Kristen Gehrman, Writer

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.

July 13, 2015

City of Light

wpid-20150612_215711.jpgAt Trocadero last night there was a police raid.

The men– and they are all men– who sell the little Eiffel Towers on a ring, who don’t smile who don’t sing, they were not the problem tonight. It’s the new guys, from a different part of the world, with their plastic buckets full of glass bottles.”Ice Cold Ice Cold Fresh Fresh Fresh,” they are the new kind of not supposed to be here. The police run in, the men run out. Plastic buckets drop, bottles smash to the pavement, champagne sprays across the Avenue de New York like a New Years toast. The men disappear into the park across the street, to the safe spot they have been eyeing over their shoulder all day. The police stop three lanes of traffic to sweep up the glass, then drive away in an empty van. On the other side of the river, the men have already refilled their buckets, back to selling their wares.

The locks are coming down you know, the ones that people lock on bridges. The bridges are held up by Greek gods with brawny arms, angels blaring trumpets who can not hold up the weight of all that love anymore. The bottom of the river is rusted over in keys. Those locks for lovers, are also for mothers, brothers, daughters, anyone who has loved another. Or anyone with a camera, which is everyone in fact. Everyone who wants to lock themselves to something, or take a picture of themselves locking themselves to something that is not themselves. Because the locks feel like forever, more forever than now, which feels like nothing at all.

So take your children to the Musée d’Orsay and teach them to appreciate art. Give them the iPad and have them take pictures of the art. Take pictures of the descriptions of the art. Take pictures of the name of the artist who made the art which is written on the description of the art. Take pictures of the children in front of the art, a picture of the whole family in front of the art. Especially the art that you’ve seen before in a picture of the art. Everyone learning to appreciate art.

Paris is being eaten up — grain by grain, salt for salt, lick for lick–  in camera clicks and selfie sticks.  On top a girl from far away twirls and twirls and twirls, red dress, yellow dress, black dress– she changes clothes in the van parked at the end of the street. The photographer she paid, who speaks her language, which is not French, clicks and clicks and clicks. One guy holds the light, another guy holds another light, the van driver smokes cigarette after cigarette. The scene repeats, this girl leaves, another girl comes, on the other side of the bridge another one comes.

All I’m trying to say is that photographers experimented with the first selfies 150 years ago using mirrors. One mirror and another mirror, a mirror of a mirror used to take a picture of yourself in a mirror. Today we don’t seem to need mirrors. Only timers and sticks to walk around an entire city on one steady click. Because it’s not enough to visit the city anymore, the city must be possessed. The only mirrors are the carousels that turn for wedding portraits while children are pushed around in strollers behind screens.

July 9, 2015

Editing the Revue Palimpsestes


At the Sorbonne, I’ve been helping with the online publication of Palimpsestes: Revue de Traduction. Reading articles on literary translation is hardly a chore for me and in the process I’ve come across some fascinating research. Like Richard Nice’s “Myths, Loose fits and Near Misses” (1991)– I love the way he explains the delicate translation of mise en x phrases, a particularly French expression that is always tricky in English:

“If I talk in English now, I am struck by a first and quite revealing difficulty : how to translate mise en relief.

Foregrounding, highlighting… ? Already one might feel that the English metaphors are still live metaphors, that they lack the abstract quality of mise en relief, and that in some contexts this metaphorical vitality might be unwanted, a distracting and irrelevant mise en relief. For other contributors, the phrase mise en relief is perhaps a starting point in the sense that it is a signpost, defining a theme, naming a reality that can be discussed in some aspect of its specificity. But because for me the syntagm mise en relief is first of all a perfect instance of the syntactic and semantic difficulties that cause me most trouble in translating from French, I shall take the problems of the signifier as a route into discussion of the problem it signifies. The article that I shall discuss happens to ‘highlight’ some of these very problems and functions as a kind of… mise en abyme.” 

(Richard Nice, « Myths, Loose Fits and Near Misses  », Palimpsestes [En ligne], 5 | 1991)


Speaking of the difficulty in translating metaphors, have you seen the University of Glasgow’s new metaphor map? They have built this amazing tool to conceptualize metaphors over time, stemming from the belief that the metaphor is at the very heart of how we visualise and understand the world around us:

Metaphor is fundamental to the ways in which we conceptualise and articulate even seemingly basic concepts. We talk about the mind as if it were a container for ideas, which can be placed in there or taken out and passed to others. We talk about our lives as if they were journeys with milestones, obstacles and end points. In fact it is difficult to talk about abstract ideas at all without using vocabulary from another area. When we talk about ‘a healthy economy’ or ‘a clear argument’ we are using expressions that imply the mapping of one domain of experience (e.g. medicine, sight) onto another (e.g. finance, perception). When we describe an argument in terms of warfare or destruction (‘he demolished my case’), we may be saying something about the society we live in. Metaphor, then, might have an effect on the ways in which people understand the world around them: if immigration is presented in terms of a flow of water by the media (e.g. as a wave or as a flood) then this may predispose people to think about this issue in a particular way.