Newsletter Archive

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.


Articles, Books, Events, French, Language Acquisition, Literary Translation, Recommendations, Spanish, Translation

New Words #11: Greetings, Dear Lady!

It’s happening again. I’m getting LinkedIn messages from total strangers that open with phrases like “Hey, dear Nagle!” and “Greetings, dear lady!”

These greetings are jarring, especially in the context of a cold business contact, but it’s easy enough to imagine how they developed. If you’ve been taught that it is polite to use dear when opening a letter in English but also that Dear Ms. Nagle is too formal for online messages, you might attempt to strike a happy medium by doing a mash-up of formal and informal terms. And if it’s acceptable to address a crowd as “ladies and gentlemen,” then it must be polite to address an individual woman as “lady,” right? Well, not exactly.

Figuring out the unwritten rules of polite conversation in another language or culture is never a straightforward matter. I’ll never forget my first intermediate Spanish class in Santander, Spain, when the instructor winced as soon as we students greeted her. We’d all been taught to use usted when addressing a teacher, but we’d traveled to a place where is appropriate in an educational setting. Our attempt at signaling respect made us sound impolite; our choice of words was holding our instructor at a distance when she was trying to be approachable.

But even among proficient speakers of the same language, regional usage varies; some speakers of English think ma’am is an appropriate way for children to address adult women in general, while others think ma’am is a euphemism for old lady. (There’s that word lady again, with its array of connotations!)

There’s a reason why William Alexander’s hilarious flowchart of reasons to use tu and vous in French (“Are you speaking to a child? Is the child like a prince or something?”) has been passed around the internet for almost a decade now. Whether or not the specifics of French address are of particular concern, we can all relate to the angst of trying to be polite but instead causing offense.

A Humble Suggestion

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

The Invisible Art of Literary Editing is a new handbook that focuses on what authors Bryan Furuness and Sarah Layden call “the excellence phase” of editorial work at literary magazines and small presses, from reading and acquisitions to developmental and line editing. Drawing upon a wealth of experience on both sides of the editorial relationship, the authors emphasize the importance of timely communication (“As writers, Sarah and Bryan have submitted stories to magazines that have taken over a year to respond. ‘Timely’ is a fuzzy term, but not that damn fuzzy”) and provide examples of production timelines and positive editor-author communications for the benefit of new and aspiring editors.

I also have a couple of recommendations this month for literary translators and the literary translation-curious. First, check out Jeremy Tiang’s recent article for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop on translators’ (in)visibility. And please consider joining the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) on May 23 for Write the World, a day of live online panels on literary translators’ role in the publishing industry. Registration is just $15, and if you can’t make it to the live events, not to worry—recordings will be available.

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, doing their funny sits.

A dilute tortie cat sits on a black pillow with both front paws in front of her body and one hind paw stacked on top of them.
Alexis has opinions about the proper way to stack one’s paws.
A tuxedo cat sits with his hind legs tucked under his body on top of a cabinet and his front legs extended onto the arm of a chair beside the cabinet.
David is a big proponent of multilevel seating.

See you back here soon!


Links, Literary Translation, Translation

New Words #10: Translating Formal Poetry

I used to say I would never translate poetry—especially not formal poetry. Conveying meaning and overcoming gaps in cultural knowledge is tricky enough, so adding rhyme and meter into the mix just struck me as unreasonable.

That changed about two years ago when I read Íntimas, the 1913 novel by Adela Zamudio, a writer, educator, and activist who is remembered as the foremost figure in Bolivia’s feminist movement. I loved the novel’s morally complex protagonists and the author’s use of acerbic wit to offset the sentimentality of the plot, and since it has never been published in English, I decided to translate a sample to see if I could get a publisher interested. (After a round of encouraging rejections and a break to focus on other projects, I’m about to head back into the trenches, so wish me luck! If you’re interested in learning more about the novel and hearing an excerpt, check out my video from the Jill! reading series).

Given that the author was better known for her poetry than her prose, it is little wonder that Íntimas is peppered with short verse. For example, one character’s teasing takes the form of a limerick, while another is perplexed by the cryptic quatrain recited by a mysterious woman at a masked ball. Wanting to include the ballroom scene in my sample translation, I prepared myself for a slog. I thought those four lines would take me longer to translate than a typical page. And I was right.

But you know what else? It was fun. It was a puzzle—one that may or may not have a satisfactory solution, granted, but the process of working out a solution felt familiar. (For more on this topic, I recommend May Huang’s lovely essay about the overlap between literary translation and crossword puzzles.) So I tried my hand at a few of Zamudio’s poems unrelated to the novel, and guess what? More puzzles! More fun!

Among those early experiments were “Nacer hombre” (perhaps Zamudio’s most famous poem) and “El hombre,” my translations of which were published together, in bilingual format, in The Los Angeles Review that same year. In the case of “El hombre,” I found that the poem worked better in English using stanzas of four lines rather than five—Spanish is sometimes wordier than English—but I felt comfortable adapting this poem using another form frequently used by Zamudio. However, the off-kilter, uneven patterns of “Nacer hombre” were tied to its theme, and I believed the only way I could do the poem justice would be to model my translation after its form as closely as possible.

Taking a look at the full original poem (available at the link above), you’ll notice that each stanza except the last has the same rhyme scheme (ABACDBC) and that two lines (the C rhyme) are repeated in each of those stanzas. I am not aware of any standard poetic form that uses this rhyme scheme—if it rings a bell for you, let me know!—but the rhyme feels both consistent and fundamentally unbalanced, much like the power dynamic the poem illustrates.

Here’s a look at a single stanza (Zamudio on the left, my literal-ish translation in the center, and my final translation on the right):

As you can see, while all the elements—awesome women, despicable scoundrels, sexist voting laws—are there, I’ve adapted them and moved several of them around within the stanza in order to make the rhyme scheme work. The A rhyme was always going to require some finessing; “superior” doesn’t rhyme with “worst,” but it hardly matters, since English typically puts adjectives before nouns anyway. Meanwhile, I can’t make “vote” and “idiot” rhyme in English, the way “vota” and “idiota” do in Spanish, but I can say that a “fool” is allowed to vote because that’s the “rule.”

Let’s take a closer look at the repeated C rhyme, and in particular the fourth line of each stanza, where I’ve deviated significantly from the literal meaning of the source text. When translating within formal constraints, I think it’s important to consider the way those same constraints affected the author’s choices, and that fourth line is where I most clearly see Zamudio doing battle with the form she has chosen. The phrase “Permitidme que me asombre” is used not just because Zamudio wants to be sarcastic (although that is definitely part of it!) but because “asombre” rhymes with “hombre,” the word on which each stanza lands. As a result, I prioritized the literal meaning of “hombre” in my translation—these stanzas, I decided, must end with the word “man”—but I consider the literal meaning of “asombre” to be less relevant than its effect (rhyme + sarcastic tone).

It’s worth noting that I have never figured out the right approach to a rhyme scheme the day I begin working on a poem. Here’s the inside scoop on my technique: I spend some time scribbling potential end rhymes, decide it can’t be done (not by me, at least!), give up, sleep, wake up the next morning still convinced there is no solution to this particular puzzle, then have an epiphany while brushing my teeth. What can I say? Yelling Oh, duh! with a toothbrush in my mouth is a vital step in my creative process.

A Humble Suggestion

In each newsletter, I’ll offer at least one recommendation for your reading, watching, or listening pleasure. While I’m not exactly recommending Succession—with the fourth and final season underway, folks have likely decided whether or not this series is their cup of tea—I am recommending a few sources of Succession-related humor:

• Simon Henriques’s painfully accurate “Which Succession Character Are You?” quiz in McSweeney’s. I have rarely felt so seen!

• Maris Kreizman’s weekly Twitter thread inviting viewers to tag themselves in the new episode. This week, I was a high-calorie info snack.

• And of course, Demi Adejuyigbe’s wildly enthusiastic performance of the lyrics he set to the show’s theme music.

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 sit on a black desk. On the left, a tuxedo cat faces the camera; on the right, a dilute tortie has her body facing the camera as well, but she has turned her head to lick her brother’s cheek.
David’s displays of affection tend toward the elaborate, but Alexis opts to give a simple kiss on the cheek.

See you soon for more adventures in creativity and dental hygiene!


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.