Sample Book Reviews

Translation’s Trail
Steven G. Kellman

Translation is a Love Affair
Jacques Poulin
Archipelago Books
160 pages; paper, $14.00

If, as the Italian adage claims, traduttore traditore, translators might want to conceal their treachery. The owner’s manual to a Toyota Prius or a Toshiba laptop does not identify the persons responsible for transposing turgid Japanese into turgid English. Even when title pages disclose the name of the translator, many translations aspire to invisibility, trying to lull readers into believing they are turning pages of the original text.

Not so Translation is a Love Affair, whose very title puts the process of switching languages into question. Itself a translation of Jacques Poulin’s 2006 novel La traduction est une histoire d’amour, it is a tender allegory about the relationship between a Quebecois author and the woman who translates him into English. Early in his career, Poulin, a leading French Canadian novelist, worked as a commercial translator, and he offers a translator, a free-spirited young woman named Marine as narrator of this, his eleventh novel. (His twelfth, not yet published in English, also sports a title that announces language as a theme; L’Anglaise n’est pas une langue magique (2009) translates as English is Not a Magical Language). The ventriloquism of using a woman’s voice to tell the story is yet another instance of Poulin in translation.

While studying translation at the University of Geneva, Marine acquired a copy of a novel written by a fellow Canadian publishing under the nom de plume Jack Waterman (who also happens to be a character in Poulin’s best-known novel, Volkswagen Blues [1984]). Because it is about the Oregon Trail, which she had visited while hitchhiking alone across the US, Marine was especially drawn to the book and longed to translate it into English. When she returns to her native Quebec, Marine encounters Waterman in what Hollywood would call “meet cute.” Standing before the graves of her mother, sister, and grandmother, she encounters an older man reading Ernest Hemingway on a cemetery bench. It is of course Waterman, and Marine, convinced that “If there was a way to get close to someone in this life—of which I was not certain—it might be through translation,” elicits Waterman’s permission to translate his Oregon Trail novel into English. He even sets her up to work in an idyllic chalet on Île d’Orléans, while he labors over les mots justes in the tower he inhabits in nearby Quebec City.

"If translation is a love affair, this one is noticeably lacking in tension, anguish, and ecstasy."

Lest readers get the wrong impression about the relationship between an elderly, ailing writer and the perky translator who imagines him as the father she never knew, Marine assures us: “The business of sex doesn’t concern Monsieur Waterman and me.” What do concern them are the delicacies of verbal expression and the construction of what Marine, a damaged, lonely soul, calls “the old house of language, midway between earth and heaven.” Midway also between author and translator, it is “a place, a domain, a universe in which I was safe from the woes of this world, in which there was a possibility that Monsieur Waterman and I, in spite of our age difference, had the possibility of meeting.”

As if translating, like acting, demanded surrender of personal identity and appropriation of another’s, Marine wears the author’s clothes while reworking his prose. Both agree that finding the precise words is not as crucial as getting the tone right. In translating, Marine insists, “We must embrace the author’s style.” She reinforces her view of translation as erotic exchange by recalling the title of a course she took at the University of Geneva, “Translation is a Love Affair,” and quoting an apocryphal statement by Franz Kafka’s translator, Milena Jesenská: “‘Every day, to keep me faithful to your text, my words hug the curves of your writing, like a lover nestling in her sweetheart’s arms.’” Yet the love affair that constitutes the substance of this novel is not only remarkably chaste; it occupies the borderland between the gentle and the bland.

We are told that a bad back, a heart condition, and literary perfectionism keep Waterman from writing more than a few sentences at a time. But in his dealings with Marine, he is invariably patient and compassionate. And, though she is haunted by her sister’s suicide and the hardships of her Irish immigrant grandmother, Marine fits snugly into her new situation on the Île d’Orléans. If translation is a love affair, this one is noticeably lacking in tension, anguish, and ecstasy. Whatever drama the novel possesses is supplied by a shaggy cat story—how Marine and Waterman combine forces to solve the mystery of an abandoned feline named Famine. Attached to the cat, Marine discovers, is a plea for help from an adolescent damsel in distress. The plot devolves into a kind of Nancy Drew caper, and Poulin concludes his novel with a sentimental affirmation of the power of love.

If the Hemingway short stories, which Waterman is reading when Marine meets him in the cemetery, are the model for Poulin’s terse, limpid clauses, John Irving, whom Marine invokes at one point, seems closer in spirit to this winsome but irksome work. Sheila Fischman is an accomplished translator of more than 125 French Canadian novels and is, like Poulin, a septuagenarian. Her seamless English version of his mellow fantasy creates the refuge that Marine calls the best definition of a novel: “‘Small structure high in the mountains where climbers can spend the night.’” Yet how much larger would have been the structure, how many more nights it might have accommodated climbers, if only Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, or Vladimir Nabokov had taken on the premise of Translation is a Love Affair.

BIO: Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (W. W. Norton), and the editor of M. E. Ravage’s An American in the Making (Rutgers).


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