Films, Literary Translation, Recommendations, Translation, TV series

New Words #9: Meet My Pal Hyacinthe

Folks, it’s high time I introduced you to this fine fellow.

A nineteenth-century lithograph depicting an older man with a large white mustache sitting on the floor and playing a small stringed instrument.
Lithograph of “Hyacinthe Maglanovich” by F. G. Levrault, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There he is, in all his glory: Hyacinthe Maglanovich, outlaw turned cowherd, renowned poet, virtuoso of the gusle, the finest bard in all of Dalmatia, and my unlikely companion through the early days of the Covid pandemic.

Hyacinthe is a central figure in La Guzla, a notorious collection of “Illyrian” folklore and travel narratives published in France in 1827. It was not, as originally claimed, the product of an anonymous translator’s effort to share what he’d learned while traveling in his mother’s homeland, but an early work of fiction by French author Prosper Mérimée, whose familiarity with the Balkans was . . . well, “minimal” would be putting it generously.

I first read La Guzla in grad school and was charmed by the sheer audacity and improbable success of Mérimée’s endeavor. These stories are melodramatic to the point of absurdity, and they rely heavily on Western European stereotypes of an exotic and unknowable “other” living beyond the Alps, yet readers bought it. I don’t mean people literally bought the book—it was far from a popular success—but certain folks who ought to have known better fell for the hoax. Scholars of Slavic literature attempted to translate the tales back into their “original” language, and Pushkin translated a selection of them into Russian. Even after the volume’s claims of authenticity had been disproven, Mary Shelley translated a few of the tales into English and wrote glowingly of the author’s depiction of “the rustic and barbarous manners” of the region’s inhabitants, their “wild energy,” and the near absence of “any vestige of civilization” in the narrative. (Yikes, Mary.) Aside from short excerpts, however, La Guzla had never been published in English.

Three years ago this week, I hurriedly returned home from an ill-timed trip to France and figured I’d use my two weeks of quarantine to get started on a project that had been on the back burner for too long: revisiting La Guzla with a view to translating it. The book was both more fun and more complex than I’d recalled. I still found the phony folklore and Hyacinthe’s convoluted biography enjoyable, but I was most intrigued by the copious footnotes provided by the alleged translator, whose often erroneous explanations of the tales’ history and their cultural and geographical context reveal more about him—the book’s anonymous and nearly invisible main character—than about his supposed area of expertise.

As La Guzla made its way into English as Songs for the Gusle, I had to contend with the existence of the internet, which presents both a resource and a challenge that Mérimée couldn’t have anticipated, especially when it comes to proper nouns. When Mérimée’s narrator told nineteenth-century readers that he traveled to a village called Poghoschiamy, they had no reason to question it, but a reader today can google that name and easily discover that it does not exist outside the context of La Guzla. Likewise, Mérimée’s contemporaries would not have balked at the Frenchification of character names like Hyacinthe and Jeannot, but an English-speaking reader today would find it more believable that Hijacint and Vanja (rather than Hyacinth and Johnny) were cavorting around the Adriatic coast in the early nineteenth century.

My goal, then, became to present character and place names that would feel plausibly authentic (Croatian-adjacent?) to most English-speaking readers without, of course, actually being authentic, which is impossible. (At one point in the translation process, I had a Post-it at my desk that read: “Don’t put more effort into this than Mérimée did.”) Was “Poghoschiamy” a French spelling of the actual village of Pakoštane? I don’t know. Maybe. It’s plausible enough. Googling it won’t spoil anyone’s suspension of disbelief. Mérimée probably threw a dart at an old Italian map and misspelled what he saw on it. Stop thinking about it! Just say Pakoštane!

The official release date of Songs for the Gusle is this coming Tuesday, March 21, and pre-orders are available at a discount through Monday. In the meantime, feel free to read an excerpt here and watch me read one of the fake folktales (minus the all-important footnotes) here. And please spread the word to anyone who might like to spice up their bookshelves with some tragic elopements, historically questionable assassinations, and practical tips for dealing with the vampires in your neighborhood.

A Humble Suggestion

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

An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl) is the first Irish film ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, and that milestone hardly seems sufficient. As David Fear noted in his review for Rolling Stone, “In a just world, it would be up for a dozen other categories as well.” The film is full of sensitive performances and gorgeous cinematography, and the screenplay is a brilliant adaptation of Claire Keegan’s story Foster. Check out this interviewwith director and screenwriter Colm Bairéad about the process of adapting an English-language story into an Irish-language film, then watching it find a global audience.

The Reluctant Traveler (Apple TV+) follows Eugene Levy to some of the world’s most unique hotels, which his producers force him to leave so he can interact with the locals and have adventures he finds terrifying. (“The words seaand plane,” he notes during his stay in the Maldives, “only make me think of the words plunge and debris.”) Along the way, he befriends an orphaned elephant, steps into a typhoon simulator, and brushes up on his guitar skills to accompany a fado performance. The whole thing is delightful. And speaking of delightful . . .

Here, Look at My Cats

The world is a mess, your eyes are puffy because you’ve just sobbed your way through An Cailín Ciúin, and you might welcome a pleasant distraction. For what it’s worth, here are my cats, who provided invaluable editorial assistance on Songs for the Gusle.

A dilute tortoiseshell cat is sitting, more or less like a person, on a couch. She is holding a black ballpoint pen between her toes.
Alexis is a paws-on line editor.
A tuxedo cat sits on the photographer’s lap, on which a manuscript printout is partially visible. The cat looks over his shoulder up at the photographer with adoration.
David thought this draft was the most beautiful thing he’d ever heard. To be fair, he says that about everything I write.

Thanks as always for reading! See you back here soon.


Books, Recommendations, Translation, TV series, Writing

New Words #8: Why the Computers Aren’t Coming for My Job

This is not a newsletter about ChatGPT (if you want to read one of those, I’d recommend this one), but our topic this time around was prompted by reports of the chatbot just plain making up “facts.” That has disturbing implications—if there’s one thing we’ve already got plenty of, it’s online misinformation—but it didn’t surprise me. After all, for nearly two decades, I’ve been bombarded with confident-sounding nonsense spewed by the translation apps that supposedly threatened to render my work obsolete.

Credit where credit’s due: Google Translate and similar tools have improved somewhat since the ubiquitous “paper jam” / “mermelada de papel” screenshot was taken. But being programmed to recognize commonly used two-word phrases is not the same thing as understanding context, much less recognizing nuances or errors in a source text.

And source texts have plenty of errors, of course! I find all sorts of factual errors in source texts written by humans on a regular basis: tourist attractions listed with the wrong locations, inconsistent spellings of people’s names (think Alison/Allison and Brian/Bryan) in legal documents, and government-issued identification with obvious typos. These things happen!

What matters is how we handle errors like these. If I’m translating a text that claims the Crocker Art Museum is located in San Francisco, and I know it’s actually in Sacramento, here’s what happens: I ask my client for clarification, they are mildly embarrassed (but much less so than if they’d published the text with the error!), the error gets corrected in both languages, and we all go on with our day. If that same text is entrusted to Google Translate, you know what happens? No fact-checking, that’s for sure. If you tell Google Translate the Berlin Wall was a mural in Paris painted by Banksy in 1856, it will not question the accuracy of your statement.

Just like Google Translate, ChatGPT was not designed to care about Northern California, Banksy, or you. These tools are meant to produce grammatical and plausible-sounding language and no more. They might provide an answer to every question you ask them, but that doesn’t mean those answers are worthy of your attention.

A Humble Suggestion

In each newsletter, I’ll offer at least one recommendation for your reading, watching, or listening pleasure. This time I’m suggesting a streaming series and a short story collection that are remarkably effective in balancing pathos with laugh-out-loud humor.

The new Apple TV+ series Shrinking is centered around three therapists and their social circle. Major characters are struggling with grief, Parkinson’s disease, and PTSD, yet the tone leans more toward comedy than drama. Some of the subplots are less than compelling early on, but now, about halfway through the first season, they are being woven together in rewarding ways. Even before that, though, I was more than happy to stick with a show that lingers on such moments of absurd beauty as Jessica Williams’s astonishingly layered reading of the line “ruh-roh,” Jason Segel’s attempt to scale a fence, and Harrison Ford’s . . . well, I guess I’ll single out the Sugar Ray carpool karaoke, but every moment he’s on screen looks like the most fun he’s had in his entire life.

Gwen E. Kirby’s debut collection, Shit Cassandra Saw, bounces among genres and forms and offers a mix of historical and contemporary settings, but the stories are united by a sensibility that finds humor in tragedy (and vice versa). If you’re wondering whether this is up your alley, check out the story that lends the collection its name—full title “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at That Point Fuck Them Anyway”—in SmokeLong Quarterly.

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 napping on a white blanket. One, a dilute tortie, is in the foreground, lying on her side with her belly exposed and her head at the right-hand side of the image. Her tuxedo brother is also stretched out, with his head at the left-hand side of the image and a hind leg propped on his sister’s side.
Adopt a bonded pair! They’ll play and snuggle together and use each other as footstools!

We got through the longest/shortest month, folks! A quick reminder: Songs for the Gusle, my translation of Prosper Mérimée’s bizarre and genre-agnostic 1827 hoax, La Guzla, is out March 21. In my next newsletter, I’ll share more about the book and what motivated me to translate it. It’s available for pre-order at a 20% discount now through March 20, so go get that deal!


Literary Translation, Translation

New Words #7.5: It’s (Almost) a Book!

My first book-length translation will be released in exactly one month. It’s time to get excited!

Text: SONGS FOR THE GUSLE / Prosper Mérimée / Translated by Laura Nagle. Image: A person clad in a blue garment with gold embroidery is holding a narrow stringed instrument. Snow-capped mountains are visible in the distance.
Look! It’s got a cover and everything!

It took nearly 200 years for this French classic to be available in English translation in its entirety, but it’s available for pre-order (at 20% off the cover price) now.

From my publisher, Frayed Edge Press: First published in 1827, La Guzla purported to be a collection of folktales, ballad lyrics, and travel narratives compiled and translated into French by an anonymous traveler returning from the Balkans. Before long, though, it was revealed that both the stories and their “translator” were the fictional creations of a young civil servant, Prosper Mérimée, who would later become one of the most accomplished French writers of his generation. In these dramatic tales of love, war, and encounters with the supernatural, Mérimée has given us both a treasure trove of “fakelore” and a satirical portrait of a self-appointed expert blissfully unaware of how little he understands the cultures he claims to represent.

From me: Folks, this deeply weird book has a little bit of everything. It’s got vampires! It’s got ghosts! It’s got the evil eye! It’s got a world-class nincompoop for a narrator! You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll say “YUCK” out loud!

Sometime between now and publication day, I’ll write about why I chose to work on this project and how I approached it, but for now, I’ll just add my voice to the chorus of authors and translators on the internet chanting the magic words: Please pre-order my book.

Books, French, Irish, Language Acquisition, Recommendations, Spanish, Translation

New Words #7: If and/or When

I will make dinner when I get home from work. A pretty straightforward sentence, right? Sure. But let’s take a closer look.

·      When does the dinner-making part happen? In the future, obviously. That’s why it says “will make.”

·      When does the getting-home-from-work part happen? Also in the future, duh. It’s right there in the sentence: when I get . . . Wait, that’s the present tense!

If English is your primary language, you say things like this all the time without thinking anything of it. We use the present tense in when clauses regardless of whether the action takes place habitually or is a predicted future event. This gets weirder the more you think about it: I will make dinner when I get home from work is a sentence in which a person plans to return home on one future occasion, while I make dinner when I get home from work is a sentence about a person returning home on a regular (perhaps daily!) basis, even though the phrase when I get home from work is identical in both instances. That is objectively wild.

Many other languages of western Europe handle this scenario differently. In French and Irish, for example, the future tense would be used in both clauses, given that both actions are expected to occur in the future. (How logical!) Personally, though, I have a soft spot for the way Spanish speakers approach this type of sentence: with the “making dinner” clause in the future tense and the “getting home” clause in the present subjunctive—the mood that suggests an action is possible or hoped for rather than certain. I find beauty in that grammatical feature of Spanish, with its suggestion that the future is fundamentally unknowable.

For learners, these small distinctions can lead to misunderstandings—of greater or lesser severity, depending on the languages involved. For example, if a learner of English applies French-language logic and says something like “I will make dinner when I will get home from work,” that’s not too big a deal; English speakers will find that sentence a bit awkward but perfectly comprehensible. However, if a learner of French applies English-language logic and uses the present tense in that same scenario, it will sound to French speakers as though the when clause refers not to a one-time future event but to something that happens regularly: “I will make dinner [on one future occasion] when I get home from work [every day].” It just doesn’t add up; one part of this sentence or the other requires clarification.

Even in the absence of linguistic interference, speakers of the same language can disagree about the exact meanings and implications of statements about future events. Many English speakers today consider shall and will interchangeable in terms of their meaning, with the former merely sounding more formal or old-fashioned. But in legal drafting, the debate over the use of shall and/or will to create an obligation in a contract, rather than to predict future events, is an ongoing headache, despite efforts by plain-language advocates to circumvent the issue and encourage the use of must in their place. In my experience as a certified translator working primarily with legal documents, understanding French or Spanish legalese is never the most challenging part of a contract translation. It’s the ambiguity of verbs in English—my primary language and the one I translate into—that causes me the most consternation.

A Humble Suggestion

In each newsletter, I’ll offer at least one recommendation for your reading, watching, or listening pleasure. This time around: two recent reads I greatly enjoyed.

In Brandon Taylor’s first story collection, Filthy Animals, characters struggle to reconcile their fears and vulnerabilities with their desire for intimacy. Taylor’s prose is riveting, and I was intrigued by the collection’s structure: a series of linked stories taking place over a two-day period, interspersed with individual stories about unrelated characters. I imagine this collection could have been presented as a novella accompanied by other stories, but the decision to treat each of the linked stories as a stand-alone narrative has significant implications for the reading experience.

Lauren Willig’s novel Band of Sisters follows a group of recent Smith College alumnae on a volunteer mission to a devastated region of rural France in 1917. Among them are Emmie, an heiress determined to step out of her socialite mother’s shadow, and her onetime roommate Kate, a scholarship girl turned schoolteacher who dreads being patronized or pitied by her wealthier classmates. Loosely based on the real-life Smith College Relief Unit, Band of Sisters is a lively and inspiring portrait of young women taking control of their lives amid extraordinary circumstances.

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.

Top: a tuxedo cat lying on his belly on an open white looseleaf binder, with his head turned to face the camera, yawning dramatically. Bottom: a dilute tortoiseshell cat curled up on a cat tree beside a window, looking up at the camera, in the middle of a yawn with one eye slightly open.
A yawn, if done properly, looks an awful lot like a scream into the void.

Out next month from Frayed Edge Press: Songs for the Gusle, my translation of Prosper Mérimée’s 1827 hoax, La Guzla! I’ll be in touch when I have pre-order information. Or when I will have pre-order information. Or when I hypothetically have pre-order information. Never mind, you get the idea.


Dialogue, French, Links, Recommendations, Translation, Writing

New Words #6: Merci beaucoup, y’all

For nearly thirty years, I’ve been fascinated by a man I never met. He was the uncle of my supervisor at the after-school retail job I had my senior year of high school, and the following is everything I know about him.

1. He was a middle-aged man from Texas.

2. Sometime in the mid-nineties, he took his wife to Paris for their anniversary.

3. Throughout their ten-day stay, each time they left a shop or restaurant, he’d tip his cowboy hat and address the establishment’s (presumably horrified) employees in his very best French-adjacent drawl: “MARE SEE BOW COO, Y’ALL.”

This story pops into my head at random intervals because, well, the mental image delights me. But it has some practical applications as well. Back when I was a middle and high school teacher, the tale came in handy when perfectionistic students needed a distraction from their own perceived flaws. (“The French r sound is tough for English speakers to learn, but you’ll get there sooner than you think. Besides, you’re already doing way better than the ‘merci beaucoup, y’all’ guy, and he made it home from France in one piece.”)

More recently, I’ve been writing and translating fiction in which characters are either traveling far from home or returning from long journeys. As I work through the idiosyncrasies of their dialogue and body language, I keep noticing how their home language affects their speech patterns in an unfamiliar setting, and I’m reminded of my old supervisor’s uncle. Most of us are far more subtle about announcing our origins when we travel, but no matter how hard we might try to blend in, we can’t keep our past experiences and ingrained habits entirely hidden. When I write or translate about the ways in which habits picked up abroad carry over into a character’s daily life back home, I like to imagine that same gentleman, jet-lagged upon returning to Texas, greeting a gas station attendant or grocery store cashier in French. After all, it seems only fair that he would bring a little bit of his Parisian self home with him.

A Humble Suggestion

In each newsletter, I’ll offer at least one recommendation for your reading, watching, or listening pleasure. This time around, I’m highlighting a couple of Substacks of interest to avid readers and (especially) writers. Like mine, their posts and archives are free to read.

Each Sunday, I look forward to checking out Sarah Nicolas’s Virtual Bookish Eventsnewsletter, which lists upcoming online events—some free, some paid—that will appeal to readers and/or writers. It’s a great resource for everything from book launches and readings to classes and workshops for writers working in a variety of genres.

I’ve also been enjoying Kate Broad’s newsletter, Ask an Author, in which she answers questions about drafting, editing, and marketing novels. I particularly recommend her three-part series (starting here) about how to write quickly, deal with deadlines, and manage large writing projects.

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 dilute tortoiseshell cat looking off to the right, alert and bright-eyed. She’s pretty and she knows it. Right: a tuxedo cat looking off to the left, chin held high. He’s glad the artist has come at last to make his official portrait.
Alexis knows her best angles. David is certain he’s handsome from every angle.

Merci beaucoup for reading, y’all. See you back here soon.