We moved into this house a few months before I began working as a translator. A colleague from the high school asked me to do a translation of a text for him that he couldn’t finish in time—a popular science book on the Copernican Revolution. It was not my area of expertise—I knew very little about the historical period—but I accepted. Since then, the editor has sent me numerous translation projects: stories, a poetry collection, a crime novel that sold fairly well, books on the history of science. Right now, I’m tackling the debut novel of a successful young Irish author. It’s not particularly difficult to translate, but the title still escapes me: Waiting for the Day to Come . . . En attendant que le jour arrive? Dans l’attente du jour à venir? It resists translation. I can’t manage to re-create its poetry, nor capture the concrete meaning. The heroine is not only awaiting the arrival of a new age, of a shift in mentalities. She is also waiting for the literal sun to rise. She must traverse the night and hang on until dawn. Only the first rays of sunlight will secure her salvation. Also, there’s an impatience to it that I can’t manage to render—an imminence, even. When you read it, it’s clear that the day is just about to arrive. Waiting for the Day to Come . . . And what to do about the ellipsis?
The rest of the novel hasn’t posed any major difficulties. I went about it as usual. I began by familiarizing myself with the structure of the author’s thinking. I learned the expressions she prefers, the ways she likes to begin her sentences, the repetitions she can’t manage to suppress, her favorite turns of phrase. I entered into her mind and adopted her logic until the mechanics of the whole were revealed to me. After several months of work, I can now say that I have appropriated her expressions and can write in her voice.
At this stage I can savor all the subtleties of her language, which is not very technical, but quite emotive. English is simplistic: no declensions to memorize, no adjective agreement. However, it’s a hilly language, irregular and changing: a rudimentary grammar, but expressions that sound good to the ear and an accent impossible to imitate. You can eliminate the syntax errors, expand your vocabulary, adopt the tics of the language, but English will always have a leg up on you. Sometimes I ask myself why I didn’t choose a logical, predictable language like German. With English I have to give up all control, which often irritates or frustrates me, but maybe it also explains why I haven’t grown tired of it.
People have asked me if my work as a translator has made me want to write my own things. My response has always been the same: I don’t think of myself as an author. When I translate, I am merely an interpreter, and that suits me perfectly. I don’t have to invent anything, which works out well because I don’t have much imagination. I prefer to observe, analyze, deduce; to dissect a text, discover its underlying meanings, uncover its implicit tone—to be on the lookout, like an investigator on the hunt for hidden clues. I also often think back to Marguerite Duras: “I’ve never written, though I thought I wrote.” The second clause in my favorite quotation has always carried that warning: be careful, you’re not writing, you’re translating.
The smell of the rain-soaked lawn reaches my window. I wish it would never stop raining. My husband is at the office, the children at school; I can continue my work without being disturbed. When my husband is at home, I lose all ability to concentrate. I jump at the slightest sound in the stairwell. As soon as I hear him approaching, I take off my glasses and turn off my computer. I would always prefer that he find me plunged into a thick linguistics textbook or absorbed by the translation of an obscure Byron poem than filling out my students’ report cards on the school website. As a precaution, I always have a fountain pen next to me in case my husband enters my office: he loves to see me writing by hand.
He has always admired how rigorously I note the words I need for my translations in my small notebooks. I have a dozen of them. The red notebook is for terms related to politics and societal debates, the blue one is for terms related to nature and the environment. (That one’s been written in the most; in particular it contains the names of climbing plants in English gardens and the different species of oak trees). They are all placed side by side on the shelf above my desk, but today I notice that one of them has disappeared. I look everywhere for my yellow notebook, which contains vocabulary related to medicine and the history of the sciences, in vain.
I also have a notebook dedicated to romantic vocabulary, with words that pertain to meeting someone, relationships, separations, and every variation of feeling. Certain recurring expressions give shape to the romantic imagination of the English language—and, by extension, to that of the Irish novelist. (There’s no way to prove it, but it seems to me that she blames herself for the devastating loss of her first love, and believes she must pay the price of her past mistakes for her entire life.) For example, the phrase “let you go” is everywhere in her book. “Let you go” is in the mouth of every character and used in every situation: I shouldn’t have let you go, I will never let you go, don’t let me go, etc. The expression is often used as a form of regret: I’m angry at myself for having let you go, I should have made you stay. We think it’s our fault if the other person leaves us, that we could have done something to stop it. We imagine that we could have acted in such a way as to preserve their desire to be together. The idea behind “let you go” is pleasant; there’s even something reassuring about it. It’s a fiction that I, too, would like to believe in. Absorbed in my translation, I wonder if that expression, so difficult to translate into French, testifies to the fact that English-speakers love differently than us. Do they make more effort? For them, is it possible to make love last? To reignite a desire that’s been extinguished? How do they do it? What tender song, new outfit, irresistible perfume, or vacation to the other ends of the earth allows them to hold on to someone on the verge of leaving?
Will “let you go” one day seep into my marriage? How can we protect ourselves from this English blight? Unsurprisingly, even when focused on my translation work, I’m thinking about my husband with each page. All the books I read are about him. During my first translation on the Copernican Revolution (what a scandal: we are not the center of the world, the Earth revolves around the Sun, exiled in an infinite universe), I couldn’t stop comparing that scientific discovery with my emotional life. I realized, overwhelmed, that this collapse of all previous points of reference, of everything that had been taken for granted, is exactly what it would feel like if I had to live without my husband. The narrative can unfurl in a distant epoch or in a remote universe: I will still be brought back to him through a description, a love scene, a word. A work on gardening or a book on ancient Egypt can still easily remind me of my husband.
I grab the largest book in our library, pulling the letter from between its pages and placing it on my desk. The envelope has not been opened; I check every Tuesday. In the last few months, I’ve hidden it in the dresser drawer, in a shoebox, in the wicker basket under my bedside table—but my husband has never found it.
The rain stops. It, too, has abandoned me. I make a cup of tea and sit in the living room armchair—in this spot at this time of day, the light is ideal for reading. I open The Lover, which I left out conspicuously on the coffee table. Will my husband notice it this time? Will he pick up on the clues I sprinkle in his path? Last night I was incapable of reading a single line, but this time I lose myself in the novel, which makes my afternoon go by more quickly, effortlessly consuming the remaining hours.
From My Husband by Maud Ventura, translated by Emma Ramadan. Used with permission of the publisher, HarperVia. Copyright © 2023 by Maud Ventura/Emma Ramadan.