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.
TM: 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 Struggle—that 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?
CM: 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.
The 2012 Best Translated Book Award long list has been announced. Among the contenders in the fiction category are Edouard Levé for Suicide, reviewed on The Millions here; Mathias Énard’s Zone, which our own Garth Risk Hallberg described as “the kind of book that can tie a critic in absolute knots“; and Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Truth About Marie, which The Millions Staffer Mark O’ Connell called “a strange and unsettling novel that upholds its author’s status as one of the most exciting figures in contemporary fiction.” One of Chad Harbach’s year in reading selections, Dezso Kosztolányi’s Kornél Esti, also made the list.
I may as well confess, by way of prolepsis, that Mathias Énard’s second novel, Zone, is the kind of book that can tie a critic in absolute knots, not only because, due to its most striking formal feature – it is a single, 517-page sentence – the damn thing more or less confounds quotation, but also because the duty to move beyond a mere inventory of its contents toward some evocation of the reading experience feels unusually…well, critical, the difference between contents and experience being in this case sort of like the difference between staring at the pitted black grooves of side two of Dark Side of the Moon and actually traveling to the dark side of the moon, as in a sense Zone’s narrator and antihero is, or anyway the dark side of something, call it the Twentieth Century, call it human nature, or call it, as he does, “the Zone” (i.e., the wartorn region around the Mediterranean where “wrathful savage gods have been clashing with each other . . . since the Bronze age at least”), and that’s where I had thought to start, adumbrating the particular historical darkness of the Zone and the conflicts swirling in and around it like the eddies of Énard’s prose, except that the attempt to comprehend all this, which as the novel opens is consuming self-identified civil servant Francis Servain Mirković, age thirtysomething, felt in my retelling as flat as the pull-down map in a high-school classroom, and, as I could practically hear readers clicking over to Gawker (and I hadn’t even reached the end of the first sentence!), perhaps something more lively was in order—say, a dramatic recreation of a 2006 editorial meeting at the book’s French publisher, Actes Sud, where a junior editor barely out of puberty is attempting to justify his ardor for the manuscript to a panel of jaded superiors who, not having read it, sigh at intervals and drag wearily on their Gauloises as they hear that F. S. Mirković is actually both a brutish Croatian war criminal and a hyper-literate French spy; that he has boarded a train to Rome under false passport to sell a briefcase full of secrets to the Vatican before getting out of “the game” for good; and that he will still be stuck on the Milano-Roma overnight diretto when the novel ends, so that, despite its noirish Maguffin and feats of syntax worthy of The Guinness Book of World Records, or at least a Guinness, Zone is a novel in which, broadly speaking, nothing happens, unless you count Francis thinking at great length about history in its personal and global aspects, and though the overlords of the publishing house may have perked up a little at this last bit, cerebration being pretty much France’s national pastime, it must still have sounded incroyable, this bouillabaisse of Descartes and Dachau, Sebald and Seinfeld, Mrs. Dalloway and Mission: Impossible, and not in the good sense, and this again (to make a very Mirkovićian recursion) is how I had thought to begin, cool giving way to heat, first pass tragedy, second pass farce, but still like the junior editor I seemed to be failing to do this remarkable book justice, and in fact I began to wonder if Énard himself had felt a similar sense of obligation to his material, only scaled radically up, an obligation to the Zone’s war-dead (“young, old, male, female, burnt black, cut into pieces, machine gunned, naked”) to make it new, per his epigraph-furnisher, cameo fascist, and tutelary shade Ezra Pound, though of course if I were truly to take a page from Énard taking a page from Pound, I would have to plunge into, as opposed to merely gesticulating near, questions about Zone’s seemingly mismatched ethical and aesthetic ambitions (for as Francis finds, in the course of his train ride, bedrock has a way of asserting itself through even the mind’s most turbulent involutions), and also questions about how Énard gets these ambitions to work in harness, how as the clauses mount and cascade and carry the reader forward, Francis’ un-excellent non-adventure manages to generate its improbable urgency, as if in that briefcase were not some soon-to-be papal papers but a bomb that threatens to take our hero with it when it blows, questions whose answers were at first hard to see, as from a train it’s hard to see the trees for the forest, the forest in this case being that enormous formal dare – the novel as single sentence – which should (again, in theory) have killed both Zone’s chill and its heat, yet the more I thought about the novel’s form, the more it, too, started to seem like a kind of Maguffin, every bit as conventional in its own way as that briefcase (paging Ving Rhames!) or, say, as your average act of stunt-reviewing—and here I’m referring not just to Énard’s particular high-Modernist, comma-spliced rendition of stream-of-consciousness, which in less adroit hands than the translator Charlotte Mandell’s might feel at this stage in the history of the European Art Novel positively fustian, but also to the novel’s two least successful gambits, viz., a pattern of Hellenic allusion likewise cribbed from Ulysses (chapters keyed to Homer, recurring epithets, invocations of those Bronze-Age gods), and the irruption of a short story that Francis is reading into the text—herrings whose conspicuous incarnadine distracts us from Énard’s deeper debt, which is not to 1930 but to 1830, which is to say that Zone really makes its bones where the hoariest Balzac novel does, in the steady concretion of detail, from Francis’ recollections of his mother, a fiercely patriotic Croat who “would have made an excellent soldier” (she applies her iron fist instead to teaching piano and browbeating her son, until it seems to him that “with her no, no, no, not so fast, not so fast, from the neighboring room,” she is “directing [his] masturbation”) to his time as an enlistee in the Balkans (where he sneaks across Serbian lines with a comrade to drag back a stolen pig and later must drag that same comrade’s body to a funeral pyre); to alcoholism and depression in a Venice so cold Francis sleeps rolled up in an old rug, with “shoes on because the rigid carpet was like a tube and didn’t cover [his] feet”; to wrecked relationships with two women vividly undeserving of Francis’ psychodrama; and ultimately to the French intelligence services, where a shellfish-loving alopeciac named Lebihan sees in the haunted veteran a potential “asset”—not to mention the brilliant incidentals, erections in tour buses, the zinc tops of bars, “Turkish MCs chanting bingo results in five languages,” a vision of Donald Sutherland as Christ, details knitting train to trench, past to present, the real to the imagined, and as Zone’s locomotive sentence wends through them all out of order, we come to feel that the “impossible gulf hollowed out by war” is not, as Francis suggests, the one separating soldiers from bystanders but the one that, as in the Springsteen song, runs through the middle of his skull, in light of which the stories of other lives that periodically seize the text—stories of battle and exile and murder—might indeed look like Francis’ attempt to forget himself, “to disappear wholly into paper,” were they not also a way of understanding himself, the history of the Zone being, like the history of Francis himself (and, Énard probably wants to suggest, like the history of any of us) one of perpetual strife between the higher faculties and the lower, the civilized and the barbaric, Eros and Thanatos, Apollo and Dionysus, so that in resurrecting Janus-faced Francis, Zone also breathes new life what that had come to seem the lifeless stuff of AP exams, the “nation of the dead” (as the Scottish historian Gil Elliot puts it) that along with the aesthetic disruption of Modernism, that other crisis of representation, had seemed to lay a younger generation of European writers under a heavy curse—on the one hand, your characters can’t just sit around eating French fries (or, as in 2666, Fürst Pücklers) as if the Twentieth Century hadn’t happened; on the other, to write directly about all those deaths is to risk the worst kind of kitsch, the second-worst being perhaps the too-slavish aping of Joyce—but then again, one man’s curse is another man’s blessing, for by seizing these two crises, one ethical and one aesthetic, and smashing them together like two dumb stones, as hard and as wildly as he can, Mathias Énard has found a way to restore death to life and life to death, and so joins the first rank of novelists, the bringers of fire, who even as they can’t go on, do.
Bonus Link: An excerpt from Zone.
Last summer, several sheets to the wind, a novelist friend of mine and I found ourselves waxing nostalgic about 1997 – the year when Underworld, American Pastoral, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Mason & Dixon came out. (It was also probably the year both of us finished working our way through Infinite Jest, which had been published a year earlier.) Ah, sweet 1997. I was tempted to say that times like those wouldn’t come around again.
This year, however, Pisces must have been in Aquarius, or vice versa, or something. The number of novelists with a plausible claim to having published major work forms a kind of alphabet: Aira, Amis, Bolaño, Boyd, Carey, Cohen, Cunningam, Donoghue, Flaubert (by way of Davis), Grossman, Krauss, Krilanovich, Lee, Lipsyte, Marlantes, McCarthy, Mitchell, Moody, Ozick, Shriver, Shteyngart, Udall, Valtat, Yamashita… A career-defining omnibus appeared from Deborah Eisenberg, and also from Ann Beattie. Philip Roth, if the reviews are to believed, got his groove back. It even feels like I’m forgetting someone. Oh, well, it will come to me, I’m sure. In the meantime, you get the point. 2010 was a really good year for fiction.
Among the most enjoyable new novels I read were a couple that had affinities: Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies and Adam Levin’s The Instructions. (Disclosure: Adam Levin once rewired a ceiling fan for me. (Disclosure: not really.)) Each of these huge and hugely ambitious books has some notable flaws, and I wanted to resist them both, having developed an allergy to hyperintelligent junior high students. But each finds a way to reconnect the hermetic world of the ‘tween with the wider world our hopes eventually run up against. Murray and Levin are writers of great promise, and, more importantly, deep feeling, and their average age is something like 34, which means there’s likely more good stuff to come.
Another book I admired this year was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but since everybody else did, too, you can read about it elsewhere in this series. Let me instead direct your attention to Matthew Sharpe’s more modestly pyrotechnic You Were Wrong. Here Sharpe trains his considerable narrative brio on the most mundane of worlds – Long Island – with illuminating, and disconcerting, results. You Were Wrong, unlike The Instructions et al, also has the virtue of being short. As does Bolaño’s incendiary Antwerp (or any of the several great stories in The Return). Or Cesar Aira’s wonderful Ghosts, which I finally got around to. Hey, maybe 2010 was actually the year of the short novel, I began to think, right after I finished a piece arguing exactly the opposite.
Then, late in the year, when I thought I had my reading nailed down, the translation of Mathias Énard’s Zone arrived like a bomb in my mailbox. The synopsis makes it sounds like rough sledding – a 500-page run-on sentence about a guy on a train – but don’t be fooled. Zone turns out to be vital and moving and vast in its scope, like W.G. Sebald at his most anxious, or Graham Greene at his most urgent, or (why not) James Joyce at his most earthy, only all at the same time.
When it came to nonfiction, three books stood out for me, each of them a bit older. The first was Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, an utterly unclassifiable, conspicuously brilliant, and criminally entertaining magnum opus about consciousness, brains, and formal systems that has been blowing minds for several generations now. The second was Alberto Manguel’s 2008 essay collection, The Library at Night. No better argument for the book qua book exists, not so much because of what Manguel says here, but because the manner in which he says it – ruminative, learned, patient, just – embodies its greatest virtues. And the third was The Magician’s Doubts, a searching look at Nabokov by Michael Wood, who is surely one of our best critics.
Speaking of Nabokov: as great a year as 2010 was for new fiction, it was also the year in which I read Ada, and so a year when the best books I read were classics. In this, it was like any other year. I loved Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children for its language. I loved Andrey Platonov’s Soul for its intimate comedy and its tragic sensibility. I loved that Chekhov’s story “The Duel” was secretly a novel. I loved the Pevear/Volokhonsky production The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories for making a third fat Tolstoy masterpiece to lose myself in. About A House for Mr. Biswas, I loved Mr. Biswas.
And then there were my three favorite reading experiences of the year: Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies, a book about the chains of history and paternity and politics that reads like pure freedom; Dr. Faustus, which I loved less than I did The Magic Mountain, but admired more, if that’s even possible; and The Age of Innocence. Our own Lydia Kiesling has said pretty much everything I want to say about the latter, but let me just add that it’s about as close to perfection as you’d want that imperfect beast, the novel, to come. She was wild in her way, Edith Wharton, a secret sensualist, and still as scrupulous as her great friend Henry James. Like his, her understanding of what makes people tick remains utterly up-to-the-minute, and is likely to remain so in 2015, and 2035… by which time we may know about which of the many fine books that came out this year we can say the same thing. Ah, sweet 2010, we hardly knew ye.
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