Books, French, Language Acquisition, Podcasts, Recommendations

New Words #12: Caffeine Complications

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?

– Precisely!

– “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.

Eighteenth-century portrait of a woman seated beside a small table with a teapot. She is holding a cup and saucer.
Nicolas Henri Joseph de Fassin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Self-Promotion Corner

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.

Left: A tuxedo cat sits in front of a pink floral decorative pillow. He rests his front paws on a brown blanket and looks soulfully into the camera. Right: A dilute tortoiseshell cat sits on a white couch, leaning against a black decorative pillow and crossing one front paw over the other while looking directly into the camera.
David and Alexis seem to be under the impression that they are being photographed for their modeling portfolios. It’s just me with my phone, you goofballs!

I hope you’re enjoying your caffeinated/teainated beverages of choice. See you back here soon.


Books, Fiction Writing, Links, Literary Translation, Podcasts, Recommendations, Translation, Writing

New Words #1: Rejection, Shmejection

Welcome to New Words, a newsletter about writing, translation, and language acquisition.

I am a freelance writer and translator, an adult language learner, and a former high school world language teacher, which means that these topics are inescapably intertwined in my career and creative pursuits. This newsletter is intended to offer a peek behind the scenes as I work, and I hope it will appeal to folks who are interested in blurring the lines between these fields: writers and language teachers curious about translation, for instance, or translators wondering whether to pursue an interest in teaching or writing.

To get us started, I’ll share a bit today about how my experience as a translator prompted me to reengage with fiction writing. There is a practical aspect to this; my schedule as a freelancer can be unpredictable, but it also enables me to reserve time for creative work at moments of the day when I am focused and energetic for creative work. It wasn’t until I started translating literature and submitting it for publication, however, that I began to get past the mental block I’d had for years. I stopped limiting myself to the verbal equivalent of doodling; I started finishing drafts of short stories, revising them, and submitting them to literary magazines.

Judging by my Twitter feed, which is littered with writers offering each other advice about how to handle rejection, I’m hardly alone in finding that last step to be the toughest. This is not a matter of hypersensitivity but a reflection of the sheer difficulty involved in placing a poem, essay, or short story in a literary magazine. Few publications are open about the number of submissions they receive, but the handful of acceptance rates that are common knowledge are well below those of Ivy League schools. Case in point: Taco Bell Quarterly, a magazine devoted to—you guessed it—prose and poetry about Taco Bell, accepted about one percent of submissions for its forthcoming issue. Submitting to lit mags is such a universally demoralizing experience that Chill Subs, a new database and online community designed to make the process less intimidating, offers a rejection bingo game for users of its submission tracker, turning “we often have to reject great work” from a platitude to a collectible.

Because rejection is the norm, every acceptance I have received has taken me by surprise. I treat emails from publications like horror movies; even if the subject line is “CONGRATULATIONS,” I still peek through my fingers at the message in case there’s a jump scare ahead.

As it happens, I’d put rejection letters into the same category as jump scares: I dislike them, but they don’t have the power to hurt my feelings.

It isn’t just that I’ve had the experience of receiving a rejection from a lesser-known journal and an acceptance from a prestigious one for the same piece on the same day, although that certainly helped me get some perspective on quirks of the process. It’s also a principle that became clear to me as soon as I started submitting as a literary translator. When I’m translating a work that was previously published and well-received in another language, I know I’m not alone in thinking the story is worthy of interest. Since I’m also confident in my skills as a translator, I have no doubt that the story’s quality is up to the level of the publication’s or editor’s expectations, yet more often than not, the outcome is a rejection.

That’s because the question is not Is this work good enough to appear in this publication? but Is this story the right fit for this publication’s current needs, and if so, is it landing on the right editor’s desk at the right moment?

That framing has given me a healthier attitude toward submitting my own fiction. A magazine’s decision to publish or decline a piece isn’t an up-or-down assessment of the writer’s talent or effort; instead, an acceptance marks the convergence of talent, effort, and (crucially!) a considerable degree of luck. It became a lot easier for me to let a piece go in search of a home once I recognized which parts of this process I can control and which I can’t.

My first short fiction publication is scheduled for the end of this year.

A Humble Suggestion

In each newsletter, I’ll offer at least one recommendation for your reading, watching, or listening pleasure.

  • Novelist Rebecca Makkai has launched a personal/public reading project on Twitter, using the hashtag #AroundTheWorldIn84Books. (You can read about the origin of the project in this thread.) The first book she selected was The Door by Magda Szabó, translated from Hungarian by Len Rix—a stunning novel that I can’t recommend highly enough. I’m currently reading The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from German by Joachim Neugroschel, in anticipation of Makkai’s discussion on Twitter in early November. This project has provided a great incentive for me to move a couple of classics to the top of my to-read list, and I’m excited to see what’s next.
  • The podcast Everything Is Alive is back for a new season, and it continues to be delightful. Each episode features an in-depth interview with an inanimate object. Does a rental car care which airport it’s returned to? Does a baguette remember the hopes and dreams it harbored back when it was dough? At long last, we have answers to the questions we probably never knew we had.

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.

Two cats are shown reclining on a sofa. In the foreground, a dilute tortoiseshell cat is leaning against a green pillow, looking directly into the camera. In the background, slightly out of focus, a tuxedo cat with a black-and-pink nose is also looking toward the photographer.

If David and Alexis ever decide to record an album as an indie folk duo, their album cover is ready to go. Their rider demands, however, will be a nightmare.

That’s all for now. See you back here soon!


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