Charlotte Mandell is a skilled translator of poetry and philosophy - most notably of the work of Maurice Blanchot. Here, Charlotte kindly answers some of my questions:
Mark Thwaite: I first came across your name as a translator of the work of Maurice Blanchot. What first got you interested in Blanchot?
Charlote Mandell: Fate. My friend Pierre Joris, who translated Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community, was asked by Helen Tartar (then editor-in-chief at Stanford University Press) to translate La part du feu. He didn’t have the time, so he recommended me. I sent in a sample chapter – I was only 24 then and the only book-length work I’d translated was a book of poems, Le feu l’ombre, by the French poet Jean-Paul Auxeméry. Helen liked the straightforwardness of my translation, the fact that it didn’t use any acadamese – I tried to translate Blanchot as simply and as honestly as I could.
MT: Do you find the close reading required to translate a work has helped you to understand Blanchot more clearly than you would otherwise have done?
CM: Definitely, yes. I feel I’ve never really “read” a work until I’ve translated it. I also make it a rule never to read too far ahead in the book I’m translating – that way everything is fresh and new, and I can’t form any preconceived notions about what will come next. I figure the author never had the luxury of reading his book beforehand, so why should I? (In the case of Blanchot it’s a little different – I’d already read many of his books in French when I was a student in Paris.)
MT: Do you think "the common reader" can get much out of Blanchot or should he be left to academics?
CM: Reading Blanchot is a little like watching someone think. You have to have patience, since his essays move by nuance and suggestion, and come to focus slowly. English readers – Americans especially – are used to being fed information; in the case of an essay, they’re used to the conventional statement-exposition-conclusion format. The nice thing about Blanchot (and the thing a lot of people find exasperating about him) is that he doesn’t follow that formula, or any formula for that matter. Often no conclusion is reached. The subject is examined, and questioned, and looked at from different angles, but never really resolved. I like that a lot – it’s sort of like reading poetry.
MT: You have also translated Jean Genet? Tell us about your relationship to his work.
The Genet book, Fragments of the Artwork, was the brainchild of Werner Hamacher, the series editor of the Meridian series at Stanford. It’s a collection of essays (mostly on art or artists) taken from Genet’s Oeuvres complètes, published by Gallimard. I had never translated Genet before, and I was astonished at his insightfulness and the depth of his commentary – I think The Studio of Alberto Giacometti is one of the best pieces of art criticism I’ve ever read. And The Tightrope Walker, a sort of prose-poem Genet wrote to his acrobat lover (who later committed suicide because of Genet’s neglect), is incredibly beautiful.
MT: I recently had some excerpts from La Nuit remue by Henri Michaux and some selections from White Traverses of the Past by Abdelwahab Meddeb as Poems of the Week here at RSB - what led you to those works?
CM:I started reading Michaux when I was in college – I loved his irreverence and freshness. Pierre Joris (again) introduced me to Meddeb’s work; my translation of his book of prose poems, The Tomb of Ibn Arabi, inspired by the great Sufi poet Ibn al’Arabi, was published by the journal Talus in London – I don’t think it exists anymore. In fact, that was the first book of mine that was published, back in 1991. Later, Pierre and I co-translated Meddeb’s The Malady of Islam, an attack on Islamic fundamentalism. The Meddeb excerpt you posted is from a lovely little autobiographical work by Meddeb called White Traverses of the Past, a meditation on the color white and on growing up in Tunis – that has yet to find a publisher.
MT: What are the principal challenges of translating poetry over prose?
CM: I find poetry much easier to translate, actually. I’m a literal translator at heart – I like translating things word-for-word – and that’s really the only way to translate poetry. Poetry keeps you honest. Whenever you get an urge to paraphrase something or make it easier to understand, you stop yourself, and try to stay true to the word. Robert has an interesting essay in which he talks about the primacy of incomprehensibility in poetry – poetry begins to get interesting when it doesn’t immediately make obvious sense, but provokes the reader to inner alertness. So when I translate poetry I feel freed from the normal conventions of English grammar and usage, and able to stay true to language, to where the word will lead me next.
MT: You've just mentioned Robert - he is your husband the poet Robert Kelly. Do you ever work together on poetry translations?
CM: All of my poetry translations are really co-translations, since Robert is my final consultant, and my best editor. Robert edits all my translations, actually, for which I’m very grateful.
MT: What are you working on now? Which of your recent work should I be looking out for?
CM: My translation of Guy de Maupassant’s The Horla is just out – a wonderful first-person vampire story about a man’s descent into madness – Maupassant wrote it not long before he himself was committed to an asylum. That’s part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series; my translation of Flaubert’s A Simple Heart was part of that series, and right now I’m proofreading my translation of Balzac’s weird novella The Girl with the Golden Eyes, which should be out next month. I’m also working on a translation of a Jules Verne pseudo-vampire story called A Castle in Transylvania for that series. In January, my translation of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s series of articles for the Atlantic Monthly will be published by Random House under the title American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville. Some other books underway: Listening by Jean-Luc Nancy and Geography of Hope by Pierre Birnbaum, a 500-page book on various Jewish intellectuals like Hannah Arendt and Claude Lévi-Strauss.
My translation of Blanchot's A Voice from Elsewhere will be out soon from SUNY Press: it's a series of essays on Paul Celan, René Char, Michel Foucault, and, most interestingly to English readers (since there aren't many English translations of his work), on a poet named Louis-René des Forêts.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is the best thing that you have read recently?
CM: I don’t have one favorite author, but I do have many Books That Changed My Life – I think when we read a particular book has a huge influence on what we think of it. I have been formed and shaped by books all my life. Here’s a list, which you can edit as you please [I didn't touch it! MT] – but I’m so glad you asked the question, so I can finally do a little to repay my debt to these books:
When I was 13: Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. That book changed my entire perception of reality. I wrote Bellow a long fan letter from our rented chalet in the French Alps, but he never wrote back – I’m sure by then he’d rather not have been reminded he wrote it.
When I was 15: Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. I would later on become a Buddhist, and I’m sure this planted a seed in my mindstream. When I read it I was anti-everything-even-remotely-religious, but I loved the style, the simplicity of the narration. Also, Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
When I was 16: Virgil’s Aeneid, much of which I translated (I went to Boston Latin High School, the oldest public high school in America – it was founded in 1635 – where you study Latin for 6 years). Every Shakespeare play, especially - Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Winter’s Tale.
When I was 20: Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I fell madly in love with Prince Andrei. Also Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. And also Robert Kelly’s Not This Island Music. I fell madly in love with Robert Kelly.
Some other Books That Have Changed My Life: Melville’s Moby Dick. It’s so amazing to read a “classic” and realize it truly is a great book, and there’s nothing else out there even remotely like it. Joyce’s Ulysses. Proust – right now I’m reading through all of Remembrance of Things Past – I’m in Time Regained – and it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever read. No one else can describe how a person’s mind works as well as Proust. It’s a very Buddhist book, really, in his awareness of the present moment – of all the thought processes that go on at the same time, in the same person – and of the fact that no individual “self” really exists; we exist as many different individuals, many different selves.
I love detective novels. All of Sherlock Holmes. Weird fantasies by Arthur Machen or George MacDonald. Rudyard Kipling! Another great neglected writer. H. Rider Haggard. Robert Louis Stevenson. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. And I just discovered HC Bailey’s Mr. Fortune stories. I recently read all of Lovecraft – another great neglected American novelist.
MT: Anything else you'd like to say?
CM: There are so many things! Translators never get asked anything, so when someone listens to us we tend to rabbit on. I could give you an entire Proustean list of things (favorite number: 4; favorite color: burgundy; favorite flower: yellow sea poppy; favorite movie: tie between Cocteau’s Orphée and Renoir’s Rules of the Game…) but I won’t. Thank you very much for the interview – my first! – and for your lovely site.