Charlotte Mandell Lives Immersed in Words and Sound: The Millions Interview

September 21, 2017 | 5 books mentioned 1 9 min read

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Charlotte Mandell lives immersed in words and sound. She translates French to English; she loves music and books; her husband is the poet Robert Kelly; her spiritual practice, Tibetan Buddhism, involves extensive chanting. One of her favorite ways to relax is to feed songbirds, including a cardinal so tame he’ll hop up in her lap for a handout. Paradoxically, a quiet presence envelopes Mandell, perhaps an emanation from the heart of her spiritual practice, meditation that cultivates inner silence. Both an ear for the rhythms and music of language and a receptive quiet interlace with Mandell’s translation work.

Mandell’s facility with the French language took root during childhood summers in the French Alps. Her parents, Marvin and Betty Reid Mandell—both professors, activists, and founding editors of the journal New Politics—brought up their daughters in Boston, where Mandell attended Boston Latin High School. There, a young French teacher, Michèle Lepietrem, fired Mandell’s love of French, and she went on to major in French and film theory at Bard College, translating for her senior project a book of poems by Jean-Paul Auxeméry. She spent her junior year in Paris studying semiotics and film theory at Université de Paris III. Her published translations span French literature, from classic to contemporary, from fiction to poetry to nonfiction.

Years of esteemed obscurity ended with the English edition of Mathias Énard’s Goncourt Prize winning-novel Compass. Mandell’s translation, called “a feat of great beauty” by New York Journal of Books and “resoundingly successful” by The New York Times, put Compass on the short-list for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, co-awarded to author and translator.

The London festivities for MBI included bookstore appearances and a radio interview leading up to the live-streamed awards dinner—a daunting agenda for Mandell: “I like writing as other people,” she says. “I don’t think I have much to say as myself.” As it turned out, London “really was like a fairytale,” she said. Most rewarding, she got to meet Mathias Énard face-to-face after nearly 10 years translating his work.

On her return, we had a chance to talk about her translation process, and about Compass.

Like the narrator of Compass, Mandell carries her past in her surroundings, though with more joy than aching nostalgia. Her office is cluttered with memorabilia: many, many stones and crystals; bird feathers; sea shells; religious paraphernalia and images of Buddhist saints and gurus; family photos; love poems from her husband; souvenirs from her travels. Bookcases are packed with books in French and English, including her translations and her prized complete Le Grand Robert French Dictionary, in six volumes—though for work she uses a digital edition of Harrap’s Professional French-English Dictionary.

The Millions: What is your work rhythm? Do you have any rituals that help get you started or keep you going?

Charlotte Mandell: I work best in the late afternoon to early evening. I’m not a morning person, though I wish I were. No rituals except coffee or tea. Music, classical always, opera usually. Oh, actually, I do burn incense. I work a lot with aromatherapy, and it helps if I can smell something good while I’m working. Usually it’s Japanese cedar or sandalwood, and frankincense and myrrh.

TM: Are those scents in particular conducive to intellectual and creative work? Or is it just personal preference?

CM: I find those scents very calming and conducive to intense concentration. In ancient times, sandalwood was associated with the intellect. I also diffuse lemon oil to wake me up if I’m feeling sleepy.

TM:  What are the “nuts and bolts” of your process? Do you write by hand or on computer? Go sentence by sentence? Paragraph by paragraph?

CM: I always work on the computer—it’s faster, and I try to work quickly—and I work sentence by sentence. I try not to think too much as I’m translating. “First thought best thought,” as Chögyam Trungpa said. [Chögyam Trungpa was one of the first Tibetan Buddhist gurus to teach in the West.] If I come across something particularly difficult or challenging, I leave it in bold face and come back to it later. Depending on what I’m working on, I try to translate about 10 pages a day. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but translating is mentally draining, and I can’t do much more than that if I want it to sound like good English. Then I read over what I’ve just translated, change it to sound more fluid. The next day I enter the changes into the text. When I finish the entire book I read over my translation very carefully and enter more changes. Then I read over that. I keep editing until I’m happy with it. Revision is an important process to me.

TM: How do you get a feel for a work as you embark on translating it?

CM: It usually takes me a week or two to really inhabit the voice and to feel it coming organically from within. Since I don’t read ahead, the voice has to sort of come on its own, as I translate. If I stay faithful to the text, and translate it as literally as possible, the voice usually comes on its own. Starting a translation is always the most difficult thing for me. It gets much easier when I’m about 50 pages in.

TM: Translating is a creative process, yet a translator is bound to adapt to each author’s work. For example, your translation of Marcel Proust wouldn’t be like your translation of Mathias Énard. How do you negotiate the unique demands of each work? Each author?

CM: I trust the text to tell me what it wants. I think the sign of a good translator is the lack of a particular “style.” You shouldn’t be able to guess who translated a particular work. Each work should sound unique and different. The less the translator inserts himself or herself into the work, the better it will sound. I try to let the work speak for itself.

TM: You’ve said that you translate as you read. Among ordinary readers, this is a very unusual experience: to translate while reading. Can you describe in some way the effect of it, how the words mix in your mind?

CM: When things are going well, you sometimes forget you’re translating—you feel as if you’re writing and reading at the same time, if that makes any sense. You become completely absorbed in the narrative until you’re inside the words and they’re flowing on their own. It’s a wonderful feeling, mesmerizing and addictive. I very often lose track of time when translating an absorbing book.

TM:  How does being married to a poet inform your translation work?

CM: One of Robert’s favorite sayings is “All language is translation,” and I agree with him. Whenever we speak or write anything down, we’re translating our inner thoughts into language; we’re finding the right words to convey our thoughts. Robert’s command of language is extraordinary. He can read a number of languages—his first job was as a translator, actually. He was also raised with Latin and Greek, so we have similar backgrounds. My appreciation of beautifully wrought sentences and complex grammar is due in large part to Robert’s poetic use of language. He’s also my best editor. He reads all my translations and makes excellent suggestions to improve the English.

covercoverTM: You use the words “sound” and “voice” and “speak,” terms usually applied to spoken, not written, words. It brings to mind Karl Ove Knausgaard’s praise for Don Bartlett’s translation of My Strugglethat Bartlett captured the “voice” and “rhythm” of the original. For Knausgaard, that seems to be the most essential quality in a translation.

CM: I agree, the narrative voice is the most important aspect of a translation, especially in the cases of Zone and Compass, where the voice is all-pervading. Once you get the voice, everything else—rhythm, syntax, grammatical structure—falls in place and flows naturally.

TM: There’s the sound, the voice of the translation. And there’s the technical side, grammar, vocabulary, and such. But you’re also charged with capturing the meaning of the text, the author’s intentions. Do you ask the author what the work is about before you begin?

CM: I don’t ask the author anything at all! I just start right in, translating. That’s the way that works best for me—the work will tell me what it’s about. I love that feeling of the unknown before I translate a book. It’s what a reader feels when starting to read a book for the first time. You have no idea what’s in store for you, but you’re eager to find out. And invariably you find yourself changed by the time you reach the end.

TM: Some authors don’t get involved at all in the translation process; they just leave it up to the translator. Again, we can cite Knausgaard and Bartlett. Other author-translator pairs are much more enmeshed. Take, for example, Paul Celan and Michael Hamburger. Before their unfortunate falling out, they corresponded extensively. Can you describe your interactions, your process with Mathias Énard?

CM: I prefer to translate the whole book, then send the final draft to the author for comments or revision. Mathias doesn’t interfere during the translation process, and he doesn’t usually change very much. He trusts me, which is gratifying. Since he translates Arabic texts into French, he knows the issues involved in translation. If I have questions, I text him via WhatsApp or send him an e-mail, and he answers right away. Before meeting him, though, I was hesitant to bother him. Now that I’ve seen what a lovely and generous person he is, I won’t worry about disturbing him. I feel more free to ask him questions.

TM: How have other authors inspired your process?

CM: Working with Jonathan Littell was very instructive. He’s completely bilingual, raised speaking both French and English. Often he had a particular phrase in mind that he wanted to use in English, and though it diverged wildly from the literal French, it conveyed the same meaning.  He helped me to be freer in my translations and to be unafraid of taking liberties when necessary.

TM: You share the practice of Tibetan Buddism, as it turns out, with Mr. Énard’s wife and with Sarah, a central character in Compass, and with me. In fact—I don’t know if you remember—we were on a retreat when I first learned that you’re a translator; you were working on Mathias Énard’s Zone. Did you advise or discuss Buddhism with Mr. Énard?

CM: I didn’t advise Mathias about Buddhist matters, but I did, with his permission, insert some Tibetan words for ceremonial instruments—radong [also transliterated rag-dung, a long horn somewhat like an alphorn] and gyaling [a double-reeded woodwind somewhat like an oboe]—into one of Sarah’s letters from India. I also added the word bardo after barzakh, since they both point to the same thing, and I thought those were words Sarah would use. [Tibetan bardo means, literally, interval; it usually refers to the phase from death to rebirth. Arabic barzakh means, literally, separation, and refers to a purgatorial phase from death to resurrection.]

TM:  How does the practice of Buddhism affect your work?

CM: I find Buddhism very conducive to translation. When you meditate, you empty yourself of a “self,” a sense of ego, just as when you translate, you forget about yourself and become someone else: the narrator, the author’s voice. I think that’s why I enjoy translating so much—I like not being myself for long stretches of time.

TM:  Do you identify with any of the characters in Compass or in other works you’ve translated?

coverCM: I felt very close to Sarah, and to her descriptions of her Buddhist practice—but then, I identify with all the characters I translate! When I translate a book I end up inhabiting the characters in a very intimate way, so that I often dream as them. This was a problem when I was translating The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell. I had recurrent dreams—nightmares, usually—as Max Aue, the Nazi narrator. With Franz Ritter [the narrator of Compass], it was more a case of inhabiting his melancholy state of mind, and identifying with his longing for Sarah, the long-lost beloved.

One of the perks of being a translator is that I get to inhabit a male character and see how his mind works. I think that might be one reason I enjoy translating male authors: it’s a window onto the Other, another way of not being my “self.”

TM:  Before you left for London [for the 2017 Man Booker International awards], you were looking forward especially to meeting Mathias Énard for the first time.

CM: It’s such an interesting thing to meet for the first time an author whom you’ve been translating for almost 10 years—like meeting an old friend for the first time.

TM: What did you two talk about?

CM: We talked about lots of things: sailing, which we both grew up doing; the Lebanese restaurant Karakala in Barcelona, which Mathias co-owns; Buddhism, a little bit. Strangely, we didn’t talk about Compass.

TM: What do you think Compass is about?

CM: Compass is not really “about” any one thing. The pleasure in reading it comes from the language itself more than from the plot. For me, the experience was similar to that of reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. You see the workings of the narrator’s mind, how it jumps from one thing to another and back again, how it obsesses with one thing—Sarah—while recalling others—books, scholarly papers, music, faraway places. Mathias described the book once as “a Thousand Nights in One,” and I think that’s as good a description as any.

TM:  At the end of the joint radio interview of you and Mathias Énard [BBC World Service, 12 June 2017], he said: “Compass is not a cemetery, you know. It’s not about lost places. I think it’s about the hope that we can have those places again.” For me, the book’s arc didn’t lead that way. I wouldn’t call Compass “dark” by any means, but hope was introduced late—not only in the romance but concerning the narrator’s health. So the book itself left me unconvinced by Mr. Énard’s statement. My take is that the book has an open and ambiguous trajectory, and a bittersweet ending—but let’s start with, “Compass is not a cemetery.”

CM: I think Mathias was saying in the interview that Syria isn’t a cemetery. We see the devastated parts of it, but there are still huge swathes of it rich in culture and alive with people.

TM: Do you agree with the rest of Mr. Énard’s statement? I guess my question is, where’s the hope, in Compass?

CM: There is an ancient saying, by Antisthenes of Greece, which I grew up memorizing: “To the wise nothing is foreign.” The hope in Compass is the hope of openness to the Other, a certainty that there is no “us” and “them,” there is only “we.” The East permeates and influences the West, and vice-versa. The hope lies in the narrator’s curiosity—which should be ours as well, in his thirst for knowledge. Compass is a love letter to the Other.

is author of the interactive book With Walt Whitman: Himself, acclaimed as "a true Whitmanian feast” by Whitman scholar Ed Folsom. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and Civil War Monitor. Other published works include The Bones You Have Cast Down, a young adult novel set in late medieval Italy, and The Cosmic Tarot book, based on the tarot deck by German visionary artist Norbert Loesche. She co-founded Circling Rivers, an independent press dedicated to literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Visit her at jeanhuets.com.

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