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Translator Spotlights: In Conversation with Charlotte Mandell

Photo by Robert Kelly

In the “Translator Spotlights” series, we shine a light on translation by interviewing a series of translators and asking them to share their unique insights and perspectives on the field of translation today. Translating from French, Portuguese and Spanish (by way of Latin America), these translators are building literary paths that allow us to travel through both space and time.

Charlotte Mandell is a literary translator based in the US. Her wide-ranging work has given English language readers the opportunity to access some of the finest texts produced in French, from classics like Flaubert and Proust, to contemporary non-fiction writing. She has translated over fifty books from French, including works by Mathias Énard, Jonathan Littell, Maurice Blanchot, Flaubert, and Proust. Her translation of The Magnetic Fields by André Breton and Philippe Soupault has just been published by NYRB Poets. She lives in the Hudson Valley region of New York with her husband, the poet Robert Kelly. You can find her website here.

In this interview, she shares her approach to translation and her relationship with the original text.

Do you ever feel that certain expressions can’t be translated? How do you approach them?

I think everything can be translated, in one way or another. Idioms and puns can be rephrased or rewritten. English has no formal or informal ‘you’, so that can be difficult to convey — but it can be done, by using polite or informal forms of address.

You’ve translated classics and texts that deal with current events and developing situations. How does that impact your work as a translator?

One always tries to find the right voice in a translation — I find that so long as I stay true to the text (that is, to follow the lead of the words on the page, without trying to interfere too much), the text teaches me how to translate it. It’s a matter of listening, very carefully, and very attentively.

Do you prefer to read the whole book in the source language first and then translate it or do it as you go along?

I never read the book first! I always translate as I go along — that way I feel I’m more a part of the creative process of actually writing the book. The more I translate, the more I realize that translation is a form of rewriting. I like the suspense of not knowing what’s coming next as I translate. There’s an element of surprise and wonder that would be lacking if I read the book beforehand — and I hope that feeling of newness comes through in the translation.

With older texts is there a temptation to modernise what you’re translating for a contemporary audience or do you try to remain as faithful to the original meaning as possible?

I try to remain true to the original text — I try not to modernise, if it’s an older text. Language is all-important; when I read older texts that have been modernised, it somehow doesn’t feel right — it feels as if the translator is fighting with the author, and I don’t want to do that at all; I want to work with the text, not against it. I want the feeling of the original to come through, and I think that can only happen if one stays true to the author’s voice, at all times.

And there we have it, a warm and grateful thanks to Charlotte Mandell for her insightful and attentive answers. Stay tuned for our next translator interview!


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