new book, Maidenhair. It's "an instant classic of Russian literature," and I am so very excited to sink my teeth into it. I'll let it speak for itself:

"Day after day the Russian asylum-seekers sit across from the interpreter and Peter—the Swiss officers who guard the gates to paradise—and tell of the atrocities they’ve suffered, or that they’ve invented, or heard from someone else. These stories of escape, war, and violence intermingle with the interpreter’s own reading: a his­tory of an ancient Persian war; letters sent to his son “Nebuchadnezzasaurus,” ruler of a distant, imaginary childhood empire; and the diaries of a Russian singer who lived through Russia’s wars and revolutions in the early part of the twentieth century, and eventually saw the Soviet Union’s dissolution."

So. Excited. And I even met the wonderful translator, because as it turns out, people in the literary translation industry are categorically wonderful!


Another wonderful translator, who I hope to meet someday, is Gregory Rabassa. He's the only reason that any Americans have read Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is one of my favorite books. Rabassa wrote a memoir of translation in 2005 called If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents. Rabassa is one of those people whose life and work proves that translators are writers, too. He's one of those people who makes my job awesome, because he's made my job exist. And he wrote his own book eight years ago.

Yes, please.


So, all I have to do is finish sobbing through reading Stone Upon Stone, which is my current obsession. I should really stop reading it before bed, though; it's messing with my dreams.

Other things...

It's great to have a well-rounded personality, right? Sometimes, I also write for other facets of my complex self. See here:

The one thing that tends to link everything I enjoy is passion. I really, really, REALLY enjoy everything that I like. The word "passion" comes to mind. Also "obsession."

I love translating, especially translating literature. I obsess over one word, jump up and down when I figure out a clever twist, and sometimes worry about boring friends and loved ones with my mile-a-minute stories of current projects and why they're so endlessly fascinating.

But I do the same thing with music, and that concert that's coming up where we get to play an opera chorus for a while.

And with knitting, and the cables that I recently mastered.

And with reading, and the two three five books I'm currently nose-deep in.

And with F1, and last week's race.

In my opinion, people are most interesting when they're interested in something. Even if I have no experience in the area, or have prior (mis-)conceptions of it, I will listen to you talk for hours if you can convey your endless interest to me in a coherent, or sometimes not even that coherent, manner.

So have at thee! What's the next awesome thing I should know about? The dark side of the moon? Fluid mechanics? Rap? Rugby? I'm up for it!

(This only works if you're in the Northern Hemisphere. Replace "north" with "south" for Australia and those parts of Africa and South America below the Equator.)

We have so much power. Climb into a car, a simple piece of machinery, really, it's been around for decades going on centuries, everyone has one. Slide a tiny strip of metal into a specific slot, tweak it a bit, and start flying across the ground. Drive north. We hold the power of time in our hands, and feet. The ability to fast forward through the seasons. Dry heat sinks give way to muggy swamps, buzzing with life, which cede to warm sun and cool breezes blowing through red and golden leaves, which melt away into chilly air and bare branches.

No longer at the mercy of the skies are we. Watch the colors change, from green to brown, and fade away. Feel the power under our palms, coursing through the gas tank, tires gripping miles and miles of ribbony tarmac.


Seriously. Guys. Technology is SO COOL. Planes, trains, automobiles. All this fancy mechanical stuff can even help us appreciate nature more. I always request a window seat on an airplane, to watch the sunrise or the cloud-sea or the patchwork quilt of farms. I'd prefer to be a passenger on a roadtrip, not because I don't like driving, but to revel in the trees or the snow or the setting harvest crescent moon.

(Should I try to tie this into translation as a profession? Planes are awesome because you can visit anywhere you want to in the world. New cultures, new people, new food, new sights, new nature. The world is an amazing place. I learned French, and I translate, and I'm working on learning Arabic, because I'm trying to satiate my curiosity for everything that's out there, all the beautiful wonderful things, and share those things with everyone. Complete satisfaction is never going to happen, though. And that's almost as cool as all the cool things out there.)


P.S. Kayaks are also time-travel machines. Thanks, xkcd.

Into the Woods

I'm a winner!! Last night, I won tickets to Shakespeare (actually, Sondheim) in the Park's production of "Into the Woods", a musical that I have loved since high school. It's a mash-up of fairytales, and what happens after they live happily ever after. I was the one, in grade school, that was already writing a script for what I called "Pocahontas 2: The Search for Flit," and a version of Little Red Riding Hood where the Narrator gets involved. Sondheim's musical is one that I was destined to love.

This particular production, originally staged at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre in London, struck two amazing balances, very important for a restaging of a beloved show. First, the directors found a way to both remain faithful to the original production and find intriguing new innovations. To my ear, one which memorized the original score, nothing in the show was changed, yet they made the Narrator a little boy playing with his toys in the forest instead of an old man watching over his characters. This made for a very interesting twist in the second act when the characters start fighting with the narrator...which I won't spoil.

Another balance, one that the Public Theater seems to hit in many of their summer shows, is in the casting. Theatre nerds were titillated about Donna Murphy as the Witch, and giddy about Chip Zien as the Mysterious Man. Mr. Zien played the Baker in the original production, and his distinctive voice has been etched onto the collective theatre hivemind as that role. But the Baker and the Mysterious Man sing a duet near the end of the show, and to hear Mr. Zien in the other role, that was pure magic.

But fear not, those with other interests! Surely, you've seen a movie recently. Thus, presented for our pleasure, was Amy Adams, of Enchanted and The Fighter and Julie and Julia fame, as the Baker's Wife.

Oh, Public Theater, how well you have achieved what translators aspire to every day! A brilliant balance between fidelity and finding your own voice, a way to simultaneously appeal to the experts and the masses. Thanks for the showing us how possible it is.