We translators have a strange job. Don’t think that all we have to do is find the words and phrases that best correspond with the source text. We have to go further, pour ourselves into the other person’s writing the way a cat curls up in a basket. We must embrace the author’s style. (40)
Who was recently asking for novels about translators? Here is one from Quebec, Translation Is a Love Affair (2006) by Jacques Poulin, nimbly translated by Sheila Fischman. A young translator, Marine, finds a stray cat which leads her and the crotchety author she is translating into a warm-hearted adventure. Translation offers some metaphors for human connection. I am just going to ignore all of that, the story and so on, although I appreciate the effort to correct the strange neglect of cats in fiction, to look at the short novel’s style.
The fictional author, in a fictional interview:
On what then should the contemporary novel be based? asked the interviewer [“the human soul” and “society” have been rejected as outmoded]. On the infinite resources of language! replied Monsieur Waterman in an impassioned voice… he constructed a theory of the novel that I wasn’t sure I fully grasped. He saw the novel as a house built with materials from the past (the dead ash) and from the future (fertile pollen). To construct it, the most important tool was, of course, style. (92-3)
How odd, then, or so it seemed at times, that Translation Is a Love Affair is an exemplar of the plain style:
The telephone was in the kitchen. As soon as I set him down, the cat headed for Chaloupe’s bowls. I gave him a big handful of dry food and a bowl of cold water, then I dialed the number on the collar. (8)
Declarative sentences, little adornment, ordinary metaphors. If the cat is “black as a stove” the narrator means it literally (“I am a translator, I love words”, 3). Alternatively – this just came to me – Poulin deliberately throws the cliché right after that declaration of metaphorical principle in order to show that his narrator has trouble living up to her own standards. Regardless, the novel is full of maddeningly plain-spoken passages. “The grocer put our groceries in a plastic bag” (96)
Although her narration is mostly thin and compressed, Marine also plays with words in her ordinary life, testing out near synonyms, comparing French and English for shades of sound and meaning, looking up even common words in her Petit Robert. Marine is somehow matching her prose style to her life (see especially Chapter XIV, in which Marine temporarily abandons the plain style - the chapter's title is "A Night of Horror"). It is the fictional novelist’s style, too:
In the chapter I was translating, which was the last one, Monsieur Waterman had taken out every useless word, he’d punctuated carefully, and I was trying to be faithful to him. Like Milena [Kafka’s Milena!], I wanted my words to hug the curves of his writing.” (143, in the last chapter of Poulin’s novel, of course)
Marine also wants her words to hug the curves of her life.
Other readers may well enjoy the story of the stray cat and its consequences, one of those stories about how a family-substitute assembles, and wonder what all of this nonsense about style is doing in Poulin’s novel.