Published May 5, 2020
Laura Marris never imagined the approaching relevance of Albert Camus’ “The Plague” when she began working on a new translation of the novel last September for the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
But for Marris, an adjunct instructor in the Department of English, her work translating Camus’ allegorical tale set in a town ravaged by illness is now a project that continues in the inescapable reality of the current COVID-19 pandemic, a coincidence drawing both bold and lightly shaded parallel lines of art apparently manifest in life.
The project began simply.
Knopf contacted Marris last summer, based on her previous work translating French literature, to ask if she would audition for the job by translating the novel’s first 20 pages. Having secured the position, she began working a few months later on what will be the first version of the French literary classic for an American audience since Knopf published Stuart Gilbert’s translation in 1948.
Marris’ role has become obviously more nuanced since then. She’s started her second English draft, which could still be revised another two or three times. A firm publication date hasn’t been set, but what’s certain is that American readers for the first time in two generations will have access to an English language update of “The Plague.”
That kind of opportunity for a translator is an important responsibility, which she acknowledges along with her lifelong appreciation for Camus’ work and the pleasure that comes from trying to do justice in English to his original French sentences.
“For me there are moments when Camus’ prose is so full and spare, written with such restraint, that I feel like I’m putting on my lyric poetry cap and really trying to capture the lean beauty of those lines,” says Marris, who has published original poetry and prose, and earned her MFA in poetry from Boston University.
Restraint is a quality Marris mentions often discussing Camus’ style, and it’s a characteristic she tries to artfully maintain in her translation, lingering over language and applying the writer’s observation to the careful watching of words.
Henry James’ quote that “a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost” is a description that might more accurately describe the work of a translator.
“There are places Gilbert gets so caught up in the feeling of the novel that what he gives seems to be his experience of reading it,” says Marris. “So where Camus will write something simple, like, ‘They returned to work,’ Gilbert might translate that as ‘They put their shoulders to the wheel.’ The novel is heroic on its own, so it’s unnecessary to create that heroic feeling if it wasn’t originally there on the page.”
Gilbert’s translation is an obvious foil for Marris to work against and keep in the back of her mind, but she also considers the context in which he worked, and the environment in which she now finds herself.
“When Gilbert worked on his translation, the post-World War II context was deeply embedded in his mind with the idea that the novel is an allegory for the French resistance to Nazi occupation,” she says. “For me, there is an opportunity to restore some of the other things that were at stake for Camus. He was somebody with tuberculosis, so for him illness was not just a metaphor. He had something personal at stake.”
Marris says she’s looking at the world while translating the novel, wondering what Camus would say about what’s happening today.
Some insight might come from a speech Camus gave in 1946 at Columbia University, which she encourages people to watch, about the value of returning to a human scale.
“He gives a moving argument for the value of creating communities and having a shared immunity to the forces of totalitarianism, fascism, oppression, all those forces which on a large scale want to suppress individual communities and create some kind of terrifying cultural homogeny,” says Marris.
“I think that the humanities and literature especially can help us return to that experience of human scale and connect us through a shared readership that helps us have a voice like Camus’ voice that watches out for the most vulnerable sectors of our society.
“I hope that through this translation, Camus will become one of the voices that advocates for a more humane world when we emerge from this.”