I spent my junior year of college living with a host family in Paris, and Madame and I didn’t always understand each other.
Our frequent bouts of mutual confusion were based less in language—my French was reasonably solid when I arrived—than in cultural differences. She couldn’t fathom why I liked Seinfeld; she’d watched a couple of episodes, and the jokes made no sense. (In fairness, providing French subtitles for a show that made up words on a regular basis had to have been a thankless task.) And she didn’t know what the big deal was about American pizza; that place down the street was awful! (I had to explain to her that I had never set foot in a Domino’s on either side of the Atlantic but was quite certain it wasn’t what I, a New Yorker, would call pizza.)
But my favorite of our misunderstandings had to do with a request on my grocery list: decaffeinated tea. Our conversation went something like this:
– Laura! I do not understand this! What in the world is thé décaféiné?
– Well, tea—regular black tea—but without any caffeine in it.
– That makes no sense. Who would put caffeine in tea?
– Nobody. It’s just there. Unless it’s taken out.
– How does it get in there?!
– Nature? I . . . I wasn’t exactly a great chemistry student, Madame.
– Caffeine in tea! Who ever heard of such a thing? Oh, wait a minute. Do you want thé déthéiné?
– Tea without any “tea-ine” in it?
– “Tea-ine” is a thing?
– But of course!
If we were having this conversation today, I’d be able to whip out my iPhone, google “thé décaféiné” and “thé déthéiné,” determine that they meant the same thing (but that the former gets, ahem, far more hits than the latter), and move on with things. But it was the late ’90s, and my host family had no computer at home, so we had to resort to the Larousse dictionary, where I discovered that théine is indeed a word . . . for a chemical compound “identical to caffeine.”
In my mind, while the word caffeine clearly shared similar origins with the word coffee, the two were separate entities; for Madame, la caféine was obviously (and exclusively) a component of le café. From her perspective, I was suggesting that tea could be decoffeed—a concept as preposterous to her as the supremacy of Domino’s pizza.
Now through Tuesday, May 23, Frayed Edge Press is offering a special discount on all its translated titles—including my translation of Prosper Mérimée’s Songs for the Gusle—when you use the code ReadTheWorld at checkout. This promotion is part of the American Literary Translators Association’s online bookfair; look for #ReadTheWorld on social media to find offers on works in translation from a variety of publishers.
I have new work in the latest issues of Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry (a poem by Adela Zamudio, translated from Spanish; print edition only) and Volume Poetry (a poem by Alice de Chambrier, translated from French; available online here). Take a look!
A Humble Suggestion
In each newsletter, I’ll offer at least one recommendation for your reading, watching, or listening pleasure.
Julie Otsuka’s most recent novel, The Swimmers, starts as a meditative reflection on collective identity and morphs into a poignant exploration of memory loss. I’m calling it a novel because that’s the word on the cover; to my mind, however, this book might be better enjoyed if the reader approaches it as a pair of novellas linked by a particular character’s presence in both narratives.
The Prestige TV Podcast has featured conversations with Bill Hader about the first few episodes of Barry’s final season. Hader offers fascinating insights into the collaborative processes that go into the creation of great television, discussing late changes to storylines and crediting some of the most indelible moments in the series to the joint efforts of various writers and crew members. These glimpses behind the scenes are especially meaningful in light of the ongoing Writers Guild strike, during which Hader is postponing press interviews.
Here, Look at My Cats
The world is a mess, and you might welcome a pleasant distraction. For what it’s worth, here are my cats.
I hope you’re enjoying your caffeinated/teainated beverages of choice. See you back here soon.