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.)


Author photos

They bug me.

They’re just too staged. You, with your perfect life, in your country cottage where it’s always either a warm spring or a cool autumn (but never chilly), trees without leaves falling, flowers without bees stinging, a beautiful dog of show quality with no hair or drool or musk or poop. Yes, your bio says you divide your time between Chicago and the country cottage in Colorado, but we don’t see the stress of the city, nor the lonesomeness of the country.

Most importantly, though, we don’t see you writing.

And because of this, many adoring children and idolizing adults think that writing is easy for you. Without any evidence to the contrary, writing must slide neatly into place within your perfect life, where sweaters drape just so and tweed is cool again. You must just sit on your porch where it never rains, where wind never blows your research and scribbled notes away, and type away until dinnertime. No blocks, no grief, no heartaches. No sight of how dreadfully hard writing is. Every. Single. Day.

How hard it is to find your characters’ voices. How hard it is to create perfect descriptions of a place you’ve never seen. How much you ache to see words appear on the blank page. How desperate you feel when you can’t figure out what happens next — or worse, how to get to somewhere you know exists.

But look. I’m just as guilty of this as the rest of you. I’ve got my nature-filled shot up on my website, because it’s the only thing I feel comfortable with. Because there’s an image to control. Because writing is also private. No one is allowed in our zone, in our soul, let alone someone armed with and hiding behind a camera. Just…

Just know, readers and admirers and all the curious, that it’s hard. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t be deceived.

Proofreading after the fact

It doesn’t work. It just makes you look like a donkey’s rear end. And about as intelligent as its front end.

Example 1:

"i" instead of "y", except after "Chr"...

“i” instead of “y”, except after “Chr”…

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a picture of the Chrysler Building, labeled “Chrisler Building.”

It was found in an exhibit called “New York, New York!” at a big expo just outside of Lyon, France. A French person’s take on New York City, if you will. So of course, it opened with a scale model of the Statue of Liberty’s torch — gotta highlight the ties between the two great nations! Then it continued on to the jazz era, stock market crash, taxicabs, etc. Including a large swath of skyscrapers.

But what’s even more adorable about this hilarious typo is that they actually tried to fix it after the fact. If you look closely, you’ll see a faint overlay of a slightly translucent “y” over the much clearer “i” in the picture.

And as if that wasn’t enough, there was an even bigger problem. In the same lineup of iconic New York City skyscrapers, we saw, proudly displayed, a picture of the Tribune Tower.

In Chicago.

I’m sure they meant the Tribune Building. But by then, I had lost all hope. Gave up. Too depressed to take a picture. Even though it was a hilarious picture, with the first part of the “Chicago Tribune” logo on the building next door still visible.

So what, though? Most French people won’t know the difference. And it’s not going to have any sort of detrimental effect on their daily lives.

But it’s still wrong. And there will be people who notice. Probably a couple of important people. Maybe even clients. Or potential clients. If I had any relevant power, I’d be firing (or not ever hiring) the people who created that exhibit.

In conclusion, please be careful. Like I was, reading over this post four times before sending it off into the ether.

Dear bilingual dictionary,

You and I have been partners for a long time. Some might even say friends. (Maybe frenemies.) But we have a decent, cordial, mutually respectful relationship, and have for years.

But enough with the formalities. You and I need to have a heart-to-heart. Right here, right now.

See, there are times when I feel you’re limiting me. Like you’re cornering me into a little box of conventions and traditions, of the way it’s always been done, perhaps even the way it’s supposed to be done. Says you. I come to you with a question, an open-ended question. This is not a yes or no, black or white question. There are shades of beautiful gray, shadows in the dark and streams of dust-filled light. This question invites research, discussion, discovery. I’m looking for the many different facets and shades of meaning, the many different turns and tunes of how to say something, how to sing or mumble or cry or shout or threaten something, in my own tongue. I come to you on my knees, ready to learn.

And lately, it seems that you see this delicate and luxurious Fabergé egg that I present before you, a treasured gift on a velvet pillow, and you just slap it out of my hand. And then you shove a dull cube of lead in front of my face, and I almost choke on this unimaginative, unpolished lump. Too familiar. I’ve seen it dozens of times before. The one word that is the only possible translation of this word I’ve brought before you.

But no. No. NO! Never! There is not ever only one right answer! This translation I am doing, it is not a machine, a mechanized process that takes input and spits out deadened, predetermined outputs out, day in and day out, forever until the end of time, never changing, never growing, never creating things of beauty. This is a creative process, a process of creation, of breathing new life into something already lovely, of using a new prism of clear cut glass to catch the sunlight in a new way and spurt forth new colors to send out into the world, scattering and dancing as they go. This is not a process of boxing in, of limiting the possibilities, but one of springing the lock on Pandora’s box, and watching as all the wonderful and strange and unknown and terrifying and beautiful things go flying out of your control.

The paths that have been trodden before me are good, and solid, and reliable, and have their place. I pad and stomp over them often myself. But you must not build fences of cold steel and barbed wire, penning me in from ever leaving them! I will be forced to break free, tearing down the iron gates much as I tear apart your whisper thin papyrus sheets.

So I will slam you shut, and I will shove you off of the table in a fit of frustration, and I will curse as I stub my own toes in an attempt to injure your pages and your pride.

And yet.

Although. Still.

As it happens, lumps of lead can be beautiful, too…if combined in a new way, stacked on top of each other in precariously swaying towers, sculpting the likeness of a new creature that no one has ever seen before, nor even imagined. Even as a limited and limiting tool, you are useful. Of constant, and yes, essential use.

We shall remain partners.

Warily and forever yours,



P.S. I did not originally mean for this to be an ode to this creative process, something dearly loved. I have learned something new, that you are inspirational in a muse-like way I did not imagine before. You still have some surprises and tricks up your binding.

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.

Good things come to those who wait

For a shepherd’s pie in the oven to warm all the way up to piping hot.

For the trip to far-off lands of heritage and history you always said you’d take, and finally do.

For the luscious words to be printed onto a cut-out mess of fibers, sewn together and glued to a hard plank on the edges, those luscious words you wrote.

For a present you knew was hidden in the fourth drawer down in the basement dresser filled with neglected odds ‘n ends, but you decided not to snoop at, because the surprise on the morning celebrating your birth is worth it.

For the numbers to tick slowly upward in that bank account you’ve called “Our Future Home.”

For a thick, letter-sized envelope to come in the mail, enclosing and cradling magical words of invitation and acceptance.

For your muscles to s’habituer, get used to those motions you make over and over again and perfect to the point of purest efficiency.

For the life-giving rains to come.

For the sun to break through the clouds dumping deadly monsoons.

For the bombs to stop falling.

For the lights to dim.

For the concert to start.

For life to begin. Or not.

(Careful now. You can’t be passive about everything.)

Been rejected, and it feels so good!

Oh wait.

No, no it doesn’t, really.

Actually not that great.

Especially when it’s one of the coolest pieces you’ve worked on to date, and you had crafted it so lovingly, and you had really thought that it fit the magazine perfectly, and you even had a colleague introduce you to the editor-in-chief herself…nope.

Turns out, there’s no Magic Bullet to getting a story accepted. I mean, I knew that. But rejection still sucks.

So you keep working. There’s an editing job today, and one lined up for tomorrow. There are still several irons in the fire, other submissions that you’re waiting to hear back from. And this is only one in a long string of rejections that are bound to come. You’re a writer, after all. Writers, all writers, even very good writers, get rejected all the time. (Except for possibly Neil Gaiman.) It’s a ridiculously large percentage: 9 out of 10, or 99 out of 100, or maybe even 993 out of 1000 submissions will be rejected. You just have to keep plugging away.

Besides, it’s still a very good piece of writing, skillfully translated. There are other journals out there. Eventually, someone will bite.

They have to. Right?