Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Men. (A rant.)


The journalist’s driver who coveted my bilingual French/English dictionary. No, but really, I have never seen such a blatant example of coveting in my life. At first it was just “oh, this is nice” while leafing through it, but then the repetition, the insistence, the claiming, pulling it to his side of the table, putting his phone on it, no matter how many times I said “This is actually going to the Mobile Library when I’m done with it, and I need it for work until then,” or “I’m sure one of the bookstores in Tana has one, there’s a couple with growing English sections.” I was told later that he was talking to my host in Malagasy (in front of me), trying to get her to make me part with it. That when a Malagasy dictionary came up in conversation (the best one there is), he said “nah, don’t care, I want this one.” That when he was given a book from the house’s library (she’s trying to purge), he spurned it and said “no, I want that dictionary.” Hands off. It’s mine.

The artist who ignored my companion at the painting exhibition. We walked in together, he came to greet us, but literally turned his back on her to talk to me. Whether it was ageism or racism I don’t care, it wasn’t right. And then to say to me that I was the second person to come through that day? At the very end of the day? When four other groups of Malagasies walked in over the next five minutes? It’s not only the white people who count, Mr. Arab Malagasy. Don’t you dare express interest in my literary work when one of your country’s literary giants is invisible to you on the other side of the room.

The candidate for president who asked a well-known writer to translate his manifesto into French, but then railed that they didn’t have it done immediately -- “Who the f*** cares if it’s proper French?” And then to not pay them? Or even credit them for their work? You’d think that as a presidential candidate, you’d been concerned about your image, at least enough to appreciate that they were willing to take the time to make your prose sound beautiful in another language -- the language that, most likely, most of your donors will read. And as we creative types like to say: Eff you. Pay me.

There is truth to the generalization in Madagascar that women run everything and get none of the credit.

Oh sure, maybe I’m just sore because I couldn’t abide the sharp increase in catcalling on my trip to Fianarantsoa. It wasn’t a difference in location, it was a difference in companion -- it was the first time I’d been walking around a city with another young woman, instead of a guy or an older woman or a group. It’s enough to make me turn to vigilante justice.

I’ve met plenty of wonderful people and decent human beings here. I feel loved and welcomed. But the society (not just here, but everywhere) that makes men feel entitled to power, or women, or labor, or even dictionaries, is abhorrent. A society where women barely exist in government, where there are zero women drivers or bus conductors, where women are ignored, or vilified, or raped, is untenable. 

Fuck the patriarchy.


When I was a freshman in high school, we were shepherded into the auditorium one day to convince us why we a) shouldn't drop out of school, and b) should actually try, should put forth some degree of effort to succeed. Now, I didn't need any convincing. Earlier, in grade school -- at a time when I feel like most kids should have still liked school -- one of the class troublemakers had taken a highly official class poll when the teacher had been called out of the room: who actually likes school?

I was one of two who had raised my hand, purely on instinct. I was shocked.

(The second, another girl, had advanced to Regionals in the Spelling Bee that year.)

So in our high school auditorium, I was the choir that the program was preaching to.

But there was one part of the program that was slightly interesting, if only for the visual it presented. They called ten random volunteers up on stage and lined them all up. "Imagine these ten people join a club next week, at the beginning of their freshman year." I don't remember if they specified a club. Let's say fencing, because I've always wanted to learn fencing. Also, fencing = awesome. "These ten people are all going to join fencing. They represent all of you, 100% of freshman joining some club or team."

Then, they had three of them step back. "Only 70% of you will still be in that club by October."

Two more stepped back. "Only 50% of you will still be fencing by Christmas break."

Two more stepped back. "Only three out of ten of you, 30%, will still be fencing at the beginning of your sophomore year."

"And what about by senior year? That's a long ways away. Let's pick one of you at random." A boy holding his baseball cap, a defiant nod to the no-hats dress code policy.

"By senior year, you start taking on a leadership role. You'll help out with the club, even become its president, or be team captain of your fencing squad." Now it's a team? Whatever. "But that will be less than 10% of you. We just can't cut this young man into pieces to show it."

(That's only on average, though, of course. Some of my friends and classmates were captain of Varsity Golf, president of Speech team, and first chair cello, all at the same time. W00t, go us, right?)

"So, why is this important? If you step up and take a leadership role in a club or team, your college applications will stand out from the crowd. It'll make you look great when you're applying to your dream school." Sigh. You're not allowed to screw up in high school, because your life will be ruined.

But they were all talking about college . . . no one mentioned life. Leadership roles in high school (and, let's be honest, college) do so much more than help you get into your dream school. It's a trial run for how to deal with things that come up when you invariably lead new organizations as an adult. When you have to make decisions that impact other people, in the real world. When you have some semblance of power, that you're actually expected to use, even if you still feel like you're faking your way through your entire career.

Turns out, all the months as president of my high school women's rights group (which was awesome, thank you very much) was actually preparing me for life. Who knew.

Flying High

Once upon a time, I discovered how to estimate a plane's altitude during a flight by looking up, not down.

Looking down is easy. There are plenty of clues to help you along the way. Cars scurrying ant-like down the road. Patchwork-quilt fields and forests. Brilliant city sprawls. Snow-capped mountains, foam-capped waves. Puffy clouds all in a row, and a higher layer of wispy mist.

Looking up is awe-inspiring. A whole new world, as they say. The sky is not just forever a uniform bright blue. Planes flying high over the water, crossing oceans, jumping between continents, they're flying really high. Into new layers of the atmosphere. And when you've climbed high enough, through enough layers, the remaining atmosphere is thinner. Not so much stuff between us and the nothingness of space anymore. The sky becomes darker. And if you look closely enough, you can see space.

It can be just as heart-stopping to see into space from our atmosphere, that thin layer protecting us all, as it is for astronauts who see into that thin layer from space.  Gives you a whole new worldview.

And so, that's why I always choose window seats when flying. The end. 

 (Also, P.S, that's why I translate. One of the reasons, at least. Whole new worldview, and sharing it with as many people as possible.)

An Open Letter to the Baggage Handlers of ROC, LGA, and JFK

Thank you. You unknown workers, toiling behind the scenes, that none of us travelers ever see, I thank you.

For getting my bag on the correct flight out of ROC, when my original flight was cancelled and I lost my head trying to schedule myself on a new one on any number of airlines because I was freaking out only slightly necessarily, thank you.

For somehow getting all of our bags onto the carousel in LGA within five minutes of pulling up to the gate, so that I could grab mine and race over to JFK in the scant 30 minutes I had, thank you. It was the opposite of a delay.

For then getting my bag onto the plane bound for London at JFK, when I dropped it off less than 40 minutes before take-off, thank you again.

It seems that we travelers are obsessed with complaining about the problems, the delays, the things going wrong. And that's all fine and well -- it's frustrating when travel doesn't go according to plan, especially when many of us have made carefully specified plans. But we are in error to not equally praise the good things, show thanks and gratitude for smooth travels, especially when such smoothness depends on so many dozens or hundreds of people.

And for that, I apologize, and thank you once again, for making my traveling as smooth as possible. Especially given it started with a cancelled flight.

Very sincerely,

Allison M. Charette

Blog envy

I have some really cool friends. That's not bragging about myself, that's complimenting them. Really super awesome friends. Lots of them blog, in various capacities. This is one of the reasons they're all awesome.

Except when I go read their blogs, which are inevitably more organized or prettier or better written or about cooler topics than mine (because I'm my own worst critic), I'm really happy for them....and slightly jealous. I get blog envy.

Take Amy, for example. She's in Cambodia right now:

Or Marsha, a crafter. I'm slightly jealous of her blog, but mostly jealous of her mad knitting skillz. Seriously. Fastest knitter in the West:

Then there's Renton (which is a fun pseudonym). Best writer/music-lover friend. He writes like I wish I did:

And finally, Cordelia, the awesome animator of awesomeness, who's in Japan right now, who I wish updated her blog more often. But it's still great:

These are all people I became friends with in real life, not that I met through the Internet (although there are plenty of those who are very cool, too). And these are also all blogs that have nothing to do with blogroll for work-related things is much longer. That'll come soon enough.

On Prosopagnosia

Also called "face blindness."

I enjoy swing dancing. It's ridiculously fun, besides also being good exercise and a nice way to be social and meet new people. Most everyone ends up having trouble remembering people's names, since it's such a rapid-fire way to meet people. Dance with them for four minutes, usually in a darkened room while you're concentrating on connection and steps and all of that, then exchange names, and move on to the next person.

But for me, it sometimes goes beyond that. I may have had a long conversation with someone one night, but I won't recognize them the next day. I danced with someone for over a month, left town for a while, and upon coming back, couldn't remember if I had ever met them.

As an undergrad, I majored in both French and psychology. And in a psych lecture one day (Perception, I think), the professor started talking about prosopagnosia. It's when a person's ability to recognize faces is impaired. Thanks to something in the brain called the fusiform gyrus, human beings have a unique ability to recognize and distinguish between faces, much more easily than other similarly complex types of input. But prosopagnosiacs can't. Depending on the severity of their disorder, they may have to rely on other clues: voice, hairstyle, glasses, gait, even clothes. With varying degrees of success, of course -- people change their clothes every day.

And then I started doing a bit more research on the disorder. I recognize my family and friends just fine, yes. But if someone I know has shaved off their hair, I do a double-take. I have trouble distinguishing people in movies or plays if they're the same race and build. And if I run into someone out of context (a classmate out shopping, a swing dancer in the library, the coffeehouse barista out to dinner), I may not know who they are.

Unfortunately, this lack of mental ability can be interpreted as rude. If the other person doesn't remember my name, I have an easy out -- we can both laugh and commiserate over how difficult it is to remember the names of every single person we meet. Or if we've only met once, or even twice, it's easy to explain away. But. Otherwise? Ugh.

And networking? Fuggedaboutit. Oh yes, it's possible, of course. But if I have to remember what someone looked like, I sometimes have to use my secret weapon: Google Images. Maybe it's cheating. Maybe it's the only tool I have. Thank goodness for the Internet, sometimes.

I'm lucky, though. A friend of mine, a psychologist in France, has a more severe case of prosopagnosia. She has to explain to her patients that she won't be able to ever recognize them by face alone. Saying "Oh, but of course you'll remember me! How could you not?" doesn't actually help. You're not a special case. Your face is just like any other face, unrecognizable. And she's lost patients because of it.

Over the years, I've gotten used to the split-second terror that comes when someone walks up to me with a smile on their face, saying "Hi, Allison!" and I have no idea who they are. If there's nothing distinctive about them, I'm lost. If it's not the smooth, dark-skinned woman with wonderfully wavy hair who always drapes scarves over her shoulders...or the 6'5"-tall swing dancer with rectangular glasses and a matching smile...or the pale woman with very straight, naturally bleach-blond hair and cutely scrunched up features...or the guy with the light brown hair in a ponytail all the way down his back...... If I don't have any other cues, I've gotten used to the hot pink that creeps up my face to my ears, and my heart pounding THUMPTHUMPTHUMP against my bones that drowns out the question I'm forced to ask, "I'm so sorry, but I've completed blanked on your name...where was it that we met?"

How embarrassing. But only because prosopagnosia, no matter how slight, has not entered the collective consciousness. It's still not socially acceptable. The automatic assumption is that of course there's not any valid excuse for forgetting someone's name, someone's face. You're forgetting their very identity. To you, they're not a person. How rude.

How rude for that assumption to be made of millions of people with some form of the disorder. Really. An estimated 2.5% of the population. That's millions.

So I rely on my coping mechanisms: Google Images, cell phone pictures, conversational cues, re-introductions, profuse apologies proffered. And, subconsciously, a solitary career that minimizes the amount of time I have to spend with other people. Seriously -- there are only two girls who work afternoons at the coffeeshop I began frequenting, and it was two weeks before I could tell them apart. Not much of an incentive to go work as a doorman. -woman. -person. -holder. I'd be the worst receptionist ever.

Thank goodness for the books. I can at least recognize them by their covers.

For more information, start here:

Baby steps

This post is all about me working out. Shock. Sorry, you were expecting something else, weren't you? Well, translators have to stay active, too.

I'm not a work-out person. I was the kid my Mom had to force to do just one active extra-curricular activity every season. I don't enjoy working out. I'd rather read.

But I also don't like feeling lethargic and weak, and I don't like when I can't run to the end of the block without getting winded, and heaven forbid if my clothes start not fitting well.

So, a few years ago, fresh off of a year of gorging myself on cheese and bread in France, I decided to try to start actually working out.

2010: That was the year of running. And what did I learn? Although I can do a 5K in less than 30 minutes, I don't like running. I actually may hate it. Strong words.

2011: The year of the gym. I joined a gym. ME. For the first five months or so, it worked really well. I was only working part-time, and there were some great classes. I tried yoga for the first time, went to some spinning classes, even tried a couple that should have probably been called jazzercise. I learned how to strength-train properly and everything.

And what did I learn? Although the classes were pretty good and there were some nice people at the gym, I stopped going once I had a full-time job. Too much effort, not enough time. I felt guilty when I didn't go, but I didn't enjoy going if I didn't have the time. So I canceled my membership after the 12-month experiment.

2012: The year of what-the-heck-should-I-do-now. Whenever I thought about exercising, whenever I had the time (could be five times a week, could be once every two weeks), I tried something. I biked around Prospect Park, storing my bike in my third-floor walk-up. I tried Kinect YourShape workouts. I tried the app for 100 push-ups.

And what did I learn? Well, I finally started learning about things I liked, things that would work, instead of everything that I hated that wouldn't work for me. I learned that I enjoy variety. I get bored really easily, if I have to do the same two workouts in rotation forever. I learned that I didn't like spending lots of time on workouts, but I did actually like working out. Even 10 minutes of jump-roping is better than nothing. 30 push-ups is actually pretty cool. Maybe I can eventually work up to an hour of exercising every day, but for now, 20 minutes a day, three days a week is good. It's better than nothing. And if that makes me feel better physically, then it's worth it.

So. 2013. This will be the year of doing what works for me. Variety. Quick workouts. I've already been doing well over the past week (and really, I've been doing pretty well on it for the last three months).