Translating «The Plague» and the Sky

Translating The Plague and the Sky:

Laura Marris on translating Albert Camus’ The Plague and co-authoring, with Alice Kaplan, the newly released States of Plague

Interview by Heather Green

I’m never going to imagine exactly the same voice and imagery as the previous translators. But it’s like having long-distance colleagues, and asking how they solved a particular puzzle.

In April of 2020, I read Laura Marris’s New York Times essay “Camus’s Innoculation Against Hate,” in which she describes her experience of translating Albert Camus’s novel The Plague (Knopf, November 2021) during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. In Camus’s book, the city of Oran, Algeria is beset by a plague, and the reader follows several characters, primarily the steadfast Dr. Rieux, through the duration of the outbreak. The book, originally published in 1947, is also an allegory for the fight and “Résistance” against the “scourge” of fascist ideology, nationalism, and Nazism during World War II. In the aforementioned essay, Marris pulls the two subjects together: “In response to the symptoms of war, Camus saw shared consciousness as a healing force, becoming particularly interested in how people could develop a global collectivity that would protect them against nationalism and fascism.” 

Marris also recently co-wrote, with Alice Kaplan, author and Sterling Professor of French and Director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale, a unique volume titled States of Plague (U Chicago Press, October 2022). This rich, concise companion volume to The Plague, in chapters alternately written by Marris and Kaplan, explores the novel’s historical context, Camus’s biography, the physical and cultural geography of Oran, and, as you’ll see in the interview below, connections to (micro)biology and ecology.

Heather Green (HG): First, I wonder whether you could say a bit about how you came to translate this new edition of The Plague. I know this project originated before the Covid pandemic, and I’m curious about how you began.

Laura Marris (LM): I started working on my translation of The Plague in the fall of 2019. But the push for a new translation had originated much earlier—partly with the Camus estate and Knopf, who were interested in a new translation, but also because the novel reads as an allegory of resistance to fascism and nationalism, which were very much part of the conversation after the election of Donald Trump in 2016. I “auditioned” for the project with a sample chapter in early 2019, and found out in August that it would move forward.

HG: You write in States of Plague about visiting Oran, Algeria with your coauthor, Alice Kaplan, before you began translating Camus’ book (which is set in Oran). I wonder whether you could say a little about how you and Alice Kaplan ended up in Oran together just before the pandemic began.

LM: We visited Algeria in December 2019. We had been invited to give a talk together about The Plague in Algiers, and afterwards, we traveled to Oran. For me, it was very important to understand the actual sites of the book—the city walls, the old plague cemeteries from the settler-colonial era, the streets the characters traverse, which have now been renamed since Algerian Independence. The Plague is very much a novel of walking, and many of the most interesting passages take place in between parts of the city, as the doctor follows the disease through the different neighborhoods. The novel has a lot of class geography in it—it’s part of how Camus expresses the inequality of the plague—how the layout of neighborhoods privileges the rich and puts a disproportionate burden of exposure on the poor. In learning the history of the city, I was very lucky to meet Abdeslem Abdelhak, an expert on the sites of Oran, who works to give historical tours of the city with an organization called Bel Horizon. When I spoke to him, I realized that Camus borrowed from the geography of many real intersections and monuments.

HG: In your translation, that sense of place, including the colonial “toxicity” in Oran, which Alice Kaplan describes in States of Plague, is so vivid. Although Camus insists, in the book, that it is a charmless place, some poignant and inviting descriptions of certain features of the place creep into the text. You have written elsewhere about taking a trip to Brittany to meet with the poet Paol Keineg, whose book Triste Tristan you co-translated with Rosmarie Waldrop, and the importance, to you, of seeing “his ladybugs” and his landscape. Could you say a little about what it meant to your translation to get to explore the city of Oran, albeit sixty years after Camus spent part of WWII there?

LM: Colonial Oran was not a place Camus particularly liked—and he was a good critic of how the repressive and mercenary administration had marred the aspect of the city. But Camus was also an astute observer of the natural world—and the porousness between humans and their environments—and that was what first made me interested in his work, especially his early lyric essays about the landscape. 

HG: More broadly, do you consider this feet-on-the-ground sense of place to be crucial to your translation practice?

LM: Whenever I’m translating, I want to see the physical fabric of the book’s images as much as I can. It helps me reach beyond vocabulary, into what interests me most about translation, as a kind of memory work, as a co-, or counter-mapping of imaginative connotations. The choices that end up on the page are secondary to the whole mental process of creating images, sentence structures—the little thought-maps that precede what ultimately goes in the book. I hold a French sentence in my head and try to imagine how it looks in English, and there is real texture, real place, in that mapping—as well as grammar. Even in abstraction, language can’t really be untied from the memory of places, from the attempt to describe where we are. 

HG: I’m enchanted by the idea of the mapping of the place as connected, through “texture” and “grammar” to the mapping of the sentence. On the question of style, in your translator’s note, you mention a heaviness (perhaps related to the geography of Oran, walled in and facing away from the sea) in this book, which is modulated and interpolated with humor, as you write about so movingly in States of Plague, with both the descriptions of the sky and with the character Tarrou’s observations of “insignificant” detail. I know you have a background in poetry, and I felt, in the handling of sentences, like a multi-dimensional imagination of these sentences was at work as I read your translation. Would you say a bit about how you used syntax, rhythm, and the unit of the sentence to move the reader through those heavier passages, and how you varied your sentences based on the many kinds of writing and speech represented in the text?

LM: Tarrou is my favorite character! For me, he represents what’s lost when each individual dies—how all of the beautiful idiosyncrasies of their life go with them. In a book about a mass fatality event like a plague or a war or a pandemic, it’s vital to have characters like Tarrou, who fight for what, in States of Plague, I called the life story, rather than the death story. The poetry, the weirdness of the little old man who sprinkles paper down for the cats to bat, that’s all part of survival, and Camus doesn’t want that to be forgotten in the “sweep” of the event. I love poetry for that, and I loved rendering those passages. It’s much more human for a book like this to be anti-heroic, for Camus to give just as much grace to a hotel manager upset about how the rats are affecting his reputation as he does to the doctor out on his rounds. It’s really beautiful to me to think about a poet’s work as offering attention and gravity but never solely appropriateness. There’s nothing too small for the poet’s eye to notice—that idea of turning around the telescope is inspiring to me when I don’t know what to look for in my own writing. Multidimensional is a great way to put it.

HG: Tarrou is also my favorite, though perhaps that’s due to the influence of your writing in States of Plague. I was shocked when I read the passage about Tarrou assembling a public health squad, and the question arises as to whether “reward or punishment awaits.” The narrator says: “At the time, those among our fellow citizens who risked their lives had to decide if there was a plague, yes or no, and if they should fight it, yes or no.” I couldn’t help but think that this passage would not have made much sense to me before the Covid pandemic. But in reality, the questions about whether it exists and whether or not to fight it have been hotly debated, and perhaps especially because of our culture’s multiple, disparate media realities. Was there a particular part of The Plague that felt surprisingly prescient to you?

LM: There was one moment when my husband Matt and I were in quarantine that really shocked him. Camus writes in The Plague about the newspapers, about how there’s a shortage of paper and pulp, and yet, a whole new media organ emerges. Unsurprisingly, it’s full of prophecies and pseudo-cures for the disease. One day, I came downstairs, and Matt had read in our own, non-fictional newspapers about the pandemic paper shortage and how it affected print supply chains. And I was like, yeah, Camus writes about that, I was just working on that passage…

HG: Regarding States of Plague, which presents a different kind of collaborative writing from the writing of translation, how did you and Alice Kaplan decide to coauthor this elegant book: part literary scholarship and criticism, and part translation memoir. Did that decision grow out of your trip to Algeria or come afterward, once the new context in which the book could be read, the Covid 19 pandemic, became clear?

LM: The decision came after the trip, once the pandemic had already begun, and after I had written that essay you quote above. In truth, there was so much strangeness we both felt in working with The Plague as the Covid-19 pandemic continued—just the daily experience of going to the page and discovering something that related so sharply to what was happening in the news. And I think we both needed a place to put that feeling—of how the WWII allegory of the novel was collapsing, into a day-to-day experience of quarantine. I was so grateful to be in conversation with Alice—for the light of her brilliance over the course of the pandemic’s darkest days. We felt that the book’s descriptions of illness were suddenly reaching people in an immediate and literal way—and we were both interested in how that deepened and transformed how people had always been taught to read The Plague. It was also really important to us to write this book collaboratively—to puzzle out what we were seeing, rather than trying to speak alone about such a devastating, collective, and ongoing event.

HG: I’m curious about how your process or perspective, in translating The Plague, was affected by the fact that this is a well-known work, and one that’s been translated into English before. Did you find “retranslation” to be significantly different from translating a work that hasn’t previously appeared in English? Did you consult the other extant translations before or during your own translation work, or did you wait until after you had a draft?

LM: For me, the process of retranslation isn’t so different from translating a work that doesn’t yet exist in English. Certainly, in both cases, there’s a responsibility to justify the trust, the privilege of making another version of the author’s book. I wouldn’t want to work exclusively on retranslations, because there are so many amazing books out there that deserve to be translated. But the version history of translation—the kind of experiment in intense readership it offers—is fascinating to me. I wish there were more archives of translator’s drafts. And, to your question, I will always look at other translations if they exist, but usually just when I find a particularly strange or confounding moment in the text. If I’ve agreed to translate a book, it’s because I have a strong sense of how it should sound. I’m never going to imagine exactly the same voice and imagery as the previous translators. But it’s like having long-distance colleagues, and asking how they solved a particular puzzle. There was one moment in The Plague about a particular kind of 1940s steam heater in a train station. I’ve never seen one in my life, but Stuart Gilbert probably had.

HG: I love that idea of the long-distance colleague, someone to consult occasionally. The Stuart Gilbert translation has been criticized for ornamenting Camus’ prose and leaning, perhaps too far, into the allegorical side of the novel, in which the plague is a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France and “the scourge of war.” I wonder whether there’s a particular passage you could point to in which you had to choose between leaning into the allegory or staying closer to the details or realistic descriptions of illness, or the bureaucracies of Oran, for example?

LM: Stuart Gilbert liked to paraphrase, which was a much more common translation strategy at the time. Now it’s more often seen as domesticating—in the sense that he makes the characters more British, more polite. Camus hated bureaucracy, and Doctor Rieux is capable of biting irony (especially in the passages where he addresses the leader of the city, who tries to talk, absurdly, about how orderly the cemeteries are, compared to the mass graves of the past). The Gilbert reads: “though the burials are much the same, we keep careful records.” But Camus actually wrote a fiercer retort for Rieux, one that captures the banal cruelty of bureaucracy: “it’s the same burial, but in our case, we’ve filled out forms.”

HG: I believe you’ve said that you were partly inspired, in your translation, by a collection of Camus’ Personal Writings, translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy (Vintage, 2020). Could you talk about how this text and especially the way the translation was of use to you?

LM: Yes! I love those translations. The book (which is out now in a new edition) includes Camus’s early lyric essays, which he wrote a few years after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He’s in his early 20s, unsure how long he has to live. And rather than saying it directly, he pours all the grief into how much he loves the minute details of absinthe leaf smells, of the heat, of the way the water looks. And Ellen Conroy Kennedy captures the lyric ambivalence of those essays perfectly. That voice returns sometimes in The Plague, when a character looks at the sky, for example, or channels a hard truth into an observation about the landscape.

HG: Returning to landscape and to “hard truths” in several essays in States of Plague, you address the connection between Camus’ purported subject—an epidemic and the quarantine, and the attendant individual personal struggles and, in many cases, deaths—and its asymmetrical and metaphorical ties with his allegorical subject, the Nazi occupation of France and, to widen that lens: authoritarianism, nationalism, and weaponized hatred. You explore the interconnected ideas of “latency” and “immunity,” partly through the lens of Camus’ own struggle with tuberculosis, but also in terms of Camus’ view of (all of) our own latent capacities for hatred, and certain kinds of knowledge, naming, and vigilance that may “inoculate” us against the activation of that capacity. Intriguingly, you draw on several examples of BioArt, and artists from the second half of the twentieth Century who make work at the intersection of “immunity” and anti-racism. You frame The Plague within the context of BioArt, calling on the extensive research he used in writing it. First, how did you come to make this connection with BioArt, and secondly, did this connection inform your translation?

LM: Thanks for this question. One of the things that interests me most about BioArt is that it often focuses on the human self in a highly porous way. For example, I might see my body as a coral reef of microorganisms isolated from the rest of the water in the world by a thin membrane of skin. Which is not to deny responsibility toward others, but just to say that there is a lot more going on inside each person than we perceive from the outside—memories, illnesses, landscapes we’ve touched. The way Camus describes the ocean, the plague bacillus, the circulation of blood—these moments all reminded me of that same kind of humility at the cellular/microscopic level. That we have to acknowledge interconnectedness and act with great care toward each other. That knowing what biases/latent memories/immunities you might be carrying is part of mutual respect.

HG: To go a bit further with this biology connection, and the idea of latent memories, in a chapter of States of Plague intriguingly titled “Rat Eurydice,” you discuss the presence of rats in the novel. In the early pages of the book, rats are everywhere, eventually coming “out of the woodwork to die in groups.” You write about rats as “a sign of human plagues to come,” but also “carriers of plague memory, involuntary triggers of uneasiness in humans,” humans who don’t always grasp our vulnerability “to the environmental experiences that have preceded us.” I kept thinking of Donna Haraway’s Staying With the Trouble, and her arguments for animal kinship. You write about microbiology—the ways we’re connected, through micro-organisms, not just to one another, but to animals, water, and other elements of our environment. Would you talk a bit about the wider environmental implications you found in The Plague?

LM: It’s so funny that you brought up Haraway—I’ve been thinking about Staying with the Trouble as I work on my current book. Your question also reminds me of Camus’s essay “The Minotaur, or Stopping in Oran,” where he writes that the colonial city had turned its back toward the sea. The Plague, to me, is the ultimate consequence of that turning away—that refusal to be part of a connected world. The healthy people of Oran, especially the privileged leaders, are convinced that a plague epidemic can’t happen there. That their present has no connection to the epidemics of the past. And then the rats start dying. I think one lesson of the novel is that you can’t ignore your collectivity—which feels especially relevant in the face of climate change and the nihilism that sometimes arises in response. If you give up and stop taking precautions and stop fighting the issues at hand, it’s never just a personal decision, but rather a displacement of the consequences onto someone else. It’s a context where hope hurts but remains necessary—much like an epidemic, much like Haraway’s trouble. 

HG: You mention your current book, a collection of essays, The Age of Loneliness, under contract with Graywolf for 2024. Have your translation of The Plague, the reception of the book, or your writing about it for States of Plague, overlapped with the writing in this solo-authored work?

LM: I wrote versions of the first three essays in The Age of Loneliness as Alice and I were in the final stages of finishing States of Plague. But for the most part, the books didn’t overlap directly. The essays in my new book feel like a departure for me—the chance to make explicit something I’ve always felt implicitly in the sensibility of writers I admire—to braid environmental and personal history through the possibilities of the lyric essay. Each of the essays in the new book focuses on a landscape I know well, a place where personal and ecological loneliness overlap and inform each other.

HG: As I read The Plague, I could not help but read the character Joseph Grand, a city clerk who constantly rewrites one sentence—a sentence about, in one iteration,  a “‘svelte equestrienne’” riding a horse down the “‘flowering lanes of the Bois de Boulogne’”—as doing the work of a translator. His dedication to finding the perfect expression of his vision, changing the order of words and phrases, exhausting himself searching for near-synonyms with just the right nuance, and discovering the meaning of horse-specific terminology, like “sorrel” all felt so familiar! I wonder whether you have a favorite metaphor for the work of translation, or a particular model you keep in mind as you work?

LM: This is going to sound strange but it’s a metaphor from the book I’m working on now. Fungi, in the earth, have networks that are made of hyphae, tiny threads of mycelium. To make the connections, the tips of these threads have an attraction toward each other, which is called homing. I feel like, when they’re good, the translations of a phrase across languages have that kind of magnetism toward each other. Translation could be considered homing—between the disparate global threads of a giant language brain that informs communication in ways we don’t fully understand. Like the properties of fungi, translation is a massive and understudied force.

HG: That’s such a thought-provoking and memorable image to connect with the practice of translation. I wonder whether you could elaborate a bit on this idea of “homing” and whether, in this idea, texts and ideas have a kind of agency, or maybe energy, that creates this movement across cultures and places? 

LM: I’m glad it resonates! I reached for that metaphor because it goes beyond the idea that translation is just replication (or transfer) of meaning from one language to another. As hyphae reach for each other, they change the shape of the network as a whole. Because, as anyone who has practiced translation knows, you have to bend your mind and allow the work to transform and upend what you think the language can hold. As Johannes Göransson writes in his brilliant book Transgressive Circulation, there is a deregulating energy to the practice of translation.

HG: Changing gears a bit, I recently heard a keynote address—at the Center for the Art of Translation’s “Day of Translation”—by translator Jeremy Tiang, in which he considered how a translator, like an actor, can conceive of and develop a “body of work.” In other words, (as I understood it), if the translator is in a position to do so, they can choose projects and consciously build a corpus of texts that reflect their values or interests in a particular way. Is there a throughline or a resonance among the works you’ve translated thus far? Are there some criteria you consciously consider when choosing a new project?

LM: I loved seeing the impact of Jeremy Tiang’s keynote, and I think he quoted a really thoughtful thread by Anton Hur about picking projects intentionally, conscious of the implicit (and not so implicit) injustices that are everywhere in the literary world. I’ve definitely turned down projects before because I didn’t respect their politics, but I know I could always do more to advocate for books I love. When I’m considering a new project, I try to ask myself what I could learn from the way the author writes. Translators often end up being scouts, advocates, explainers, the person who picks up a book and talks about it in the right rooms—it’s a lot of (mainly) unpaid labor. Translators are also the ones who are bending new syntax into English, enlivening what the language can do—essentially imagining the future of what patterns English sentences might hold. Which is just to say that translators deserve more recognition for their work, and I appreciate the questions you’ve raised here. I also want to point to the examples and practices of the colleagues I’ve mentioned above and those I admire but haven’t mentioned yet—Emma Ramadan, Jennifer Croft, Sophie R. Lewis, Natasha Lehrer, Sawad Hussain, Sarah Booker, Julia Sanches—to name just a few. And the editors and agents pushing for more translated literature, too. 

HG: Finally, although I imagine this translation was arduous to write, because you were, on a daily basis, mentally entering an epidemic within a pandemic, I wonder whether the delights inherent to the work of translation were, to some degree, sustaining? Was there a particular element of research that interested you most? Was there a particular passage or part of The Plague that you most enjoyed translating?

LM: I’m always grateful to have work. It’s a privilege to go to my desk and make these choices about the weight of a metaphor, the capturing of a thought. Even in the darkest times, I find language sustaining. I like to translate books that have some fight in them–whether it’s a biography of Gramsci or a book of poems that’s full of fierce love for the landscape and language of Brittany. With The Plague, I loved translating the sky. We even did a project with our neighbors and the UB Arts Collaboratory in the middle of the pandemic—to go outside and write descriptions of the sky on the sidewalk in chalk—to translate what we could see when we looked up.

Laura Marris is a writer and translator. Her recent translations include Albert Camus’s The Plague, Geraldine Schwarz’s Those Who Forget, and To Live Is to Resist, a biography of Antonio Gramsci. Books she has translated have been shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, the Scott Moncrieff Prize, and the French-American Foundation Translation Prize. With Alice Kaplan, she is the co-author of States of Plague: Reading Albert Camus in a Pandemic. She is now working on her first solo-authored book, The Age of Loneliness, which will be published by Graywolf.

Heather Green is the author of the poetry collection No Other Rome (Akron Poetry Series, 2021) and the translator of Tristan Tzara’s Noontimes Won (Octopus Books, 2018). Her writing and translations have appeared in Asymptote, Bennington Review, Harriet Books, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Green is an Assistant Professor in the School of Art at George Mason University and serves on the poetry faculty of Cedar Crest’s Pan-European MFA.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, November 8, 2022

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