Ward Just, a former journalist, has concentrated on the press, politics, and war in his eleven previous novels and collections of short stories. With THE TRANSLATOR, he shifts his focus to the changes Western Europe has undergone over the last fifty years to show how National Socialism, Communism, and Western materialism have combined to create a miasma of ennui, self-indulgence, and despair.
Sydney van Damm is a boy near the end of World War II when his father, a German army officer, is apparently executed by the Nazis for some treachery his son never discovers. Sydney moves to Paris in 1956, becoming a translator for a journal supported by the Central Intelligence Agency. He soon leaves the journal to translate German novels into English. His work is his only contact with his native country. Sydney and his American wife, Angela, see themselves as citizens of the world with no allegiance to any nation or political system.
This isolation changes when economic necessity forces Angela to return to America to try to claim the legacy her father has dissipated. Through Junko Poole, his friend and a former CIA operative, Sydney returns to Germany to translate during a shady arms deal that ends in chaos.
Just’s use of symbols can be rather facile at times. Carroll Dilion, Angela’s father, who has never worked, living off the capital from his investments, too easily reflects the decline of a lazy, wasteful America increasingly isolated from the world around it.
THE TRANSLATOR is almost a Henry James novel in reverse, with America representing the old, decaying values and Europe change and hope. Just, however, is not that optimistic about Europe’s future. In his moral vision, sins cumulate and must be paid for, often by the innocent.