Translation Is a Love Affair
by Jacques Poulin (La Traduction est une histoire d’amour, 2006)
translated from the French by Sheila Fischman (2009)
Archipelago Books (2009)
A few weeks ago I posted about Jacques Poulin’s Spring Tides . I actually first read Translation Is a Love Affair. However, when I put down this short book I had the unsatisfying feeling that I’d missed something, that there was, as I put it earlier, some layer I failed to penetrate. Thus, the book didn’t work for me, yet I had glimpsed enough to know that something was there. Turns out reading Spring Tides before reviewing this little book was the best thing to do. To me, Spring Tides worked alone, but Translation Is a Love Affair works better as a variation on a theme or even a revisioning of a theme written nearly thirty years earlier. If you’ve read my review of Spring Tides, you will remember the strong allegory running through that text. The last chapter in Translation Is a Love Affair is entitled “The Earthly Paradise.”
Here the primary character is a woman named Marine. She works as a translator, sometimes “tormented by the groundless fear that [she is] living the life of a parasite.” She has recently met and began translating the work of Monsieur Waterman, an older and very established French Canadian writer. He has given her a place to live while she works on his translations.
If there was a way to get close to someone in this life — of which I was not certain — it might be through translation.
One thing I enjoyed about this book is that the love it is talking about is not necessarily romantic love. And that seems to be Poulin’s point, too. Marine has been a guilty wanderer for years. As in Spring Tides, this novel is very quiet. We know little about Marine’s past, and what we do know is vague. This is a potential flaw in the novel. Marine sometimes says things like, “The only rules I accept are the rules of grammar.” But there’s not much here to make me believe that, let alone feel that. She’s just not that way in the time period this novel moves through. I read the book twice and still had a hard time believing that Marine used to be anything but the slightly lonely yet loving woman we meet on page one when she tenderly describes her fat cat walking around.
This book has a very significant plot line, however, that stands out much more than Marine’s translation job. A new cat wanders into Marine’s yard one day, and eventually Marine finds this note tucked away in the collar:
My name is Famine. I am on the road because my mistress can’t take care of me, . . . . . The final words, after the comma had been erased.
After some sleuthing, Marine and Monsieur Waterman discover that the words after the comma compose a sort of SOS. Throughout the remainder of the book, these two very different people try to find a way to help the person who wrote the note and abandoned the cat. Running along underneath this narrative is the relationship between Marine and Monsieur Waterman, between author and translator. It’s a very intriguing story and a perspective on love and translation that I never before have encountered.
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.
Though my estimation of Translation Is a Love Affair went up after reading Spring Tides, I consider this a lesser work that does little to inform a reading of the greater work. That said, it is a quiet little book full of tenderness and sadness. It is not slight and for anyone who has read Spring Tides this might be a nice revisit to Poulin’s strange world of men, women, cats, and translators.