Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Tracing Word of Mouth

Before the Internet, that's how everything spread. Word of mouth was like wildfire. Sometimes it would beat newspaper headlines to the other side of the country. We may forget it, in this era of instant tweets, but people used to talk to each other all the time.

Geez, where did we go wrong? (I kid. The Internet is awesome and creates many opportunities that never existed before.)

Anyway. I've mentioned before that the Internet is not quite ubiquitous in Madagascar. All the authors I'm working with (save one) have an email address, but response times from them can range anywhere from a few days to a few months. Word of mouth is alive and well there.

And oh, in so many ways. Let me count them.

Way #1: Random Phone Calls

Week two into my Madagascar visit, I finally get an email from an author I adore! We set up a meeting! The meeting goes great! I ask him for a favor: there are a handful of authors I haven't been able to contact yet. Does he know them? Why yes! He'll contact them that evening and give them my information.

I'm an American. I found him via email. I assume he means email.

Fast forward four days, I'm in the bus (taxi-be -- remember those?) when my phone rings. My Malagasy phone. With a number I don't have programmed into it. Who the heck in Madagascar could have found that number if they didn't already have it? It's loud on the bus, so I can't even hear her name. She just starts going on and on about how somebody I met on Saturday told her to call me because I was interested in what she'd written . . . Oh. It's only one of the most lauded authors in all of Madagascar on the other end. What's proper talking-on-the-phone-on-the-bus etiquette, again?

Way #2: That Elusive Catch

A couple months ago, I was desperately trying to contact an author whose work I wanted to put into the issue I'm guest-editing for Words Without Borders. I'd only hit dead ends. No email online, no university posting that might have a phone number, no blog that talked about her, no contact from her publisher, no nothing. And yet, her bio mentioned her prolific writing career and the radio shows (plural) that she hosts in Mada. Someone had to know her, right? . . . Right??

I ended up mass-emailing all the authors I'd met while there to see if any of them knew her. Finally, one wrote back to say that he had a phone number for her . . . but it was disconnected. Sigh.

A week later, something must have changed. She was back on the grid! I put credit in my Skype account and dialed away. After a very awkward explanation of who I was and why I loved her so much, we set a date to have a call where she would answer all the questions I had about her work. (We ended up talking for so long that time that the call disconnected because I had run out of credit on my end. It's a common occurrence in Mada. She thought an American running out of credit was the funniest thing she'd ever heard of.)

Finally, I asked her the best way to get the contract for rights to her. Did she have an email address I could send it to? Well, no. And no postal address, either. Umm. Okay. I can't send a contract via phone.

What about that other author who'd given me her phone number in the first place? Was she friendly enough with him to have him serve as printer-and-email-holding intermediary? Why yes! Lovely. Excellent. All's well that ends well.

Way #3: Just Talk to People

My very first full day in Madagascar last year, I was running on terrible jet lag, four hours of sleep, and precious little ability to take care of myself. My host family had delivered me to the founder of the first non-profit organization I was visiting, who drove me two hours outside of the capital to rural Ambatolampy. The only way to stay awake (and be polite) was to talk, and he and his assistant were fascinated by what in the world I was doing in their country. I explained my job reporting on some non-profits, and then my own personal reasons for coming, mostly having to do with literature.

The assistant bursts out laughing from the back seat. The founder grins and says, "Oh, you must meet my wife."

He goes on to explain that he's married to the daughter of General Ramakavelo, a cultural figurehead of Madagascar and probably the only politician who's ever been beloved in that country. This daughter -- his wife -- is a champion of all things artistic, and has a wide network of authors whom she champions and runs events with. They're even going to a gala thrown by the Minister of Culture in a few weeks. I wouldn't want to come with, would I? (Sadly, it ended up taking place after I'd already left the country. But I got the contact.)

Is there a moral to this story? No, not really. It's just a story.

But talking to people is generally worth it.