Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

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

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

NYU's MA Program in Literary Translation

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

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

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

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


As everyone can probably intuit from my lengthy silence, I'd been working on my thesis translation full-time for the last few months. It went well, but it put me into a little bit of a hermit-bubble. I guess I did get to go to my brother's graduation in NC in May, and I made time to go out swing dancing every so often . . . but on the other hand, at least twelve weeks' worth of PW, Weekend Reads, and publishers' updates went straight into my trash. And this blog didn't fare much better, either. Sorry about that.

But I come up from the murky depths of translation hermitage with a new story to share: as part of my research, I learned how to use a microform machine! It's been over a decade since I first saw one of those ancient machines sitting in the musty, dimly lit, extremely stereotypical newspaper reading room of my childhood library, and I hadn't had any valid research reason to try it out until now.

Guys. Gals. People. It's SO COOL.

I go nuts over organization. I also love things that work. Old, simple machines that are very good at what they do. Microfilm and microfiche should be completely obsolete forms of information storage by now, but they're not. Yes, the Internet and electronic databases are usurping many of the microform machine's uses (e.g. newspapers' archives are all held online now), but that doesn't mean that microfilm is dying. Oh no. Instead of just being an obsolete form of research, which some university libraries keep around only for that one tenured professor that won't leave, microfilm is actually acting as a hard-copy backup to many of the online journals we know and love! Useful AND fascinating!

Seriously. Fascinating. I mean, look at this thing:


And it plays this thing:

Tiny, man.

AND this!

(All images from Wikimedia Commons.)

I'll leave it to you to figure out which one is microfilm and which is microfiche. (Hint: fiche is French for something . . . )

I'm getting a little smitten, I think. It's actually gotten to the point where I'm trying to make up specific enough research questions that it would warrant a trip to the microform machine. It's fine, though. I can stop anytime I want. Really, officer.

Higher-Higher Education

I get it. I really do. I'm approaching the end of my MA program. Classes end in 4 weeks, my thesis translation will be done over the summer, then a quick administrative break before I (fingers crossed!) get my degree in the fall. So of course the next logical step is for people to start asking me about going for a PhD.

Or is it?

Guys, that's a long degree. This MA program that I'm doing? Only a year long. One calendar year. Do you realize how different that is from a 5-7+ year doctoral program? One of the reasons I chose the University of Rochester's MALTS program was because of its brevity. Before applying to the program, I already knew that I wanted to work full-time as a freelance literary translator. After having completed almost two years of pretty much that exact thing, I could have quite easily continued along that career path without going back for an advanced degree. But I wanted the training, I wanted the feedback, I wanted the new experiences, and I wanted the contacts, all without taking a huge gaping break in the professional progress I'd been making.

And you know what? All of those boxes, all those criteria for going back to school, they all got checked off. I made a very good decision. Now, I want to continue along with my plan, not stay in school for another eon. I have a grand master plan, people. Let me do it. (It's not evil, I swear.)

But I get why people are asking me about PhD programs. Literary translation is a very scholarly thing. (Come on, it's right there in the name: literary.) One next logical step would be a PhD in French Literature. And, weirdly enough, it's almost more practical. A guaranteed position for the next 5-7 years, tuition paid, stipend included, working time, and time to do your own work. Sure, you have to take on some extra duties, some things outside of merely translating, in order to do your job, to get your degree, to get tenure . . . But with so many people going to college these days, the MA has become the new BA, and the BA has become the new high school diploma. So the PhD is the new MA, right?

Still, not for me. I don't want to be an academic. I have the utmost respect for my professors, and some (well, most, actually) of the greatest translators I know are professors first. But I want to prove that you can just be a literary translator, completely freelance. It's not a walk in the park: as poorly as some academics get paid, translators tend to get paid even less. And I'm certainly not supporting myself yet. But I'll get there.

And if I change my mind later on and get completely wooed by the idea of a doctorate, I can always go back to school. But for now, I'm staying in Rochester, heading up ELTNA, translating, and doing all the other fun projects that come my way.

An apology, an excuse, and a plug

Apology: I'm very sorry the entries have been few and far between recently.

Excuse: I've started grad school. 

Plug: Three Percent.  I've said before that it's quite possibly the best blog in the literary translation industry, and that's still true. Now I have even more of a reason to spread the word. As an MA candidate in Literary Translation Studies at the University of Rochester, I'm a de facto intern at Open Letter.


One of my wildest dreams is coming true.

[From the Archives] Tutoyer

To address someone with the informal "you" One of the most confusing things about conversational French is figuring out whether to address someone with the formal (and/or plural) "vous" or the informal and/or familiar "tu."  Generally speaking, you use "vous" when you don't know someone, or when you're addressing someone older or of higher authority than you, or when you just want to show respect to someone; you use "tu" when you're familiar with someone, or when you're speaking to someone of your age or younger.  Families differ on if kids should tutoient or vouvoient their parents, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, etc.

That being said, my first day at school was made much more comfortable by the mandate that all teachers and staff members addressed each other as "tu," even if you didn't know the other person that well.  It's like a little family, a team; it made me feel very welcome.  On the flip side, I always address my landlords as "vous," even though they've invited me to their house for multiple meals -- what's nice is that they also address me as "vous."  Business arrangement first and foremost, I guess.

The cool thing is when these forms of addressing people start to shift.  A "vous" to "tu" shift (it never happens the other way around) means friendship, or at the very least, familiarity.  I've gotten permission to tutoie Bernard, who runs the bookstore, who I've spent a lot of time with.  Just today, the boulanger (bread man) who comes around to our neighborhood said that I could of course tutoie him.  I'm pretty sure I'm a few weeks away from permission from the sausage man at market and the madame who runs the grocery store to tutoie them.  I may not be able to fit in seamlessly to French life, but I'm becoming accepted by those who live and own that life.

On a side note: incidentally, I'm apparently not only becoming accepted by, but attractive to the French, as well.  At least the males of the species.  My CE2s (3rd graders) made a big deal about two of the boys in the class having crushes on me.  Fortunately, they're 3rd grade crushes.  I think I can handle that.  What I wasn't prepared to handle were the advances of a couple boys my age, maybe a bit younger, maybe a bit older (I can never tell with the French), outside a bar at the edge of town.  They're young, immature, they didn't quite know what they were truly attempting.  I rebuffed their advances not only in French, but like the French do, with a certain aloofness and gentle snide comments (which may not make sense until you hear some native speakers go at it).  My French must be getting pretty good...

[From the Archives] Today, they deal in marbles; tomorrow, they take over the world

I have a simple game that I play with my CP kids (1st graders) to help them learn their numbers.  I set out cards with the numbers 1-10 on a table, split them into 2 teams, call them up two at a time, say a number in English, and the first one to hit the number wins a point.  We've taken to calling it "Taper les numéros" (literally, Hit the numbers).  They've been getting pretty good at it, at least when they actually count and don't just hit numbers randomly, hoping they'll eventually get to the right one. Yesterday, my last class was the CP group who normally acts pretty well.  Two girls were sick, though, so we had a team of 3 -- M & S, two girls, and G, a boy -- against a team of 2 -- A, a girl, and H, a boy.  Normally, A and H are pretty good at this game, but they were just slow today, so it got to 6-2, then 9-4, playing to 10.  They got nervous, until A said "If you don't let us win, I'm never going to give you any marbles again."

Wait, what?

Let me explain something: marbles are THE game to play at recess for these kids.  All ages play marbles.  They trade them, they win them, they lose them, and apparently, A thought it was time to start bartering with them.

I laughed, thinking there was no way this would work.  M and S exchanged glances and kinda giggled, but G was up next, and he deliberately lost the point.  9-5.  Then:
A: "If you let us win, I'll give you two marbles each."
H: "Yeah, and I'll give you one more besides."
A: "Let us win, we'll give you all three marbles!"

And M, S, and G all started deliberately losing.

At 9-9, I want to see if I can change their minds at all.
Me: "Y'know, three marbles isn't a lot for this type of game.  I would think that winning this game would be worth at least seven or eight."
G: "Nope, three is plenty for me!"
M & S nod, agreeing.

And they let A & H win -- being very careful to explain to me, of course, that they did let them win.

As we lined up to go back to class, M & S & G asked after their marbles.
A: "Well, I don't have any marbles I can give you today."
H: "I don't actually have marbles that I want to give to you."
*general protestation*
A: "Ask me tomorrow.  I might have marbles that I'm okay with giving you."

Two 1st graders just screwed their classmates out of marbles for an English class game.  All I could do was laugh and be extremely impressed by their ingenuity, however backhanded it might be.