Toward the end of January, I began to notice a strange echo between my work and the news. A mysterious virus had appeared in the city of Wuhan, and though the virus resembled previous diseases, there was something novel about it. But I’m not a doctor, an epidemiologist or a public health expert; I’m a literary translator. Usually my work moves more slowly than the events of the moment, since translation involves lingering over the patterns of a sentence or the connotations of a word. But this time the pace of my work and the pace of the virus were eerily similar. That’s because I’m translating Albert Camus’s novel “The Plague.”
One morning, my task was to revise a scene in which the young doctor Rieux, realizing that plague has broken out in the Algerian city of Oran, tries to persuade his bureaucratic colleagues that they should take the outbreak seriously. He knows that if they don’t, half the city will die. The city’s leader doesn’t want to alarm people. He would prefer to avoid calling this disease what it is. When someone says “plague,” the politician looks at the door, making sure no rumor of this word has escaped down the tidy administrative hallways. The dramatic irony is delicious — like watching characters debate the word “bomb” when there’s one ticking under the table. Dr. Rieux is impatient. “You’re looking at the problem wrong,” he says. “It’s not a question of vocabulary, it’s a question of time.”
As I translated that sentence, I felt a fissure open between the page and the world, like a curtain lifted from a two-way mirror. When I looked at the text, I saw the world behind it — the ambulance sirens of Bergamo, the quarantine of Hubei province, the odd disjunction between spring flowers at the market and hospital ships in the news. It was — and is — very difficult to focus, to navigate between each sentence and its real-time double, to find the fuzzy edges where these reflections meet.
“The Plague” did not come easily to Camus. He wrote it in Oran, during World War II, when he was living in an apartment borrowed from in-laws he disliked, and then in wartime France, tubercular and alone, separated from his wife after missing the last boat back to Algeria. Unlike the shorter, harsher sentences of “The Stranger,” which Sartre quipped could have been titled “Translated From Silence,” the sentences of “The Plague” bear witness to the tension and monotony of illness and quarantine: They stretch their lengths to match the pull of anxious waiting. By the time the book was published in 1947, writers were looking for a way to bear witness as well to the Nazi occupation of France, and “The Plague” was championed as the novel of the occupation and the Resistance. For Camus, illness was both his lived experience and a metaphor for war, the creep of fascism, the horror of Vichy France collaborating in mass murder.
But unlike many of his contemporaries, Camus took the long view. The heroism of the Resistance was less important to him than how humanity could be restored after the war. In his speech “The Human Crisis,” delivered at Columbia University in 1946, he pushed for a postwar return to the human scale, calling hatred and indifference “symptoms” of this crisis. He refused to let his country off the hook for its role in spreading this illness: “And it’s too easy, on this point, simply to accuse Hitler and say that the snake has been destroyed, the venom gone. Because we know perfectly well that the venom is not gone, that each of us carries it in our own hearts.”
While he knew that people carried traces of hatred, he was also hoping those traces could be disarmed as cultural antibodies. In this same speech, he called for creating “communities of thought outside parties and governments to launch a dialogue across national boundaries; the members of these communities will affirm by their lives and their words that this world must cease to be the world of police, soldiers and money, and become the world of men and women, of fruitful work and thoughtful play.” In response to the symptoms of war, Camus saw shared consciousness as a healing force, becoming particularly interested in how people could develop a global collectivity that would protect them against nationalism and fascism. Writing “The Plague” in the form of a historical “chronicle” was a hopeful gesture, implying human continuity, a vessel to carry the memory of war as an inoculation against future armed conflicts.
This view met with some pushback. In 1970 Sartre said in an interview, “When I think of Camus claiming, years later, that the German invasion was like the plague — coming for no reason, leaving for no reason — quel con, what a fool!”
But while Camus was writing for the moment, he was also writing for the future. He was making art out of what happens between antibodies and germs, expanding metaphors from the molecular level. Though many rightly interpret “The Plague” as a novel about the collective spirit of resistance, there is also a deeper collectivity at work: our shared antibodies, the immunity of the herd.
The truth is, as a metaphor, translation is uncomfortably close to transmission. Translators move words across borders, we open gates between one language and the next. But it matters what is being transmitted. Throughout “The Plague,” old Dr. Castel is trying to develop a serum to share containing the antibodies of patients who have survived.
I still hope that books from the past can be a kind of serum for the future, as Camus intended his novel to be. He knew that his book would be needed again, long after his death, in a context he couldn’t predict or imagine. Why else would he have ended it this way: “Indeed, as he heard the cries of delight rising from the city, Rieux remembered that this delight was always threatened. For he knew what this joyous crowd did not, and what you can read in books — that the germ of the plague never dies or disappears, that it can lie dormant for decades in furniture and linens, that it waits patiently in rooms, in basements, in trunks, among handkerchiefs and paperwork, and that perhaps the day would come when, for the sorrow and education of men, the plague would revive its rats and dispatch them to die in a happy city.”