Translation is a Love Affair – Jacques Poulin (translated by Sheila Fischman)

Today a short review for a short work.
Our cover flap advises that this work is “A quietly affecting modern fairy tale”, so what is a fairy tale? If you browse numerous online dictionaries you’ll come across words such as elves, fairies, giants, hobgoblins, dragons or folkloric fantasy characters. Or maybe “A fictitious, highly fanciful story”. Well I can categorically state the latest work I have read by Jacques Poulin, has no elves, fairies, giants, hobgoblins or dragons. However it does contain cats, isolation, and psychologically scarred individuals, just like “Mr Blue” and “Spring Tides” which I have previously reviewed here. This work is slightly different though, this time we have a “witch”.
Our small work opens with our female narrator explaining her story, she is single, finding it hard to love and is a translator. She is currently working on translating a French book into English for Monsieur Waterman:
Usually I don’t have much confidence in men, but for him I made an exception. Despite being twice my age he was my best friend though we hadn’t known each other very long. He’s a writer and he’d started a new novel.
As for me, I’d started to translate one of his novels, the one that talks about the Oregon Trail. If there was a way to get close to someone in this life – of which I was not certain – it might be through translation.
Our protagonist, Marine, and Monsieur Waterman come across a stray cat, with a collar and a phone number, however although she rings the phone number she decides not to leave a message. Later she discovers a hidden message in the collar “My name is Famine, I am on the road because my mistress can no longer take care of me, or of herself…”
This opens up a mystery, how to locate the owner as our heroes are concerned for her wellbeing. Knowing the phone number of the owner, that a “witch” dumped the cat outside of the property where Marine is living, and with the help of a private detective they go on a mission to “save” the young girl (with scars on her wrists) from the “witch”.
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.
Yes, this is so much more than a simple tale of two people attempting to find a cat’s owner and rescue her. This is a work which celebrates language and languages, it revels in the art of translation, it embraces rhythm, pace and meter.
Another sign that I was zouave: on my way back up to the chalet I started talking to the birch trees. There were a dozen of them along the path. They weren’t in very good shape, they were huddled against one another: it was as if they needed to defend themselves against the invasion of maple and ash trees. Their roots were growing just above the surface of the earth and they were barely clinging to the rocky cliff. They had a hard life and I explained to them that my life was getting complicated too, that I was losing my independence and that I was feeling vulnerable, like them.
The themes from Poulin’s other works are to the fore here as well, isolated lives becoming complicated by outsiders, the season passing, cats, tennis(?), writers struggling with their art, vulnerable people including attempted or even successful suicide, broken relationships, the impossibility of a true love. But ultimately a wonderfully written piece, language coming to the fore and the celebration of telling stories, joy in nature and our surroundings.
Jacques Poulin’s works may be simply told but they are a simple celebration of life itself. Sit back, look around you, how amazing it all is, if only I could find the right word to describe it…..better get out my dictionary.

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