Hannah Allen-Shim translates Salomé Assor

from Un (One)

not a day goes by without the belief that there 
is a prisoner of the desert, yes, the desert, a 
prison without barbed wire, an uninhabited 
stretch as far as the eye can see where every 
night the one i call prisoner goes to sleep, a 
lone man, surely the last one standing, sort of 
like the antithesis of god, the last man standing, 
condemned to oneness despite being the creator 
of absolutely nothing, detainee of the uninhabited, 
captive of no man’s land, of a vast stretch that 
never ceases to be at full stretch, the man i’m 
describing knows only solitude and its cacti, 
besides, we never find what we’re looking for 
between the dunes, only sand and our own foot-
prints, prisoners don’t know a whole lot of 
people, but mine surely knows me, 
why yes, surely
a strange sort of confusion that makes you say 
things twice, and perhaps my prisoner knows 
me from all the times i’ve asked about him in 
my prayers,

actually, i’ve never prayed

good lord what nerve

every day i push myself inwards, sort of like a 
pants pocket, closing in on this man, this student
of the innermost region of my being, what is he
doing during this heatwave, whose face does 
he picture to overcome the uniform color of the
sand, the uninterrupted sand, always the same 
color, indistinguishably tan without respite, 
and does he fall asleep despite the whisper of 
scorpions, does he suddenly feel the urge to 
speak to the cacti out of survival instinct, to sit 
before them and recount his days, my orphan of 
society, but what is there to discuss when your 
interlocutor is a cactus, i mean what topics are 
off-limits with deaf-mute succulents

anyway, i digress, the way we all digress in the
presence of our prisoners, they have a gift for
making us reevaluate everything, Monsieur, 
if there’s a reason i’m here today it is to pin 
my coloring pages to your bulletin board, i
thought i might sit down and draw for a while, 
the way children do when they aren’t allowed 
to spin in circles, they languish on a table and
eventually lose themselves, in all innocence i 
wanted to be like them, the clumsy liberty of an 
adult pouring her heart out on coloring pages, 
by that i mean succumbing to inertia, regression
is a minor sorrow in prose and adults ought to give
in to it, your childish whims resurface gasping
for air, adults are heartless for suffocating their
childhood memories, in the name of time you
might say, in that case, Monsieur, let me ask you 
this, why fight the return of your inner child, yes, tell 
me, why not just consent to his eyes, to the very 
being you embodied until he set fire to good 
manners and wandered off in mockery, grown-ups 
ought to let loose a little, even if it means losing 
what they think they own, in reality they have
nothing to lose, just some neckties and 
some green polka-dotted opinions, but i’m 
well aware that every night when you’re naked, 
when your old man suit finally dangles on 
its hanger like god, it’s the cacti you talk to, 
you show them your drawings of abandoned 
women and enslaved monkeys, but what can 
you possibly expect from a cactus that never 
answers you, they are just like adults, constantly
forgetting their lines when you confront them 
with childish questions, the cacti are deaf-mute, 
and later on you have the same dream over and 
over again the way kids do, i myself am one of 
them, all i had to do was betray the order of things 
by uncovering your inner child, i play a minor 
role in your dreams every now and then and 
there you have it,

when it comes to being humiliated,
two heads are better than one

for no matter how much i argue about marxist 
alienation and chat with men in suits and sweet-
talk in bars, i still go home alone and some-
times drink a big glass of milk and other times
i pee in bed,
don’t tell anyone
yes, i pee in bed as if to mock my philosophical 
façade, as if to return to the origin of my suffering,
deep down this place cuts you off in the middle 
of your speech, all you have to do is take the 
stage wearing a suit and get up in front of the
mic, and clearing your throat like the paralytic 
of the dialogue who never knows what to say 
in front of an audience of cacti, oh how he 
overflows with words and oh how he’d love to 
get rid of that mic and bury the cacti in his arms, 
but throwing yourself headlong into a sea of cacti 
and getting ripped to shreds and falling flat on your
face, come on, doctors would never prescribe that, 
those men in suits standing in front of a mic would 
still rather be prisoners than explode with their 
emancipated sand, yes, Monsieur, i swear, i’ve seen 
it with my own eyes, childhood cuts you off in the 
middle of your speech, it says everything for you 
and silences your future while slipping past the 
solemnity of your voice, childhood slips away the 
same way the moon eclipses the sun, besides, don’t 
you see that the circumference never dies out, at the 
exact moment of perfect alignment the glare of the 
sun encircles the lunar abyss, that’s when childhood
comes into focus, the second the elderly overshadow
it, their act of hostility backed by a cactus,
well there you have it, i wanted to wait before 
telling you about time but it’s already too late, 
that’s just the problem, with regard to
time i mean,
better never than late


for a long time i thought you were the imaginary 
friend who keeps kids company on rainy days, 
a shadow that follows children on their way to 
school, tumbling down the slope of morning with
conviction just to painstakingly pick itself back up 
around half-past four, when children have snack 
and grown-ups speed home to hit the sack, fine, 
and i tried to write to you on numerous occasions 
without really knowing where to begin or what i 
should tell you after this life worthy of abandon,
those centuries of silence that were really just a
few short minutes spent overthinking, suspenseful 
minutes when hands vanished into thin air and i 
desperately sought a table where i could finally 
meet you, finally, that time i never knew how to 
define since it isn’t much and, like you, evades 

from time to time a good old time, in other 
times just a pass-time, the light-dark
uncertainty that certain uncertain people call 

for a long time i traveled in another child’s 
locomotive, having found it ownerless on the
asphalt next to a hopscotch court, and though 
i remorselessly claimed it was mine, i never 
went anywhere since i was waiting for one last 
passenger to arrive before setting off, in fact i’m 
still waiting for him, he should be here any minute, 
good lord, may that child forgive me for neglecting
the princely plaything i stole from him, stealing 
useless things is a particularly striking gesture, 
who would have guessed that a species like ours 
would do such a thing, so there you have it,
burned everything in the name of time, in other 
words in the most impenetrable anonymity, yes, 
without a name i let everything go to waste, but 
that’s what kids do in their free time, let everything 
go to waste, especially their time

they claim ownership of hot-air balloons instead 
of going to school, smart cookies spared from 
society as they feign illness and simply languish 
by the skylight of a wall to poeticize the mediocrity 
of the streets, refusing to go to school is the only 
safe way to become a poet, but what would we 
say if an adult did that, Monsieur, what would we 
say if a tireless man in a tux was dispensed one fine 
morning on the pretext of symptoms, with nothing 
but his own four walls for protection, frozen before 
a desert of gesticulating men in tuxes, all on his own,
disoriented with such quietude, a smoky dreamer 
exiled from society,

dead poets society

what would we say about the poor man in a tux if 
we found out by misfortune he’d deceived the 
authorities with his prevarications, that he’d with-
drawn from the assemblies just to smoke his cigarette 
and sip his coffee with the sovereign laziness of a true

the turmoil the error the indecision, the culprit that 
is time, time wasted from being without you, for i 
never had the courage to write to you, even if it was 
such an obvious way to refuse to take action, even if
it was far too eloquent a language for my madness, it 
is what it is, i am the worst kind of unpunctuation, 
yes, the kind with an endless waiting period, that’s 
my alibi, but you mustn’t believe that pretexts are 
worth the science of truth, for in reality no one puts 
pen to paper in fear they won’t be read, the problem 
has just been articulated, yes, you would rather 
remain silent than sit on the reflections heaped up in 
your inner construction zone, after all, there is nothing 
more shameful than reflecting, reconstructing, and 
entering somewhere to ask for a table for one, nothing
more humiliating than asking for a table for one next 
to all those people gathered together for a meal, even 
though there’s no such thing as a table for one, for 
there are always two chairs surrounding a table, 
it’s a good thing for the one who pretends to 
wait for the other,

but secretly sits at the table alone

Monsieur, it’s a good thing this solitude 
pretends to be two, 
for the one who waits for the other is naïve, but 
the one who waits for nobody is a sickly loner, then 
again what’s the use of hiding what everyone hides, 
deep down those who wait for others know a thing or
two about the absent-minded little girl by the window,
and they too are well acquainted with tables for one 


i think of you who are my people but never present,

that must be the true purpose of an empty chair, 
to seat absentees, 

offer them some tea,

and sit there in silence

and back we go to our coloring pages, we keep 
them near us, right there, almost there, and forget 
them as long as we can, but forgetting absentees 
never lasts very long, for there comes a time when 
you suddenly lift your head and in the unexpected 
blink of an eye, with a somewhat foolish look burst-
ing out of nowhere, there comes a time when you 
must verify the assiduity of the absentee who hasn’t
moved a single inch, still right in place on his empty 
chair, drinking his tea, yes, despite our efforts to do 
something else, we end up regaining our composure 
just to ensure the punctuality of the other, he who stays 
silent with us and shares a bit of this weakness, a bit 
of this singular mediocrity, the unquantifiable almost-
nothing, a drop of the self above the immensity of a 
cup of tea too hot to drink, merely decorative and 
feigning the kinds of conversations people have over
a cup of tea, needless to say, much like dear god who 
feigns existence, for at the end of the day, Monsieur, 
what’s the difference between god and tea, it’s 
the worst kind of silence,

the absentee still sits on his empty chair, thinking 
about his own absentees, surely himself, too busy 
coloring to consider the case of others, and that 
very instant of the straightened face, the instant 
distress that fascinates me as it transforms into a 
presence of mind that should inexist, the sudden 
awareness of the non-being, there you have it, 
Monsieur, i am fascinated by this gesture that 
never gives warning, the worst kind of gesture, 
it shatters the reflex known as inattention and 
silences self-abnegation by violently interrupting 
the benevolence of negligence, the astonishing 
virtues of waiting shattered in one fell swoop,

all that for an empty chair, forever unable to 
liberate what seemed to be the other, all that 
for what, for whom, i honestly have no clue, 
for whom for what how should i put it, Monsieur,
just to submit an empty chair to the scrutiny of 
a gaze that makes nothingness burst forth from 
its abyss


i call you from my desert island, the absentees 
sneak off and persistently write to avoid 
completely disappearing, and i know this letter 
is a bit long, Monsieur, yes, fine, admittedly, 
sometimes i promise myself the last word, 
come on, after all, must i bring this dictatorial 
detour to a full stop, come on come on, let’s 
make this word the last of them all, in any event, 
here you will always have the last word, in all 
innocence i’m trying to find a kind word to put 
an end to my tyranny, rummaging through 
childish rhymes as a way to defy destiny, i 
know this letter is rather long, Monsieur, 
but remember your advantage, you can 
easily close these pages and go see what 
else is out there while i, pitiful me, must
persistently write with no choice but to sit
tight, this is where we go our separate ways,
Monsieur, you can close the debate by escaping
my voice while i have no other option than 
to correspond with the imaginary being that 
you are as a way to brave my solitude, you 
can silence me at any moment, and not even 
chatterboxes have this aptitude, for unlike my 
nonsense, your silence is truer to reality than 
any exactitude


Translator’s Note:

Salomé Assor’s debut novel One is a meditation on the unexpected and often unacknowledged violence of solitude. A book that defies genres and conventions, One stands somewhere between prose, monologue, and poetry. The text is narrated by a young woman who sits “at a table for one” and addresses a mysterious “Monsieur”—a figure who embodies various notions, including unrequited love, the reader, and the persistent absence of the other. As a statement on the male gaze and masculinity, the narrative avoids uppercase letters except for the “M” of the word “Monsieur.” Composed of a single phrase punctuated by commas alone, the text challenges the notion of time and resists the constant threat of endings.

I was first drawn to One by Assor’s innovative uses of language. The book is full of wordplay, and Assor frequently pushes the boundary between literal and figurative meanings. In the first passage I’ve included, Assor uses the phrases “voler en éclats” and “tomber à pic,” which are woven into the image of taking the stage and “throwing yourself headlong into a sea of cacti.” The former expression, “voler en éclats,” carries the meaning of being smashed to pieces in both a literal and figurative sense. I chose to translate this as “getting ripped to shreds” to recreate the blurred boundary between literal and figurative meanings, as the expression is fitting for the physical action of “throwing yourself headlong into a sea of cacti” and the more abstract idea of an actor getting severely criticized by “an audience of cacti.”

The latter expression, “tomber à pic,” means “to come along at the right time” as an idiom. When taken as the verb “tomber” (to fall), followed by the phrase “à pic” (sharply/vertically/abruptly), however, it can refer to the physical act of falling steeply. I decided to translate this as “falling flat on your face” because it is consistent with the imagery of being on stage and possibly tripping and falling, as well as the potential scenario of having an embarrassing performance.

One of my favorite passages to translate was “i am the worst kind of unpunctuation, yes, the kind with an endless waiting period,” derived from “je suis une imponctuée de la pire espèce oui, de l’espèce la plus mal en point,” which roughly translates as: “i am an unpunctuated (person, female) of the worst kind yes, the kind in the worst shape.” “[I]mponctuée” comes from Assor combining the negating prefix “im” with the adjective “ponctué” (punctuated). I chose “unpunctuation” to reflect Assor’s usage of a word that doesn’t officially exist. “(Être) mal en point” as an expression means “to be in a bad way.” Taken literally, though, the phrase can also signify “to be bad at (using) periods,” since “point” is the word for “period.” By employing “waiting period,” which can convey a specified delay or a punctuation mark whose absence is among One’s defining features, I aimed to capture the original’s multivalence and honor the playfulness and creativity that first inspired me to translate Assor’s writing.


Born in Montreal, Salomé Assor studies philosophy at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Her debut novel, Un, was published in 2019 by the Montreal-based press Les Éditions Poètes de Brousse. Assor was recognized as one of Radio Canada’s 10 Young Writers to Watch in 2020. She is currently working on her second novel and has published work in La Revue Zinc and La Voix Sépharade.

Hannah Allen-Shim studies Comparative Literature, French, and Harp Performance at Oberlin College & Conservatory of Music. She is a former recipient of the Marandon Fellowship from the Société des Professeurs Français et Francophones des États-Unis and an alumna of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre. Her translations are forthcoming from Pamenar Online Magazine and Reunion: The Dallas Review’s monthly feature, Reunion Online.