Q&A with Charlotte Mandell

Cross-posted on More Intelligent Life

Walter Benjamin once observed, “A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully.”

For Charlotte Mandell, a translator who moves with apparent ease among the genres of philosophy, poetry and literature, such transparency is at the root of her success. She has translated everyone from Maurice Blanchot to Marcel Proust. Most recently, she is responsible for introducing Jonathan Littell’s “Les Bienveillantes”, or “The Kindly Ones” (HarperCollins, March 2009), to the Anglophone world.

Mandell has earned an MLA translation prize and been nominated for the French-American Foundation Translation Prize and the PEN Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize. She is currently at work on a translation of  Mathias Enard’s “Zone”. Jessica Loudis talks to her about the art of translation.

More Intelligent Life: You recently translated “The Kindly Ones“, Jonathan Littell’s nearly 1,000-page French novel, set during the second world war, which has been both praised for its intellectual depth and criticised for its violence. What were some of the challenges of working with this book?

Charlotte Mandell:
I had to finish the translation in about nine months, which isn’t a lot of time for a 1,000-page book. But in a way that deadline worked in my favour, since it forced me to work exclusively on “The Kindly Ones” and so I got to inhabit the narrator’s voice completely, without any distractions.  Another interesting aspect was working with Jonathan Littell when my translation was finished. It’s the first time I’ve worked with an author who’s bilingual, and American at that. It was interesting to see what sorts of changes he made to the translation, based on definite ideas he had of the narrator’s voice. He made only a few minor changes in word choice, but those changes were important to him–he had a feeling for how some things should sound.

MIL: How do you select which books you’d like to translate? Are there any particular themes you find yourself drawn to?

CM: I choose a book by how well it’s written. Things like plot or character development are much less important to me than good writing.  That’s really the only unifying theme that draws together all the books I’ve translated over the years, and by now there are over 30 of them. They range from philosophy to musicology to fiction to literary theory, but I find each interesting to read, and all of them are well-written. (Most of the books find their way to me via a publisher, and then I decide if I want to translate them or not.)

Some examples of good writing: the lyrical chapter called “Air” in “The Kindly Ones”; the beautiful meditation on sleep in Jean-Luc Nancy’s forthcoming “The Fall of Sleep“; Proust’s pastiches of different writing styles in “The Lemoine Affair“.

MIL: What drew you to your current project: Mathias Enard’s “Zone”?

CM: “Zone” is a really exciting book: it’s written as one long sentence, which is quite a feat to sustain for over 500 pages. The narrator is on a train from Milan to Rome and the entire narration occurs on that train ride. As a reader you’re drawn in to the narrative voice and feel almost as if you’re on the train too, being led inexorably to some unknown goal, carried along by the narrator’s sense of urgency and inevitability. The challenge I have to meet as a translator is to match that sense of urgency and that wonderfully smooth narrative flow.

Read a translated selection from “White Traverses” by Abdelwahab Meddeb, a work in progress, on Charlotte Mandell’s website


~ by Jessica on May 7, 2009.

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