19 December 2011

translation is a love affair

True to its title, Translation Is a Love Affair is centered around language—not only how writers and translators use it but also how it brings people together. Author Jacques Poulin’s characters see language as something to live, like a friendship, and translation is both a means of rendering one language in another and closing the distance between people, and even creatures. But that doesn’t mean Translation is a work of theory; it is a quiet novel of companionship through language.

Part mystery and part idyll, Translation follows Jack Waterman, the nom de plume of a middle-aged Quebec novelist whose real name never appears in the story. Narrating the story is his translator, Marine, a young woman of Quebecois and Irish descent who is a loner without a family, having recently lost her sister to suicide. Each of them are bicultural—Monsieur Waterman by choice and Marine by birth—which makes them sensitive to the elements of translation in their daily lives. They meet at the graves of Marine’s mother and sister as Waterman is passing through on his way from the library, and when Waterman learns that Marine is translating his book for the love of the work and without a contract, he’s so impressed that they become friends and he helps her get established outside of Quebec City. From the outset, writing and translation become central to their conversation: “Dear Marine, what matters most in literature is the tone. Which no one ever talks about. It’s nearly as important as green eyes and freckles!”

Living in an idyllic cabin Monsieur Waterman finds outside Quebec City, Marine devotes her time to writing, swimming, and being with her cats (this is a cat lover’s book). Marine narrates in great detail the lives of the animals that approach the cabin and the “translation” between human and animal. Early on she describes a blue heron that walks nearby:
In French his name is simply Grand Heron but I prefer Great Blue Heron, which is what he is called in my Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. When you look closely at him you can see quite clearly that his grey feathers have a blue tinge.
As Poulin describes them, the rurals are a quiet place where language is freed from the demands of society. It’s as if one has to escape to translate. Moreover, he plays with the idea of animals reflecting human experience, in other words, translating the animal to the human. Describing the bond she has with some retired race horses Marine says,
The retired race horses had become my confidants. I’m not saying that they understood everything, but all the foreign-sounding words made them prick up their ears. They were sensitive to the music of words, a taste that we had in common.
The mystery that propels the novel begins when Marine finds a stray cat with a note under its collar stating that the owner can no longer take care of the cat. Upon examining the note, Marine and Monsieur Waterman determine that the owner of the cat no longer can take of herself either and they set out to discover this person. Though the matter soon takes on darker overtones, Translation is not a hard-boiled novel: the would-be detectives do their best to find the writer of the note, but they are inexperienced, and rather than shape the unraveling of they mystery they merely report on it, always with an awareness of language’s power. For instance, when they attempt to gain access to the apartment where the note writer is, Monsieur Waterman, noting an English surname on a mailbox, plays a trick to gain access: “‘I forgot my key,’ he said, with a small grammatical error and a slight English accent.”

Poulin’s interest in language and translation continues throughout the novel, and as the mystery unfolds Marine has time to learn more about Monsieur Waterman, going beyond translating his words to “translate” the man from a distant author to a friend. This connects with Monsieur Waterman’s belief that that “you have style when you write well, that is, when you conform to a model! Having one’s own style is the very opposite: you write in your own way and you pay no attention to the rules!” Style is more than just ornamentation, it is a way of conveying something as one sees it. Monsieur Waterman goes on to declare that it is no longer acceptable to write as if one were a psychologist. Instead, the contemporary novel should be based “[on] the infinite resources of language!”

This statement, which Marine agrees with, can also be applied to Poulin’s careful style. It is sparse and straightforward, frequently subtle in its use of simple details to show that language is both powerful and elastic. At one point Monsieur Waterman declares that
for him, house meant shelter, refuge. . . . reflexively I looked in the Petit Robert. . . . Under the word refuge, I found this definition: “Small structure high is the mountains where climbers can spend the night.” In my opinion that was the best definition of a novel.
Ultimately, Poulin is able to say in that short passage that this mystery novel, part of an often escapist genre that readers take refuge in, is a refuge from the real, but at the same time a representation of the real.

The book’s epigram ties together all the disparate elements that make up this novel, and like a good epigram should, it suggests a reading of the novel:
In the final analysis, it really is about a couple, and the matter under discussion is love. Yes, we are talking about translation, which is defined first of all as a transport. Transport of language or transport of love.
Translation, then, transports or conveys the essence of something, whether it is language or, more broadly, the relationships between people and the word around them. To translate is to transport, and that, for those who care, is powerful.

As the novel ends, it is clear that the notion of translation is not just about the translator’s art but also about the characters. Where is the growing friendship between Monsieur Waterman and Marine going? And how does the woman they have been searching for become part of the translated world? The answer is that each of these characters are searching for a way to become less isolated in this brief tale of friendship, love, and language whose mystery goes beyond the matter of the note writer’s identity to ponder how language can best convey what it is to be human.