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!


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!

Little-big cultural differences

feet vs meters = culture clash

It’s always fun to hear of the tiny, non-serious quibbles one cultural group has about another. Particularly if you’re watching the clash unfold in person. The looks of confusion on both sets of faces is priceless! And they’re good reminders to never take yourself, or your habits and expectations, too seriously.

These are some of my recent favorites:

  • Hungarian women at the Folklife Festival were horrified by how pale the yolks were in the eggs they used for cooking demonstrations. And don’t even get me started on the potatoes… Inferior! (I had never thought about potatoes that way before… have you?)
  • When I interned at a small tech office near Paris, my coworkers considered it of monumental importance that everyone take a minimum one-hour lunch, preferably together. With cocktails. Have you ever tried the same experiment in the States? Heathen hedonist!
  • A non-American mother was incredibly confused about why her son should write anything during his American high school gym class. Writing’s not a sport… right?
  • Here in my own home, my DC-native husband has had a fun time adjusting to the California lifestyle. Driving à la DC is a particularly difficult habit to drop. Myself, I’m just getting used to the emphasis on meat-and-beer menus. Who would have expected that in Cali?!

What minor culture clashes have you experienced recently? Share your own examples in the comments!

Upcoming CPD: A Numbers-Based Guide to Where FR-EN Translations Go Wrong

The Northern California Translators Association is kicking off its new webinar series with a class by David Jemielity on financial translations. Join him on January 23, 2014 at 9am (GMT-8; PST) to learn what makes financial translations sound authentic—and where they go wrong.

Registration is available here. If you can’t attend in person, the recorded webinar will be available to registrants for 90 days after the air date.

Startups in Europe, or Paris v. Budapest

LeWeb Paris 2013

This article about Xavier Niel and the current LeWeb conference recently caught my attention, because to me it signals a new fight between Paris and Budapest. Which capital city will also claim the title of startup capital of Europe?

Way back in June, I sat in on a talk with the Hungarian Minister of State for Economic Strategy, Mr. Zoltán Cséfalvay. (You can watch the hour-long discussion here.) He explained that the goal of current economic policy in Hungary is to entice companies to set up shop in Budapest and other major Hungarian cities. Incubators and helpful legislation make it a low-cost environment for young businesses—not to mention that Hungarians are some of the best educated people around.

This is incredibly important to Hungary for broader political reasons. IMF and EU pressure on the nation was only recently lifted, once the budget deficit dropped below the 3% threshold; Hungary only managed to make that happen through some tricky, one-time-use maneuvers and severe austerity measures. In order to stay under that 3% threshold, the nation will have to increase its income. Expenses have already been slashed to the bare necessities.

So, in one corner, we have a nation as a whole that has been vying for position as startup-company leader—and sees the status as an only-hope kind of deal. In the other corner, we have France, already “the fifth-largest economy in the world” (according to Niel, as quoted here), trying to stay that way through the efforts of a few companies and billionaires.

plant sprouting from coins

If I had any money to bet, I’d be backing Hungary. The Central European nation has a history of producing talented science and technology innovators, whereas in Western Europe they are scrambling to train people to fill current positions. It offers lower-cost options for location, production, and staff than a Euro-based nation can. And it’s more invested in the startups’ successes, because of the immediate benefits that could have for the nation as a whole.

What do you think? Have you heard much about the Hungarian startup scene? Or the French one? Will having a “startup capital” benefit new companies?

Spotlight on: Gilles de Rais

Happy Halloween, everyone! In honor of the spooky celebrations, I want to share a spooky (but real!) story about a Frenchman named Gilles de Rais. Are you ready? If you are faint of heart or in the mood for something more innocent, you may exit the haunted ride now.

Gilles de Rais portrait

Gilles de Rais was born in 1404/5 in Anjou, France to wealthy landholders. He married Catherine de Thouars in his teens, effectively becoming one of the richest men in Europe. He worked hard and he played hard: when he wasn’t fighting (for the Duchy of Brittany, in the Hundred Years War, alongside Jean d’Arc…), he reportedly entertained even more lavishly than the French king’s court. But that was not the sum of Gilles’ personality.

Everyone knew that he was notoriously extravagant, having neither sense nor understanding, since in effect his senses were often altered, and often he left very early in the morning and wandered all alone in the streets, and when someone pointed out to him that this was not fitting, he responded more in the manner of a fool and a madman than anything else. (source)

De Rais’ dark side was even blacker than what he showed in battle and more unusual than what people saw in the streets. By the 1430’s, after his family secured a royal order prohibiting further sale of estate property and land, de Rais had turned to the occult and alchemy to fund his expensive lifestyle. He brought demon summoners and others to his court to further his knowledge of Satanism. Then, children began to go missing…

By September 1440, de Rais was brought to trial for his occult practices, and worse. During his practice of the dark arts, he is said to have abducted, tortured, and killed up to 150 boys and girls (the count ranges between 30 and 150). Sources disagree as to the results of the trial: some say he confessed to the civil crimes under torture, or to avoid torture, and others say he refused to comment on the heresy charges until threatened with excommunication. This has led some modern historians to question his guilt altogether. Ultimately, he was hanged for his crimes in late October of 1440.

You probably already knew something of this infamous Frenchman. His life is said to have inspired the famous tale of Bluebeard, recorded by the brothers Grimm and in the French collection of Mother Goose’s Tales. Spooky!

For further reading:

Bluebeard Tales from Around the World (book)

The Trial of Gilles de Rais (book)


So Long a Letter

So Long a Letter, English cover

I’m back! Thanks for your patience while I finished packing, unpacking, and taking care of the many little things involved in a cross-country move.

During those couple weeks without an office or much internet, I took great pleasure in diving back into my ever-growing stack of must-read paperback books. One of the first on my list was So Long a Letter, written by Mariama Bâ in 1979, as translated by Modupé Bodé-Thomas.

I received a copy of So Long a Letter (Une si longue lettre, in the original French) in a books-in-translation exchange hosted a few months ago by the National Capital Area Translators Association. A young literary translator brought it, having thoroughly enjoyed the text while in a college course. I can see why she liked it so much!

Bâ offers a unique view into the private world of a Senegalese woman whose life holds quite a few twists. With the “background” of her husband, a Senegalese nationalist, helping the country break from colonial rule, the protagonist, Ramatoulaye, must adjust as he also breaks from her—choosing a young girl as a second wife and ultimately abandoning his first. While Senegal learns how to live without colonial powers, Ramatoulaye learns how to live without a husband in a culture in which that is not the norm.

Though a short read, So Long a Letter is packed with cultural details unique to Senegal, as well as pure universal human emotion. Modupé Bodé-Thomas produced an elegant translation, balancing lengthier, poetic French-like sentences with shorter punctuations more in keeping with English-language style. It is an engrossing tale. I recommend it for anyone interested in African politics or culture, feminism, family dynamics, or children’s rights—there’s something in this for almost anyone. Happy reading!

What books have you read in translation recently? Have you read this African text yet? What did you think about it?

Vive la rentrée!

Do you ever catch yourself getting excited about the new school year, years after graduating? To me, la rentrée (French for the return from summer, in the northern hemisphere) is just as exciting, if not more so, than the new year. Cooler weather means longer walks outdoors. Changing leaves. Apple cider. And, often, new purchases.

autumn leaves

This fall, I’ve been thinking about making my office space more cozy. No more hand-me-down desk and chair from my husband’s work-at-home days. I want an armoire like this so I can really truly pack work away when I’m done for the day. I’d love a cushy swivel chair, too. I’m in my office quite a lot. Why not pick things that are practical and pretty?

Besides these larger changes, I’ve also resolved to sort through my old papers to organize the keepers and finally toss the scraps. Sort of like a spring clean, but wrong season. This will make room for business cards, flyers, and notes from upcoming university events I might want to attend. Now is the time to plan for continuing education!

What are your autumn rituals? How do your work habits change over the year?


Reminder: You still have until midnight tonight to enter my anniversary giveaway! I’ll post the results tomorrow.

Interview with an expert: Virginie “Moustache”

Moustache Books logo

Virginie, or “Madame Moustache,” is the French brains behind US-based Moustache Books, a great resource for buying affordable French literature in North America. I first mentioned her bookstore on this list of sellers. Now, Virginie is here to share a little bit more about her shop and procuring non-English books for sale in the US.

So, tell us a bit about yourself, Virginie!

I come from Toulouse, in the southwest of France. I studied literature and theater there, then I continued my theater education in Paris. Alongside my studies, I worked for several years in bookshops and editing, which I’ve always loved. After having spent some time in Central Europe teaching French literature and language, I decided to return to bookselling. This decision corresponds to my arrival in the United States 7 years ago, in San Francisco to be exact. But I only picked back up with book selling when I arrived in New York four years ago.

What made you want to run a bookshop? Why “Moustache” Books?

The year I came to New York, the Librairie de France in Rockefeller Center had just closed its doors. This was the only source for French-language books in New York. With my desire to one day open a bookshop in mind, I said to myself that it was a good time for it (or maybe a bad one? after all, it might not be a good idea to open a bookstore when all the other ones are closing…).

At first I wanted to open a real bookstore, with windows, bookshelves, walls… an actual store, you know? But the exhorbitant prices in NYC quickly discouraged me. I found work as manager of French stock in a bookstore in the Upper West Side and I learned about the American market for two years. Then I became pregnant, and I made use of my pregnancy to set up Moustache Books: the idea was to start by selling over the Internet only, and to see where that would take me…

Why Moustache? Because it’s so France! (well, especially our policemen). And since it’s a name that people can remember easily, and it works just as well in English as in French.

Who is your typical customer? Do many Americans buy foreign-language books?

The majority of my clients are Americans who read in French. Their language levels differ. There are quite a few French, too, who contact us, but most French people have their “things,” their network for finding books, like having them sent from France by their friends or family, or filling a suitcase when they go there.

What makes Moustache Books work is schools with bilingual programs, French departments at universities, and book clubs. We also work with French institutions here in the United States, like the consulate, some Alliance Française chapters, and Lycées Français.

Lastly, we have a special-order service through which we offer to order books that are difficult to find.

How do you learn about new books that your customers may like? How do you decide what to stock?

My selections are made in part as a function of what I like, and I also try to offer authors who are not super-well-known in the United States. American readers always hear about the same French authors, who have influential press here—these authors are of course available here, but I try to vary it a little and to draw people towards other texts. It doesn’t always work, but it is important to me that my selection reflect upon me somehow as a reader. I don’t just want to sell for selling’s sake, I want to try to really do some real work as a bookstore; as an advisor. This isn’t very obvious when one doesn’t have a “real” store, but we’ll get there!

What are your favorite aspects of running your store? What makes it worthwhile?

Advising readers, discussing books with my clients, even if it’s usually by email, it’s what I like. And for me, being able to get to know talented authors, books that change people, it’s a real privilege. I would just like to have a little more time for Moustache Books: I take care of my two-year-old son almost full time (and I wouldn’t want it another way), so sometimes I’m a bit preoccupied by things other than Flaubert and Houellebecq. But for now I’m able to manage the two.

Another thing I like a lot is participating in festivals and meetings with French authors in New York. That’s the time when I get to know readers and further discuss things.

What’s your favorite French book? Who is your favorite author of any nationality? Why?

Hmmm.. that’s tough to answer. All I can say is that lately, the book that has left the greatest impression is a novel by Pascal Quignard, ‘Les solidarités mystérieuses’ published by Gallimard in 2011. Both poetic and understated, it’s a book that uses little to say a lot about relationships between people, and that expresses in an incredibly balanced way the emptiness one can feel, but also the abundance, all in suggestions… All that planted amidst a mind-bogglingly honest Breton setting. I am not a huge fan of Quignard in general, but this one really took my breath away.

Now, the author that changed my life is not French, it’s Henry Miller with his Sexus, Nexus, Plexus trilogy. I was 18 years old when I read it and my whole universe opened up all at once.

There’s also Louis Calaferte, with ‘Septentrion.’ An autobiographical book of uncommon majesty.

Are there any up-and-coming authors we should look for in particular?

Cécile Guilbert, François Beaune, Stéphane Legrand

What else would you like to say about entrepreneurship, selling books, or life in general?

I could not be happier. While waiting for Moustache Books to develop a bit more and for my son to grow up, in those tough moments when I feel like nothing is working, I simply think of Henry Miller and the formidable appetite for life that he can inspire, and everything seems much easier.

What an inspiring thought, Virginie! Thanks so much for sharing your passion for literature and the business of books. I see so many similarities between your work in words and my own. Good luck growing!

Readers, be sure to check out Virginie’s virtual store, Moustache Books. She really does have a great, unusual mix of authors and formats. You can also check out her blog, French Book Notes. Who have you read lately?