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2017 Man Booker International Prize Q&A—Charlotte Mandell

By Eric M. B. Becker


Charlotte Mandell is shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Mathias Enard’s Compass.

Words Without Borders (WWB): What drew you to the work of your writer?

Charlotte Mandell: A long time ago, in 2008 I think, I read an excerpt from Zone in a digest published by the French Publishers’ Agency, and was so taken with it I knew I had to translate it. There was, is, no other French writer writing like Énard—I loved the urgency of his prose, the rhythm of it, the mesmerizing quality of Zone’s stream-of-consciousness narrative, the power and force of the narrator’s voice—I loved everything about it, really. By chance I heard that Chad Post at Open Letter was interested in publishing the translation, and so I wrote to him and basically begged to be allowed to translate it, and that’s how Énard’s and my lifelong (I hope) collaboration began.

WWB: What was unique about this translation compared to others you’d done?

Charlotte Mandell: I don’t think I’ve ever translated another novel with as many literary and musical references as Compass! Énard weaves the references into the narrative in a masterful way, so that you never really feel overwhelmed by them, but it was a challenge getting all the titles and musical pieces right.  Thank goodness for Wikipedia and YouTube. Fortunately I’m a classical music aficionado and grew up listening to a lot of the pieces mentioned in Compass, but many of the references to Arabic-language and Persian novels were foreign to me. When I was completely flummoxed I would write to Mathias—he was very helpful that way. I remember having no idea what L’Horloge des veilleurs [literally, “The Clock of the Watchmen”] was on page 364 of the French; Mathias informed me (via WhatsApp, no less) that it’s the Horologion, the Book of Hours used by the Eastern Orthodox Church—I think I glossed that in my translation. It’s interesting to point out that despite our long collaboration, Mathias and I have yet to meet—all our correspondence is via e-mail or text.  

WWB: What are you reading now, or which writers from the language and literary tradition you translate do you think readers ought to pay attention to as potential future MBI winners?

Charlotte Mandell: Actually I’m reading quite a bit of Germain Nouveau at the moment, inspired by the section about him in Compass—a friend gave me the Pléiade edition that he has since been expurgated from. I’m also reading/translating the wonderful Surrealist book of automatic writing by André Breton and Philippe Soupault called Les Champs magnétiques, The Magnetic Fields, which was translated a while ago by David Gascoyne but is now out of print—I’d love to find a publisher for that. I’m also working on Énard’s beautiful book about Michelangelo and creative failure called Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants (from a Kipling quotation). 

One interesting French author who I think deserves to be better known in English is Christophe Claro; he has written over twenty books (including the very funny Madman Bovary, about a man who becomes so obsessed by Flaubert’s Madame Bovary that he enters the novel himself), only one of which (Chair électrique, Electric Flesh) has been translated into English, by the American novelist Brian Evenson. Claro is also one of the most important translators of English-language authors into French writing today; he seems to specialize in mammoth novels, since he has translated Vollmann, Pynchon, Gass, and now the truly mammoth Jerusalem by Alan Moore. His most recent novel, Hors du charnier natal, which centers on the Russian anthropologist Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay, is about the search for a self (or rather an other-in-the-self) and about the paramount importance of language in constructing identity; given a good English translation, I could definitely see it on the next Man Booker International longlist.

Read more interviews with 2017 Man Booker International Prize-nominated writers and translators


Published May 1, 2017   Copyright 2017 Eric M. B. Becker

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