Kristen Gehrman, Writer

April 18, 2015

Lausanne Levels

Yesterday, I was walking home along a tulip-lined boulevard through a wealthy neighborhood–the kind of quartier where the roof of one house is the garden of the next, houses and gardens stacked like blocks. Lausanne is a city of levels. Before moving to this neighborhood, I lived on a lower level where pink-lipped prostitutes turned tricks after hours. Up here, the neighborhood circles around a charcuterie, boulangerie, horlogerie, bijouterie, pâtisserie, the whole famille of -eries. It’s a high level kind of place. From up here, you can look down across the lake at night and see the yellow lights of France.

Lausanne is an up and down city, built on steep terrain that probably should have never been built on in the first place. Hills, valleys, tunnels, staircases, elevators, bridges and bridges and towers. Lake views are for the rich, shadows for the poor. Everyone seems to know their place.




Trying to navigate Lausanne by map is nearly impossible, for two roads that cross on paper are likely to span two or three levels in the city. Getting from A to B is a matter of finding the right passerelle, the right staircase. The city center is a straight hike up from the train station, the cathedral reigns over the old university library. Below is the market square which trickles down to the commercial center, built on a former river that was filled with concrete around the turn of the Century.









One of my friends once described it as a city coiled up on itself. It’s complicated. It’s cramped. But you get used to it. Some days, the tightness feels almost homey.

March 29, 2015

Translating Street Photography

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 10.01.05 AM

“Finestra” by Hakim Boulouiz

I’ve been doing a lot of translating lately. Mostly little projects here and there, but a few bigger ones. One of my favorite recent projects was for award-winning Geneva street photographer Hakim Boulouiz.  He asked me to translate a few of his articles on the art of street photography. His metaphorical style and creative perspective were a nice break from software functions and real estate. Here is a little excerpt of my (our) work:


One of the first lessons in photography comes from the famous quote from photographer and ecologist, Ansel Adams, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” This magic formula applies to all facets of photography without exception. As soon as we start talking about the “photographic intervention,” we have to question composition, choice, selection—whether to accentuate certain elements or to do away with distractions as we seek to create an impact for the eye and heart.


Un des premiers enseignements de la photographie concerne la fameuse citation du photographe et écologiste Ansel Adam « You don’t take a photograph, you make it ». Cette formule magique s’applique, en définitive, à toutes les spécialités sans exception. Dès qu’il s’agit « d’intervention photographique », il est question de composition, de choix, de sélection, d’accentuation d’éléments ou d’écartement de parasites à la recherche d’un impact pour l’œil et pour le cœur. 

January 28, 2015


“Sometimes I believe that skiing is responsible for having made me a rolling stone. As soon as winter arrived visions of skis swishing through new snow filled me with such feverish longings that wherever I was – in Berlin or Paris, or even on board Perlette– I interrupted what I was doing, or stopped worrying about what I was not doing, and went to the hills. Every Sunday in Geneva I would get up at four in the morning to catch the special train to the mountains. How could one not escape from the plains, knowing that above the sticky fog a radiant sun waited for us, his worshippers?”

- Ella Maillart, Cruises and Caravanes

It’s ski season again. And Ella and I agree— there is nothing like ascending above the clouds to find white peaks drenched in sun. For my translation diploma project, I translated Ella Maillart’s first book, Parmi la jeunesse russe (1932) and I just had my defense yesterday. Translating Ella taught me a lot about translating literature: How to capture not only the meaning, but also the writer’s spirit in another language?

Ella is modern, tough, and independent. She says what she thinks and she does what she wants. When she wants to trek across Stalinist Russia, she treks across Stalinist Russia. When she wants to drive a Ford from Switzerland to Afghanistan, no one is going to stop her. When she wants to sneak into Tibet with no papers, she just does it. But her writing, even in French, is a little clumsy. How do I do her justice in English?

Drawn toward Russia in 1929, Maillart was, like many Western intellectuals, curious about the radical changes brought on by Stalin’s regime: “la plus téméraire expériance de temps modernes” or “the most daring experiment of modern times.” However, unlike the Western journalists who flocked to the USSR to report, Ella goes to witness, to write a témoinage rather than a reportage. I wanted to capture her “goût du risque” in English and still stay true to her candid impressions, which she herself admits to be like “les photos amoncelées d’un album jamais mis à jour” or a pile of photos never organized into an album.

Ella rowing on the Moscow River, 1929, age 26

Here are a few excerpts from my translation that I was quite happy with:

“De son oeil fulgurant, il prit ma mesure: –Cela dépend en mejeure partie de vous-même, mais je pense que vous devez pouvoir vous débrouiller partout. Qui ne risque n’a rien.” p. 15

“He shot me a look as if to size me up. “That depends for the most part on you, but I think that you must be able to take care of yourself anywhere. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

“Subissons le catarrhe d’un gâteux flasque et polyglotte; d’un souffle épuisé, il drague les glaires de ses bronches, il sort son mouchoir et s’en sert, levant un petit doigt alourdi d’armoiries gravées dans l’or.” p.22

“We are all subjected to the coughing and sniveling of a flabby, polyglottal idiot; out of breath, he sucks on the phlegm in the back of his throat. He takes out his handkerchief and blows his nose, raising a little finger that is heavy with gold family-crest rings.”

“Il faut, paraît-il, se méfier des taxis: lorsque quelqu’un est assis à côté du chauffeur, le compteur risque fort d’être avancé d’un doigt habile.” p.27

“Apparently, you should beware of taxis—even when you are sitting next to the driver, the meter may be turned up by some quick sleight-of-hand.”

January 5, 2015


The flight was longer than you thought: five hours, not four, with the time change. The coast of Africa is farther away than you thought, the Atlantic ocean is bigger than you thought, this island is not what you thought. You didn’t think anything really. You fell upon a dirt-cheap flight one cold day while clicking around on the internet and figured “Oh what the hell, it’s got to be warmer than where I am right now.” You pick up the rental car. You drive north on the GC-1 toward the hills. The others drive south toward the windy, dried up beach resorts teeming with sun-starved Scandinavians and other white varieties who will wear that speedo even if it’s only 18 degrees C (even if the bronze Spaniard selling SPF 50 on the beach is in a parka).




Your farmhouse, a drop pin smack dab in the center of the map, seemed easy enough to find, but an island is not a map. Up and down, up and down, hills become valleys, valleys become mountains, two lanes become one. You honk the horn at every curve just to make sure you won’t crash head-on.  Every village a plaza, every plaza a cathedral, every cathedral a lottery man. Lottery tickets are everywhere, you figure it has something to do with 25% or 45% or 65% unemployment– you get different statistics. But if it’s any indication, people don’t seem to be too busy. They leave things up to Maria and scratch-offs. The little house is made of stone and white plaster. You have to go outside to get to the bathroom and the shower gets exactly two minutes of hot water, but otherwise it’s just right. There are orange trees, there are roosters, there are kittens wandering around, there is one little convenience store that pops two ibuprofen into your hand. In the morning you watch the farmers turn over the coffee-colored soil, you eat breakfast, you pack water, you hike. Because even though the beach resorts try so so so hard to survive on their dry, windy rocks to the South, Gran Canaria is not about the beach and the sea, no no no. Gran Canaria is about the mountains and the sky.



You hike to Roque Nubio, you hike to Tejeda, you hike to the Sacred Fertility Caves. Up and down, up and down, hills become valleys, valleys become mountains, roads become paths and pasture for sheep. The island is named for dogs, you learn, not for canaries. There are dogs but no dinosaurs, there are giant aloe plants bursting out of rocks, cactus leaves sharp and flat tangling down the hillside, fields of green clover soft enough to sleep in, forests of palm that become forests of pine, sandstone, limestone, volcanic rocks, swirls and swirls of sand blown over from the Sahara, clouds that spill over cliffs like frosty air out of the freezer. Most of all, there is sun.




December 31, 2014

8 things that were on my mind in 2014

The Dutch call New Years Eve Oudejaarsavond, or Old Year’s Evening. I like this because for me, the last day of the year feels somber somehow, in a sacred kind of way. It’s the last day of a whole year you lived through, a year that you will never get back. Without getting into the sweet, sappy, only very rarely crappy details of my personal life, I thought I would compile a post of news stories, journalism, art, etc. that were on my mind in 2014.

1. Undermining Democracy: Noam Chomsky on how the U.S. Breeds Inequality at Home and Instability Abroad

At 85 years-old, Chomsky’s ability to see past what the big powers want us to see is striking. In my linguistics classes, I’ve learned a lot more about his universal grammar than about his political perspectives. But sitting around the campfire in the Nicolet National Forest, I read  this interview in the June 2014 issue of The Sun and it stayed with me. Revisiting it again makes me think about the news of 2014, my first full year of watching America gun it out from across the sea.

Barsamian: How can people begin to see through the received wisdom about international and domestic affairs?

Chomsky: The main requirements are an open, critical mind and a willingness to question dogma and repressive institutions. Once you’ve got those, you can start reading the news and asking: Is the U.S. really dedicated to democracy? Is Iran really the greatest threat to world peace? Can this economy be sustained? Most of all you have to ask, Is it true? A pretty good criterion is that if some doctrine is widely accepted without question, it’s probably false.

“The world is a very puzzling place. If you are not willing to be puzzled, you just become a replica of someone else’s mind.”
-Chomsky, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy

I also went to this documentary one rainy Sunday night by myself at the CineClub Pully, a wonderful independent cinema in Lausanne. The way that Michel Gondry prods and pokes Chomsky in charming broken French, all the while hyper-aware of the fact that he himself is no philosopher, gives me courage to ask bigger questions.

2. Excerpts from Wendall Berry: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front Manifesto

“Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery anymore.
Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all of the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap for power,
please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Praise resurrection.”

3.Years of Rape and “Utter Contempt” in England

This disgusting story of over 1,400 girls in ENGLAND being groomed for gang rape did not receive near the press it deserved. We are talking about the motherland, the land of the most lauded monarchy in the world, a country that spent centuries “civilizing” everyone else… how could this have happened? When you have police brushing off the complaints of terrified teenage girls, of the very few who had the courage to report the crimes against them, you do not have a civilized society. If this is happening in England, it could be happening anywhere. Apparently, you have to carry a mattress on your back to make a point– but then, we can’t all go to Columbia can we? Is it 2015 or is it 2015?

4. Deb Roy, The Birth of a Word

This Deb Roy TED talk is from 2011, but I saw it in 2014, a year I spent a lot of time up on a mountain with one increasingly precocious three year old. Deb Roy maps the development of his son’s first word, showing how his environment and the frequency of certain words in the house allow him to absorb absorb absorb and one fine day, to produce the word himself. This video changed the way I view child intelligence and the overwhelming beauty of language acquisition.

5. John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling

A dear friend working in a public charter school in New Orleans passed me this book and it completely changed the way that I look at children and education. Even though I find Gatto a bit extreme in his hate for the American school system and sometimes overly pessimistic, his utmost respect for the child as a capable, complex, and creative being is so so so right on.

Photo by Sally Man, At Twelve

“I’ve noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my thirty years of teaching: schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do care and do work very, very hard, the institution is psychopathic — it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to a different cell where he must memorize that humans and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.”

“Good students wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. This is the most important lesson of them all: we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices; only I, the teacher, can determine what my kids must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions, which I then enforce.”
-John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down

Gatto’s philosophy aligns with what they are doing at these “free” playgrounds: creating a no-parents-no-rules space where children can make their own forts, move things around, invent their own games, and feel that envigorating sense of danger that they are so deprived of in our child-proof world.

6. Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”  It is ironic that Murakami says this in his book, considering that it is the most popular piece of young adult literature of all time in most asian countries. It tells the story of Watanabe, a university student in 1960s Tokyo with complicated love affairs with two women at the same. I liked this book. I more than liked it. The characters broke my heart in the most complicated ways and I felt grateful to them. It’s a strange feeling, being grateful to book characters. I also read the book differently now that I am studying literary translation. My translator mentor pointed out exactly what was so troubling about Kafka on the Shore: “Why do I feel like the main character is a boy from Brooklyn?” I now ask myself the same kinds of questions about other translated contemporary fiction.

Self-portrait by Hiroshi Sugimoto

7. Death of Pete Seeger, father of American Folk Music and Civil Rights

Pete Seeger died at age 94 on Jan. 27, 2014. Amy sent me an email that morning that simply said, “Yes, he was a force.” His music brought people together and those people became the movement for social change. You could say (I do say) that he sparked the American Civil Rights Movement by making people, all kinds of people, believe that We Shall Overcome and singing them into the self-conviction that no matter what, the world would Turn! Turn! Turn!  This documentary on his life and philosophy is overwhelming. Pete is a trunk that they all somehow branch from: Woodie, Bob, Janis, Carole, Stevie, Jodee, Cash, Iris, Dolly, Gillian…

8. Boyhood

This movie is a masterpiece. Not in some loony, cosmic, “tour de force,” wins-all-the-oscars-even-though-nobody-really-liked-it-kind-of-way, no. I mean like a real masterpiece. The film traces the life of a boy (and his sister) through preadolescence to early adult hood using the same actors over 12 years. What’s so remarkable about it though is how it tells a story that doesn’t feel like a story. You know, the way real life is a story that doesn’t feel like a story. Director Richard Linklater let the kids write much of the script, asking them to simply do what they do, to react how they would react. It shows us how complicated teenagers lives are and maintains a profound respect for their troubles, some of which are very real and others which are only real to them. And by god, if the mom, Patricia Arquette, doesn’t win the Oscar for best actress, I’m never watching the Academy Awards again!