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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Translation is a Love Affair

Jacques Poulin

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To purchase Translation is a Love Affair

Title: Translation is a Love Affair
Author: Jacques Poulin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 144 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Translation is a Love Affair - US
Translation is a Love Affair - UK
Translation is a Love Affair - Canada
La traduction est une histoire d'amour - Canada
Translation is a Love Affair - India
La traduction est une histoire d'amour - France
  • French title: La traduction est une histoire d'amour
  • Translated by Sheila Fischman

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Our Assessment:

B+ : genial, quite charming

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Book Rev. . 9/10/2009 Steven G. Kellman

  From the Reviews:
  • "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 Poulinís terse, limpid clauses, John Irving, whom Marine invokes at one point, seems closer in spirit to this winsome but irksome work." - Steven G. Kellman, American Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Translation is a Love Affair is narrated by Marine, a translator. She lives on her own, with her cat, Chaloupe, in a chalet on the Île d'Orléans, by Quebec City. She has no family -- growing up in a household of women, she has lost both her sister and her mother, two deaths that still haunt her -- and her closest relationship is with a writer twice her age whose work she translates, whom she still refers to as 'Monsieur Waterman'. They are close -- "If there was a way to get close to someone in this life -- of which I am not certain -- it might be through translation" -- but also keep their relationship on a friendly rather than intimate basis:

The business of sex doesn't concern Monsieur Waterman and me. We've never brought it up, but most of the time he didn't seem interested in that aspect of my person. As for me, it suited me fine.
       A novel of carefully weighed words, in which Marine repeatedly discusses issues of language, expression, and translation, even the deceptively simple passages are freighted with meaning: speaking of the 'business of sex' suggests Marine has trouble with the emotional aspect of it; 'most of the time he didn't seem interested' suggests there were times when he was; 'it suited me fine' suggests she thinks the alternative might suit her too; etc. (That there's an undercurrent of sexual tension is clear from the novel's opening scene, Marine emerging naked from a swim, Monsieur Waterman emerging from the chalet -- he's visiting for the weekend --, Marine putting her: "bikini back on and a T-shirt over it, but without rushing".)
       Marine is a damaged soul, still mourning her mother and weighed down by guilt at not having been able to be there (literally: she was abroad) when her sister died. Translation is a Love Affair offers a chance at some redemption and a new start, and it speaks to Poulin's talents that he can present what is, in its outlines, such a cloying plot without putting off the reader. (His trick is one of focus and language, not allowing the overly simplistic story-idea to dominate; for a novel that, in its outlines, seems incredibly obvious it's one of impressive subtlety, too.)
       The novel opens with a black cat appearing on the property. Apparently lost, they learn it was abandoned -- "He came in a taxi", in fact, brought here by some old woman. It has a collar, with a telephone number (not local), but when they call they only reach an answering machine, with a voice "that sounded very young". Later, they also find a short message hidden in the collar.
       Some basic detective work leads them to discover that the household the cat comes from consists of an old woman, and a teenage girl. As it happens, they live near Monsieur Waterman -- close enough that he can observe their terrace from his apartment using binoculars. One of the things he notices is that the girl has bandaged wrists, like from a suicide attempt .....
       Marine feels compelled to save the young girl -- even as she isn't sure yet what the girl needs saving from. (Conveniently, both the necessity and opportunity to save her become more pressing soon enough.) Monsieur Waterman is supportive and helpful.
       Marine took in the black cat, but it took a while for it to feel at ease there -- and for Chaloupe to accept the stranger in her territory. But then Translation is a Love Affair is a novel that's all about forms of adaptation, of being able to situate in new settings and circumstances -- cats, language, people. Translator Marine can handle language, and she manages with the cat(s) too; last, of course, -- and what the novel builds to -- is the question of whether she is ready for the next step, and can manage with a person, finally beginning to let go of her past and begin to move on with a new 'family'.
       As she says about her occupation:
     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.
       The rapport she has with Monsieur Waterman suggests an embrace beyond the purely literary; they are like family, and like family they look to bring first the black cat and then the girl into their fold, too. Haunted by her failure to be there for her sister, Marine is desperate to help the girl, but it's Monsieur Waterman's calming presence that allows them to proceed in a way that might make it possible.
       This basic plot of Translation is a Love Affair feels almost too simple -- and this saving-a-waif story already too familiar from Poulin's Mister Blue. In keeping the focus on Marine rather than the girl, and in the stories she tells -- of her experiences in the past and present -- the salvation-story doesn't overwhelm the novel itself -- helped always by Poulin's charming, careful writing.
       It's a good read, and a nice little book.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 February 2014

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Translation is a Love Affair: Reviews: Other books by Jacques Poulin under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French-Canadian author Jacques Poulin was born in 1937.

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