Translation: Berfrois Interviews Charlotte Mandell
by Scott Manley Hadley
Based in the Hudson Valley, Charlotte Mandell has rapidly become one of the world’s most acclaimed translators from French into English, with her bibliography reading like a non-chronological history of French writing. Mandell, who has previously been awarded a translation prize from the Modern Language Association and a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, in 2018 won the National Translation Award in Prose for her work on Mathias Enard’s Compass, which was also shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.
When did you first decide you wanted to translate complex fiction? And how did you get to the point where you were able to?
I think I got the translator’s bug all the way back in high school, when I was in an advanced placement Latin class (at Boston Latin School, where Latin is a five-year requirement) in my Junior year and I got to translate all of Virgil’s Aeneid—I enjoyed that immensely, and I was hooked. I knew then that I wanted to work with languages for the rest of my life, I just didn’t realize I would be a literary translator. In college (I went to Bard College, in New York State) I majored in French literature; for my senior project (the equivalent of a book-length thesis), I translated a book of poems by the contemporary French poet Jean-Paul Auxeméry. After graduating, I continued translating things—mostly poems, by Apollinaire, Saint-Jean Perse, Blaise Cendrars, and others—and publishing them in magazines. My big break came when I was 25 and I was asked by Helen Tartar (then the managing editor of Stanford University Press) to translate Maurice Blanchot’s La Part du feu, which became The Work of Fire—truly a baptism by fire. I don’t feel I’m ever really able to do what I do, I just do my best and hope something legible comes out…
In terms of doing your best, what is your usual process? Do you translate on a word, phrasal or a sentence level?
One of my few rules of translation is never to read the book before I translate it—that way I feel as if I’m more a part of the creative process, as if I’m writing the book as I translate it. So I translate it pretty much word by word, as I go along. I suppose I translate on a phrasal level, since I probably take in a phrase at a time. Then when I’m done I’ll go back and revise, revise, revise… I usually go through three or four drafts of a translation before I’m happy with the finished product.
And how do you know when a translation is finished?
I feel it’s never really finished… Deadlines play a large role in helping me to decide whether or not a translation is finished. It helps to read my translation out loud—I rarely have time to read the entire thing out loud, but reading tricky passages out loud often helps refine and finesse the English—it shouldn’t sound clunky or awkward. When I don’t have time to read it out loud, I’ll pay close attention to the grammar and sentence structure as I read it over; I want the translation to sound as if it had been written in English.
Well, that is certainly borne out in your writing. To speak more about your process, what do you believe is more important in a translation: the style or the meaning? And how do you choose when and where to sacrifice one or the other?
I think both are equally important, and I try not to sacrifice one over the other. I feel if I stay true to the text—to the words before me—the style will come through on its own. In Mathias [Enard’s] case, each of his books has a particular narrative voice (whether it’s a disillusioned Croatian/French soldier [Zone], an insomniac academic [Compass], or a young Moroccan searching for his identity [Street of Thieves]), and it’s my job to recreate that voice in English so that it sounds authentic and believable. Beginning a translation is always the hardest time for me, since I come to it the way you do, as a fresh reader; after a while, the character starts to live inside me, and the voice comes naturally. Then the translation process becomes more natural, and I don’t have to think about it so much.
Something I wanted to ask you about was translating Zone, Mathias Enard’s 500-page stream-of-consciousness novel. This strikes me as such a huge and difficult task! How did the translation of this differ from working on more traditionally-structured texts?
Actually, translating Zone was the most enjoyable translation experience I’ve ever had! The only problem I faced was when to stop every day, since it’s written in one long sentence. I became addicted to the text and would often lose track of the time as I was translating it, entering a kind of trance-like state that I might emerge from hours later amazed that so much time had passed. Since I never read ahead, I was always dying to find out what would happen next, so I couldn’t wait to return to ‘work’ the next day. I was so sad when I finally reached the period at the end—it really was like the death of a friend when I finished that translation. For me, translating a taut, lyrical book like Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants [also by Enard, a novella] was more of a challenge, since it was written in short, succinct paragraphs, and brief chapters: each word became important, and I would sometimes spend an inordinate amount of time deciding how to translate a particular phrase. I think it probably took me longer to translate Tell Them than Zone!
I remember reading Zone and being surprised by how readable it was—even though, as you say, it was a singular sentence! I felt confident describing your work there as a “good translation”, even though I hadn’t read the original so that is more a description of a “feeling” than anything else. As the professional translator, though, what do you believe makes a good translation? Can you give some examples?
That’s a very good question. I think it’s a combination of things: the musicality of the language—its rhythm and timbre and tone; the richness of the imagery; the authenticity of the narrative voice. One of my all-time favorite translations is Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which Shakespeare is said to have read—Prospero’s speech in The Tempest (“Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves”) was lifted from Golding’s Medea in Book VII:
O trustie time of night
Most faithfull unto privities, O golden starres whose light
Doth jointly with the Moone succeede the beames that blaze by day
And thou three headed Hecate who knowest best the way
To compasse this our great attempt and art our chiefest stay:
Ye Charmes and Witchcrafts, and thou Earth which both with herbe and weed
Of mightie working furnishest the Wizardes at their neede:
Ye Ayres and windes: ye Elves of Hilles, of Brookes, of Woods alone,
Of standing Lakes, and of the Night approche ye everychone.
Medea’s entire speech is so rich and complex, and so beautiful to listen to:
the Serpents slie in trayling forward stird
So softly as ye would have thought they still asleepe had bene.
The moysting Ayre was whist. No leafe ye could have moving sene.
The starres alonly faire and bright did in the welkin shine
“The moysting Ayre was whist”—that phrase alone takes my breath away. That’s the sort of thing only a master of language could come up with—it’s the sort of thing I dream of at night. Everything is there, in Golding’s translation: meter, rhythm, imagery, complexity of phrasing. The sheer musicality of the language is what seduces me most. You can find the whole translation online here.
Another example of an incredibly complex and astounding translation is Gavin Douglas’ 1513 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid—a masterpiece of Scots verse, it sounds as if the Aeneid had been written in Scots. I think that’s the key to a good translation: it should sound as if it had been written in the ‘into’ language, as if it had been breathed in that language. It should be able to stand on its own as a work of art.
Absolutely. And of course, novels and poetry aren’t the only works of art that utilise language. How do the requirements of translation vary between different forms? i.e. poetry, novels, subtitles for film/television, plays, screen-plays, lyrics?
I’ve never translated film subtitles, but I did translate the super-titles for an opera once: Saint-Saens’ four-hour-long Henry VIII, performed for the Bard Music Festival in 2012. For that, I tried to keep my translation as concise and pithy as possible, since the translation was projected onto the stage above the singers as they sang, so there wasn’t a lot of time to read the captions.
The main difference for me is between prose and poetry. I recently translated Breton and Soupault’s book of automatic writing, The Magnetic Fields, which was difficult not just because it’s Surrealist but also because there’s no context that could help one figure out how to translate a particular phrase or word. In poetry I try to keep the original word order intact as much as possible, especially in Surrealist poetry, where the imagery is so important. In psychology there’s something called ‘priming’, which refers to how the order of images prepares the mind for what comes next: for example, in two control groups, one group of people is shown the words ‘ice cream’ and ‘jungle’ very quickly in that order; another group is shown the words ‘lion’ and ‘jungle’; then both groups are shown the picture of a jungle, with a tiger hidden in the undergrowth. The group that was shown the word ‘lion’ invariably spotted the tiger, while the group that saw ‘ice cream’ did not. I think the order of the words is more important in poetry, since the mind is constantly forming subconscious images as it’s reading. Prose, however, should be able to be read more smoothly, so I often have to rearrange the word order to make it sound more natural in English.
On the topic of reading, what do you read? And do you read different types of texts in different ways?
I try to read everything! Poetry, prose, essays… The more a translator reads, I find, the better the translation sounds, since the translator’s store of language is enriched and enlarged by everything s/he reads. A translator’s mind is a little like a prism of everything s/he has ever read; that’s why no translation of any one paragraph will ever be the same when translated by many different people, since everyone has a different background, a different store of language from which to draw. At the moment I’m reading three entirely different texts: Milton’s Paradise Lost; Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil, beautifully translated by Jean Starr Untermeyer; and Charles Williams’ The Greater Trumps. Usually I read poetry more slowly than prose, but The Death of Virgil is written in such a poetic way that I find I’m reading it as slowly as I would read a long poem.
I agree, and I think I’d go so far as to say that everybody benefits from reading texts from a wide variety of sources. It’s one of the real benefits of talented people working in translation! I just wanted to wrap up by asking you a couple of questions about your own work. First, which of the translations you have completed are you particularly proud of? Why?
I’m really pleased with my translation of Enard’s Zone, mostly because translating it was such an immersive experience—I felt as if I were part of the narrative, translating the novel from the inside out, somehow. I think the stream-of-consciousness style helped carry me along, like a river—it became addictive, and I missed it terribly when I finally finished it. Because I don’t read ahead, I was always eager to find out what happened next, so I was constantly on the edge of my seat as I was translating. For some reason I was able to inhabit the narrative voice early on in Zone, so the translation seemed to flow very easily.
I’m also proud of my translation of Enard’s Compass, in part because there are so many obscure references that I needed to look up and find a way to work them into the translation so that they didn’t sound obscure, but natural to the narrator, as they were in the original.
Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones was the longest novel I’ve ever translated, and the most difficult to translate psychologically, since it’s narrated by an unrepentant Nazi. I remember having very disturbing dreams from the point of view of the narrator, Max Aue, which was a difficult thing to experience.
I’m also pleased with my translations of Maurice Blanchot’s literary essays, especially the ones on Mallarmé and Joseph Joubert; they’re written in a very lyrical, open-ended way, unlike the usual American essay with its statement, exposition, and conclusion. Blanchot often wrote in an elliptical, ambiguous way that left a lot open to the reader for interpretation, and I like that.
Excellent. And, finally, are there any writers or texts you are particularly keen to translate?
I would love to translate Madman Bovary by Claro, or anything by Claro, for that matter. Besides being an incredibly prolific translator into French of authors like Gass, Gaddis, and Vollmann, Claro is an equally prolific novelist, and only a few of his works have been translated (by the American novelist Brian Evenson) into English. Madman Bovary is about a man who is so obsessed with the Flaubert novel that he becomes a character in it. There’s a lot of interesting wordplay and fun with language, and I think it would be great fun to translate.
I recently discovered a 1926 literary journal called COMMERCE in my French library, with texts by Paul Valéry, Max Jacob, Valéry Larbaud, and several other interesting writers—I’d love to translate the entire journal, just for the fun of it, and to see what people were writing and thinking about during that critical interwar period.
There’s a possibility of my being able to translate Valéry’s Monsieur Teste and all its related texts, which would be a really exciting project. I hope that can come to fruition.
Charlotte Mandell’s most recent book is a translation of Mathias Enard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and New Directions in the USA.
Scott Manley Hadley is Satire Editor at Berfrois’ sister site, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and his debut poetry collection, Bad Boy Poet, is available now from Open Pen.