Rainy weather reading


The rainy season is in full swing in California, and I have been taking advantage of the weather to snuggle up with some great books. Here are a few of my recent favorites:

  • Ces enfants de ma vie, by Gabrielle Roy – This French collection of related tales starts out slowly with some shorter stories, but keep with it! It builds into longer, more personal tales of life as a young teacher in remote areas of 1930’s Canada. We read this for our local book club, and those of us who finished it could not stop talking about the ending. The sweet descriptions of the Canadian landscape are a great touch to help you embrace the colder seasons, too.
  • Hocus Pocus, by Kurt Vonnegut – The story of a war veteran who teaches at a college for the disabled, then at the prison across the lake, and survives the takeover of the town when the inmates escape (among other things). It hits a bit close to home in the current American political climate, but Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors. Perfect if you like witty, sometimes dark humor.
  • Pacsirta, by Dezső Kosztolányi – For those of you who read Hungarian, I loved this description of a family experiencing temporary empty-nesting when a couple’s daughter visits cousins out of town. Plenty of laughs, with enough substantive food for thought to keep you hooked. And there’s no sappy Disney ending.
  • The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard – I am still working on this piece of non-fiction. Teddy Roosevelt was a total character with huge capacity for persistence. This book documents the trip he took after losing his bid for a third presidential term, down the Amazon with his son Kermit. They faced disease, death, and even murder. Fascinating!

What are you reading lately? Can you recommend any favorite authors? Share in the comments below!


Book review: Des nouvelles d’Édouard, by Michel Tremblay

I am lucky to have an active French book club here in Sacramento. We recently read Des nouvelles d’Édouard, by Michel Tremblay – and I heartily recommend adding it to your list.


We take turns suggesting books for our next meeting, and this one came with the very simple description of being “a novel about a man from Montreal who travels to Paris.” Imagine my surprise when the prologue establishes our hero as an aging drag queen! Édouard inherits a sum of money from his mother and decides to go to France to make his dream come true; he documents the ocean voyage as a journal to his sister-in-law, in lieu of letters.

Édouard’s homosexuality certainly crops up as a theme in his notes, but only a minor one, really. His struggles to meet someone are the same for everyone, no matter your preferences.

What really stood out to me was the difficulty he had with social class. His ticket to Paris was bought with a small inheritance, and clearly he could never have afforded it otherwise on his salary as a shoe salesman. I was thrilled when he went all out, opting for first class, to better study the habits of the highfalutin people he normally only interacted with by serving. In some ways, he enjoys it; in other ways, he doesn’t.

“On est toujours le nobody de quelqu’un d’autre!”

Besides wrestling with how to come across as “Kultured” to the upper-class women on board without being totally bored out of his skull, Édouard has to deal with the aggressive sexism of the men assigned to his first-class dining table. And that’s on top of all your standard culture shock issues.

Des nouvelles d’Édouard is full of laugh-out-loud one-liners. It was the most fun book I’ve read all year, truly.

I should warn you, this was a divisive selection for our club. Those of us who loved it had a lot of fun with it; others just didn’t connect with the author’s sarcasm or criticism of France. In case this one doesn’t sound quite like your cup of tea, keep in mind that Des nouvelles d’Édouard is 4th in a series of 6 semi-autobiographical novels by Michel Tremblay; each works fine as a stand-alone, and I hear the others are even better, and a bit different.

What good books have you picked up lately? What’s the last surprising thing you’ve read? Share in the comments below!


Recommended summer reading: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

Today’s summer reading recommendation comes from Corinne McKay, an ATA-certified French to English translator based in Boulder, Colorado and specializing in international development, legal and corporate communications translations and non-fiction books. You might already know her from her blog (now a book), Thoughts on Translation.

First, a confession: the major casualty of my career as a translator has been my lifelong love of reading. After reading and writing for work all day, I’m just overloaded with words, and I’d usually rather work in my garden, play a musical instrument or do yoga than look at another printed word. Unless I’m on vacation, the longest thing I generally read without getting paid for it is the New Yorker, and it takes me several evenings to get through those.

Oh, and one more thing: I hate fiction. There are so many interesting true stories out there…who needs the fake ones? Within the world of fiction, I have a particularly low tolerance for epic historical novels. Anything with a directory of characters and a timeline of events is something I don’t have the attention span for; just give me back my New Yorker already.

So, when I tell you that I am obsessed-nothing short of obsessed—with Hilary Mantel’s epic historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and I’m considering camping out at her house until she finishes the next in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, I mean that you need to read them right this red-hot second if you haven’t read them already.

Wolf Hall book cover

General plot line: England under Henry VIII, from Henry’s breakup with Katherine of Aragon through his marriage to Anne of Cleves, told from the point of view of Henry’s lawyer, Master Secretary and confidant, Thomas Cromwell. You’ve heard the story before, but never (never!) like this, because Hilary Mantel’s writing will leave you gasping for breath, even though you know how the thing ends. Here’s an example: while listening to the audio book of Bring Up the Bodies with my family during a road trip to Utah, we got to the section where Henry is knocked unconscious in a jousting contest, and for about 20 minutes everyone thinks he’s dead. I was driving, and I literally shouted at the narrator, “He’s not dead! Check for a heartbeat! He hasn’t even beheaded Anne Boleyn and married Jane Seymour!” See what I mean?

The obsession started when I heard Hilary Mantel interviewed on the NPR show Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She, Mantel, was everything I expected an epic historical novelist not to be. Dark, witty, self-deprecating, a little raunchy, a little anti-literary-establishment; joking that when she won the Booker prize for the second time (the only woman ever to do so, and there’s still another book to come in the trilogy!), she spent the money on “sex, drugs and rock and roll.”

She had me; I checked the audio version of Bring Up the Bodies out of the library, and my family listened through the entire 12 hour roundtrip drive to Utah and back. Then my husband and I had to take shifts finishing the print version (“You had it last night…give it to me and go wash the dishes”) and considered buying two copies of Wolf Hall to avert marital discord. We read/listened to the books in reverse order, which has its pluses and minuses. Plus: you don’t get that attached to your favorite characters—as a lute player, I developed a particular soft spot for the sweet and naïve lutenist Mark Smeaton—because most of them get executed or die of “the sweating sickness” in book two.

Bring up the Bodies book cover

Hilary Mantel has really converted me; I’ve come to realize that it takes a special skill to write a breathtakingly gripping book about a story that everyone already knows. I now feel like I understand this historical period, and thus the underpinnings of modern Europe, much more fully. It’s also been fascinating to learn the “stories behind the story,” and my husband and daughter and I have spent hours poring over Wikipedia entries about the characters in Mantel’s books. Did the Archbishop of Canterbury really have a secret wife?(Totally) Did people really call the newborn Princess Elizabeth “the ginger pig,” due to her red hair and homely appearance? (Likely) Was Henry VIII possibly the father of Anne Boleyn’s sister’s son Henry? (Yes…yikes!) And what was “the sweating sickness” anyway? (Probably a form of hanta virus) So thank you, Ms. Mantel, and if you see someone lurking outside your office window with binoculars, peering at the text of The Mirror and the Light (due out in 2015…but exactly when in 2015???) on your computer, it’s me!

Recommended summer reading: The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

alina-cincanToday’s summer reading recommendation comes from Alina Cincan, a former teacher, translator and interpreter with over 9 years’ experience, total language geek, avid reader, Managing Director at Inbox Translation.

When not writing on her own blog, she is writing on other people’s. Alina has a soft spot for sushi, books, shoes and make-up. You can get in touch on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

Asking me to write about books and reading usually leads to lots and lots of pages of relentless ranting (the relevant type, of course), but I’ll behave and try to keep it short and sweet.

As an avid reader who devours close to 150 books a year, you can imagine it’s not easy to pick one. But after giving it a thought, I decided to talk about the latest novel from one of my favourite authors. I’ve read all of Jodi Picoult’s books and loved them. The Storyteller was no different, and by that I mean it really had an impact on me.

Cover of The Storyteller

You know that feeling you have after you’ve read a good book? The lingering sensation that doesn’t let you pick up a new novel because you are still entrapped in the one you’ve just put down? The Storyteller is one of those books.

A dark Gothic fairy tale, a young baker with a scarred face and soul who has an affair with a married funeral director, the story of a Holocaust survivor – you may wonder how all these can be woven into the same novel. Beautifully, that’s how.

This is a book about intertwined destinies. It is a book about monsters, more about real ones hiding behind a human mask than the fantasy ones.

Sage Singer is a young baker who has chosen to work by night mainly because of a scar that covers half her face. She befriends a 95-year-old man, a former teacher of German, a pillar of the community who turns out to have plenty of skeletons in his closet. He is a former Nazi SS Guard at Auschwitz who is now looking for forgiveness and help to die from a Jew. While an atheist, Sage’s family is Jewish. Moreover, her paternal grandmother, Minka, is a Holocaust survivor, who has always been quiet about her life in the Auschwitz concentration camp and whose heart-wrenching story is central to the novel – this part will tug at your heart strings, will make you weep and feel grateful not to have lived all those horrors. Like Scheherazade, her story (the fantasy she writes about) keeps her alive, in more ways than one.

Though there isn’t a film yet based on ‘The Storyteller’ (I like to watch films inspired by books to compare), I can easily imagine one being made. Even while flipping the pages over (actually tapping my Kindle, but you get the idea), my imagination ran wild and it was like I was actually watching a film. I could see Sage’s scar, the upiór in Minka’s story, the horrors of the Holocaust.

But what this book does best is making you use all your senses – I could smell the freshly made bread baked by Minka’s father, I could taste the sweetness of the cinnamon and chocolate in the special roll he baked for his favourite daughter, I could feel the roughness of the makeshift bed in the concentration camp, I could hear the screams of the mothers whose children had been cruelly removed from their arms.

Would I recommend it? YES!!!

I’d like to share with you a quote that stuck with me:

The ones who were shot in the head left behind a mess, runnels of gray matter and foamy pink tissue, and now it was on my boot, caught in the treads, and I wondered what part of her mind that was – the power of language? Of movement? The memory of her first kiss or her favourite pet or the day she moved to the ghetto?

You can read an excerpt, listen to the author talking about the book in an interview on CNN and, quite a nice addition I’d say, find Minka’s recipes on Jodi Picoult’s website at http://www.jodipicoult.com/the-storyteller.html.

Have you read ‘The Storyteller’? Alina and I would love to hear what you think. Or maybe another of Jodi’s books? Alina also loved ‘The Pact’ and ‘My Sister’s Keeper’. Enjoy!

Inalienable Rights of Readers

I want to share Gretchen Rubin’s list of a reader’s inalienable rights. I’m sure I’ve shared them here before, but they’re worth sharing again.

Many of you have heard the advice “read often, daily” as a way to improve your professional skills. This is good advice… until it starts to become a burden. As a translator (or interpreter), words are your job. Your rent-payer. The bulk of your waking hours. But reading should never feel that way—even slogging through the most dull, monotonous, poorly written text, you should enjoy playing with the words. Laughing at the ineptitude, or piecing together an improvement, or enjoying the one little phrase the original author actually did well amongst the pile of… not so good ones.

You may not have all these rights when you’re working, but when office hours are over and you just want to relax, please remember:

  • You have the right to read “below your level.” Just because you like Dostoevsky doesn’t exclude you from reading Mary Higgins Clark.
  • You have the right to read comic books, wine labels, and stories from your source-language country’s version of People magazine and call it research (or not!).
  • You have the right to give your eyes a rest and go to the beach/golf course/local bar instead.

In short, keep it fun!

(To that end, an illustrated version of the reader’s rights, translated from Daniel Pennac’s French by Sarah Adams, is available here. Quentin Blake for the win!)

What other professional reader rights can you add to this list? What do you read for fun?

2014 summer reading suggestions

Just in case you didn’t find anything that piqued your interest in the comments from Tuesday’s open thread, here are some suggestions I’ve been collecting for the last month or so from colleagues around the world. Have you read any of these yet? What are your favorite books for summer?

Alina Cincan, Managing Director of translation agency

The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult (full review coming up!)

Corinne McKay, ATA-certified translator

Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, both by Hilary Mantel (full review coming up!)

Judy Jenner, entrepreneurial linguist and court interpreter

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Room, by Emma Donoghue—a book that leaves a long-lasting impression. Not for the faint of heart.

Lisa Carter, literary translator
A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki — fantastic writing, multi-faceted characters, two languages (Japanese and English) and two cultures (Japan and US) reflected

Living to Tell the Tale, by Gabriel García Márquez — after the great magical realist’s passing, it offers a glimpse into how he became the writer he was

Gwenydd Jones, translator and translator trainer
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig

My own favorites:

Joyland, by Stephen King—not as spooky or angry as most King novels, and guaranteed to remind you of part of your childhood/early adulthood summers at least once

The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller—brilliant. just fantastic read, especially if you like camping.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K LeGuin—reading a book about an ice-bound place is always a nice change in the heat of summer


What books do you recommend for relaxing with over the summer? Add your own titles in the comments!

On reading for pleasure

I have always loved escaping into a piece of fiction. It really helps me shake off the demands of the week and slip into weekend relaxation mode. A couple times a year, I even pull an all-nighter (something I never, ever do for work) to finish a book from cover to cover—just for the joy of it.

This month, we’re going to relax with some good books (just in time for summer vacations!). I’ve already talked about these:

And Virginie of Moustache Books recommended a number of great French reads in this interview.

What’s on your summer reading list? Recommend your own favorites below!

Business Plan in a Day {book review}

I’ve been struggling lately with keeping all my ideas, goals, dreams, and routines organized. There’s just too much to fit in my head!

After a lengthy hunt among online and print resources (most of which were way too woo-woo, and lacked concrete, do-this-now advice), I ran across Business Plan in a Day, by Rhonda Abrams. If you can ignore the shameless plugs by the publisher to visit their online resource store, you will get a lot of use out of this book.

Business Plan in a Day, by Rhonda Abrams

Business Plan in a Day is mainly designed for entrepreneurs who need to write up a summary of their whole business concept in order to seek funding. It’s OK if that’s not your goal—every entrepreneur out there will benefit from clarifying their mission and current situation. Abrams breaks down every aspect of doing business into bite-sized pieces and walks you through the process with basically a long questionnaire.

It totally works. In one afternoon, I had sketched out my entire money-making being from A to Z, minus some research that will take more time to compile. My company description, target market, competition, marketing and sales plan, operations, management, development, and financials—all demystified, and only about 2 typed pages long. It was pretty painless, identified the few holes in my previous attempts to get organized, and helped me focus my daydreaming about my future in freelancing.

If you feel like you’re floundering or stagnating in your business life, or have reached a wall blocking your next steps, Business Plan in a Day can help. It’s a no-nonsense, manageable guide to writing down everything you’ve been thinking but haven’t been able to put in words. No headaches involved.

What books, websites, or speakers do you turn to when you need less motivation and more action in your business life? How do you map out your career dreams?

Dahl’s Law Dictionary {book review}

I know that most translators rely more heavily upon internet-based resources (and why not? there are so many good sites out there!). However, hopefully this is not to the detriment of your bookshelves.

After hours staring at a screen, it can be a welcome break to flip through a tangible resource—not to mention that books published professionally, it being no inexpensive feat, are often vetted a bit better than websites before going to press.

The newest addition to my office library is Dahl’s Law Dictionary (3rd edition), by Henry Saint Dahl and Tamera Boudreau. In an incredible stroke of luck, I was able to give it a test run almost immediately with a lengthy new translation project.

Results? It’s an OK dictionary. I love that it has lengthier explanations of terms like biens corporels and mandat, for instance. It’s helpful to learn a bit more about the French system in an American context before making a choice about how to translate a phrase.

There are some noticeable absences, such as the seemingly dozens of different types of juges or avocats one can encounter in French law. Terms are grouped by type of law (criminal, family, property, etc.) in the front of the book, which could be useful for French-learning lawyers but is less useful for someone seeking out straightforward terminology answers.

That odd choice in use of print space is a bit frustrating when the more important, absent terms were left out in favor of non-law-specific terminology like discipline, fortune, and photocopie.

Dahl, a practicing lawyer, does recognize some of these shortcomings in his introduction:

I am well aware that many new volumes could be added to this book, and it could be endlessly supplemented with new words, phrases, and derivatives (xvi).

Still, for someone new to the legal field, lawyers wanting to extend their practice between France and the US (wine country practitioners, perhaps?), and current translators wanting a more thorough explanation of certain terms, this is a decent starter resource. You can learn a little more about the French system on every page.

The French-English version is available here, and there is a Spanish-English version available, too (now in its 4th edition).

What physical resources do you keep on hand in your translation space? Share your recommendations below!