Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Awesome Things About Malagasy

I’m in week 3 of Malagasy lessons, which is about the point where you learn just enough to be dangerous. But I am learning a lot, including a bunch about just how Malagasy operates as a language, and I’m loving it. Here are some things I’ve learned and loved (spelling and accuracy not guaranteed):

  • “Sira” means salt. “Mamy” means sweet. “Siramamy,” or sweetened salt...means sugar.

  • Counting: When they got to a million, they were done. “Iray tapitrisa” comes from “tapitra,” which means “all done” or “that’s all.” So, y’know, let’s stop counting. But a billion exists, too… “Iray lavitrisa” comes from “lavitra,” which essentially means “we went too far.”

  • There are a lot of words that come from English, and a lot of them are about school: pen is “penina,” pencil is “pensilihazo.” This is because the British missionaries from the London Missionary Society were the first ones to set up schools.

  • There are a lot of French loan words (or whatever you want to call them), too...but they’re mostly for food. “Dite” from “du thé” (tea), “dibera” from “du beurre” (butter), “divay” from “du vin” (wine), “dipaina” from “du pain” (bread).

  • A translator is “mpandika teny:” one who copies language.

Oh, if it were only that simple!

Stampedes, Riots, and Revelers

Unfortunately, something scary happened at the soccer game here in Tana yesterday -- yes, I'm fine; no, I wasn't anywhere near it; in fact, I was in bed recovering from a stomach bug -- there was a stampede outside the stadium after it hit capacity and the (only) door was closed. Someone died, a bunch of people were hurt. Never fun news to wake up to.

And then, if you're Reuters, the news also says this:

"Deaths at stadiums have been all too frequent on the African continent in the past as poor policing and marshalling of spectators at usually over-crowded venues has provided a recipe for tragedy." (NYTimes, from Reuters)

It goes on. Six of the thirteen paragraphs of that article are describing these "frequent" happenings "on the African continent:" in Ghana, Malawi, Egypt, and South Africa.

That's a lot. Almost half the article.

I've been trying all morning to figure out how best to react to this. Yes, it's a news story. Yes, people were hurt and killed. Yes, it's a problem if the stadium only has one entrance, if there isn't an adequate system for tickets to let people know ahead of time if they will or won't be getting in to see the game, if there isn't enough security (or trained security) to prevent stampedes. But still, it's really reductionist to talk about ALLLLLL the other stampedes on "the African continent" for almost half a news article. The BBC does much better from a reporting angle, but...still: "Stampedes at stadiums in Africa occur on a regular basis, often due to poor crowd control in over-crowded stadiums."

Plus, I can't shake the feeling that there's a problem in how Western news outlets talk about stampedes before African soccer games versus, say, riots after American football games. In recent years, there have been more and more articles about this, from trying to explain the psychology of American football fans rioting after a win to this more direct and chilling Mic article:

"The city of Baltimore has been besieged by riots Monday night [late April 2015] — and police are on the scene ready to serve, protect and subdue.

This has become an evergreen narrative in the aftermath of reactions to state-sanctioned violence against black people. But that it persists sends a troubling message about how officials and, by extension, many of the people they serve regard rioting: specifically, when there's white people involved versus mostly black people.  

Usually, if a riot involves black people, it's connected to intense episodes of where systemic racism is undoubtedly at work. [...]

But when a mob of mostly white people take to the streets, vandalizing cars, storefronts and street signs in the process it usually means someone either won or lost a game.

As Mic's Zak Cheney-Rice noted in January, these rioters are usually called "revelers," "celebrants" and "fans." They're not even called "rioters" in many cases. They're not derided as "criminals," "thugs," "pigs" or even "violent." Those descriptors, as events in Baltimore Monday night reveals yet again, are only reserved for black people. They're the ones who need to be quelled by militarized police forces. They're the ones who need to be off the streets, immediately. They're diminishing the validity of their cause. Yet somehow, reckless behavior over a sports team, not a systemic matter of life and death, is viewed as a costly nuisance."

The article continues with some really scary photos of "celebrations," some where police didn't even get involved.

I dunno. I've been trying to learn and process a lot of systematic racism and my role in this world over the past four years. Maybe I'm overreacting, maybe I'm seeing things where they don't exist, maybe I'm comparing two vastly different things.

But then again.

Words are important. How we use words matters. How we label people and their actions matters. And just like I pointed out before, if cheating politicians exist all over the world, maybe it's a problem to say that "corruption" only exists in Madagascar and other poor countries, but not the US. Maybe it's also a problem to talk about "poor policing on the African continent" if we can't bring ourselves to call white fans "rioters," and black people fighting for their freedom are automatically labelled "thugs." Maybe it's a problem if I type "riots after football games" and the first page of Google results are mostly news outlets from the UK and Singapore talking about riots after (yes) American football games in the US.

(Surprise, here's a translator talking about how words matter. Who'da thunk? This is breaking news, too, right??)

Mispronouncing Everyone's Name

A few weeks ago, I got to attend what has become my favorite weekend of the year: the annual ALTA conference, this year held in Tucson, AZ. (This should surprise no one.) I had an absolutely wonderful time! (This should also surprised no one. But if you are surprised, then welcome to this blog! Feel free to check everything out.)

One of my favorite parts has become almost too popular in recent years: the Bilingual Readings. Anyone who signs up in advance is given the chance to do a reading of whatever translations they've been working on or had published, along with a snippet of the original text. It's a really fun opportunity to hear unfamiliar languages spoken -- this year, along with my usual French, I heard Albanian, Armenian, Bosnian, Chinese, Croatian, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Macedonian, Romanian, Serbian, Slovenian, Spanish, and Turkish.

But you read that part where I said it was almost (but only almost) too popular? So many people have started becoming so excited about these readings that they're now being double-booked. One of the things this means is that Alexis Levitin, the fearless leader/organizer of these readings for over a quarter of a century, can no longer be the emcee for every reading (as he'd like to be).

So I helped him out this year, at the "Romance and Mediterranean" session. My job was simple: introduce the readers, read their bios from the back of the program, and make some attempt at timekeeping. Turns out, I'm pretty good at that last one, but, despite years of theater experience, kind of crap at the first two.

Most of this is probably because some of my favorite translators like listing many of their authors in their bios, which I then have to read. But I found myself doing something odd. Something, for me, unexpected. I started glossing over all the author names, apologizing, even teasing the translators for having so many hard-to-pronounce names in their bios.

Now, perhaps all of this makes sense for an American who's studied French and is asked to read a Turkish name. But I've also studied Italian and Hebrew pronunciation in symphonic choirs. Why did I suddenly start giving up on those, too?

Sigh. I'm better than that.

There's also been a lot in the media recently, from academia to Tumblr, about microaggressions. (See this tool from UCLA with explanations and examples.) Plus: privilege, and biases, and safe spaces. Lots of good articles and starting points all over the place. And it got me wondering: should we translators and editors be doing more to work on this? How much harder is it for people who work in vastly international realms to figure out pronunciation rules for dozens, if not hundreds of languages? And is that any excuse?

I've been struggling with mispronouncing Malagasy names for the last two years. Yes, they're long. Yes, they have a few unfamiliar sounds in them. But shouldn't I just be working harder and practicing? Is apologizing enough?

Andriamangatiana. Jaomanoro. Rafenomanjato. I should be getting to the point where these names slide easily over my tongue.

Sigh again.

At least I've gotten to the point where I can spell them correctly on a consistent basis.

Revert, Revise, Reconfigure: My Brain

Here’s what being non-natively bilingual means.

It means that I didn’t grow up speaking French, but I speak it now.

It means I’m proficient, not fluent. It means I speak French well enough that a surprisingly high number of people have been mislead into the assumption that I’m actually French, but I still sometimes have to ask French people about vocabulary words.

It means that I can write pretty darn well in French, but if it’s a professional thing, I’ll have a native French speaker edit it.

It means I can slip very easily between French and English. It means I can slip very easily between the US and France and England and Madagascar.

It also means that my brain is wired one way, with additional circuits that have been added as the years have gone by.

When I’m in a French-speaking environment, I think in French. (That was one of the ways that I knew I was finally becoming comfortable with the language, when I could think and dream in it.)

When I’m in an Anglophone environment, my brain reverts to its original programming. And it reverts so much that all my memories transform into English memories. Any recalled speech from a French conversation is automatically recalled in English, and if I were to want to recount the actual French words for someone, I’d have to retranslate it back to my second language in my head.

Brain circuitry is weird. I don’t quite understand it sometimes.

Manao ahoana!

That's how you greet someone in Malagasy. But, like many languages, they tend to smoosh some of their sounds together, and they drop the last vowel of every word like it's their job. So it's really pronounced more like "Manaoon!" Yes, with the exclamation point -- Malagasy is a very sung language.

In addition, as it turns out, Malagasy has more English influences than French. No one's sure of exactly why, but the British did definitely have an earlier presence on the island. Maybe that explains the fact that they pronounce their months almost exactly like us, even if the spelling is pretty different.

Also, the Malagasy alphabet only has twenty-two letters. They dropped the unnecessary ones, as they say:

  • C can be replaced with either K or S
  • U is out, because their O already makes the long "u" sound
  • W can be replaced by their O, as well
  • Q is just dumb

(That is, verbatim, what I was told about Q.)

Feeling Dumb

Recently, there was a forum conversation on the precise meaning of "Tu parles!" as an exclamation. This is something I heard quite often the last time I was in France, being around two adolescent boys (or rather, being around the mother of two adolescent boys), so I know what it means.

"Dude, you're gonna ace that test!" "Oh, tu parles! My science teacher gives the hardest tests, this is gonna be rough."

"Mom, I'm going outside!" "Tu parles! Not without your coat, you're not!"

I know how to use this phrase. So does almost everyone else who speaks French on that forum.

But then, as we started talking about it, we came up with about two dozen different translations for it. High register, low register, sarcastic, joking, ironic, disbelieving, scoffing, wishful... By the end, we all ended up more discouraged than anything else. I kept reading through everyone's responses again and again, thinking, do I really know how to speak French at all??

That's how translation works, though. You read a word that you know, you know what it means...just not in that particular context. You find a word that you could use everyday in any foreign conversation, but you have no idea how to express the same thought in English. Or you drag out your thesaurus to read through all the synonyms of "indolent," only to decide that the best word for the circumstance is "lazy." Nothing fancier.

Do really know how to speak English?

The debate rages on.

Holiday Haul

Oh hello there, stranger. Happy merry holidays!

St. Jerome was very good to me this year. (What? St. Nicholas can't have the monopoly on Christmas, especially where translators are concerned.) As usual, I got books, books, and more books. Also, the promise of books--apparently, two more (two!) are still en route. The ones that have already arrived are stacked neatly in descending size order on my desk, with two titles upside down: the French ones.

Curious? Here they are, from largest surface area to smallest:

Stylistique comparée du français et de l'anglais, Vinay et Darbelnet (review in English here)
Beyond Words: Translating the World, ed. by Susan Ouriou, from the Banff Centre
The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare, ed. by Cohen and Legault


The above awesome book, from my thesis author.
Insiders' French: Beyond the Dictionary, Eleanor Levieux and Michel Levieux (example entries here)
Logodaedaly, or, Sleight of Words, Erzsébet Gilbert

Some of these books have been on my I-want-more-money-so-I-can-buy-all-these-books list for months, or even a couple of years. Here's to winter break and the ability to read as much as I want!

Greeks in France

Ancient Greeks, that is.  In French.

France loves its classics, its Antiquity, its Greek and Roman history.  Latin and Greek are still part of the basic curriculum in many high schools. But this isn't a recent love affair. Turns out, it's been going on for so long that it's affected the very language they speak.

I've talked about méduser before (here). Medusa was a Gorgon, a monster in Greek mythology whose gaze turns people to stone. Pretty badass, if you ask me. But the French word isn't even a direct reference to her anymore--it just means "to astound, astonish, or stupefy."

The verb s'adoniser  is similar. Look who's in there: Adonis, the Greek god of beauty and desire. He's considered an archetype of young, handsome men. But the French don't say that a guy is "making himself as beautiful as Adonis." They say il s'adonise : primping. "Preparing himself with almost too much attention," according to Littré.

The French don't mess around with their mythology. No one's going to "Medusa-ize" their enemy or "make like Adonis and beautify themselves." They're too refined for that.

I'm starting to feel pretty vulgar and base in comparison. Time to make like a tree and get out of here. 

In Which My Favorite Magazine Perpetuates a Terrible Stereotype

The debate is still raging over how best to review literature in translation (see this Words Without Borders collection for a primer), and the struggle continues to even get it reviewed in the first place. In the meantime, though, everyone seems to have agreed on one thing:

Good translations don't read like translations.

The highest praise you can give a translation right now, if you don't read the source language, is that reading it feels like you're reading something in English (or whatever language it's been translated into), not an awkward, grammatically-identical rendering of the original language.

This stereotype, this easy criticism, that translations generally read badly in the target language, is one of the main reasons that mainstream publishers are so hesitant, even averse, to publishing works in translation. It's an opinion that we're trying to get changed.

So I suppose I was surprised, as I reached the April 1st issue from my backlog of The New Yorker magazines, to read the Shouts and Murmurs humor/satire column, Gavin Shulman's "Taxicab Conversation," subtitled, "The important call that every New York City cabdriver is on: a translation." It begins:

Driver: Hello.
Caller: Hello. What is up? 

Oh dear. Please, don't tell me. By writing "What is up?" instead of "What's up?" or "How're you doing?" or even "How are you?," this is automatically a translation. Right?

Maybe that's how your stereotypical cabdriver, who speaks English as a second or third or fourth language, might speak in English. But even if their native language's greeting translates directly into "What is up?," without any conjunctions, no translator in their right mind would render any character using such stilted phrases in their native language. Now, this is either trying to poke fun at non-native speakers' broken English, or it's showing a "normal" translation. A bad translation.

But weirdly, the piece is not completely free of conjunctions. Both the caller and the driver occasionally use them. And the writing isn't completely littered with awkward phrasing. This exchange is rather natural:

Caller: Are you listening to music?
Driver: Yes. The prayer mix you made me. Everyone loves it.
Caller: Good.

Instead of saying something stereotypically awkward, like "Yes. I am listening to the prayer mix that you made for me," the driver sounds more conversational here. Still, with the amount of "That is good"s and "You are right"s and "Is the city very pretty?"s, the reader can't help but be biased towards negativity.

Let's take a step back, though. The New Yorker is known for its remarkably finicky and stringent rules of style. For comparison, then, here are excerpts from three other recent Shouts and Murmurs columns.

"Apologies," by Cora Frazier, 4/22/2013:

I know I shouldn't have pointed at you from across the room, saying, "Isn't that guy hot?," ignoring the instructions of my teacher, Jason. (I'm sorry, Jason. You make it burn, and I love you.)

"Most Gwyneth!," by Paul Rudnick, 5/13/2013:

I ran to my therapist, and I begged her, "Can I really have it all? Most Beautiful and Most Hated?" She paused and then said, "You know, I've treated Jennifer Lopez, John Mayer, and the entire Kardashian family, along with a supermodel who refers to overweight people as sofas. So I know what you're up against."

"J-Day," by Yoni Brenner, 5/6/2013: 

Hitler: Is there no way to suppress it?
Göring (shaking his head): I’m afraid not. It’s just too catchy. We’ve had reports of humming and unsanctioned falsetto singing along the front lines, from Finland to North Africa.
Jodl: To be honest, if I were alone I’d probably be humming it right now.
(Suddenly, Hitler has an epiphany.)
Hitler: I’ve got it: we’ll kidnap him!

All perfectly conversational, while still retaining enough readability and stylistic clarity to be published in The New Yorker. Thus, Shulman's cabdriver really is the outlier.

But it gets worse. "J-Day" sets its scene in Germany, 1942, with Generals Göring, Himmler, and Jodl. A note mentions the following: "In keeping with Nazi protocol, they speak in sinister, heavily accented English."

So. Fictionalized, satirized German generals are speaking English as a second language with grace and fluidity, even as they retain a higher tonal register (e.g. "unsanctioned falsetto"). A month earlier, in the same column of the same magazine, a fictitious, satirized cabdriver speaks English as a second language in fits and starts, haltingly. Exactly as the general public incorrectly expects translations to read.

Or perhaps I'm just paranoid.

But most people wouldn't give that much thought to the matter. Readers of The New Yorker are, by in large, highly intelligent and widely educated, but the stereotype of bad translations is too prevalent. Highly intelligent people who aren't involved in the translation industry are apt to miss that part of the satire, the part where it makes fun of how translations are viewed. Because that's just how everyone knows them.

Maybe it's even worse. Maybe I'm even more paranoid. Mr. Shulman may not have even been trying to inject satire into those two words: "a translation."

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.)