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!

"Beyond the Rice Fields" Giveaway Winners!

Happy Friday, all! We had two signed copies up for grabs of Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo, translated by yours truly, published by Restless Books. Please give a hearty congratulations to our two winners:

Twitter entrant @ritualgibberish
Blog commentator Christiana

I'll be contacting both of you shortly to get your mailing addresses!

Beyond the Rice Fields_cover.jpg

And THANK YOU to everyone who commented and spread the word! If you're interested in purchasing your very own copy of the book, you can, right here.


"Beyond the Rice Fields" Giveaway

I promised it would happen, and here it is! The first couple times I did this, I called it something ridiculous. And tradition must be upheld. Please, prepare yourselves for:

The Third Not-Nearly-Regular-Enough-To-Be-Called-Annual-or-Biennial-or-Monthly-or-Anything-Else A.M.C. Giveaway!

*assorted cheers and trumpets*

Isn't it pretty??

Isn't it pretty??

The Prize: Two (2) randomly-chosen people will each receive one (1) paperback copy of Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo, translated by yours truly, published by Restless Books, released this month. Each book will be signed by me and inscribed however the winners desire.

The Entry(-ies): There are two ways of entering, each of which grants you one entry (so every person can enter up to twice).

  1. Beyond the Rice Fields is the first novel to be translated into English from Madagascar. Without translation, the English-speaking world would have no Naivo, and no Madagascar. In light of this revelation, comment on this post with your favorite non-Anglophone writer, who you'd never have been able to read if it weren't for translation. (Bonus brownie points if you #namethetranslator!)
  2. To help spread the word, tweet a link to this post. Must either tweet at me (@sunshineabroad) or include this hashtag: #NaivoGiveaway

The Deadline: One week from today! Thursday, December 7, at 11:59 p.m. EST.

The Rules: After the contest, I will randomly select two entrants (by assigning a number to each comment and Twitter account and using a random number generator), and announce the winners on this blog on Friday, December 8. I will then contact the winners for their email and mailing addresses. Anyone with a valid mailing address anywhere in the world may enter. Limit two entries per person.

The Why: Did I mention this is the first novel EVER to be translated into English from Madagascar? And that it's amazing? (True fact, not my very biased opinion.) That's why.

Good luck to all!

You Can't Please Everyone

Beyond the Rice Fields is out. We've been getting some really nice reviews about it. (And there will be a giveaway coming after American Thanksgiving! Watch this space.)

Reviews are all subjective, though. One person's opinion. And people's opinions can vary wildly. I accept that. It's part of putting creative things out into the world -- no matter how much negative reviews might hurt.

And yet . . . sometimes you have to wonder.

Here's one review in Publishers Weekly. It includes this:

"Naivo’s encyclopedic attempt to capture Madagascar’s history is admirable, but the depth of that portrait comes at the expense of the novel’s characters: they are only fully realized in the novel’s thrilling conclusion, and only then as victims of “the foundational animosities” tearing the island apart. Nevertheless, Naivo provides readers with an astonishing amount of information about Madagascar’s culture and past."

Seems legit.

Here's another review from the Historical Novel Society. It includes this:

"The period of Queen Ranavalona’s horrific reign was one of intensity and violence, and yet for a few occasions near the end of the book, much of the historical context is superficial at best."
"Naivo captures a profound relationship between two people and how vastly our lives and experiences change on our various paths, while also illuminating the Malagasy experience."

Also seems legit.

*record scratch*

Wait. Wait a sec. So, on the one hand, the characters are sacrificed at the expense of the historical context, and on the other, the historical context suffers from the relationship between the characters?

Friends, I have translated a paradox. It seems congratulations are in order. :-P

Hey, at least people are talking about it.

Book 11: In Sickness and In Health

The End of My Career, by Martha Grover
Perfect Day Publishing, 2016

The New Deal (of my books): I'm reading books from my to-read shelf, because darn it, they need to be read. Afterward, I'll write a post here: not a review, just a reaction to something or many things in the book. It is keeping me accountable, and will continue to do so.

Page 58 says this:


I ask my father to read an article about male entitlement and emotional labor.

"Can you just tell me what it says?" he says.

That's it.



"Couches" is an essay about Grover's, as she calls it, "year of suspenseful illness, while I waited to see if the drug worked, while I got slightly sicker and sicker." Several friends gave her keys to their apartments so she could have several couches in several neighborhoods available for her to crash on as her body gave out at various intervals each day. She is "exhausted and dehydrated from bouts of diarrhea from the experimental drug that I injected each morning and night." And yet. The essay closes with this:

"I enjoyed it. That's something I've never told anyone. That year was one of the best years of my life."

What a narrative. What a popping and soothingly different narrative.

Next up: Hi, This Is Conchita, by Santiago Roncagliolo, tr. Edith Grossman

Book 10: Oh, the Humanity

Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe
Soho Press, 2014

The New Deal (of my books): I'm reading books from my to-read shelf, because darn it, they need to be read. Afterward, I'll write a post here: not a review, just a reaction to something or many things in the book. It is keeping me accountable, and will continue to do so.

I’m not generally a very fun person to watch sitcoms with. If something that resembles real life is being depicted, I have a hard time suspending disbelief. Especially when it comes to dumb characters. I just want to sit them down and shake some good, old fashioned common sense into them. Tell them to talk to each other. Just think about this for a minute.

I’m trying to come up with examples of this from sitcoms I’ve seen, but . . . it’s been a really long time.

Okay, so when I was younger, “I Love Lucy” reruns were on all the time. I could not for the life of me imagine how anyone could be that dense. Why would you perform in an opera if you couldn’t sing? Why wouldn’t you put something down to protect your carpet when cutting out a dress pattern, so you didn’t end up with a dress-pattern-shaped swatch of carpet? (I understand that Lucille Ball was a phenomenal comedian. It’s not her. It’s me.)

All this leads me to Ike. Poor, poor Ike.

Ee-kay. Ikechukwu Uzondu, the protagonist of Ndibe’s novel. I just wanted to take him by the shoulders, stare into his eyes, and explain to him how to deal with people. Then I thought, perhaps, that it was just a foreigner’s story, of not knowing how to interact with people in a completely different country, although he’d lived in the US for several years. But no, he has no idea how to be when he returns to Nigeria, either. For a while, I was frustrated.

But there is magic in this book. A bit of confidence here, an action against all odds there, Ike second-guessing his own choices . . . and I understood. I know Ike, I know his dreaming, I know his yearning, I know his feeling stuck. This book is a rare gem, one where I could see the ending coming (well, some of it, anyway), and yet the journey to get there was worth it. This is reality for so many people, coming from a place of nothing, trying to build themselves up, so of course any small mistakes are amplified, and economic factors blow up disproportionately to affect personality traits and expectations of social interactions. This is not a sitcom. Not some ineptitude to laugh at (although there are many humorous parts). But nor is it a sad state of affairs to be pitied. It is just life. In all its messiness and trials and joys.

P.S. Okey Ndibe is a Nigerian-American author. Know his name. Not only to find his books in the bookstore, but also to have someone else to list as a contemporary “African” author besides Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Next up: The End of My Career, by Martha Grover

Week (or rather, Book) 9: Music and Literature

No, not the magazine, but:

A Greater Music, by Bae Suah
Translated by Deborah Smith
Open Letter Books, 2016

First order of business: Rather obviously, 40 Books in 40 Weeks has become an unattainable goal. I developed some health problems over the summer, which absorbed all my energy and time. This will probably also be the subject of a future blog post, however ironic that seems . . . However, I have kept reading books, and I enjoy sharing my reactions with all of you lovely readers. So, here's the new deal (not the New Deal; I don't have that kind of political power):
I'm reading books from my to-read shelf, because darn it, they need to be read. Afterward, I'll write a post here: not a review, just a reaction to something or many things in the book. It is keeping me accountable, and will continue to do so.

This is the first book of Bae Suah's that I've read, and I intend to read all of them.

This is one of those books that you read not for what happens, but how things happen.

This is one of those books you read for how the narrator views the world.

This is a classical music lover's heaven in literary form.

This is a language learner's trials and tribulations in literary form.

This is being in love with the idea of a person.

This is not knowing if drowning is dying.

This is a small dog regulating your emotional state.

This is family being not the most important thing or preconception in your life.

This is such a better blank narrator for a reader to superimpose themselves on than Twilight.

"The sequence of past, present, and that time we call the future, exists in this successive form only as it appears to the eye. Such a sequence has no real existence in our mental world."

This is humanity.

Next up: Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe

Week 7 & 8: Lots of Strangers in Lots of Strange Lands

40 Books in 40 Weeks: I'm reading one book from my to-read shelf per week through the end of the year. Afterward, I write a post here: not a review, just a reaction to something or many things in the book. It's keeping me accountable.

Muddling Through in Madagascar, by Dervla Murphy
Overlook Press, 1989


Okay. Murphy, a travel writer, took a trip to Madagascar over thirty years ago. On the one hand, it's neat to see how the country has changed and evolved since then. But on the other hand . . . frick, this book was hard to get through. There's so much judgment based on tribes, race, "those people". There's so much entitlement of a white person saying "I just want a peaceful, uninhabited trek through nature, so let me just wander across the countryside, spooking all the people there because they equate white people with brutal colonizers." To her credit, at least she tries to puzzle out the reason that she worries more about plants and animals going extinct than people losing their lives and livelihoods.

I don't know. I suppose most people's reasons for travelling, for wanting to see the world, are pretty selfish. Goodness knows I've done my fair share of it. But to then turn around and write a book detailing the "primitive" nature of the different "tribes", playing into the completely incorrect assumptions that certain "tribes" are "more suited to intellectual and managerial work" than others, giving all the credit for technological advances to Westerners, listing out all the wonderful things colonization did for Madagascar, blaming Senegalese troops for the bloodletting in the 1947 rebellion, blaming tourism for many new problems, even saying that city girls who wore European clothes would have looked "so much lovelier" in traditional garb? It's so patronizing. Even racist. Makes my stomach turn.

Anyway. That's why it took me a few weeks to get through this book. But moving on, here are some useful things I learned from it:

  • The Tana-Tamatave train line was not only still running in the 80s, but was the primary method of travel between the two cities, as the Route Nationale I took in a taxi-be was in utter disrepair at the time.
  • Taxi-bes were NIGHTMARES 30 years ago. Health hazards. Torture. Awful, inhumane modes of transportation. But the only option for travel between many parts of the country. Makes me thankful for today's Sprinter vans.
  • Chinese companies had a huge presence in Madagascar in the 80s. I suppose they've all moved on by now due to a lack of precious metals or other valuable resources.
  • One of Murphy's observations was actually quite apt: There's a difference between not having money and being impoverished. Many families or communities who we would consider "poor" had actually been entirely self-sufficient, and are now struggling from being forced into a cash society. If you've never had to earn money before -- if you just work to feed your family and protect your community -- then there's a vast mindset shift to be made to become accustomed to the imposition of existing in a cash-based economy. That is, in fact, one factor that contributes to the poverty across Madagascar.
  • Religious missions still serve a very important purpose across Madagascar (in the 80s as well as today), because in many places, they're the only ones providing education or medical care. The government can't, and there aren't enough NGOs on the ground.

So, what is a travel writer to do? How is the best way to experience everything that a country has to offer, without passing judgment or invading or killing local culture? Who knows. Maybe it's best to have a reason for traveling, to be a scientist or biologist with a specific research project in mind. Maybe it's best to just stick to areas set up for tourists, and avoid bothering the people who don't want to be bothered. Maybe it's best to visit friends and family, have them be your guides.

I don't have the answers. I question all the time whether I just have "white savior" syndrome, whether I'm over-exoticizing the other, whether I'm using a Western system to take advantage of other people. I suppose, at the very least, it's good to keep in mind, to keep struggling with, to keep questioning. Never get complacent.

Also, don't get gout from unknown local alcohol. But that's Murphy's story to tell.


BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE! In my struggle to muddle through Murphy's book, I went to the library to pick up the latest volume of:

Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Image Comics, 2012 - present


The first hardcover bound volume is a close-up of a baby breastfeeding.

The first page of the first issue is the realest birth I have ever seen in a fiction setting.

THERE ARE NO VILLAINS. At least, not as such. Everyone is a real person, a real complex character with a complex personality and a set of wishes and needs and sometimes that means they are working against other people but it barely even matters if they're working against the main characters or not because they're not really heroes, either.

There are robots. Who have their own kingdom. Who can procreate. WHO HAVE SEX IN THE BOOK.

Six volumes in, one of the characters gets a prison tattoo, and it's just on the cover and it's never mentioned in the story, but it's such a meaningful and sad tattoo that I just sat and looked at it and cried for a bit.

The artist, Fiona Staples, has started getting top billing on many of the issues. Because she's just insanely brilliant, and Image Comics is recognizing that.

If you've never picked up a comic or a graphic novel, if you've always thought it was a medium that just wasn't for you -- and I totally get that, because I never read one until a friend pushed Watchmen into my hands in college, and I had to re-read the first three chapters once I figured out how to wrap my brain around reading in that format -- START HERE. START WITH SAGA. It's the realest story you'll ever read.

If I haven't convinced you yet (really?), here's some more convincing from Buzzfeed, back when the series was first starting.


Next up: A Greater Music, by Bae Suah, tr. Deborah Smith

Week 6: Through Feminism-Colored Glasses

40 Books in 40 Weeks: I'm reading one book from my to-read shelf per week through the end of the year. Afterward, I write a post here: not a review, just a reaction to something or many things in the book. It's keeping me accountable.

Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver
Harper Collins, 2000

This book made me mad by page 6.

It's a bad one to read directly after feminism is for everybody. The whole meeting in the forest, it's supposed to be mysterious and sexy and yes, a little intrustive, I'm sure. But now I read it differently. Trespasser? Predator? A female would never be called those things. Or maybe it's because the main character in that cycle (there are three separate but interwoven stories) is a cis-hetero female. Who is alone. Attractive to a man. Attracted to a man, without wanting to be. Fine. Whatever.

Except it's not fine.

[Major spoilers coming]

Deanna's entire storyline is how her life has been driven/directed/led/affected forever by men. Her divorce is what pushed her into the Forest Service job on the mountain, alone, content, part of something bigger. That was her choice, but she was forced into a position where she had to make a choice because of her ex-husband. And then she spends the entire summer with a fierce battle raging in her mind because Eddie Bondo (clearly a whole person, because he always gets a last name) doesn't listen to her when she REPEATEDLY tells him to clear off. I mean, the whole idea of "oh come on, you know you want it"? That's disrespectful at best. Perpetuates rape culture at worst. (Seriously. In the workplace, that's considered sexual harassment.)

And then, in the end, she chooses to come down off the mountain, BECAUSE HE KNOCKED HER UP. In her late 40s. She goes back to the world, back to family connections, she's terrified of the dark: "What had changed, when she used to be so fearless? But she knew what had changed. This was what it cost to commit oneself to the living. There was so much to lose." Ugh. She's making her own choice, sure. She chooses to move in with her step-mom who she adores, she chooses to keep the baby, she chooses not to tell Eddie Bondo. But again, she's forced into a position where she has to make these choices because of him.

I enjoyed reading this book. It's gorgeous. Lyrical. I feel like I understand so much more about nature and its cycles now (having never lived off of the land myself). Birds crying for a mate, the beauty of coyotes and other predators in the balance of the ecosystem, chestnut trees fighting to survive. But then there's the idea of sex and reproduction as a search for eternal life among the birds and the bees (and other animals), and . . . something just catches in my stomach.

Well. I can enjoy a book while hating its characters. That's one of the marks of a well-written book. I enjoyed being frustrated to no end by Garnett S. Walker the Third's sanctimonious letters, his equating Unitarians with witches, his cognitive dissonance over pesticides and organic certification. I enjoyed learning with Lusa how to navigate a big family that seemed so inhospitable but was really just trying to hold itself together. I fell in love with coyotes. But the more you learn, the more complications and complexities you discover. In anything.

Next up: Muddling Through in Madagascar, by Dervla Murphy