The Lives in Translation interview series asks how translators and authors bridge the gaps between different languages and different lives. Our first interviewee is Charlotte Mandell, whose wide-ranging translations from French have brought miniature pastiches by Proust and 517 page-long sentences by Mathias Énard into the English language.
You’ve made a name for yourself as a translator from French, taking on books by Jules Verne, Guy de Maupassant, Marcel Proust, and Mathias Énard. How did you come to learn French — was it even your first foreign language?
Yes, French was my first foreign language — my parents were both college professors (they’re retired now), so they had summers free, and starting when I was ten, we would spend every other summer in either French Switzerland or the French Alps. So I picked up some French when I was little and then went on to study it seriously in high school, where I had a wonderful French teacher from Normandy. I went to Boston Latin School, where you have to declare your concentration early on (history, math and science, or foreign languages), so I concentrated on foreign languages: French, Latin, and Greek, with a focus on French. Then when I went to Bard College I majored in French literature and spent a semester in Paris studying at Université de Paris III. When you’re a senior at Bard you have to write a senior project — like a B.A. thesis, but it can be creative — so I translated a big book of poems by a contemporary French author named Jean-Paul Auxeméry. And then when I graduated I just kept translating…
Do you find your personality changing as you go between languages? (I know I'm more direct in German than I am in French.) Are English and French wholly equal to you, or does each language feel different?
Yes, I’m more submissive in French! My voice goes up half an octave as well… When I’m in France I notice that almost all the women use very high voices, especially when they’re asking for things in stores or talking to men. Whenever I catch myself doing that I try to lower my voice, but it’s hard — it’s as if a higher pitch were built into the language somehow, for women at least…
Was translation always a career you wanted, and an integral part of your life? Or did you get there by a more roundabout path?
Ever since I can remember I’ve wanted to be a translator. Or actually, that’s not quite accurate — I should say I’ve always enjoyed translating, and whenever I tried to picture myself doing anything else (teaching, for example), I just couldn’t imagine it. I loved translating Latin in high school — I was in an advanced placement class and we translated the Aeneid — and when I realized one could do that for a living, I didn’t really consider any other career. In my professional career, I’ve been very lucky — I’ve never had to look for work, and for that I’m very grateful.
You’ve shown a remarkable capability for mimicking the particular voices of various authors. I’m especially amazed by your version of Proust’s The Lemoine Affair, in which you show how Proust parodied Balzac, Flaubert, Hénri de Regnier, and numerous other writers. What's the biggest challenge in rendering these diverse, layered voices?
I’m so glad you like that book — it’s one of my favorites! It was such a pleasure to translate, too — I didn’t really have to do anything except stay true to the particular voice of each pastiche. I also did a little background reading in some of the pastiched authors’ works, like Goncourt’s Journals. I never knew how funny Proust was until I translated that book — his parodies of the different authors (the Balzac especially) are hilarious. He even wrote himself into one of the pastiches — one of the characters spreads a rumor that Proust killed himself because of a fall in diamond stocks.
You’ve brought so many incredible texts into English over the past twenty years (including Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones and Maurice Blanchot's works). How do you pick them, which ones still have a special place in your heart, and are there any unknown authors (or books) you’d like to translate?
I’ve been very lucky in my career as a translator in that I haven’t had to translate many books that I didn’t like. I feel very grateful to Pierre Joris, a poet and translator, who recommended me twenty years ago when Helen Tartar, then the editor in chief at Stanford University Press, asked him to translate a book of essays by Maurice Blanchot called La Part du feu. Helen gave me my first job translating that book (which I called The Work of Fire), and then I went on to translate two more Blanchot books for Helen at Stanford. Those first three Blanchot books are very close to my heart, along with another Blanchot book I translated for SUNY Press called A Voice from Elsewhere, which has a beautiful chapter on Celan in it. I don’t usually pick the books I translate — they’re suggested to me by the publishers — but somehow things have worked out so that the books that I’m assigned are generally the ones I would have chosen on my own. I did actively look for a publisher for Énard’s Zone after I translated an excerpt from it for the French Cultural Embassy, and it just so happened that Chad Post at Open Letter was interested in that book as well, so it was something of a match made in heaven. That’s another book that’s close to my heart — I loved translating it, and I miss that breathless experience of translating a 517-page sentence. I’m also very proud of The Kindly Ones, and proud to be Jonathan Littell’s traductrice attitrée, his translator-for-life, so to speak. I just finished translating four short fictions by Jonathan, which are going to be published in one volume by the Center for the Art of Translation under the title The Fata Morgana Books. I’ve also just signed a contract for another Énard book for Open Letter, his new novel called Rue des Voleurs, or Street of Thieves. I’d love to translate the novel Énard wrote just after Zone, called Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d'éléphants (Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants — it’s a Kipling quote), about Michelangelo designing a bridge in Constantinople, but I can’t seem to find a publisher for it. I’d also someday like to translate Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, since I haven’t found any English translation that pleases me. I’d love to translate the complete Voyage en Orient by Gérard de Nerval — a wonderfully mystical text that interweaves the Freemasons, the Druzes, psychedelic drugs, and Cairo, among many other things — but it would take a while to do, since it’s about 1,000 pages long. (The complete edition published in English by Harcourt Brace is long out of print, as is the more recent, heavily abridged version.) And there’s also a fascinating play by Jean Giraudoux called Sodome et Gomorrhe that’s never been translated — my father translated it but never published his translation; I’d like to give it a try as well.
I just remembered that there were quite a few books that I translated for Melville House that I chose myself, including The Lemoine Affair (which I don’t think had ever been translated before), Balzac’s weird The Girl with the Golden Eyes, and Verne’s The Castle in Transylvania. Those were all my suggestions, and I’m glad Melville House went along with them.
What are some of the biggest problems within the world of translation, and how do you resolve them for yourself?
The biggest problem I run into as a translator is a lack of funds for translations. There are so many excellent French writers out there — poets, novelists, philosophers, biographers — that we will never read in English because of the dire state of publishing today. I find that a lot of university presses are actually asking their authors to pay for their own translations, which seems unfair to both the author and the translator; and other presses have to raise funds from grants to pay their translators. Part of the problem is that many publishers don’t take translators seriously; they regard them as sort of glorified typists, people who just mechanically reproduce the originals in their own language, without having to think much. They don’t understand that translators are writers first of all — a good translator is a good writer first of all, and a translator second. It bothers me when I read long reviews of books in translation in which the translator isn’t even mentioned. I think we should be just as grateful to William Weaver for making Umberto Eco so interesting to read in English as we are to Eco for writing the books. And we should be grateful to Lydia Davis for translating Blanchot’s récits so wonderfully, and to Esther Allen for translating Borges so beautifully, and Anthea Bell for doing such an amazing job with E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, and Michael Hulse for translating Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn so hauntingly beautifully. And there are some translations, like Arthur Golding’s Metamorphoses of Ovid, that are sometimes more beautiful in English than they were in the original. Those are just some of the translators we should be grateful to! As to how I resolve this lack of respect and lack of funds for translators for myself, I try not to think about it; and I try to make up for it by reading as many translations as I can.
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