"The Plague" Translator Speaks With EHS Nobel Literature Class
When the year began, poet and literary translator Laura Marris was a few months into work on a ground-breaking translation of “The Plague,” the famous Albert Camus novel. Within a few weeks, she found strong echoes of the book in the daily news about the coronavirus.
“We’re in this moment when the way we read this book is changing,” Marris said during a discussion with EHS students in Mitch Pinkowski’s class on Nobel Prize literature. The students had nearly finished reading and discussing “The Plague,” and Pinkowski had arranged for Marris to speak with them about the book and her career.
The Marris translation of “The Plague” will be the first for an American audience since Stuart Gilbert’s 1948 version. Knopf Doubleday tapped her for this important task in 2019 following her translation of the French writer Louis Guilloux’s “Blood Dark,” work that earned her a spot on the shortlist for the 2018 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize.
Marris, who holds a B.A. from Yale and an M.F.A. in poetry from Boston University, told the students that she began to do translations as a career that could advance her own writing. “It’s not a bad way to make a living and have your life be focused on literary work,” she said. “Translation has always been a way of apprenticing myself to writers I really admire. Getting to translate Camus has been a dream for me.”
Answering students’ questions about her interpretation of “The Plague,” Marris noted that her translation would differ from Stuart’s, which, completed immediately after World War II, established the book as an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France. She said that Camus, who wrote much of the book while in isolation for his tuberculosis, intended it to have lasting, universal themes — namely, that the hate like what fueled Hitler’s rise is always with us, like disease, but that humans can inoculate themselves against it if they work for community and consider their own actions and prejudices.
“Plagues don’t die, and they don’t disappear,” she said. “But if you develop your immune system, you can be OK.”