Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Lalana eto Ambatomanga

(I’m not sure that’s the right preposition, but it’s supposed to be Malagasy for “The Path to Ambatomanga.”)

Last weekend, I had the translation experience of a lifetime. The quintessential trip that all translators dream of. I went with my author to the place she wrote about in the novel I’m currently translating.


With all of the many projects I’ve been starting and working on and contributing toward while I’ve been here in Madagascar, it’s been good to recall, every so often, the main reason I’m actually on this trip. This whole crazy séjour is only possible because I got a fellowship to translate Michèle Rakotoson’s novel called Lalana, which is Malagasy for “the path” or “the road.” It’s the story of a young man dying of AIDS in Antananarivo, the capital city of Madagascar, and his friend who gets him out of the hospital to fulfill his dying wish: Rivo wants to see the ocean before he dies.

This means a road trip, driving east from Tana for roughly seven hours until you hit the coast. If you make the trip straight through on the Route Nationale (the technical translation is “highway,” but it is definitely not that…). But they turn off of the RN2 fairly early, to follow the Queen’s Path -- the roads that Rasoaherina (also called Ranavalona II), the second queen of Madagascar, took when she knew she was dying.

The Queen’s Path runs through several villages, one of which our two protagonists spend the better part of the day in when their way is blocked by a mass of pilgrims. There’s a church, a tomb, a cave, a river… It’s all described, but the village is not named. As a translator (and reader), you never know if such a place is based off of a real town, an amalgam of many different places, or just something the author created out of thin air.

Turns out, the village is Ambatomanga. Plain and simple. It’s the place where Michèle spent most of her vacations growing up, the place her grandparents lived, the place where her father’s tomb is. And she made it very clear that I should see it during this trip.

So, last Sunday, we set off on a day-long outing, just under two hours away from Tana, with her son’s family and their adorable dog. We saw her grandparents’ house, we met and shared a meal with her cousin and his family, we ate really good yogurt and too-new cheese (the dry season has caused a water shortage, which means there’s not enough milk to keep up the cheese production), we hiked through the rice fields and forest, and yes, we retraced the steps of two characters she wrote almost twenty years ago. I did the only thing I could think to do: shut up, listen, and take notes. Five pages of notes, by the end.

I’m still processing the trip. I’m still processing the experience. I’m still processing how it’s going to change my translation -- or maybe it won’t be so much “changing” as “deepening.” But I did take five pages of notes, after all, and that, I can share. Or at least excerpts thereof.



Leaving Tana: When she wrote this book, and even 10-15 years ago, none of these houses were here. And the road wasn’t this straight, smooth thing with streetlights and roundabouts. The city is spreading, quickly.

Here we go. After about 45 minutes of driving, we’ve reached the point where it looks like how it used to. Forested hills that look deserted. Tiny clusters of simple, two-story clay or brick houses nestled in seemingly random nooks. The river, waterfalls, where some things happen in the book...the river that’s so dry right now that people can barely wash their clothes in it.

The Queen’s Path: It’s a quick turn-off, at least sooner than I thought, only about half an hour after the old winding ways of the road take over. Here, it’s pavers and cobblestones for a while, and barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other.

To me, this all just looks like nondescript countryside. Pretty, dusty, poor. To Michèle, though, every village is known and named, every dirt track has a purpose and a destination, every tomb and cemetery is a family and a dynasty. This village here is where her friend lives, that village just behind the hill is the one that this character returns to in another one of her books…

Approaching Ambatomanga: Michèle’s grandfather was a country doctor with an old, beat-up car, he cared for the whole area. He was the one who built the church in her ancestral village.

The wilderness side of Michèle, the rustic side, the passion, it’s all from here. These are mountains, this is where caves dot the landscape, a place of traditions and old religion and angaro, and later a place where Christians went into hiding under the reign of the first queen, Ranavalona I, when she decided that Christianity was a scourge on her country and must be purged. (For that story, see Beyond the Rice Fields...)

There’s graffiti on a rock just outside the village that says “Naivo N-2.” Naivo is a fairly common name here. It’s the pen name of the author of Beyond the Rice Fields, for example...and it’s also the name of the narrator of Lalana. I’m not necessarily one to see destiny in random occurrences, but it does feel like a good sign. Like I’m on the right path.

Ambatomanga: This place is technically a historic village. People aren’t really allowed to build new houses within the village, which is why there’s another village expanding just outside called Alarobia -- it means “Wednesday,” it used to just be the place where the weekly market was held.

Ambatomanga was a bit of a border town at the entrance to Imerina (the region/tribe which produced the Kingdom of Madagascar that unified most of the island in the late 1700-early 1800s). The house behind the church on the outskirts of town, for example, that’s the missionaries’ house, it’s 150 years old. There was a period where foreigners weren’t really allowed into Imerina, or they had to wait at the border for a long time, so the missionaries kind of set up shop there.

We run into a couple of peasants on our hike, heading back over the mountain to their village. They have a very pleasant conversation with Michèle in Malagasy, while I smile and nod and use the pleasantries I know. Afterward, Michèle explains what their nonchalant tone didn’t hint at: they were telling her about the fire burning on the other side of the mountain. They just managed to put one out last week, and there’s another one already. And their water supply was poisoned. Someone else is doing it, someone from outside the area. Someone who’s trying to sow panic in the run-up to the elections -- two of the major candidates’ families are from this area.

Lalana: “That’s probably where they danced,” Michèle says. She means Rivo and Naivo, the two characters from her book. But somehow, I’d recognized that place before she said anything.

I’m completely bowled over by how similar this place is to what I had been envisioning in my head. I’ll always imagine a picture of a book’s setting, that’s just how I read, but it usually turns out that the real place (if it’s based on one) is pretty different that what I’d come up with. But here? It’s so so close to how I pictured it. This means two things: One, Michèle is a really good writer. Holy crap. Two...I am achieving my goal. I am experiencing enough of Madagascar to picture it properly.

It was a completely normal day, and to me, it was magic.

Serrer les dents

The longer I stay here in Madagascar, the more I am just astounded by what people here are doing for literature. Writing books and getting them published is difficult in any environment--we in the States love to complain about it, mostly because it's true--but there are additional hurdles here in Madagascar that American writers and publishers have never dreamed of. Things like no commercial printing presses, and precious few other ways to get books produced. Things like no established grants or fellowships or stipends or anything from the government--the poor Ministry of Culture is routinely underfunded--so every fundraising effort requires new ideas. Things like a tiny readership for any book, because so few people can afford books here that reading as a pastime has dwindled to almost nothing.

And yet.

People here are dogged, tenacious, willful, even stubborn. They grit their teeth and muscle through to get books published, write new ones, and train the next generation of writers. They hit the pavement every single day to make things happen, and it's so impressive.

I've only been here for a short while, and yet here's what I've seen in the past two weeks alone:

  • A non-profit association that's existed for over six years and has been publishing books for the past two years is spearheading a new initiative: a federation of writing associations and unions, in both Malagasy and French, to coordinate their efforts, cooperate on projects, and share resources.
  • A center for mothers and children in one of the ghetto areas of Antananarivo is preparing a show for Christmas. A couple of writers are volunteering their time to come in and teach several of the kids, ages 8-14, to write and perform slam poetry as part of the show. (I got a little taste of it on Thursday when they performed their works in progress for their peers. It was intense, in the best possible way.)
  • A bookstore that opened just three years ago is coordinating a "booksellers' picks" list from all over the Indian Ocean region, to be featured at the Salon du Livre in Paris next year.
  • A well-known author is planning to re-release one of her best-known titles in a new edition with illustrations and photographs, and publishing it here, in Madagascar, instead of France.
  • A few of the associations in the brand-new aforementioned federation are already laying the groundwork for a new project next year, to bring a mobile library into one of the most rural and hard-to-reach areas in the country (160km northeast of Tana...a minimum of three days to get there).
  • There's a new event being planned to celebrate a recently published posthumous work of Madagascar's most famous and beloved poet, which will feature the critical work of people who until now had remained in the shadows.
  • And I'm here, too, getting connected with writers who are interested in translating directly from Malagasy to English--we'll be working on polishing their translations and finding places in the US and UK to submit, query, and look for grants.

Pretty good for an "impoverished Third-World country," huh?

Strike that. Pretty good for two weeks ANYWHERE. Go Madagascar, you show the rest of the world how it's done!

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.

Mispronouncing Everyone's Name

A few weeks ago, I got to attend what has become my favorite weekend of the year: the annual ALTA conference, this year held in Tucson, AZ. (This should surprise no one.) I had an absolutely wonderful time! (This should also surprised no one. But if you are surprised, then welcome to this blog! Feel free to check everything out.)

One of my favorite parts has become almost too popular in recent years: the Bilingual Readings. Anyone who signs up in advance is given the chance to do a reading of whatever translations they've been working on or had published, along with a snippet of the original text. It's a really fun opportunity to hear unfamiliar languages spoken -- this year, along with my usual French, I heard Albanian, Armenian, Bosnian, Chinese, Croatian, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Macedonian, Romanian, Serbian, Slovenian, Spanish, and Turkish.

But you read that part where I said it was almost (but only almost) too popular? So many people have started becoming so excited about these readings that they're now being double-booked. One of the things this means is that Alexis Levitin, the fearless leader/organizer of these readings for over a quarter of a century, can no longer be the emcee for every reading (as he'd like to be).

So I helped him out this year, at the "Romance and Mediterranean" session. My job was simple: introduce the readers, read their bios from the back of the program, and make some attempt at timekeeping. Turns out, I'm pretty good at that last one, but, despite years of theater experience, kind of crap at the first two.

Most of this is probably because some of my favorite translators like listing many of their authors in their bios, which I then have to read. But I found myself doing something odd. Something, for me, unexpected. I started glossing over all the author names, apologizing, even teasing the translators for having so many hard-to-pronounce names in their bios.

Now, perhaps all of this makes sense for an American who's studied French and is asked to read a Turkish name. But I've also studied Italian and Hebrew pronunciation in symphonic choirs. Why did I suddenly start giving up on those, too?

Sigh. I'm better than that.

There's also been a lot in the media recently, from academia to Tumblr, about microaggressions. (See this tool from UCLA with explanations and examples.) Plus: privilege, and biases, and safe spaces. Lots of good articles and starting points all over the place. And it got me wondering: should we translators and editors be doing more to work on this? How much harder is it for people who work in vastly international realms to figure out pronunciation rules for dozens, if not hundreds of languages? And is that any excuse?

I've been struggling with mispronouncing Malagasy names for the last two years. Yes, they're long. Yes, they have a few unfamiliar sounds in them. But shouldn't I just be working harder and practicing? Is apologizing enough?

Andriamangatiana. Jaomanoro. Rafenomanjato. I should be getting to the point where these names slide easily over my tongue.

Sigh again.

At least I've gotten to the point where I can spell them correctly on a consistent basis.

Well, frick that, then.

A friend of mine passed away today.

Except he couldn't have been a friend, right? We only exchanged a few emails.

And it wasn't today. Today is just when the news reached me.

David Jaomanoro is a Malagasy writer who spent the last eighteen years living in Mayotte. He won the Grand Prix RFI-ACCT de la nouvelle, a French short story prize, for "Funérailles d'un cochon". That story (and one other, along with a handful of his poems) was translated into English for the bilingual anthology, Voices from Madagascar/Voix de Madagascar.

This guy was a master of short stories. I read an entire collection of his, and you know how many stories I earmarked? 90% of them. I only earmark stories that I really want to work on.

I started translating one of these stories, "Nenitou", over a year ago, before I even went to Madagascar. I loved it, but I didn't understand half of the references. While in Madagascar, I asked everyone I met if they had an email or phone number for David. No luck. He was the only author I wanted to contact that I didn't reach by the end of my trip.

Months later,  I finally found a lead online. I sent him an email introducing myself and my project, held my breath, and let it out almost instantly -- he responded within just a couple of days. I asked him general questions about "Nenitou" and the rest of his writing, and he answered with grace and gratitude. He was incredibly sharp and well-spoken, and it was wonderful to read all his explanations. I promised to send him a list of all the specific questions I had about "Nenitou".

That email was sent on December. I never heard from him again. I followed up in March, just to see if it had gotten lost in the shuffle, but still no reply.

This weekend, I am in DC, working with a Malagasy-American author on a co-translation from Malagasy (not French) directly into English. We got to talking about other authors from her country, of course, and she started listing some of her favorites. She mentioned David's prize-winning short story and grabbed the collection it had first been published in, and then said, "Oh, but wasn't he the one who died?"

I hate it when my heart stops like that. When there's ever a reason for my heart to stop like that.

David Jaomanoro passed away from a stroke on December 7, 2014 -- the day before my last email to him.

It's the strangest feeling to suddenly understand the lengthy silence, to know that your questions will never be answered, to try to mourn someone you never met and knew little about.

Anyway. There's a nice obituary in French here, and a hefty bio also in French here. The first result I found online for an English-language biography is a one-line mention in a Wikipedia list. Maybe I can do something to change that. Maybe that's what I can do.