Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond


Back in May, I was diagnosed with postpartum depression.

I spent a week and a half on my couch. That was all I could do.

I found a therapist. It took all the energy I had over about three days to set up an appointment.

Therapy -- specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT -- is working for me. Working wonders, in fact. Three months later, I started feeling like myself again, like a normal human. Perhaps not fully functional, but appropriately functional.

This isn't just a problem for me. 1 in 7 new moms gets PPD or some other form of postpartum anxiety, and new dads/partners can be affected, too. And contrary to popular belief, PPD can hit anytime in the first two years after your baby is born, not just the first few months. If it hasn't happened to you, you probably know someone who's been affected.

  • Wil Wheaton talks about his depression and anxiety a lot. Start here.
  • Hannah Hart made a video about what depression looks like to her.
  • Rob Loukotka, a friend and kickass artist, has been detailing his struggle with depression and work on Twitter.
  • Fellow dancer and Rochestarian Nicole Peltier has started writing about her own journey to fight the stigma associated with mental illness.
  • Here's PPD 101.

Work has looked really different for me over the past few months. Publicly, not much has actually changed. Sure, my blog went dormant for a little while, but that's happened before. And I was still posting on Facebook sometimes; Twitter, less often, as usual. I was a bit slower to respond to emails, perhaps. (Definitely.) From the inside, though . . . I was in survival mode.

Survival mode means nothing extraneous, nothing that's not absolutely necessary. No blogging. No emails. No pitches. No short stories. No submissions. No taking on new projects. Just pick one thing and make that deadline. (Or don't. Every single one of my deadlines over the summer was adjusted -- generally for several reasons, but my mental health didn't help.)

One thing at a time.

This includes final edits on the most important book I've ever translated.

My expectations for myself had to be radically altered. Expectations of productivity, of the division between work and family and home and personal, have changed drastically. But as I've progressed with my recovery, these altered expectations have actually proved useful. I've learned how to balance the work I want to do with the time I want to spend with my family, so that I don't feel guilty about one while doing the other.

I'm slowly, so slowly, so so slowly, letting go of perfection. This has been the goal for my entire life -- worshiped, idolized, fought and striven for. But practice doesn't make perfect, and perfection is unattainable. We are all human. Me, most of all. Slowly, slowly, self compassion is taking its place. Each day, every one of us does our best. And maybe my best today isn't as good as yesterday's best, or your best. But it's the best we can do. It's the best I can do.

For the past couple of months, I've had these grand plans of how eloquently I would describe living and working with PPD. But it's fracking hard to sit down and type out an announcement to the entire world that you're sick. That something's wrong. That you can't be a diligent worker bee at the moment. It's terrifying to admit that you have depression. I avoided telling people for weeks because of dumb, anxiety-brain reasons. I avoided telling people during the time when I needed the most support. And then it took me even more time to write this for you, my readers, the world, the Internet, to see for the rest of time.

Depression sucks.

But it gets better.

Talking about depression with people means that they talk about it with you. It's been staggering to learn just how many people I know deal with depression or anxiety or both. And it's been equally staggering to realize how many of those people are role models for me, in terms of the work that they produce. So, the realization follows: I can still produce amazing work. I can still be an admirable person. I can still be me.

A friend and colleague of mine has depression, and he's managing it very well. He's explained to me about his "mental colds", those mental health equivalents to getting a cold: you take it easy for a day or few, and you're back to normal in no time. And recognizing that mental colds are a good reason to take it easy can be . . . life-changing.

Depression does suck. But it really really does get better.

In the early stages of therapy -- i.e. once I could actually work again -- I got edits back on a comic book that I'd translated and delivered just as I was sliding into full-on severe PPD, maybe a day or two before I realized I needed help. I appreciate how good of a relationship I have with that editor, because they made only a passing comment on just how many changes they had to make. There were a lot of changes. The translation was awful. Forced, hackneyed, French sentence structures retained in English, several blatant (and easy to spot) mistranslations. Pretty close to the worst thing I've ever produced, very probably the worst thing I've ever delivered to a client.

The most recent graphic novel I did for them earned a separate email of compliments from the head editor. I've still got it.

Looking for help? Try these resources:

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.

Selective Writer's Block

Is there such a thing? Because I sure as all heck feel like I have it. 

Yesterday, I blew through translating the end of a chapter in probably around half the time it normally takes me. Smashed my own personal page-to-hour ratio record in the process. No particular reason for working so quickly besides everything just gelling really well.

On the other hand, I haven't written hardly a word of solely my own creation in a couple of weeks. This blog has ground to a halt; a currently in-progress original short story is just sitting there, waiting for inspiration that isn't coming. And I want to pull my hair out. (Maybe not my hair. I love my hair. Maybe a fingernail or two instead.)

A lack of creativity isn't the issue. I've been possibly overly proud of a couple of sentences I've translated, and a number of workarounds to tricky translation problems that I've dreamed up. But I hadn't been able to think up a new blog topic in...(hang on, counting)...sixteen days. Not a ton, but all the same, whoops .


Granted, I thought August was going to be my month to work up some of my own writing (and finish editing some summer-produced translations), but then a sample popped up for my favorite ladies. And a contest which I just have to enter, if I can track down rights for the story I want to submit. And another sample, upon request, for a publishing house. Those might just be getting in the way. Maybe. Perhaps. A little. Around the edges.

Ever so slightly.

A tad. 


Bad News is Better than No News

There's something really wrong with bad translation practices when they start getting picked up by international news. In English, from The Telegraph. In French, from Le Nouvel Obs. These are the terrible conditions that translators for the major European languages had to endure and agree to in order to translate Dan Brown's latest work, Inferno. From February 15 to April 5, they worked 12 hours per day, 7 days per week, in an underground bunker, with limited Internet access, no way to take notes on their work, and no copy of the final product they delivered at the end.

All in the name of making sure that no spoilers were leaked.

This is madness, I tell you. But this isn't the first time such conditions have been imposed on translators. Another high-profile example came with JK Rowling's work, both the later Harry Potter books and her new one, The Casual VacancyIn all these cases (and, sadly, many more), translators are forced to work too quickly and under too many limitations for, generally, too little money.

Now, all of these situations are horrible, and there is an understandable outcry over the armed guards outside the Italian bunker for the Brown novel, or the sub-minimum-wage pay for translating Rowling. But it is doing some good, one tiny sliver of a silver lining in a darkened, thundering sky. It sparks all of this bad press, which raises awareness and attention about the hundreds and thousands of other terrible contracts that get dumped on translators of every ilk.

So often, people (especially Americans -- we're more guilty than most about this) assume that translation is easy, quick, cheap, something any bilingual person can do. Would you pay your translator the same hourly rate that you pay your lawyer? Or your accountant? No?

Well, those who don't are committing the same sin as sticking translators in a bunker without any outside contact, the same sin as depriving translators of a several-hundred-page text until three weeks (THREE WEEKS!) before their deadline. Translators, whether literary or any other breed, are artists and masters who have honed their craft through hours and days and years of classes, practice, and research. So while these terrible news stories are still terrible, they do serve to bring some of our plight into the limelight. They serve to remind the reading public about how much work goes into translation, and how terrible it is to deprive translators of humane working conditions or a living wage.

But fortunately, it isn't all bad news. Good presses exist: Open Letter, Archipelago, White Pine. Translator and author Lydia Davis just won the Man Booker International fiction prize. Edith Grossman is still writing and fighting for us. All in all, we're doing pretty well, I figure.

The Joys of Being Still

I feel like this post should begin with a disclaimer. Namely, that I have no official training in or experience with meditation. Neither do I really know anything about Zen Buddhism. It's not quite enough just to read A Tale for the Time Being, no matter how wonderful a book it is.


Still, I have to believe that choosing to be still for a while is a natural ability of human beings, if only we remember that we have it. A self-imposed exile from Internet connectedness in the guise of a weekend vacation back to a tiny, remote, French village in the middle of the mountains turns out to be an ideal way to fall back into the stillness that should be a habit.

The first night is an internal struggle. Checking email every 20 minutes has become an actual habit, a distraction from work, a distraction from life, a way to keep busy in a non-meaningful way. And the habit pulls and tugs at first, and there is a distinct uneasiness that you should be doing something, something that keeps your head busier than sitting around among the crickets and slumbering bumblebees. But eventually, there's a book on your nightstand that you've been meaning to read for three weeks, if only you had the time. And now you do.

I was reminded of my childhood over the weekend. Because when I was growing up, I would devour books. Hundreds of pages each day. Staying up until all hours of the night, or waking up early to read an entire book before anyone else woke up. Getting in trouble for reading under my desk at school, and then not getting in trouble anymore because I also managed to be a very good student. And then college hit and there were so many books to read and analyze for class that I stopped reading for pleasure. I've started realizing that I haven't truly gotten back into that habit. Well, not a habit, really...more like a compulsive need. And it was such a pleasure to submerge myself in a whole book in two days.

And then there was the walk along the river, to a place that I'm sure is known by others, given the narrow, slightly overgrown path that leads there, but which has always been devoid of other humans in my presence. Mosquitoes, frogs with red eyes, sheep, the echo of horses, yes. But no other humans. And it is there, next to the pounding of a waterfall, underneath a seemingly unmoving sun that reflects halos off of the clouds, that I write. It is the beginning of a new short story. The idea came unbidden, without me seeking it, which has not happened in a long time.

I've often read that writers are always writing, that their brains never stop thinking about their stories or creating new ones. And I think that's true to a certain extent. But if you stuff your brain full of too much stuff, whether it's email or online forums or planning lunches or controlling unruly children or filling out invoices, then the stories and characters don't have room to roll around and develop on their own. Without the stillness, inspiration doesn't have anywhere to appear. If you don't remember to breathe, the body clenches up tight, constricting the free flow of ideas.

Granted, though, there's the issue of balance and practicality. Rare is the person who can successfully unplug for months at a time, whose life is arranged around a lack of communication. Which is fine. It's just good to remember how to be still sometimes. Joann Sfar writes best in hotel bathrooms, according to the most recent issue of LiRE, because it's devoid of distractions.

Small French waterfall, hotel bathroom...same diff, right?

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.)

"Dancing isn't creative."

What. I'm sorry, what??

Last night, as has become my Wednesday habit, I went out swing dancing at a studio in Rochester. There's a good scene here, nice people, lots of beginners, and a solid contingent of experienced teachers. There's also a dearth of male leads, which means it's very common for girls to ask guys to dance (and/or snatch them away from the 20 other girls also looking for a partner...which is fine, it hasn't become cutthroat yet...).

So I went up and asked a guy to dance that I hadn't seen before. Wearing a nametag, so probably a beginner from the earlier lesson, and looked like he had a good head on his shoulders. He agreed readily. And as he was leading me out onto the dance floor, he said:

"I really don't get this dancing thing."

Sorry? What do you mean?

"Well, it's not creative at all."


"You're not creating anything, you're just doing the same steps everybody else is. I'm a musician."

Oh. Wait, what?

"Every time I sit down to play, I'm creating something. There's something new."

And I just let my mouth hang open in flabbergasted astonishment for a few moments.

But wait! I have rebuttals! I dabble in both dance and music. And just last month, I was lucky enough to attend a day-long workshop put on by the current International Lindy Hop champions, Todd and Ramona, where they talked at great length about how every dance is different, because everyone dances with their own style, and putting two people together as partners will create something wonderful and fresh. I hunkered down and started probing deeper. Mostly out of morbid curiosity. And probably a little masochism.

He plays guitar. Okay. Chords. There are basic chords to playing guitar. Everything builds off of those. Everything that is "creative" is created upon that foundation. Yes?

"But nobody leaves the foundation here. Look around. Everyone's doing exactly the same steps."

BUT NOT IN THE SAME WAY! I don't actually scream that, though. Instead, I continue that sure, many of them are, but they're just learning. Lots of beginners in this scene. Here, let me point out the more advanced dancers, who are doing their own thing with their partners, more "creatively," as you say.

"Yeah, but it's still all the same steps. They have to know what steps they're going to do ahead of time."

GAH. No. That's the difference between social dancing and choreography. New tack. "Okay, you've been playing guitar for how long?"

"Ten years."

"And how many years of those ten have you been done with the basics, creating something new every time you sit down to play?" (As a side note, I know most musicians -- and dancers -- are never really "done with the basics." It was for the sake of the argument.)


What. Fine. But dude. All those chords have been played before, and they will all be played again.

No real point in trying to explain to him that there are people like that in the dance world, too, even in the world of partner dances.

Why are you even here? Being a really good friend with a car to his buddy with a girl. Who now owes him big time. Seriously? Dude, go to the bar, there's a nice one across the street. Which he likes. Fine. I'd suggest not sharing your opinions, your vitriol, with any of the other dancers here. You may incur their ire. Their wrath. Don't do that.

In conclusion...yep. Good (read: solid) head on his shoulders. Actually, just solid. Solid, rock-hard, and stubborn. I wish him all the best at his bar. Because his friends, the lovebirds, were adorable, and really interested in dancing.

He better not have driven them home drunk.


But look. There's another story in this. These are the same arguments that people use to support the theory that translation isn't creative (albeit in different clothing).

"It isn't writing, you're just copying what other people have said."

"It's all the same words, found by flipping through the dictionary. You don't create anything."

"Maybe literary translation is kinda creative, but those boring legal documents and medical texts aren't." (Don't ever tell me this. I'll grant that literary translation can be more creative than pharmaceutical reports, but writing is still writing. There's an element of creation in all of it.)

Sure, think they're wrong. But what would you tell people who express such opinions? More ideas are always welcome.

On Prosopagnosia

Also called "face blindness."

I enjoy swing dancing. It's ridiculously fun, besides also being good exercise and a nice way to be social and meet new people. Most everyone ends up having trouble remembering people's names, since it's such a rapid-fire way to meet people. Dance with them for four minutes, usually in a darkened room while you're concentrating on connection and steps and all of that, then exchange names, and move on to the next person.

But for me, it sometimes goes beyond that. I may have had a long conversation with someone one night, but I won't recognize them the next day. I danced with someone for over a month, left town for a while, and upon coming back, couldn't remember if I had ever met them.

As an undergrad, I majored in both French and psychology. And in a psych lecture one day (Perception, I think), the professor started talking about prosopagnosia. It's when a person's ability to recognize faces is impaired. Thanks to something in the brain called the fusiform gyrus, human beings have a unique ability to recognize and distinguish between faces, much more easily than other similarly complex types of input. But prosopagnosiacs can't. Depending on the severity of their disorder, they may have to rely on other clues: voice, hairstyle, glasses, gait, even clothes. With varying degrees of success, of course -- people change their clothes every day.

And then I started doing a bit more research on the disorder. I recognize my family and friends just fine, yes. But if someone I know has shaved off their hair, I do a double-take. I have trouble distinguishing people in movies or plays if they're the same race and build. And if I run into someone out of context (a classmate out shopping, a swing dancer in the library, the coffeehouse barista out to dinner), I may not know who they are.

Unfortunately, this lack of mental ability can be interpreted as rude. If the other person doesn't remember my name, I have an easy out -- we can both laugh and commiserate over how difficult it is to remember the names of every single person we meet. Or if we've only met once, or even twice, it's easy to explain away. But. Otherwise? Ugh.

And networking? Fuggedaboutit. Oh yes, it's possible, of course. But if I have to remember what someone looked like, I sometimes have to use my secret weapon: Google Images. Maybe it's cheating. Maybe it's the only tool I have. Thank goodness for the Internet, sometimes.

I'm lucky, though. A friend of mine, a psychologist in France, has a more severe case of prosopagnosia. She has to explain to her patients that she won't be able to ever recognize them by face alone. Saying "Oh, but of course you'll remember me! How could you not?" doesn't actually help. You're not a special case. Your face is just like any other face, unrecognizable. And she's lost patients because of it.

Over the years, I've gotten used to the split-second terror that comes when someone walks up to me with a smile on their face, saying "Hi, Allison!" and I have no idea who they are. If there's nothing distinctive about them, I'm lost. If it's not the smooth, dark-skinned woman with wonderfully wavy hair who always drapes scarves over her shoulders...or the 6'5"-tall swing dancer with rectangular glasses and a matching smile...or the pale woman with very straight, naturally bleach-blond hair and cutely scrunched up features...or the guy with the light brown hair in a ponytail all the way down his back...... If I don't have any other cues, I've gotten used to the hot pink that creeps up my face to my ears, and my heart pounding THUMPTHUMPTHUMP against my bones that drowns out the question I'm forced to ask, "I'm so sorry, but I've completed blanked on your name...where was it that we met?"

How embarrassing. But only because prosopagnosia, no matter how slight, has not entered the collective consciousness. It's still not socially acceptable. The automatic assumption is that of course there's not any valid excuse for forgetting someone's name, someone's face. You're forgetting their very identity. To you, they're not a person. How rude.

How rude for that assumption to be made of millions of people with some form of the disorder. Really. An estimated 2.5% of the population. That's millions.

So I rely on my coping mechanisms: Google Images, cell phone pictures, conversational cues, re-introductions, profuse apologies proffered. And, subconsciously, a solitary career that minimizes the amount of time I have to spend with other people. Seriously -- there are only two girls who work afternoons at the coffeeshop I began frequenting, and it was two weeks before I could tell them apart. Not much of an incentive to go work as a doorman. -woman. -person. -holder. I'd be the worst receptionist ever.

Thank goodness for the books. I can at least recognize them by their covers.

For more information, start here:

Proofer's Eye

Add this to the list of, well, conditions that I have. That many writers have. That, indeed, all copyeditors and proofreaders have. All of them. (All of them worth their salt, anyway.) Proofer's Eye means that you can never just read for pleasure. The slightest misplaced comma stabs you in the gut. The odd-one-out verb tense is like lemon juice on a canker sore.

It means that entire conversations get completely derailed when walking down the street, barraged by signs and ads, if any word is inappropriately capitalized.

It means that you find markedly less humor in lolspeak, because why would anyone in their intelligent right mind ever type like that?

You don't necessarily have to be a grammar nazi, lashing out and taking everyone to court for their mistakes. Proofer's Eye encompasses the more private heartaches and bitter tears shed in your own living room. But it does exist, and it is a problem.

Please, if you know someone with this debilitating disorder, do your part to help them out. Don't forget your apostrophes. Don't write non-poetic fragmented sentences. Do murmur tacit agreement when they shake their head. Don't let them tear their hair out.

Be there for them, not they're for them.


(These statements not endorsed by any creators of the DSM-V, although I was quite intrigued when it was recently released...)

Been rejected, and it feels so good!

Oh wait. No, no it doesn't, really.

Actually not that great.

Especially when it's one of the coolest pieces you've worked on to date, and you had crafted it so lovingly, and you had really thought that it fit the magazine perfectly, and you even had a colleague introduce you to the editor-in-chief herself...nope.

Turns out, there's no Magic Bullet to getting a story accepted. I mean, I knew that. But rejection still sucks.

So you keep working. There's an editing job today, and one lined up for tomorrow. There are still several irons in the fire, other submissions that you're waiting to hear back from. And this is only one in a long string of rejections that are bound to come. You're a writer, after all. Writers, all writers, even very good writers, get rejected all the time. (Except for possibly Neil Gaiman.) It's a ridiculously large percentage: 9 out of 10, or 99 out of 100, or maybe even 993 out of 1000 submissions will be rejected. You just have to keep plugging away.

Besides, it's still a very good piece of writing, skillfully translated. There are other journals out there. Eventually, someone will bite.

They have to. Right?