Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

I'm a Slammer Now?

Leave it up to this country to get me writing and performing in ways I never have before.

I've focused on prose for several years now, so I don't know a lot about the poetry world. From the little I see, though, slam poetry is one of the most awesome (and the most intimidating) forms -- although I might just be reacting to the performance aspect. At any rate...nah, never would've thought that I'd ever have anything to do with it. No way. Absolutely not.

Well of course my first slam experience would be here. In Madagascar. In French. Because why not? There was a writing workshop beforehand, why not.

But then, there was another slam last weekend. An English-language slam. And so of course I had to go. And...maybe write something real quick beforehand, just in case?

It was fun. :-)

Here it is, in all its glory. It's a hastily-written first draft by a beginner, and it gets a little sappy near the end, but it's mine, and it consolidates a lot of the thoughts I've been having for the past few weeks. (Video of the performance exists somewhere, but not in my possession. Yet.)


First and Third: A reflection on the US and Madagascar

What does “first-world” mean?
The term is tossed around
by well-rounded, well-meaning intellectuals,
but we all know.
First-world is rich.
First-world is luxury.
First-world is developed, finished, no more work left to do.
First-world is a good life, an automatic win,
if you can get in.

But that’s not right, not it at all.
The US of A, this country we call
what is it first in?
Do we win?
At anything?
Health, human rights, happiness?
No. None of the above.

In education, we’re not first, but 14th.
In literacy, 24th.
In math, 38th.
In gender equality, 22nd.
Economic freedom, 10th.
Peacefulness, 99th.
Life expectancy, 49th, and falling.
Even in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,
the very ideals our country was founded on,
we’re not first.
We’re not even Top 10.
We’re a lowly 19th.

So much for the greatest country in the world.
This “first-world” business only counts for
incarceration rates,
military spending,
death due to firearms,
death due to violence,
plastic surgeons,
breast augmentation,
oil consumption,
wine consumption,
the ultra-rich,
mental health disorders,
and you think none of this is related?
We trump the world in the worst things.
Gold stars all around.

In product development,
first means alpha,
too early, too soon.
Third is better,
third is post-product launch,
third is all the bugs have been worked out.
Let’s take third.

And I don’t want a third of the world to be held down,
held back,
just so that another part can be first.

And really,
there is no third-world,
there is no third of a world,
not just one-third of the world.

When I am here,
do I see a third of the sky? No.
I see the whole sky,
stretching further than I can ever imagine.

When I am here, 
do I sleep a third as long? No.
For the night is dark and deep and strong.

When I am here,
do I eat a third as much? No.
There is food in abundance,
a mountain of rice at every meal,
and always good company to share it with.

When I am here,
do I feel a third alive?
I feel it all, everything,
joyous and quick and sharp and whole.
My heart is full and fit to burst,
at the first sign of smiles,
the first sign of green,
the first sign of love.

I have been here, and I have seen:
People here do not
work just a third as hard,
or mourn just a third as long,
or laugh just a third as loud,
or dream just a third as strong.
Here, there is
the whole sun,
the whole day,
a whole life.

But why even try to differentiate?
Why keep driving wedges down to separate?
We aren’t that much different, the first and the third.

Call it corruption, call it lobbying:
we both have politicians who cheat.

Say, you don’t have money to see the doctor,
say, you can’t afford insurance to see the doctor:
you both might die.

Call it kabary, call it a speech:
we can all talk for a long, long time.

Covered in red dust, covered in mud:
all our children play outside.

After all...first and third,
they’re both steps on the podium,
medals get awarded for both places,
it’s a huge accomplishment
no matter how you try to define it.

But then again…
If just a third of this world
can work together,
to help the rest,
we can all share first place
at the very top.
There’s room up there for everyone.


I'm back! Back to the blog, and back in Madagascar. I'll be here until October, and let me tell you, it's already been quite a trip.

I've been here once before, for almost six weeks back in 2014. That was back when this blog was a little more active, but if you look at the archives (or if you've been following for a while), you'll see that I barely wrote anything at all about that trip. Seems a little incongruous, considering it was literally a life-changing trip: my first time in a developing country, my first time anywhere on the continent of Africa, and the trip that kick-started what has become my professional niche (at least for now).

It was a difficult trip. I was yanked out of any semblances of a comfort zone, and I found it hard to adjust. But it was also one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I met so many wonderful people, and saw so many wonderful things . . . I just couldn't figure out how to write about it.

This lasted for a while. How could I write about the good parts and ignore the bad? Or, perhaps worse, how could I write about the bad and have that be the only perspective that many Americans/Westerners would have on this country that already struggles to craft any image for itself to the wider global community, besides lemurs and poverty?

I saw an interview a few years back that was a prime example of this. (It might have been Benedict Cumberbatch on Top Gear, but I don't remember exactly, and I don't currently have a fast enough internet connection to figure it out.) Whoever it was, he'd been asked about a trip he'd taken to South Africa, where he and some friends had gotten carjacked and abducted on a highway at night, they'd had hoods over their heads for a while and guns pressed up to them every so often, and he'd really believed he was going to die. But he added very quickly that he didn't like telling that story, not publicly, because there were so many good people in South Africa, and he didn't want the audience's assumptions about that country to be that it was all violence all the time. Granted, I didn't get kidnapped or anything, knock on wood, but I didn't want my struggles to be the only things people knew of Madagascar.

But at the root of all this, really, was my chosen role as a translator. What good would my stories be, when I could tell the stories of the people here, in their own words? The real stories of the real lived experiences of the real people in this real country, instead of some quick travelogue jotted down by someone who flew away almost as quickly as she'd arrived? This is what I've been doing for the last four years: telling Malagasy stories by Malagasy authors. Because they know best. It seems like a "duh" thing to say, but that's the truth. Why would I want to let my own stories get in the way of theirs, especially when I have chosen to dedicate my professional life to telling other people's stories in a new language?

So that's what I've done. I've tried to keep pretty quiet about my own experiences in Madagascar for a while, because there was such a lack of Malagasy voices in English. However, that's finally starting to change -- the first novel is out in English, and there are a few more in the works (more on that when I'm allowed to talk about it!) -- so my voice will no longer be the only one that many English-speakers have access to. Plus, there are a few Malagasies writing directly in English, too (they're listed on the Madagascar page of this website).

So . . . I'm here. Again. For a longer trip this time. And although I still feel rather ridiculously out of my depth, there are things that I can write about, that I can feel comfortable writing about. I want to write about this place, and I can easily share little snippets of different parts of life here. (What I can't do is try to summarize the entire culture and people and food and art and life of this whole wide country in one huge over-arching essay. So why try?) I can write about little things as they happen, the same way anyone does in normal life on a blog or social media. Because any life, all life, is so much more complex than one page on the Internet.

My Memoirs, Three Ways

Because I have to play my own game.

One of the things you can do in order to enter my giveaway (the contest is open through TONIGHT at 11:59pm EST) is to leave a comment explaining who you'd want to write your memoirs, if not you. There are a few ways one could go about this. The way I see it, I have three options:

1. Évelyne Bloch-Dano

Évelyne is a very well-known French biographer with many works to her name, including biographies of Proust's mother, Zola's wife, and a certain writer named George Sand. She'd make my life sound textured and romantic, delving through my emails (and grade-school handwritten correspondence) to paint a picture of the most interesting parts of my life. She wouldn't shy away from scandal--not that I've had any, mind you--but she wouldn't fabricate any, either.

There would probably be a scene dedicated to the time we met in Paris at Angelina, across from the Tuileries Gardens, and I gushed for a few minutes too long about the Mont Blanc. (I was nervous to meet her, and the dessert was amazing . . . )

2. My husband

Lots of you, dear readers, have mentioned family members, friends, or significant others who could write your memoirs, with the idea that they know you best. However, I'd have to nix this option as soon as it came to the table.

Not because my husband can't write. He can. He writes very good stories. No, it's because my husband is too biased. The man thinks I'm the best thing since sliced bread. And that's fantastic for a marriage, one might even say ideal. But if he wrote my memoirs, it would basically just be a list of my accomplishments in increasingly capitalized letters, with an increasing number of exclamation marks, in increasingly large font sizes, with an increasing number of superlative adjectives stuck in front of my name, so that eventually, an entire chapter would be a sentence of adjectives with one word on each page.

That's just bad formatting. I should spare the world that.

3. Neil Gaiman

I have no idea if world-famous, bestselling, award-winning sci-fi author Neil Gaiman has ever written anyone else's biography. I'd imagine his only interest would be in Terry Pratchett. But if I could convince him to write my memoirs, they would be laced with magic and mystery, in all the most ordinary ways. My American Girl dolls from childhood would have a strange power, my mother would probably have buttons for eyes, I would have befriended the old woman feeding pigeons in Union Square Park to start an adventure, and I'd be learning to play the carillon for use in the next war of the gods. But only in the most ordinary ways. The ocean, after all, is only at the end of the lane.


And there, that's my answer. If you'd still like a chance to win a free e-book copy of Return to Erfurt, leave a comment or spread the word on Twitter using the hashtag #Erfurtgiveaway to enter by TONIGHT, Friday, February 27, 2015, at 11:59pm EST. Winners will be announced on Monday!

Next Idea in Reviewing Translations

How in the world does one actually review translations?

I think the better question is, why is this such a hard question?

I propose a new way of reviewing translations, by considering two questions:

FIRST: Is the book a good book, in a vacuum?
Does it weather the normal storm of questions asked when reviewing a "normal" book, the questions of style, pleasure of reading, intriguing ideas, and the like?
The trick when answering this question is to credit both the author and translator with any successes and pitfalls. Although the translator has less influence over certain aspects (like plot and general structure), both writers are still responsible for the book in the translated form you are reviewing. Credit them both.

SECOND: How important is this text, in the context of the target language's literature, the source language's literature, and literature as a whole?
Again, this is a similar question to what is asked of "normal" books. How does it fit into the grand literary tradition? Does it introduce something new, is it heavily influenced by other works, is it a breath of fresh air or a clever reinterpretation of something else?
Granted, the middle part of this question may be difficult for some reviewers to answer regarding some books. I myself have no idea what the state of literature is in Kazakhstan, but I also have the ability to use Google, and might be able to figure it out in less than five minutes.

I guess what it boils down to is that I am very confused as to why translations have to be treated differently than a country's own fiction. Why does the exoticism of translated literature scare people away, when we have writers like Zoë Wicomb, Kiran Desai, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writing IN ENGLISH about their "exotic" experiences from South Africa, India, and Nigeria, respectively, including italicized foreign words in their manuscripts that readers do actually learn to understand, and garnering both critical and popular acclaim?

Look. Translated books are just like regular books, except they have two (or more) writers to thank for either their brilliance or their failures.

Or is this overly simple, too simple? Is there more to it than just this?

Forays and Larks in Translation

Or: Oh, how I wish this could work!

There's a French verb, méduser , that means "to astound, to stun, to stupefy." An adjective, médusé , is similarly defined. But if the careful reader looks closely, the root of the word comes from a very well-known Gorgon in Greek mythology with snakes for hair.

So in a recent translation, I drafted the following: 

[He] stood in the narrow path that wound in between books, paintings, and stacks of unknown content, the chaos holding my gaze like Medusa the Gorgon.

It's so fun. I so wish it would work.

It so doesn't. 

All of a sudden, I'm back to writing bad high school poetry. Darn. 

Still, it's fun. Yay, brain exercises! 

Practical Life Lessons

Compiled from the lives of fictitious characters from Allison's current translation projects. (Sometimes, you can learn from other people's mistakes. Even other fake people.) 

Be careful of promising a girl that you'll get her a new kitten exactly like the one she just had to get put down. It could lead to a marriage proposal.

Don't switch clothes with your best friend at age eight. You'll end up in a convent for life. Until she feels bad, comes to rescue you, and then dies after being hit by a cannon that's snapped loose from its ropes on a ship you're not supposed to be on in the first place. Seriously. 

Be wary of women who tell you that you've been brainwashed into forgetting that you were once a wise man atop a camel. She may just be trying to lure you out to the desert in a sandstorm.

If something's too good to be true, it probably is. No, the President cannot sign a decree to turn you into your favorite fictional character. 

Don't throw dead people down a dried-up well. They may not be dead. Also, they have friends. 

BONUS: Never tickle a sleeping dragon. (As the Doctor says, good ol' JK!) 

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. 


History must not repeat itself. But it is.

I have a new book in the editing phase right now, but that's not important. The story it tells, however, is extremely important.

Once upon a time, there was a Jewish girl born in Erfurt, Germany. When she was five years old, her family decided to flee to Belgium, because they thought it would be far enough. They had family there. Later, they were all forced into refugee camps in the south of France. The family was separated, reunited, separated, and reunited again. And then the roundups came in Nice. A police officer who knew they were sending the Jews to their deaths gave any parents a choice: leave your children here, and an NGO will come to pick them up. They'll have one more chance at survival. This girl was left behind with her younger brother. She never heard from her parents again. 

The children managed to get to an Italian relative, a high-ranking diplomat who was secretly brokering the armistice between Italy and the Allied forces in neutral Vatican City. When news of the armistice broke early, the children were forced to flee into a remote Ligurian village with the diplomat's butler. They spent the final two years of World War Two sheltered there by Italian Catholics through countless raids by and firefights with German soldiers. And they survived. 

After the war, the girl, now a teenager, moved to Paris. 

She still lives there today. 

And I got to meet her. 

This was a difficult and perplexing meeting for me. I'm a young woman from the United States. That war was not on our soil. (We haven't had one on our soil since...a long long time ago in a seceding country not so far away.) My grandparents were too young to enlist; my great-grandparents were too old. I've never had a one-on-one conversation with a veteran, let alone a survivor of the Holocaust.

And yet, I had been writing this woman's story, in her voice, for three months before meeting her. What other questions could I ask? I didn't have many left, so I just let her talk.  And I learned more.

This woman lost everything in her life, multiple times. Her home, her parents, then her life's work in middle age. Her best human and non-human friends in the same week, just last year. She is saddened and burdened by all of this, yet she keeps living. She speaks no words about the unfairness of life, she does not complain about how hard it all is. There is just a moment of silence and reflection to accept such things, and then life continues. She is quite the formidable force.  A force of normalcy.

And yet her heart aches, because the world is not changing. It is not learning from her story, nor from the millions of others like it. Hitler and the Nazis killed Jews, and cripples, and gypsies, and homosexuals. Anyone who wasn't like him. But that same thing kept happening. And is still happening, in Syria, in Africa. 

These stories must be told, loud and clear and over and over again, until such things, such atrocities, stop happening. 

So I will be a storyteller. Otherwise, I just feel helpless. 

The Threat to Publishing Internships

Two unpaid interns sued Fox. And won.

Yep, it's true. As this Washington Post article describes:

"a federal judge in New York ruled this week that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage and overtime laws by not paying interns who worked on production of the 2010 movie 'Black Swan.'"

Now of course, this ruling could get overturned by a higher court. Don't think for an instant that Fox won't appeal the ruling.

But for the moment, let's discuss another facet of the ruling; namely, the current legal test for employers to determine if their interns can go unpaid (from The Atlantic, emphasis mine:)

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern; 
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship;
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

On first glance, these criteria seem entirely reasonable. But then we have internships with publishers. If employers are required to gain no advantages from the interns' work, then would interns be allowed to use and hone their writing skills in such a position? Because in a good publishing internship...

  • an editorial intern learns to write cover copy, reader's reports, and sales blurbs
  • a marketing intern learns to write pitches
  • a development intern learns to write grant proposals, for the non-profits

And what about other creative internships? Journalism, graphic design, anything with creating copy or images. It's all fine and well to have interns practice creating such things, but it just makes more sense to let them practice on real projects. Higher stakes, more realistic working environment, and undoubtedly better guidance, as their work reflects directly on their boss. 

Unpaid internships are unquestionably abused by some employers, but the line between useful and exploitative is a bit murky. By these criteria, the only unpaid internship I ever worked would have been illegal. Except it was not only the best job I ever had, but it gave me an invaluable wealth of experience and connections for the publishing industry. You can't get that in many places. 

Granted, the only reason that internship at The New Press was unpaid was because I worked it after the economy crashed, when they almost had to shutter their entire press. But they didn't. They still hired interns, gave them a travel stipend, and fed them lunch once a week for a seminar. And they were committed to starting to pay interns again as soon as possible.

As it happens, they've delivered. If you're looking for a publishing internship in NYC, go apply here

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?