Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Literary Translator Charlotte Mandell

Red Hook, New York

"We translators work on our own so much that we sometimes forget our work is being read by others, so the fact that other translators judged my work as important and worthy of an [NEA] grant means the world to me."---NEA Literature Translation Fellow Charlotte Mandell. Photo by Robert Kelly

A translator of fiction, poetry, and philosophy, Charlotte Mandell has brought works by such noted French writers as Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert, and Maurice Blanchot to English-speaking audiences. In 2010, Mandell received an NEA Literature Fellowship in Translation to translate Zone, Mathias Énard?s 500-page contemporary novel written in just a single sentence. We chatted with Mandell about her experience in translating Zone and what attracted her to a career as a translator.

NEA: How did you come to your career as a translator?

CHARLOTTE MANDELL: I first became interested in translation in high school. I went to Boston Latin High School, which has a six-year Latin requirement, and I found that one of my favorite activities in high school was translating texts by Cicero and Caesar. I ended up translating a lot of Vergil?s Aeneid in my advanced-placement Latin class, and I also took two years of ancient Greek, which I loved. I also concentrated in French in high school and went on to major in French Literature at Bard College. 

My parents are both university professors, so we would spend summers in either French-speaking Switzerland or the French Alps starting when I was little; and I had a wonderful French teacher at Latin School named Michèle Lepietre who was from Normandy, who made learning French a really exciting endeavor. Bard College requires all seniors to write something called a senior project---like a master?s thesis---which can be either critical or creative; my senior project was a translation of a book of poems by a contemporary French poet named Jean-Paul Auxeméry, which won Bard?s award for a written project in English. 

When I graduated from Bard I wasn?t really interested in attending graduate school---I just wanted to go on translating things.  I kept publishing translations of poems in various literary journals, and then a friend of mine, a poet and translator named Pierre Joris, was asked to translate a book of essays called La part du feu by Maurice Blanchot for Stanford University Press.  He didn?t have the time, so he recommended me; I sent in a sample, which the executive editor at the time, Helen Tartar, liked, and I ended up translating that along with several other books by Blanchot and other authors for Stanford. I?ve been very lucky in my translating career in that I?ve never really had to look for work. 

NEA: How do you choose the works you translate?

MANDELL: I?m mostly interested in the writing, not the plot. I started out translating poetry, and I like the freedom and creativity involved in translating poetry. I?m interested in language and in how meaning is created through words. My husband, the poet Robert Kelly, likes to say that all language is translation---we translate the experiences and thoughts of the body into words. So if a book is written well, and if it?s intellectually challenging in some way---either in terms of the sentence structure or its unusual use of language---I want to translate it.

NEA: Zone offers a unique challenge with its one-sentence format. Why did you decide to take on this translation?

MANDELL: There?s nothing else like it out there! Especially not in French. One of my favorite novels is Joyce?s Ulysses, and Zone reminds me a little of that, and a little of another of my favorites, Flann O?Brien?s At Swim-Two-Birds, with some Apollinaire and Burroughs and Pound thrown in for good measure. Translating a 500-page sentence combines the creativity of translating poetry with the challenge of translating difficult prose. Zone is narrated on a train, and it has the rhythmic, slightly lulling feeling of being on a train, but it also has a sense of urgency and inevitability in French that I wanted to recreate in English. I loved the continuity and flow of the text, and I really loved the experience of translating it---I was always mid-sentence, no matter where I stopped for the day! I never read ahead when I translate, so I was always wondering what was going to happen next in the story. Translating Zone was one of the most enjoyable translation experiences I?ve ever had.

NEA: How do you balance your own creative voice with the voice of the source text when translating?

MANDELL: That?s a very good question, one I?m not sure I know how to answer. I think a translator is a lot like a medium: you have to sort of empty yourself out before you begin translating a text. I try to get in the way of the text as little as possible, and I try to ?listen? to the narrative as I?m translating, so that the narrator?s own voice is conveyed in the words.  I don?t always agree with the way something is worded or with the choice of certain imagery, but I try not to let my own opinions get in the way of the writing. In essence, as translator I try not to have any creative voice, and instead let the text speak through me. Some writers think writing is a kind of listening to an inner voice. For a translator, the ?inner voice? is out there---it?s the text itself.

NEA: How is the work of the translator and the writer similar; how is it different?

MANDELL: That?s such a good question! No one has ever asked me that before. All translators have to be writers, since we?re basically re-creating the text in another language, and in order for it to be convincing and authentic-sounding the translator has to be a good writer. Conversely, all writers are really translators too, since they?re translating their thoughts and ideas into words on the page. While I think it?s true that all texts lose something in the translation, I think they also gain something in being rendered in a different language: take Baudelaire?s translations of Poe, for instance, which sound so much better in French than the original poems, or Beckett?s translations of his own work, which are masterpieces of English. 

Translating is different from writing in that the translator has the text already ready to hand; our task is to recreate that same text in our own language, just as the writer?s task was to create that text in his/her own language. The translator?s challenge is to make sure the translation never sounds like ?translationese?---like something that has been translated from another language. It should sound as original and new in the translation as it did in the original.

NEA: Why do you believe it?s important for the NEA to support literary translation?

MANDELL: Without NEA translation grants, so many vital and interesting works would never see the light of day in English, since so few publishers (especially in these recessionary times) have the means to support book-length  translations. My translation of Zone, for example, would never have been possible without the grant I received from the NEA, since that was my sole source of income when I was working on Zone. Imagine our literary canon without Proust or Flaubert or Balzac in English---how much poorer we would be culturally and intellectually. Without the NEA, many of the books that could become classics in the future---Bolaño?s 2666 comes to mind---would not be published at all in English.

Stay tuned...we're planning to announce our FY 11 Literature Fellowships in Translation after Labor Day...

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