Kristen Gehrman, Writer

October 4, 2015

Notes from International Translation Day 2015 at The British Library

wpid-2015-10-04-13.45.36.jpg.jpegOh what a day Friday was! What a day. I hopped a 45 minute flight across the Channel from Amsterdam for the annual International Translation Day conference at The British Library hosted by FreeWord, English Pen and my new favorite online circle, the Emerging Translator’s Network.  All about translating literature, the conference brought together a small crowd of literary translators, booksellers, publishers, editors and writers to talk frankly about translating books: what it means, how it happens and why it matters. I can only comment on the panels that I was able to attend, so any feedback from the other ones would be greatly appreciated in the comments!

Opening session: The Rise of the Reader

A stimulating conversation about what it means to be a “reader” in 2015– it turns out, despite all our tsk-tsking over the “digital native” generation, we are still growing up to be pretty good readers. And the thirst for high-quality literary content, not only from our own backyard, but also from faraway places is on the rise. For me, the most interesting part of the talk was not necessarily that the number of readers is climbing, but rather the evolution of what a “reading” actually is. The founder of The Pigeonhole online book club, made an excellent point when she said that yeah, sure you see people playing Candy Crush in the Tube, but if there are people who like playing phone games, there are also people who like books. If we can give those people a digital platform to interact with literary material online, we are essentially giving books, particularly lesser-known and translated works, a chance to go viral. Indeed, the digital rise of the reader is an incredibly GOOD thing for translated literature– people have more access than ever before to events around the world, fueling a curiosity for foreign literature. I also appreciated the tone set by an audience member who emphasized to great applause that literary translators ARE also writers. Maybe we don’t claim the story as our own, but we have the words and bi-cultural knowledge to tell it to a new audience. And a “story” isn’t a story if there are no words to tell it– literary translation is by nature “(re)writing.”

Session 1: Selling Translated Literature

It may be news to some (though certainly not to any of us) that people DO read books. After working for a few years at a small bookstore, I got used to customers patting themselves on the back for supporting the poor ole’ indie bookshop, as if they were the sole remaining member of a dying intellectual elite that still reads REAL books. Ha! Such is not the case–since moving to Amsterdam, I am overwhelmed by the bookstores in every language and the sheer number of people reading in public! This panel considered the fact that such a small percentage of books on the UK market (and US market, for that matter) are translated, so how do we promote and sell “foreign” literature? The message that I walked away with was that readers just like to read good books, and if a reader only reads in one language, they can only judge which books are good in that language. Same goes for publishers and editors. The question is not how do we sell translated literature, but how do we get good literature translated? In this sense, translators play a huge role in informing the industry which foreign books will sell to the target market.

Session 2: “Translator-Speak”: Literary Difference or Bad English?

This session was excellent, a major highlight in the conference for me. It began with a look at five passages from literary texts with the question, which ones are translated and which are originally written in English? The panelists, which included a publisher at Peirene Press, the editorial director at Granta (!!) and a well-established literary translator, were also in the dark over which were translated and which were not. It was enlightening to see how they thought through their guesses. For example, maybe a text reads like “bad English” on purpose in order to preserve a tone conveyed in the original version, or maybe an overly smooth text is a sign of a “normalized” translation that glosses over the beauty of the original. If a Turkish writer uses painfully long sentences, what is lost by chopping them up for the English reader? What is gained? There was a somewhat tense moment in the talk when an older audience member asserted that if a translator wants to be called a translator, than he or she must be 100% “faithful” to the original text, suggesting that anything else was sacrilege. One of the panelists countered by saying that a good translation is like a piece of glass that allows readers to peer into the story, even if they can’t walk right through the front door. As editors, they try to wipe away any smudges on that glass to give the clearest view to what’s inside. But this idea of being “faithful” to the original text in the word-by-word sense is not only impossible, it doesn’t necessarily correspond to the writer’s wishes. The greatest takeaway from this talk was that editors can be a translator’s greatest ally.

Closing Session: From Page to Stage

The conference closed with a WONDERFUL live-reading of scenes from two translated plays. The translators joined the actors on stage to talk about the translation process and take questions after the performance. The first scene, translated from Belarusian, depicted a triangle between two teenage girls and their P.E. teacher with whom they were both sleeping. It was a scenario that may translate as “unacceptable” in Western culture, but played out on stage, it seemed like a strikingly normal teenage experience. Given the mic, my question to the translator was about her choice of profanity (there was a lot!) in the English translation, particularly the frequent use of “wanker,” a word that definitely localized the scene in Britain. What other word could she have used? Did she try other ones? She stated that she chose the word that she did for the sake of rhythm, two-syllables suiting the dialogue better than one. The second scene was translated from French-Canadian, depicting an opposite trio of a woman and two men, one of whom was her husband and the other her neighbor who shows up to “console” her when her husband isn’t home. When the husband does come, a sort of mirroring dialogue takes place and the two men ending up switching roles, the husband heading back to the neighbor’s house to “get some peace” and the neighbor heading upstairs to the woman’s bed. The translator talked about translating, especially in Canada, as a political act, and one that can not be taken lightly. A good reminder that translation is more than converting language itself–like it or not, you take the whole culture, its history and representations, with it.

All in all, I was so impressed with the conference, which was definitely worth the flight (and 2 hour bus ride to and from Gatwick!). It was flawlessly organized, deliciously catered and completely inspiring. I look forward to attending again next year and keeping in touch with those I met this year.

September 23, 2015

Top 10 Common Language Mistakes in Academic Papers by ESL writers

I’ve corrected a lot of academic papers, like a lot. Sometimes it can be tedious, but I like correcting them actually, you get to learn about things you would otherwise probably never encounter. I’ve edited papers on Turkish environmental policy, teenage weight-loss, Sub-Saharan literature, valuing social media stocks, nuclear waste deposits, cement mixing, US lobbying network theory, crime and juvenile happiness, deciphering medieval codexes, the toddler’s brain on music, international migration policy, the list goes on…  I’ve also come to appreciate working with people in their most fragile state. At the end of a thesis, people are tired, stressed out and full of self-doubt. And on top of everything, they think their English is terrible and they are going to fail. With or without my help, this is probably not true, but I like knowing that my corrections are putting their mind at ease. After working months, sometimes years on a paper, it would be such a waste to hand it in with language mistakes!

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Here is my list of the Top 10 Most Common Language Mistakes that I find in academic papers written by non-native English-speakers. I’ll try to explain them without sounding like a grammar book.


1. the + plural noun (-s) vs. the + plural noun (no -s)

 Climate change is a source of anxiety, however the studies suggest that many of the facts are misconstrued. 

This is tricky. Basically, if the noun is plural and refers to a general group of things (i.e. “all studies in general”) then you don’t need “the.” If the plural noun implies something specific (i.e. “the facts specifically relating to climate change), then you use “the.”

2. adding plural (-s) when it’s not necessary

informations, datas, precipitations, phenomenas, researches, hairs – NO!

Look, I know it might seem plural. Obviously you are analyzing more than one piece of data and we know that in many languages (ahem, French), you have les informations, les recherches and les cheveux. But in English, these words are just understood to be plural. You don’t need the (-s). Sorry. I don’t make the rules.

3. verb + preposition confusion
increase/decrease in, adapted to, adopted by, related to, corresponds to, etc.

Think of English as a “directional” language, meaning that not only the verbs but also the direction they “move” in is very important, prepositions are important. The trouble is when they are arbitrary or abstract– why do “check on” and “check for” mean different things? Beats me. But here is a good dictionary of phrasal verbs.  Good luck :/

4. permit / allow + infinitive verb– NO!

a.) This permits to see the end result. NO!
This permits one to see the end result. YES.
b.) The examples allow to understand the data. NO!
The examples allow an understanding of the data. YES.

For some reason that I can’t explain, you just can’t follow permit and allow with an infinitive verb (to+verb). You always need a direct object! I’m looking at you Francophones, no you can’t say “permettre de comprendre” in English.
But if you really want to, here are two easy options a.) use “one” after the verb, this is a non-personal answer to the question “WHO is permitted/allowed?” or b.) nominalize the infinitive verb you want to use, “to understand” becomes “an understanding.”

5. that vs. which
a.) The results which that we see here are very interesting.
b.) The formulas, that which are based on trigonometric functions, are seen below.

Okay, here’s the easiest way to remember the difference: “that” = dependent information, meaning that you CAN’T remove from the sentence without changing its structure (no comma!), “which” = independent information, meaning that you CAN remove it from the sentence and you would still have a complete sentence (insert comma!).

6. Avoiding the apostrophe + S

a.) The research of Smith states that… (not wrong, but clumsy!)

b.) Smith’s research states that… (BETTER!)

c.) There is a difference between the opinion of Hess and this result. (clumsy!)

d.) Hess’s opinion differs from this result. (BETTER!)

e.) The problem of teenagers is marked by impulsivity. (clumsy!)

f.) The teenagers’ problem is marked by impulsivity. (YAY!)

People tend to avoid English genitive (‘s) like the plague, which is strange because it’s a really efficient little tool.  It’s easy to use and gives your sentences that English “to-the-point-ness” that everyone is always talking about.  Two rules: 1.) add an (‘s) to the end of the singular possessive noun (i.e. Smith’s), even if it ends in (s) already (i.e. Jones’s) and 2.) if the possessive noun is plural ending with an (s), put the apostrophe on the outside of the word (i.e. teenagers’)… I know it looks weird, just do it.

7. What’s with all the “HENCE”?

It’s a nice word I guess, but not all the time! There is something very formal and old-fashioned about it that rubs me the wrong way. Mix it up with some other connecting words like “therefore”, “thus”, and “consequently.”

While we’re on the topic, try starting sentences with connectors like “Furthermore, …” “In addition, …” “However, …” “In contrast,…” “As a result,…” “Nevertheless,…” and “Regardless,…” They are all very nice and want to be in your paper too!

8. Flat syntax, dependent vs. independent clauses

a.) We see that there is no change looking at the model. (not wrong, but kinda flat)

b.) Looking at the model, we see that there is no change. (Better, draws attention directly to the model).

c.) There was no evidence of change given the timeframe(not wrong, but kinda flat)

d.) Given the timeframe, there was no evidence of change (Better, draws attention directly to the timeframe).

Beginning a sentence with a dependent clause (a.k.a the non-main part of the sentence) followed by a comma, makes it more dynamic. It draws attention to the focus of the sentence and makes your ideas flow more clearly.

9. Unclear pronouns –  HE/SHE/THEY/IT 

a.) We notice that these results correspond to the previously suggested hypothesis, where he states that …” (Who exactly is HE? Better to state his name to avoid confusion)

b.) The direction of the wind indicate certain weather conditions it is going to be forecast.  (What is IT exactly? the wind, the weather conditions… not clear) 

I write this comment all the time– “What is IT?” “Who is HE?” “Who are THEY?”…. If you are going to replace a noun with he/she/they/it,  you must be 100% clear on the noun that you are referring to. On a side note, I know you know this already, but in English, inanimate objects can’t be a HE or SHE, objects are always IT.

10. Adverb placement

a.) There have been recorded occurrences of this case never. (not wrong, but clumsy)

b.) There have never been recorded occurrences of this case. (YES)

c.) It is not known yet how long it will take. (not wrong, but clumsy)

d.) It is not yet known how long it will take. (YES)

e.) The data is inconsistent with the former result curiously. (awkward.)

f.) The data is curiously inconsistent with the former result. (BETTER)


g.) Curiously, the data is inconsistent with the former result. (you can put the -ly adverb at the front of the sentence with a comma if you want to emphasize it).

As a general rule, adverbs follow the conjugated verb. Oops, I sound like a grammar book. Okay, how to say this…What I mean is that words that describe the verb (never, always, yet, often, etc.) are placed directly after the verb they describe… not after the whole verb phrase, but after the conjugated piece (i.e.  they have never been NOT have been never). Same goes for adverbs ending in -ly (occasionally, simply, basically, interestingly).

August 16, 2015

The Task of the Translator


“For this very reason translation must in large measure refrain from wanting to communicate something, from rendering the sense, and in this the original is important to it only insofar as it has already relieved the translator and his translation of the effort of assembling and expressing what is to be conveyed…On the other hand, as regards the meaning, the language of a translation can – in fact, must – let itself go, so that it gives voice to the intentio of the original not as reproduction but as harmony, as a supplement to the language in which it expresses itself, as its own kind of intentio. Therefore it is not the highest praise of a translation, particularly in the age of its origin, to say that it reads as if it had originally been written in that language. Rather, the significance of fidelity as ensured by literalness is that the work reflects the great longing for linguistic complementation.
A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium to shine upon the original all the more fully. This may be achieved, above all, by a literal rendering of the syntax which proves words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator. For if the sentence is the wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade.”

-Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” first printed as an introduction to a Baudelaire translation (1923)

July 21, 2015

Paris: A Little List of Favorites


We’ve been getting to know Paris. And what can I say, we like it. We really really like it. If you push through the tourist streets as fast as you can (we ding ding ding that Velib bell Amsterdam-style), its a surprisingly liveable city. We’ve settled into a routine: By day, I work at the Sorbonne and Friso goes to French class. Evenings and weekends, we wander the streets to see what we can find. Here are some of the gems we’ve come upon:


Parc de la Villette

Friso knew this park from architecture school, where he had to render one of the red pavillons as his very first assignment. Formerly home to the meat slaughtering houses, it’s ironic that our first visit there was to celebrate the international day of yoga with three thousand other people. The park is a kind of a playground for grown-ups, centered around a grand pavillon with a myriad of nature trails, zip lines, fountains, canals, streams, and even an elevated running track. There is a charming little bookshop in the center and a great view of Jean Nouvel’s metal-weaving masterpiece, the Philharmonie de Paris. We were lucky enough to be there on the Fête de la Musique, a French  national holiday to celebrate all kinds of music. The park hosted ballroom dancing in the pavillon, a military band by the fountain, a drum core in the grass, and a free performance of Beethovan’s 9th in the concert hall.



La Fondation Louis Vuitton

This little-known museum, which just opened this year, is a Frank Gehry masterpiece. Located on the northern side of the Bois de Boulogne, it hosts an impressive collection of expressionist and contemplative art. Made of glass and steel, it appears to be floating in a black water basin giving the feeling of being between the sails of a ship. A walk through the museum collections passes up and down the many levels and terraces, blurring the distinction between inside and outside space.


Chez Marianne

The Google reviews in English call Chez Marianne “dirty”, “cramped”, “bad service”, but in French, everyone seems to insist that it’s absolutely “magnifique!”. We agree with the French….just goes to show a lack of understanding of the table parisienne. We stumbled on this place while walking through Le Marais district around lunch time, just before I had to catch my train to Lausanne for my thesis defense. It felt right to have a sort of “last meal.” Chez Marianne serves up Greek-style cuisine with a French twist. For 15 euros per person, you get an enormous (like too big to eat) plate of 10 items of your choice off the menu: rice-filled grape leaves, spanakopita, filled mushrooms, spicy meatballs, fish eggs, pickled beets and my all-time favorite comfort food, roasted eggplant spread.


Palais de Tokyo

A contemporary art museum featuring large scale installations, the Palais de Tokyo is not to be missed! When I say large-scale, I’m talking a whole floor of the museum filled with water that you have to paddle through in a boat, conceived by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. We also really really liked the fresh voice of Thailand artist, Korakrit Arunanonchai who walks you through several rooms drenched in gallons paint to a super video installation at the end. The other cool thing about this museum is that its open until midnight with its terrace hopping until well after.


Jardin de Luxembourg

Somehow we ended many days in the Jardin de Luxembourg over a glass of wine. This photo was taken on F’s birthday, so we made it a bottle. In addition to premium people watching–lovers, pipe smokers, dog walkers, drunkards, selfie sticks, anarchists, you name it — the garden’s history also conjures up a certain romanticism. The palace was built by Marie de Medici, widow of French king Henri IV, in 1611 as an imitation of her home in Florence, the Pitti Palace. She also built the Medici fountain, the coziest corner of the park. Much later it was the headquarters for the Nazis during the Occupation.


Musée des arts et métiers 

Last March we took a few kids to the Science Center NEMO in Amsterdam. In a word, it was HORRIBLE! Jam-packed with people and a brouhaha of water falls, whistles, bangs, lasers and dirty diapers, we were disgusted with what the idea of a “Science” museum has become. But the Musée des arts et métiers is the complete opposite! A dusty emporium of wooden models, flying machines, gears and pendulums, miniature cities, and wooden glass cases full of nostalgic oddities, this museum represents the childhood that children want to have. We were pleasantly surprised to find the museum almost empty, it’s a wonderful place that deserves many more visitors, particularly children.


La Cachette 

At the last minute, we changed our birthday dinner plans and opted for this little bistro in the 13th, La Cachette. It was the perfect place for our fête! They offered us a long wooden dining table (we were a group of 14!) in the center of the tiny restaurant and let us roam and mingle as we pleased. The menu was just the right price–5-10€ starters and 15-20€ plats. The salmon mousse and braised duck were delicious!


Théâtre National de Chaillot

This theater of contemporary dance is located at Trocadéro, right across from the Eiffel Tower, and hosts dance companies from all over the world. We had the enormous pleasure of seeing José Montalvo’s spectacle, an elegant mix of tango, hip-hop and Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps. After the show, you can have a drink overlooking the Eiffel Tower just as the sparkling lights come on in what was the site of United Nation’s signing of the Declaration of International Human Rights in 1948.


Vietnamese Restaurants at Tolbiac 

It was our landlord who told us that we HAD to take the metro to Tolbiac for Vietnamese. And oh my was he right! For a few euros you can enjoy a whopping bowl of pork and noodles with fresh mint on the sidewalk, served up by any of the many Vietnamese joints. When you exit the metro at Tolbiac, head left for a few blocks, you will start seeing them…

Chez Geroud

We found this little corner resto while strolling through the 16th one evening and made a note to come back. It was our one splurge on fine dining all summer, but we made it count. This place has all of the brassy charm of a chic old-world Parisian bistro with the added plus of good service in a (relatively) quiet setting. I had the Dorade and almost cried when I ate it. Slow-baked rice caramel pudding for dessert– oh mon dieu!


La Comédie Française

We saw a lot of theatre in Paris (and even the Opera Alceste at the Opera Garnier – picture above), but the most memorable evening was at the Théâtre Vieux-Colombier with La Comédie Française. While working at the Sorbonne, I had been translating an article about Georges Feydeau,  a French absurdist playwright from the Belle Epoque that I had never heard of. Then I saw that one of his comedies, Le Système Ribaudier, was playing so I booked two student tickets (only 12 €!) It was theater at its absolute finest! The cast, including a little white dog, was snap snap snap with every word, gesture, pause. We laughed and laughed and laughed. Who knew how hilarious (and scandalous!) turn-of-the-Century France was.


Along the Seine

And it goes without saying that there are always summer nights along the Seine. When the bars are too pricey and the streets are too busy, you can always hang your feet over the edge and pass a bottle of bubbly down the line. In June there was an art installation (by a Dutch group, go figure) called City Camping Les Berges. You could reserve your own “campsite” along the water for free and enjoy a day picnic in an orange submarine shelter or a decked out shipping container, complete with BBQ equipment and reading corners.

July 17, 2015

Master’s thesis

It seems right that I say something about my thesis, at least more than “Bref c’est fini.” It’s been almost a month since my defense, and I’m finally able to digest the experience. I did it. It’s done. The thing I wanted to do for years, move to Switzerland and do a Masters degree, I did it. My hands trembled as I handed over the thumb drive to the lady with the spiky purple hair in the printshop outside the Sorbonne. The shop was quiet save for one homeless man helping himself to the free stapler to patch together his masterpiece of collected paper. The lady smacked her gum and asked me what paper I wanted (“Paper? I’m putting all this thing on paper?!”) and she clicked PRINT. Just like that, it came out of the machine. If I look like an overwhelmed mother holding a new baby in this picture, it’s because I was.


I don’t like to dwell on the fact that I wrote it in French, because students all over the world are writing their thesis in a non-native language, namely English. But it was over 100 pages long, and yes I wrote it in French, which made it harder. At times, I felt like the language was controlling my research, that it dominated the way I thought about things, translated things, made things (in)comprehensible. Sometimes I had trouble saying what I wanted to say, sometimes I said things I didn’t really want to say. It can be hard to get to the point in French.

Over the course of a year, I interrogated 22 people from highly diverse language backgrounds on their lexical and morphological production in French. These people were all multi-lingual students in English-speaking academic programs at the University of Lausanne who were learning French at a beginner to low intermediate level. In short, I was trying to see if English played a role in their French production, either as a shared or globalized language.


Here is my title abstract, for those interested (otherwise just skip to my paraphrase below):

Parler “franglais”: L’influence de l’anglais en tant que langue partagée et langue “mondialisée dans la production débutante en français

Cette étude examine l’influence de l’anglais L2 dans la production lexicale en français par le moyen d’un échantillon de 22 informateurs de diverses L1. Étant tous étudiants dans des programmes académiques enseignés en anglais sur un campus francophone, je pars de l’hypothèse qu’ils utilisent leur maîtrise de cette langue pour combler les lacunes dans leurs connaissances partielles du français. Leur production en français est considérée dans une perspective quantitative et qualitative : d’abord sur un test écrit de la morphologie dérivationnelle, ensuite dans une conversation orale. Selon mon analyse, l’anglais joue un rôle particulier dans leur production et leur perception, non seulement en tant que langue partagée et « mondialisée », mais aussi comme une langue porteuse de mots et de morphèmes qu’ils jugent apparentés.

This study examines the influence of English L2 in the lexical production of French by looking at a sample of 22 subjects of diverse L1s. Since they are all students in academic programs taught in English on a French-speaking campus, I hypothesize that they will use their English proficiency to fill in the gaps in their partial knowledge of French. Their production in French is considered from both a quantitative and qualitative perspective: first on a written test of derivational morphology, second in an oral conversation. According to my analysis, English plays a particular role in their production and perception, not only as a shared and « globalized » language, but also as one containing seemingly cognate words and morphemes.


I found that English as a second language does play a role in the production of French as a third language, but not exactly in the way that I expected. Researchers used to call this linguistic interference, and it was seen as a negative thing (Anyone out there have a strict language teacher who insisted on “French-only” classroom?). Now research tends to look at how these interferences are useful. Matras 2009:74 calls them « enabling factors that allow language users to create bridges among different subsets within their overall repertoire of linguistic forms, and to use these bridges to sustain communication. »

So basically, people use whatever tools they have to fill in gaps when they are trying to speak a language that they don’t know very well. Whether this be gestures, borrowed words, “invented words”… anything to get through the sentence. And not surprisingly, given that English was often a shared language among my subjects, they appropriated English words in to their French, in other words to “franglicize” them. But being able to do this has a lot to do with perception of linguistic typology and transferability:  Which languages are “close” to French? How does one decide which words, English or otherwise, can potentially be transformed into French?What are the limits to a comprehensible French word?

It was a fascinating study to say the least, one that allowed me to talk with many people about something we all had in common, language learning. I’m not sure if I made any groundbreaking scientific claims, but I did learn a lot about my own role as a researcher and the power of language representation. I had my defense on July 10. It went well. It was very difficult — tough questions, sharp criticism, and even a moment of tears — but in the end, I received a very good grade. Funny thing though, after twenty years of education, twenty years of making “very good grades”, the number didn’t seem so important. It was more the sense of just having done it, having done the thing that I left my cozy life in Charleston to do, not because I was supposed to or expected to, but because I wanted to. I walked out of the room overwhelmed with gratitude, not only for the Masters program, but for all of the day-to-day things that made up my two years in Lausanne.