Monday, September 10, 2012

We must embrace the author’s style - the infinite resources of language - Translation Is a Love Affair

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.


  1. I don't know this book, but I wonder how seriously one should take what it says about translation. From your description is sounds like a fairly ordinary contemporary novel with a main character who has a sort of dream job, one that many people who read contemporary novels think would be fun to have.

    The only other books I can think of that are about translators are espionage thrillers like Russia House and Six Days of the Condor. Translators tend to find themselves in a lot trouble in spy novels.

  2. Ah ha! Scott Bailey asked; Rise answered. Rise already had a substantial list of translators (and interpreters - not at all the same thing - in fiction).

    I think you have an interesting point, C.B., but I have some suspicion about "fairly ordinary" etc. Unfortunately, I am too ignorant on the subject. How often do FOCNs namedrop Heidegger and Borges? If the answer is "often," you are definitely on the right track.

    The "novel as a house" business is a Heideggerean riff.

    Now, after I'm done, I do my research. The actual translator writes: "a cat, there's always a cat in those novels." So that explains the cats.

    Fischman - I forgot to mention this - has "published more than 125 translations of contemporary French-Canadian novels" (from her jacket bio). That's amazing - there are 125 contemporary French-Canadian novels!

    Couldn't resist the joke there.

  3. *raises hand* Poulin was there. And C.B. added to the list. Thanks, C.B.

    Come to think of it, is there any topic that has not been tackled in a novel yet? Maybe how language is handled (or manhandled) is what separates novels now. And how the 'house' of style is built.

  4. Even in its championing of felines I wonder how well it stacks up against Doris Lessing's On Cats, that's a true modern cat classic of remarkable potency.

  5. Rise - yes, yes! The topic can be treated again and again, new books replacing old. Style is irreplaceable and enduring.

    I have no doubt that Lessing's book takes the cat crown, but perhaps another Poulin novel would challenge it, like Mister Blue, in which a cat and author read the Arabian Nights together or something like that.

  6. I might read this; it's got a translator and a cat. Though maybe I'll hold out for the book about the cat who is a translator. There is, sadly, no English edition of that one yet.

    I'd like to say to C.B. that premise has never really had much to do with the ordinariness/extraordinariness of a novel, and especially in this day where every novel is expected to be reducible to a one-sentence "log line" ("Patriarch is murdered; oldest son arrested for the crime!" or "Jane Eyre meets Moby-Dick!"), the formal and linguistic elements are what make them special. Which is, probably, how it's always been anyway. So I think it's worth noting, as (Tom) has, that the prose in this novel thickens and thins quite a bit and seems to be influenced by the characters with whom the narrator is interacting, if I understand correctly. So that's something; that's an experiment the author is trying.

    I think it might be hard to get a book published these days that goes into any real detail about jobs. In American publishing, anyway, if a manuscript has more than one sentence in a row that doesn't seem to "move the story forward" (whatever that means), editors cry out that you've introduced Melville's chapter on cetaceans and they reach for the red pencil. I am rambling and I am aware of it. Moar catz! I put my cat, Blackie, into my third novel. Someday, maybe, that novel will be published and I can join the ranks of authors of books about cats.

  7. My advocacy for more cats is as much statistical as anything else. People in novels (and movies, and sitcoms) just do not have as many pets as they do in real life.

    It's just what you say, the way the plain style sometimes turns into something else, that convinced me that Poulin is actually making some sort of aesthetic argument in this book.

  8. Jacques Poulin, en anglais! How exciting. I did not love him, actually, but I am excited by this plethora of translated Quebecois lit. It's true that there is a somewhat surprising amount. If Patrick Nicol has been translated yet, I recommend him. Especially La blonde de Patrick Nicol ("Patrick Nicol's girlfriend," not his "blonde" in the English meaning.) But it may still be mostly downhill since Michel Tremblay. The Plateau books must be translated, no? Yes, and by Fischman! Wonderful, wonderful. I'd be extremely curious to see how she translates The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant, with its heavy use of joual.

  9. Hey, someone with knowledge of the subject! Thanks for all of the direction. I know nothing.

  10. Yes, I don't know a lot, but something. My kingdom for a Renaud-Bray right about now.