Memoirs of a French Courtesan Volume 1: Rebellion by Celeste Mogador, translated by Kristen Hall-Geisler. Pink and green paperback cover next to a small bronze fox statuette

Rebellion: Behind the Scenes

Tomorrow, January 16, 2024, my translation of Memoirs of a French Courtesan Volume 1: Rebellion will be published. I’m really proud of this project, and it’s gotten great reviews from advance readers. So far it’s earned four out of five stars on NetGalley, which makes me happy. Paperback and ebook copies will be available just about everywhere. I’ll put a list of the most popular links at the bottom of this blog post/newsletter.

Rebellion Origin Story

In the winter of 2021, I was editing a nonfiction book about two sea captains, brothers, who worked the Atlantic in the 1800s. (As it happens, this very book, Seaward: Chasing Master Mariners in the Golden Age of Sail by Harold Bradley just came out last week. Congrats to Harold!) In it, the author mentions very briefly a tie to an infamous French courtesan known as Mogador, who wrote her memoirs and eventually quite a bit more.

All it took was this short mention to pique my interest, so I searched online. Wikipedia of course had an entry, and I learned enough about Mogador’s incredible life to keep digging. That’s how I found a digital scan of her memoirs. I downloaded the PDF and made my plan.

Tools of the Translation

I set out to translate the book the way I always do, with a cheap notebook, a fountain pen, and the original text, in this case as a PDF on my laptop screen, in front of me. For stationery nerds, I use the ten-for-ten-dollars spiral-bound, college-ruled notebooks that I buy during back-to-school sales. For this particular project, I wrote out the translation with a Benu Euphoria; I think the color is called Big Wave? It was a Christmas gift a few years ago. The ink was Monteverde Sapphire. Ink and pen worked beautifully for something like ten full notebooks of writing. I think I had to transition to a Diamine ink I had on hand for the last few pages.

So I blocked out an hour to 90 minutes every morning after breakfast and before work to translate at the dining room table. This is not my normal workspace. I have a fancy shed in the backyard where I normally work from nine-ish to five-ish. My old office, from before the shed era, is upstairs. For the last couple of years, I’ve been using that in the evening as a study space for my master’s degree. The dining room table had no associations with paying work (though of course I hope these books make some money) and no associations with school, since I’m getting a degree in English, not French. The dining room table seemed like the right place for nearly 100 hours of work over the course of a summer.

The Confession

Here’s where I tell you that despite (or maybe because of) this spark of inspiration and this regular routine, I made a massive error. I hadn’t done absolutely all of my homework before beginning the translation; I was too excited, so I leaped before I had finished looking. I began working page by page, day by day, until I reached the end. The story ended in a weird way, kind of without a conclusion, but I thought maybe that was the fashion for nineteenth-century memoirs. I set the project aside to revisit when I had a little mental distance from it.

I did not know how much I did not know.

The PDF I downloaded had two volumes. While I was trying to decide if I should publish two volumes as well or one fat volume, I started poking around again in Mogador’s history. That’s when I learned that I had downloaded volumes one and two of the four-volume version of her memoirs. There’s an earlier version that was two volumes, and a later one that had five volumes. I had stumbled on the middle version, which was both lucky and unlucky. It was lucky in the sense that this is the version I would have chosen to translate anyway. The earlier version wasn’t as rich, and the later version seemed to me unnecessary.

I was unlucky in that it meant I had two more entire volumes to translate. But as bad luck goes, that’s pretty good luck.

The Path Forward

Having two more volumes meant the translation didn’t end in a weird place after all. It also means that I’ll be spending an hour a day with another stack of cheap notebooks and a fountain pen and an ink bottle doing a first translation pass at the rest of Mogador’s memoirs. I’m kind of excited to jump back in.

It works out okay, timing-wise, because I’m doing revisions on Volume 2 right now. It’ll go through the editing process and production and be ready for you all in September 2024. While it’s in production over the summer, I’ll be translating Volumes 3 and 4 so they’ll be ready in 2025. As it happens, I’ll graduate with my master’s in 2025 too. I may have free time in 2026 — or I may start the next big writing project. Or two.

The Promised Links

The majority of the reviewers so far have said they can’t wait for Volume 2, and I can’t wait to get it out there. But first, here are links to buy Volume 1: Rebellion and learn how Mogador got her start.

Bonus: I buy all my pens and inks from the excellent people at Goulet pens.