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. Limericks, Oulipo exercises, snowball poems, Spoonerisms, 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.


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


Tailored to your audience

“Hello,” I say to the 6-year-old French boy.
“Hello! How are you?”
“I’m good. And how are you?”
Shy, silent stare.
“Are you good, too?”
“What did you want to ask me?”
“Uh…do you want to play with me?”
“Sure! What should we play?”
Mulling, and more mulling.
“Do you want to play Uno? Or foosball? Or something else?”
Eyes light up. “A match!”
“Foosball, then? A foosball match?”
Vigorous nodding.
“Okay! Let’s go!”

“What’s up?” I ask his 7-year-old brother.
“Do you know the game that you play on the computer, it’s called cup-eet.”
Cup Eat? A cup, like a glass that you drink out of?”
“NO! CUP! Like a police!”
“Oh, a cop,” I emphasize. “Cop is a policeman, cup is a glass you drink from.”
Cop…mais je peux pas le dire en anglais, moi…”
“Yes, you can figure it out in English. You figured out how to say ‘cop’ to me by saying ‘police,’ you can figure other stuff out, too…”

“Howdy, pardner,” I drawl to their 12-year-old brother, who picks up accents astonishingly quickly. Scarily fast, even.
Giggles. “Caooooowww,” he tries.
I giggle, too.
“Oh, remember, you told me you’d do a Scottish accent, too.”
“Haha, no, I said I’d find you an example of a Scottish accent. That one, I can’t do.”
“But what does it sound like?”
“Dude, I can’t explain it.”
“Do a British accent again.”
“Oh yes,” I quip, pinkie in the air, “this is the accent of the Brits and the BBC newscasters, and Monty Python and all the rest…”
“Yep, that’s it.” Now if only you’d stop imitating your parents’ French-accented English so well…

As for the oldest, their 13-year-old brother, he and I sit in silence. He’s a teen, and he’s trying to figure out how to deal with that. But if I’m patient enough, I can earn his respect. And it doesn’t take long. By the time we reach the theatre, we’ve bonded over “hiding from the old people,” since we’re the two youngest there by a couple decades. Then, we’re spies. Then, he steals my cookies, my pen, my glasses — and always gives them back, so long as I let him have his fun. And then whole night has been in English, which he struggles with as much as his identity. This is a good thing.


You just have to know who you’re talking to, who you’re writing for. Talk to them like you would a small child or a teen, write to them like you would your best friend or that college professor you were terrified of. And in translation, it’s almost easier. The decision has already been made for you — you just have to figure out which audience the author was writing for, what kind of audience that corresponds to in your own tongue and culture, and write appropriately.

Ich spreke kein Deutsch

I don’t speak German (thus, the spelling is an educated guess)

Spring break began with quite a number of shocks, some pleasant, some challenging.  Challenging: train strike was still on.  Pleasant: I figured out how to work around it and finished a full day of travel only two hours late.  Challenging: I can’t understand anything beyond guten tag, bitte, danke schoen, and random words that look like English.  Pleasant: my German friend is still awesome.  Well, not actually a surprise — I knew this already, and it hasn’t changed — but his patience with foreigners still amazes me.  Also pleasant: everyone else in the apartment, plus the majority of other friends I met, all knew enough English that they were round about my level in French.  Wow.  Two trains of thought stem from this.

First, I haven’t been to a “real” foreign country, meaning one where I don’t speak one of the official languages, in three years, since a spring break trip to Italy.  I had almost forgotten what a feeling of confusion, difference, ignorance, and loss anyone will feel upon arrival to a place where you do not understand the language.  You can’t ask for directions, you can barely order meals (and that’s only if you recognize anything on the menu), you don’t know how much anything costs, public services are incomprehensible and unrecognizable, and you have to rely on facial expressions and body language to figure out what anyone is saying.  The utter dread that quickly follows can creep in or flood you, but it will come.

Scared yet?  It’s actually a good thing.  You figure out how to communicate anyway, and you become exponentially more grateful for people who comprehend the words that come out of your mouth than you ever thought possible.  Enough taking understanding for granted.  In short, your mind opens to different ways of doing things, and you learn that you can survive something you hadn’t really thought of before.  (Granted, all this is exaggerated compared to what I experienced this time around — I’ve been to Germany before, and German is much closer to English than, say, Swahili).

Second train of thought: as internationally ignorant as Americans are thought of by many non-Americans, there is a slight excuse in a catch-22.  Take language and politics as an example.  Every student at the university that I met was proficient, if not fluent, in English.  They tend to know quite a bit about current events and government in the US, if only the name of our president and that health care and immigration are huge debates right now.  Conversely, not many Americans are fluent in German, and there wouldn’t be many who could name the political leader of Germany right now (it’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, for the interested).  But everyone looks to English as the language to know, to America as the country to know about.  Are you a little French student?  Learn English.  Are you a German university student?  Study about America.  Are you a Korean businessman?  Learn English.  Et cetera.  If you’re American, there are certain areas or languages that should interest you more than others (the EU and China and the Middle East, for example, with their respective languages), but you don’t have one superpower to look to.  The need to learn another language to be understood by more of the world is not nearly as pressing.  So while I’m not defending the inability of some Americans to see past the end of their own nose, I do claim a reasonable excuse to not know German.  Or Chinese, or Arabic, or Italian, or Spanish.


Here begins a series of backlogged entries, all stuck in my mind until now, when I returned to having free rein over my own computer.  I’ll try to catch up quickly — especially since I’ll be leaving France for good (for now) in four short weeks.

Tidbits, Vol. V — Back to blogging

I am currently en route to New York City for the two weeks of winter vacation.  Friends, dancing, and geeking out await.  I don’t know if I could possibly be happier.

Although I detest waking up at 4am to start traveling, there is something to say about a sunrise flight towards the northeast over the Alps.  Bands of color, faint then strong, streak across the sky parallel to the horizon, a herald of the brilliant red sun’s awakening.  And when you fly in a regional jet over the Alps, you fly at the level of the highest peaks.  The not-so-high peaks are islands in a cloudy sea.  It’s really something to see.

There are fish in the stream that runs through the “moat” around my village, contrary to what I originally believed.  A whole school can be found in the quiet pool, hidden behind a bend in the road beyond the old silk factory.  I feel like it’s forbidden, but there aren’t any signs to indicate private property, so exploration is encouraged, if not required.  Also, one day, the ice by the bank was thick enough so as not to break when stones were thrown at it.  No mention as to who that may have been who threw the stones in the first place…

Having spent last weekend in Paris, I have come to three conclusions and one reaffirmation:
Conclusion #1: I am approaching a jet-setting lifestyle.  Paris last weekend, NYC for the next three, then another weekend in Paris, and possibly the following weekend in Grenoble.  All with a homebase in rural France, a village of 2000 people.  That doesn’t quite add up.
Conclusion #2: There is always something new to discover in Paris.  New paintings at an old museum, new quartiers with new shops, new places to practice an old hobby, new restaurants with wonderfully nice new people, new homes-away-from-home, new train stations, and a new experience of kissing the person you love on the most romantic bridge in Paris.  So they say.
Conclusion #3: Bone marrow just beat out raspberries as my favorite food.
Reaffirmation: Paris is my favorite city in the world.  New York has the highest concentration of my favorite people, but Paris is my favorite city.

Probably the best exchange I’ve ever heard, at the restaurant Au Pied de Cochon, after Jeremy and I have raved about how much we like the confiture de cochon (pig jam, actually) that they brought out with the bread, and Jeremy has decided to find out where we can get some for ourselves:
Jeremy: Excusez-moi, monsieur, mais où est Au Pied de Cochon?
Waiter: …Quoi?
Jeremy: Est-il dans Paris?
Waiter: Monsieur…vous êtes à Paris.  Vous êtes au Pied de Cochon.
**requisite giggles from me**
Jeremy (highly embarrassed): Oh.  Désolé.  Umm…où est-ce que je peux acheter ce confiture de cochon?
Waiter (very cheerful and accommodating): Un moment.  Vous n’avez pas besion de l’acheter, bien sûr.
Then, the waiter comes back with two pots of pig jam, which he wraps in tin foil for us because they don’t have lids.  Because they don’t actually sell it.  They just make it for the restaurant.  Awesome.

I really need to figure out what is a bad word in French and what is not, at least on the level of elementary school kids.  I kept disciplining the youngest kids for using the word “fesses,” which is not actually a bad word, it just translates to “butt.”  Which they’ll giggle over because they’re 6 years old.  Whatever.

And on a related topic, although I’m getting much better at both speaking rapid-fire French and understanding the kids when they speak quickly, there are some things I swear I will never understand.  Insults would be one of them.  Insults in French draw mostly off of argot, the wide-spread French slang, of which I know just about nothing.  It becomes a problem if I don’t know who’s saying what to whom, if the kids are insulting each other, the level of insult if they are, or — perhaps worse — if they’re insulting me.  Eesh.

Lunchtime — time to convert more Swiss Francs into Euros in my head.  I’m just glad they accept Euros, and give out Euros in change (unlike London Heathrow, which accepts euros but gives change in pounds).  Next time I write, I will be in a city that is 4000 times larger than the village I left.  Frighteningly enough, that’s not an exaggeration.


To address someone with the informal “you”

One of the most confusing things about conversational French is figuring out whether to address someone with the formal (and/or plural) “vous” or the informal and/or familiar “tu.”  Generally speaking, you use “vous” when you don’t know someone, or when you’re addressing someone older or of higher authority than you, or when you just want to show respect to someone; you use “tu” when you’re familiar with someone, or when you’re speaking to someone of your age or younger.  Families differ on if kids should tutoient or vouvoient their parents, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, etc.

That being said, my first day at school was made much more comfortable by the mandate that all teachers and staff members addressed each other as “tu,” even if you didn’t know the other person that well.  It’s like a little family, a team; it made me feel very welcome.  On the flip side, I always address my landlords as “vous,” even though they’ve invited me to their house for multiple meals — what’s nice is that they also address me as “vous.”  Business arrangement first and foremost, I guess.

The cool thing is when these forms of addressing people start to shift.  A “vous” to “tu” shift (it never happens the other way around) means friendship, or at the very least, familiarity.  I’ve gotten permission to tutoie Bernard, who runs the bookstore, who I’ve spent a lot of time with.  Just today, the boulanger (bread man) who comes around to our neighborhood said that I could of course tutoie him.  I’m pretty sure I’m a few weeks away from permission from the sausage man at market and the madame who runs the grocery store to tutoie them.  I may not be able to fit in seamlessly to French life, but I’m becoming accepted by those who live and own that life.

On a side note: incidentally, I’m apparently not only becoming accepted by, but attractive to the French, as well.  At least the males of the species.  My CE2s (3rd graders) made a big deal about two of the boys in the class having crushes on me.  Fortunately, they’re 3rd grade crushes.  I think I can handle that.  What I wasn’t prepared to handle were the advances of a couple boys my age, maybe a bit younger, maybe a bit older (I can never tell with the French), outside a bar at the edge of town.  They’re young, immature, they didn’t quite know what they were truly attempting.  I rebuffed their advances not only in French, but like the French do, with a certain aloofness and gentle snide comments (which may not make sense until you hear some native speakers go at it).  My French must be getting pretty good…

Tidbits, Vol. IV — The Answer to “Snow?” and other stories

Snow?  Barely.  None had fallen by Friday at 11am, then a few flurries started, and there was about 1cm on the ground by Saturday morning.  School wasn’t cancelled on Friday, but the busses weren’t running, and the cantine (lunch service) was closed, so there weren’t very many kids there (I snuck a peek during recess while passing on my way down to town).

But strangely, the little valley of L’argentière was one of the only places where snow did not blanket the ground as far as the eye could see.  Lablachère, about 20km away, got hit so hard that no one could leave their houses.  Valence, the city about 2 hours away, got a full 2.5ft, according to other assistants’ pictures.  And no one this far south in France is prepared to deal with the snow.  I don’t actually think snowplows exist in this department.  According to the teachers, this area usually gets about 5-10cm of snow every 3 or 4 years.


I have officially found the funniest English/French word resemblance.  We just started a unit on food with the older kids, and I brought in an old Lois Ehlert book that I’ve loved pretty much forever to get them started.  I turn to a page, they ask me what a certain fruit or vegetable is, I tell them, and then ask them if they like it or not.  Cut to this little exchange with the CE2s (3rd graders):

Kid 1: What is this?
Me: This is a beet.
3 of the boys: *practically hysterical giggling*
Me: Yes, this is a beet.
3 of the boys: *giggling continues at a feverish pitch*
Me: Ok, ok, what did I say this time, c’est quoi un “beet” en français? (What does “beet” mean in French?)
Kid 2: Bite (pronounced “beet”), c’est un autre mot pour, uh, pour, hahahaha, pour le zizi.

Basically, it’s a fairly vulgar term for a guy’s you-know-what.  This would explain why only three of the boys were giggling madly, while the three other kids in that group just looked a little clueless.  “Zizi,” incidentally, is what little kids call it.


Yesterday, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend an afternoon with a German-by-way-of-San-Francisco-by-way-of-Lablachère family in town, whose daughter is in my CM2 class.  They are, of course, one of about three families I know with blond hair, for fairly obvious reasons.  They also invited a French family over, close friends of theirs for years, and I got an up close and personal taste of how French hospitality and social calls work.

First off, the French language is used bizarrely sometimes, in that French people provide a self-narrated running commentary of almost anything they do, especially either when asked or when there’s only a few people around.  Secondly, everyone knows everyone here.  Thus, a conversation such as the following is a very common occurrence:

German Mom: Please, won’t you have a seat?
French Mom: Oh, thank you, I’ll sit down.  Let’s see, where should I sit?  Here, I’ll sit on the couch, right here at the corner.  This couch looks very familiar, where did you get it?
GM: Oh, we just bought it yesterday actually.
FM: Did you buy it new, if you don’t mind me asking?  Because I know this couch, it looks very very family to me.
GM: No, we got it from [French resale store that I don’t remember the name of].”
FM: Oh, of course you did, of course you did!  That’s a wonderful store.  But let me tell you, this was the [other French family’s] couch until about a month ago.  They didn’t need it anymore, so they sold it and this armchair you have, but there were actually two armchairs, although they kept one for her husband to use in his office at home.  So if you ever want the other armchair, just ask me, because I know the [other French family] still has it, and I can always tell them to give it to you!

And on and on and on like that.


But eventually, we got around to the real reason we were there: to eat a galette des rois for Epiphany.  This is a delicious delicious pastry that is traditionally eaten for Epiphany in France.  I had one last year when I visited a friend in Paris in early January.  EVERYONE does them — it’s a really simply and tasty tradition that has absolutely no connotations about anything anymore.  Originally, it had something to do with the Three Kings (thus, “des rois,” which means “of kings”), but no one really remembers the story anymore.

The best part is the fève, a little trinket hidden in the pastry before baking it.  Whoever gets the piece with the fève in it is the king or queen for the day and gets to wear a paper crown and name his queen or her king.  And apparently, in the more provencal regions of France, it’s tradition for whoever gets the fève to pay for the galette the next year.  It’s lots of fun, something that kids and adults can do together.

‘Course, I was introduced to this tradition long ago.  My high school French teacher taught us about the galette and the requisite festivities, only galettes don’t really exist in the States, nor do fèves.  So we celebrated Epiphany with doughnut holes, one of which was stuffed with a TicTac.  Points for creativity and awesomeness!

Kids these days…not limited to those under the age of 18

First, regarding the kids at school, the ones actually considered kids:
I taught a Thanksgiving lesson last week on Thursday (yes, I worked on Thanksgiving…because it’s an American holiday), and I explained how it started out as a feast where the Pilgrims gave thanks to God for surviving the winter, having good Native American (yes, I’m PC…) friends, etc.etc.etc.  In my CE1 class (2nd grade), one of the kids raises his hand, and we have the following exchange, translated into English for your convenience:
“Did the dinosaurs have Thanksgiving, too?”
“Well, I don’t know…”
“Did the dinosaurs even have a god to give thanks to??”
“Well, to be honest, I never met the dinosaurs, and they didn’t leave any writing, so no one really knows for sure.” (That was a much easier answer than explaining dinosaurs’ probable lack of complex sentient thought, which would be necessary to create a god.)
“Wait, but I thought you were old!  You didn’t know the dinosaurs??”
Yes.  They haven’t quite grasped the difference of time yet.  This would be the same kid who, a few weeks ago, guessed what year I was born.  He started at 2003 and ended up guessing 2010.  Oops, my cover’s blown; I’m actually a time-traveler.

Next, regarding the potentially slightly immature child inside most of the 20-something-year-old assistants:
I met some of the other assistants in Lyon on Saturday afternoon for an overnight at a hostel, to get out, have dinner, celebrate Thanksgiving, all that.  After dinner, everyone wanted to go to a bar.  Where did we end up?  The Anglophone, gaudy attempt at a NYC-themed bar named Cosmo.  The decor was even a really nice attempt at a divey hipster bar!  Oooooh.  In their defense, they were all drunk by this point in time, and didn’t want to speak French anymore.

Finally, regarding the kids and the kids-at-heart of the Gris family (visiting them was the primary reason I was in Lyon, as I hadn’t seen them since I arrived, completely jetlagged, in September):
Before lunch, the three oldest boys (10, 8, and 4) and the husband and I all sat down for some crackers and flavored cheese cubes.  As a side note, smoked onion flavored cheese is amazing.  But the real draw of these cheese cubes is the trivia questions on the inside of the foil wrapping.  I read one, which went something like this: “What is known as the crotte of a deer, and also rises from a chimney in the winter?”  Wordplay, I gathered, but I didn’t know the word crotte, and so asked the dad, who immediately started giggling.  The boys all turned their attention to him, asking what was so funny.  He told me to read it again, so I did, and at crotte they all started giggling hysterically, trying (and failing) to suppress it.  Turns out it’s a word for poop, except a bit stronger.  Why it was printed in a trivia question on the inside of cheese cubes, I will never know.

The biggest problem I keep having with the kids is when one of them says a bad word, or a gros mot, and some other kid calls him or her out on it.  Not only do I usually not hear what they say, but I usually don’t understand them when I do hear them, and I don’t know what half of the bad words are in French, or what’s considered a bad word to elementary school kids that I hear all the time in the marketplace.  So I’ve made a new rule: if I don’t hear it (and, secretly, if I hear it but don’t understand it), it didn’t happen.  So stop trying to get your friends in trouble, because you KNOW you’re going to be the next one to say it.