Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

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."

Secrets of a Literary Translator, Volume I

You get to read and write all day.

Workdays can be spent in pajamas, or in your garden. Or both.

You can spend hours in a bookstore and leave with lots of new books. It's research. It might even be tax-deductible. Have your cake and eat it, too, and then have more!

Interesting people who have written interesting books are willing to meet you. They may even want to meet you.

Same goes for interesting people who have been written about in interesting books. Even better.

Spending time in your adopted language's country is also considered research. Travel is encouraged, if not required.

There isn't enough time in the world to read everything you want to. But you have a good reason to try.

In Search of French Literary Magazines

One substantial piece of advice for both aspiring and experienced translators, especially literary, is to read widely in your source language. For me, that's French. And since I focus on literature, books are best. Or at least, significant.

It's also just as important to keep up with current affairs. And again, for me, that's the world of books. The new releases, the new short stories, the new authors. So for these, literary magazines are best.

But as you can imagine, French literary magazines are hard to find in the States. Pretty thin on the ground. ("Just generally pretty trim," as Eddie Izzard would say.) So now that I'm back in France for a few months, I figured it was high time to root some of these magazines out. Which is, of course, easy enough, once you've gone to both a librarie (bookshop, in English, not a library) and a tabac presse (basically a glorified newsstand mixed with the checkout shelves at a grocery store) and had extensive conversations with the employees.

Having now taken a few weeks and read through all of them, I present to you my highly skewed, biased, and unscientific reviews:

Monthlies

LiRE (March issue): This magazine has it all. Released by the same company as L'Express (a weekly news magazine), it's bursting with news, features, thematic segments, reviews, five excerpts from upcoming novels, a couple interviews, and editorial content. It covers French books, foreign books, historical non-fiction, scientific books, essays, graphic novels, YA and children's lit, paperbacks, the works. And everything in this issue is well-written, engaging, varied, intelligent, and well-thought-out, no matter how short. It should be extremely useful both in following industry trends and reading new fiction.

Le Magazine Littéraire (March issue): Maybe I shouldn't have read this directly after LiRE. All I could do was compare the two, as they both purport to serve the same purpose...and this one fell at the other end of the spectrum. The content wasn't as varied. There was only one excerpt, and it was middling. The news seemed stale, or not expansive enough, or devoid of emotion. The thematic content (this month: vampires....wheee.....) overshadowed everything else, and didn't leave enough room for what I really cared about. Even the layout was grating. I was disappointed when I tossed it into the trash can (no recycling here), but not too sad.

Tigre.jpg

Le Tigre (March issue): This is an interesting magazine. I almost didn't grab a copy because their editorial mission includes the warning that they don't publish fiction. But no matter; this is a fantastic selection of artistic prowess. Wordplay, photojournalism, illustrations, and twisted essays thrive alongside each other. One spread takes a roadmap, marks out a few towns that have "real word" names, and makes sentences out of them, haunting and sad. I've also just discovered that all their archives are free online. Looks like I won't be reachable for the next week while I read ALL OF THEM.

In-betweener

Marianne (April-May issue): Not actually a real thing, for these purposes. Neat idea, though: an extra publication from a weekly news magazine, treating a different subject every issue. This time is death. Very bright and happy, I assure you. But it's more of an anthology from older, established texts. Interesting, but unhelpful.

Quarterlies

muze.jpg

Muze (Spring issue, April-June): Oh, how lovely this thick tome. Technically a female-oriented cultural revue, this journal really has its finger on the pulse of life. It seems. Everything includes a healthy dose of analysis, which I started skimming when it turned too philosophical, but it doesn't detract from the wonderful behind-the-scenes look we get at every single topic the journal undertakes. Every theme includes current happenings, cultural tie-ins, movies, psychology, art, poems, and fiction. And the physical thing is a beauty to behold. The cover is even embossed. A tactile and visual dream. Definitely going on the list of not-expensive-enough-to-prevent-me-from-ordering-an-international-subscription.

Longcours (Spring issue): Also a very pretty, thick journal. But, as I realized when I started reading it, dedicated almost exclusively to long-form journalism. Very well-done long-form journalism, from what I've read. But only one short story. And although it was fascinating, that one thing is not enough to warrant a subscription. Still, I'll be flipping through it whenever I walk into a French bookstore.

XXI (Winter issue): Ditto the above, with a heavy sigh. Really well-done long-form journalism (has apparently won scads of awards), including graphic novel journalism, but not what I'm looking for right now. Kudos to them on their Manifesto for a new media, though (if you understand French, it's a good read).

So in the end, I've got at least three that I'll be subscribing to upon my return to the States. What about you, lovely readers? Do you know of any others? Did I forget your favorite? Fall in love with your worst nightmare? Tell me what I've missed.

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.

I
no
now
more
about
lovely
written
artistry,
wonderful
enchanting
translation,
gloriously
beguiling,
soothing
sparked
energy...
makes
glad
the
me.

(Yeah, okay. Snowball poems are hard, too.)

Dear bilingual dictionary,

You and I have been partners for a long time. Some might even say friends. (Maybe frenemies.) But we have a decent, cordial, mutually respectful relationship, and have for years. But enough with the formalities. You and I need to have a heart-to-heart. Right here, right now.

See, there are times when I feel you're limiting me. Like you're cornering me into a little box of conventions and traditions, of the way it's always been done, perhaps even the way it's supposed to be done. Says you. I come to you with a question, an open-ended question. This is not a yes or no, black or white question. There are shades of beautiful gray, shadows in the dark and streams of dust-filled light. This question invites research, discussion, discovery. I'm looking for the many different facets and shades of meaning, the many different turns and tunes of how to say something, how to sing or mumble or cry or shout or threaten something, in my own tongue. I come to you on my knees, ready to learn.

And lately, it seems that you see this delicate and luxurious Fabergé egg that I present before you, a treasured gift on a velvet pillow, and you just slap it out of my hand. And then you shove a dull cube of lead in front of my face, and I almost choke on this unimaginative, unpolished lump. Too familiar. I've seen it dozens of times before. The one word that is the only possible translation of this word I've brought before you.

But no. No. NO! Never! There is not ever only one right answer! This translation I am doing, it is not a machine, a mechanized process that takes input and spits out deadened, predetermined outputs out, day in and day out, forever until the end of time, never changing, never growing, never creating things of beauty. This is a creative process, a process of creation, of breathing new life into something already lovely, of using a new prism of clear cut glass to catch the sunlight in a new way and spurt forth new colors to send out into the world, scattering and dancing as they go. This is not a process of boxing in, of limiting the possibilities, but one of springing the lock on Pandora's box, and watching as all the wonderful and strange and unknown and terrifying and beautiful things go flying out of your control.

The paths that have been trodden before me are good, and solid, and reliable, and have their place. I pad and stomp over them often myself. But you must not build fences of cold steel and barbed wire, penning me in from ever leaving them! I will be forced to break free, tearing down the iron gates much as I tear apart your whisper thin papyrus sheets.

So I will slam you shut, and I will shove you off of the table in a fit of frustration, and I will curse as I stub my own toes in an attempt to injure your pages and your pride.

And yet.

Although. Still.

As it happens, lumps of lead can be beautiful, too...if combined in a new way, stacked on top of each other in precariously swaying towers, sculpting the likeness of a new creature that no one has ever seen before, nor even imagined. Even as a limited and limiting tool, you are useful. Of constant, and yes, essential use.

We shall remain partners.

Warily and forever yours,

Allison

 

P.S. I did not originally mean for this to be an ode to this creative process, something dearly loved. I have learned something new, that you are inspirational in a muse-like way I did not imagine before. You still have some surprises and tricks up your binding.

"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."

...Sorry?

"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.)

"Ten."

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.

Hey! You won!

Specifically, two of you: First book goes to JUAN MARROQUIN! Congratulations! He wrote: "My favorite 'strong woman' is Elizabeth Bennet, from 'Pride and Prejudice'. She is strong and does her best with the resources she had at hand, gracefully but without giving up."

Second book goes to LIZ W, who is @westbynorth on Twitter. Congratulations to you, as well!

Juan, Liz, I'll be in touch later today to get your mailing addresses.

Now, for the rest of you amazing people who indulged this little game, you can still win a copy of the book, in a sense. It just requires a purchase -- of the book.

(Sorry. It's the opposite of "No Purchase Necessary." I had to.)

Anyway, The Last Love of George Sand is officially on sale from all your favorite sellers (disclaimer: first two are affiliate links, but you can bypass them if you so desire):

Amazon Barnes & Noble Indiebound ...or your favorite local bookshop

Spread the word! George Sand is here, in English, as you've never seen her before.

TK: Giveaway!

Yes, you read that right. It's almost time for the First Not-Nearly-Regular-Enough-To-Be-Called-Annual A.M.C. Giveaway! (A.M.C. stands for me. Allison M. Charette. Not that similarly-named movie-related company. All rights reserved, or something.)

I've just received my box of books for The Last Love of George Sand, and boy, do they look nice. Take a look!

The Last Love of George Sand

To celebrate, I've decided to give not one, but TWO FREE COPIES away! Not today, mind, you, but when the official pub date rolls around.

So, mark your calendars for February 6. That's pub date, and that's when I'll be giving away two (yes, 2) copies of the book. For free. Should be awesome. Details TK.

 

P.S. "TK" is publishing-speak for "to come." Why it ended up not being a real acronym is beyond me.

Stellar reviews don't make anyone blue!

Marketing for The Last Love of George Sand is in full swing, with pub date only two weeks away. But the first review came in last year. Yep, this review from Kirkus was posted way back in early December. Publishing timelines are weird. But enough about that, the review itself is brilliant!

Now, Kirkus is an especially important reviewer to get. They call themselves "The World's Toughest Book Critics Since 1933," and it's no joke. The entire industry looks to them for helpful, honest reviews. And they have starred reviews, which they award "to Books of Exceptional Merit."

Ladies and gentlemen.

I present to you.

The STARRED Kirkus review for The Last Love of George Sand.

Delightful reconstruction of the deeply fulfilling, late-life romance of the French novelist with a devoted, younger engraver.

Obviously a labor of love, this work by the accomplished French biographer Bloch-Dano (Vegetables: A Biography, 2012, etc.) is highly entertaining and original. The author sees her job as reassembling the life of her subject from scattered pieces and “the ravages of time” and then, if all else fails, using her imagination to fill in the details much like a novelist. The result is a series of pointed assertions like light bulbs going off in her head, questions and switching to the present tense, all while sticking to the courageous, romantic spirit of her subject. George Sand was in her mid-40s when her son brought his engraver friend Alexandre Manceau to spend the holidays of 1849 at her beloved ancestral home, Nohant. A famous novelist and playwright, she was now bone-weary after the failures of the socialist revolution of 1848, into which she had thrown herself, and strapped by debts and squabbles with her headstrong daughter. Nohant had always served as her refuge, in between bruising stints in Paris and maternal love affairs with a series of “men-children.” Bloch-Dano ably portrays Sand's attraction to the 32-year-old engraver, a man of modest beginnings and much talent, highly intuitive, intelligent and devoted to Sand. Manceau not only took over the theatrical productions at Nohant, but also assumed the role of her secretary and copyist, living with her for 14 years while plying his commissions as a sought-after engraver. Bloch-Dano’s portrait is poignant and beautifully researched.

A love story probably suppressed by Sand’s resentful son, brought here to vivid life in the hands of her capable biographer.

Color me very proud.