Translating “The Plague” During a Pandemic: An Interview With Laura Marris

"The Plague"

Literary translation isn’t solely a desk job. In December 2019, a few months after agreeing to translate Albert Camus’s The Plague, Laura Marris traveled to Algeria, the author’s native country and the setting for his powerful portrait of a city enduring a deadly epidemic. Accompanied by Alice Kaplan, the author of the 2016 book Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, Marris walked the same streets as Dr. Bernard Rieux, the stalwart hero of The Plague. “That really helped the book,” she told me, “just in terms of seeing the landscape and getting the right names for trees, things like that. I think it’s always helpful as a translator to see the place where a book is set.” 

Not long after returning home to New York, Marris realized that she was in the midst of a singular project: she would spend the next several months translating a plague novel—the plague novel, a vivid allegory about the Nazi occupation of France—while living through a real-life pandemic. Her exquisite translation captures the novel’s harrowing qualities, its poetic turns-of-phrase, its way of articulating the disease’s assault on bodily health, mental stability and domestic relationships. Even those not struck down by the “illness’ brutal invasion” are profoundly changed by the experience, Camus writes in Marris’ translation: “they had nothing left but general ideas, and even their love had taken the most abstract form.” 

Marris, who teaches creative writing at the University of Buffalo, answered a few of my questions about her work in a recent video interview. Knopf published her translation of The Plague on Nov. 16. It’s the first translation of the book published in the US since Stuart Gilbert translated Camus’s French text in 1948. 

When did you agree to do this translation? It must’ve been very odd to work on a book about a plague during Covid.

It’s one of the strangest things to ever happen to me. I heard about this project in the summer of 2019. The Camus estate had been asking for this book to be retranslated for a while, and I think some scholars of Camus, and people who assign the book, had also been asking for a new translation. 

Why was that?

Other works of Camus’s that had been translated by Gilbert had already been retranslated. The Stranger, for instance. I think there was just a sense that that translation was a bit mid-Atlantic, a bit genteel—it’s seventy years old. Knopf reached out to me to audition for it.

What’s an audition in a case like this?

I did a sample chapter—the first twenty pages or something like that—and they liked it. I think I got the commission in August 2019. 

Do you have a hard deadline when you start a project like this? 

I had a deadline of—I believe it was a year, so I was looking at August 2020, turning it in. 

Incredible timing.

Yeah. I think that the Trump administration and the rise of authoritarian ways of speaking, the rise of nationalism—these things also probably put a little pressure on the estate to make the project happen then. And so The Plague was already experiencing this renewed relevance, in a way. Then there was this confluence of Covid, which was a really strange thing for me to work through as a translator. 

I was kind of a Cassandra among my friends at the start of the pandemic, because they were thinking, Well, maybe I’ll just go to my parents’ house in the suburbs for a week and wait it out. And I was saying, Don’t go anywhere you’re not willing to stay for the next six months to a year. I was immersed in this world of this historical plague—and I too didn’t quite believe that I really lived in that world, physically, in my real life. But it turns out everything that’s happened in history can happen to us. 

You’ve translated several other books, but none are as well-known as The Plague. Is it daunting to take on a classic like this? 

It is definitely daunting. I think there’s always a deep breath you take before starting your translation, no matter what. I usually do four or five drafts, and I try to have patience with myself—I know that I’m going to go back and change things. I usually find that it takes me a while to sink into the tone and the voice of the book, and as I’m doing five to ten pages a day, moving through the first draft, I know that the second half will be better than the first. The tone will be better, I’ll begin to understand the author’s particular predilections for connotations and vocabulary, and I’ll start to develop a system for what those choices should sound like in English. Then the reaching for the English becomes more intuitive, I find. I go back and revise the beginning once I’ve been through the whole text and made some decisions along the way.

I try to listen to myself if I’m noticing that I’m making contradictory choices about a particular pattern in the text. For example, in the book there are these serums. It would’ve been easy to choose “vaccine,” because that was what everyone was talking about. But I ended up choosing the closer cognate because Camus is very particular—he’ll use the word “vaccinated,” but very rarely does he use the word “vaccine.” It makes sense because the serum is what you take from somebody who has beat the disease—it’s their blood plasma, basically. And to inject that into other people is like sharing this community resistance, so it makes sense for the allegorical world of the book.

Let’s go back a bit. How did you come to this work to begin with? You learned French in school? 

Yes, from a pretty young age. I got my MFA in poetry, and I was doing a little bit of translation work in grad school, just because it was a skill that I had and I was trying to make money. But I never really thought about it seriously until I finished my MFA and I was looking for work. This novel by Louis Guilloux called Blood Dark came up with New York Review Books. It’s 600 pages and no one else had the time. I had just graduated and I had all the time in the world, so I stuck my hand up. 

Do you have a set of guiding principles that you take from one translation to another? Are there things that a translation definitely should or shouldn’t do?

I try not to have too many assumptions about how a text should sound before I’m immersed in it. I think the most important thing to me is flexibility, and also a kind of restraint on my part. I thought about this a lot when I was working on The Plague because Camus does have a great deal of restraint, even though the topic is an overwhelming one. 

Yeah, that struck me again and again.

It’s very moving, his restraint. One of the ways that I tried to differentiate myself from Gilbert has to do with how he puts his own emotional response to those moments of restraint on the page. For instance, where Camus says, They got back to work—the French is very simple—Gilbert will be like, They put their shoulders to the wheel again. You can really feel Gilbert’s emotion at that moment—it’s a very moving moment. But I think it’s important for me in those moments to hold back my own feelings, so that the reader can make that emotional leap for themselves. 

You’d first read The Plague years ago, I’m guessing?

Yeah, I read it in school.

Going back to it again, did you sit down and read the whole novel front to back in French again before starting your translation?

No, I really wanted to have the experience of rediscovering it while I was translating, to not remember every single detail of the plot. Translation is a little bit grueling. I love it, and in a way it was such a bizarre comfort to have this book to work with. There is a lot of wisdom in it. It explains a lot of things about the psychology of a quarantined city. It’s a book with a great plot, and I didn’t deprive myself the pleasure of rediscovering the twists and turns of it again as I was translating it. 

Speaking of quarantined cities, late in the book, Camus writes about the populace’s “contradictory” feelings as they head “down the path of hope” that the plague might be waning. “To be precise, they alternated between excitement and depression.” We can all identify with that. For you, this book must’ve been filled with little moments like this.

Absolutely. I would joke with my husband about this. There’s a paper shortage in the book, and one day I came downstairs and was recounting what I was working on. He just started laughing and pointed to the newspaper—there was an article in the New York Times about a paper shortage. So little moments like that happened again and again. 

The moments of the book that talk about politics, I think struck me with a lot of immediacy. There’s that great line where Rieux goes to the meeting with all the physicians and the prefect of the city. No one wants to say the word “plague.” Eventually he says, I don’t care what you call this—it’s not a question of vocabulary, it’s a question of time. 

You were among many writers who recently signed an open letter about credit for translators. Can you tell me about that?

I’m really grateful for folks like Jennifer Croft (a Booker Prize winner for her translation of Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights), who have pushed for acknowledgment of translators’ names on book covers, and for more transparency in the presentation of translated literature. What I really like about the letter is that it’s not asking publishers to put translators names on covers—it’s a letter asking authors to ask for their translators to be named on the cover. I think that’s a great way to go about it, because authors are not the ones who have a problem with translators being named. It’s really just this conception that translated literature doesn’t sell well, or this idea that there will be some kind of foreignness in language that will put people off. These are myths that are just so archaic at this point. Translated literature is in this moment of real vibrancy, and there should be acknowledgement that A) these books were not originally written in English; and B) they didn’t magically appear in English. 

I recently wrote this book of essays with Alice Kaplan called States of Plague: Reading Albert Camus in a Pandemic (University of Chicago Press; fall 2022). That book is being translated into Greek, so for the first time, I was able to ask in the contract for the translators’ name to be on the cover. I was really happy to do that. 

One more thing before I let you go. It’s about finding the plainspoken poetry in this book, which you did extremely well. I’m thinking of sentences like “And so each person had to agree to live day by day, facing the sky alone.

I love those moments where Camus turns to the sky. This was something that really attracted me during the quarantine. Camus can be so immersed in a horrible scene, something that is just heartrending—someone is dying on the operating table, treatments have failed. And then he’ll switch gears and just have a moment where the doctor goes outside and sits on a bench; he looks at the sky and he talks about the clouds. To me those were little markers of grief—tiny memorials in poetic language. And because it’s the sky, it’s a place that’s visible to everyone. 


Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City. 

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