Between Us: Translators in Conversation

In this series, we listen in as Drunken Boat’s renowned translators talk with one another about art, craft, and the role of translation in the world. First out: Esther Allen and Charlotte Mandell.

CHARLOTTE MANDELL has translated over forty books from the French, including works by Maurice Blanchot, Jonathan Littell, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Mathias Énard. In 2001 she received a translation prize from the Modern Language Association for her translation of Faux Pas by Maurice Blanchot, and in 2010 her translation of Zone by Mathias Énard received a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Compass, her translation of Mathias Énard’s Goncourt-winning novel Boussole, is forthcoming from New Directions Press in the US and Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK in March 2017. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband, the poet Robert Kelly. She has been friends with Esther Allen for over fifteen years.

ESTHER ALLEN’s translation of Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto — the first English version of the 1956 masterpiece — was published in August, 2016. She is currently at work on a biography of José Martí that situates him in the history of New York City, where he spent the greater part of his adult life. She teaches at the Graduate Center of City University of New York (CUNY) and Baruch College, CUNY. More info at estherallen.com


ESTHER ALLEN Last year I had the pleasure of reading Chasing Lost Time, a wonderful biography of C. K. Scott Moncrieff by Jean Findlay, a great-great-niece of Moncrieff’s.

He was a member of that infinitely tragic generation of British men who basically lost every friend and comrade they had in World War I, and felt like old men by the age of 25. To this day, scholars squabble over whether or not Moncrieff was ever the actual lover of Wilfred Owen, the doomed poet.

What Findlay brings across is that Moncrieff’s translation of Proust’s Recherche, was in many ways an autobiographical endeavor, a way of talking about his own sexual identity, his generation, his childhood, what he personally had lost. Findlay juxtaposes passages where Proust describes his mother reading aloud to him with descriptions of Moncrieff’s own childhood relationship with his mother, which involved much reading aloud.

Do you find that translation can sometimes be autobiographical? Has it been that for you?

CHARLOTTE MANDELL Your question is fascinating — I’d like to read that Scott Moncrieff bio. His translation of Recherche was the first one I ever read, and it’s still very close to my heart — the way he captured the tone and feeling of the original is extraordinary. I agree with you, I think translating the Recherche was a very personal thing for him, a way for him to come to terms with loss and death and sexuality.

For me it’s the opposite — translating for me is a way of emptying myself out, of becoming someone else for a while. I like translating precisely because it’s not autobiographical — there doesn’t have to be any of ‘me’ in a translation, just the voice of the author/narrator — I find that very liberating. My friend the novelist Carey Harrison says he writes novels to create interesting characters that he can inhabit, the way his parents ([actors] Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer) inhabited their characters — translating for me is a way of discovering the other, of forgetting about myself. A little the way a medium empties herself out before channeling voices… It’s a very Buddhist practice for me, emptying out the ego. Which in a very indirect way is autobiographical, since the only real way to discover the self is to discover the Other.

My first question for you is threefold: How did you first become interested in Spanish? When did you realize you could become a translator? and, finally, do you approach a French novel (or anything in French) differently from the way you approach a Spanish book?

ESTHER ALLEN I started answering this on Monday, and now that the election is over it feels like that was a different universe and we’re now in an utterly terrifying new reality. But what can we do except go on with our conversation?

Great question.

My connection to Spanish began when I was two and my family moved to the Philippines; my parents were missionaries. Tagalog is the national language, but the Philippines was part of the Spanish empire for nearly 400 years and that presence is felt. When I was seven, we moved to Southern California, another place long under the dominion of the Spanish crown. I was 13 when I got my first job and my co-workers in restaurant kitchens or on farms were often Mexican. Their unfailing kindness and warmth helped me immensely. I spent one high school summer cutting strawberry runners on a farm in Watsonville, California; the tool we used left tough little ridges along my right index finger. I remember absently rubbing them out in the field one day when an elderly Mexican lady who’d done that kind of work all her life showed me, with a kind of pride, the terrible state her hands were in, covered in hard, notched callouses.

French, though, was the first language I really learned and translated from. Miraculously, only a couple of years after that moment out in the strawberry fields, I found myself on a junior year abroad in Paris. It was 1980, there was no internet, long distance phone calls were way too expensive, and I lived with a series of French families who spoke little to no English. When you’re completely immersed and have no linguistic alternative, you pick things up fast. Towards the end of my year at the Sorbonne I found work translating business correspondence for a company based in Neuilly. I needed the money and it also felt like a way of connecting this new person I’d unexpectedly become, via French, with who I was in English. Back in California, my Scripps College mentor, Monique Chefdor, asked me to co-translate Modernities, an anthology of prose poems by Blaise Cendrars and that’s how I started to become serious about translation.

The big difference between my approach to the two languages is that the French projects I’ve translated — with the exception of an inchoate work involving Flaubert I’ve been circling around for years that is very much my own — are primarily things I’ve been asked to do. I very much like and admire Cendrars, Linda Lê, Marie Darrieussecq — wouldn’t have translated them otherwise! — but I took those projects as they were offered to me. Whereas most of my Spanish projects — Rosario Castellanos, Felisberto Hernández, José Martí — were books I found, loved, decided to translate, and pushed through to publication. Spanish is a vaster, wilder universe and it’s far easier for things that are really important to be overlooked there. That’s true even of literature from Spain — though truer of Latin America.

Your turn: how did you begin to be a translator?

CHARLOTTE MANDELL Yes, what can we do but continue our conversation? I feel as if we need to be extra-kind to people now, to offset all the anger and intolerance — yesterday I found myself smiling at the man busing tables at Panera’s and making conversation with the checkout guy at Best Buy, just to make some sort of connection with people in these dark times. We need to create our own Temporary Autonomous Zones for a while…

Wow, I never knew you lived in the Philippines. Or that you started out translating Blaise Cendrars! His “Easter in New York” was one of the first poems I ever translated, just after I graduated from Bard, along with Apollinaire’s “Zone.”

I first became involved with French when I was 10 and my family spent the summer in the Swiss Alps, the French-speaking part. Both my parents were college professors and so we had long summers off, and starting when I was 10, we spent every other summer in first the Swiss and then the French Alps, in a little village called St. Jean d’Aulps, not far from Lake Geneva. Although my father taught English literature he did his Master’s degree at Columbia on a French playwright named Henri-René Lenormand, an interesting writer who combined mysticism with psychoanalysis, so I suppose I inherited my interest in French from him, and from those summers in France. The high school I went to was Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in the country (it was founded in 1635), where you have to choose to concentrate in history, math, or languages, and since you also have to take five years of Latin, I added French and ancient Greek to that. I had a wonderful French teacher named Michèle Lepietre who was from Normandy, and since she was very young, we became best friends and hung out together after school, which helped with my spoken French enormously. Then I went on to major in French at Bard — I also spent my junior year in Paris! — and that’s when I became serious about translation. My senior project at Bard was a translation of a book of poems by a contemporary French poet named Jean-Paul Auxeméry, who is a translator of the poet Charles Olson and a friend of the poet and translator Pierre Joris. And it was Pierre who indirectly got me my first translating job, when he recommended me to Helen Tartar at Stanford University Press when they were looking for a translator for La Part du feu by Maurice Blanchot. Definitely a baptism by fire!

Can you tell me more about the “inchoate work involving Flaubert,” or is that a secret? It sounds fascinating…

ESTHER ALLEN Oh love, I’m sorry to have taken so long to reply. Been a real doozy of a week, hasn’t it?

Has been difficult to go forward with things in light of the catastrophic takeover of the country by racism and misogyny, with more bad news every moment.

I completely agree that the best moments following this horrible election have been the quiet interactions where you honor people you’re in contact with over the course of daily life and show some simple decency and compassion in the face of the surging flood of hatred that is engulfing us. I just read an article in which our president-elect’s chief strategist, beloved by the KKK and the Nazis, said “Darkness is good: Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” He also said that this moment is “like the 1930s.” Cartoonish evil appears to be the strategy for uniting us as a nation, and the country that defeated the Nazis now has White House spokespeople happily donning the mantle of the Nazis. Impossible to believe this could ever have gotten as far as it has already.

In a somewhat reluctant answer to your question, my inchoate Flaubert project involves two extraordinary autobiographical inédits of his that turned up in the back of a drawer some years ago. I translated and very briefly annotated them for the Paris Review and they inspired an idea about translation and imprint or moulage sur nature. Then I unexpectedly had about a year to work on that when the annotated translation of Adolfo Bioy Casares’s Borges — a 1,000+ page journal that records fifty years of conversations between the two writers — fell apart just weeks before a year-long Cullman fellowship I’d received at the New York Public Library to work on it began.

So instead I turned to these brief, enigmatic texts and began weaving a web of connections and imagery around them. It’s an ambitious project that needed much more than a year and since the fellowship ended it’s been on a back burner. But I think it’s actually beneficial sometimes to let things proceed at their own rhythm, even if they are a long time materializing. It’s one of the luxuries this kind of work has — a luxury you don’t have when you’re working for a publisher on a deadline.

We have a lot in common, don’t we? Translating Blaise Cendrars, junior year in Paris, a strongly formative relationship with a French professor, in your case Michèle Lepietre, in mine Monique Chefdor. You gave me a copy of your translation of La Part du feu some years ago, but I didn’t realize it was your first book. You’ve done so much Blanchot since then! That’s one of the things that makes your career quite different than mine: your work often involves ongoing collaborations with an author that result in a whole series of books. How many authors have you done more than one book with? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of translating a number of books by a single author?

CHARLOTTE MANDELL It is all so surreal…it’s hard to believe all this is actually happening. I hadn’t heard that quote about the Dark Side, but somehow I’m not surprised… I grew up reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, and this feels very similar.

Your Flaubert project sounds fascinating — I can’t wait to read it when it’s done. You’re right about the pleasure of working on something without a deadline — it makes all the difference, somehow.

It’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about translating multiple books by one author, but it’s true, I have done that. First Blanchot — I translated four books by him — then an interesting Tunisian writer named Abdelwahab Meddeb, with whom I developed something of a collaboration over the years; then Jean-Luc Nancy, Jonathan Littell, and Mathias Énard. Meddeb died very suddenly just a few years ago, which was something of a shock.

The advantage of working with one author over several books is one begins to learn his voice and his style, and his word preferences — that first book by Blanchot was very challenging for me, since he has such a unique and complex style, but after that it got a little easier, since his sometimes convoluted sentence structures and open-ended clauses came more easily to me. With Meddeb I translated essays as well as memoirs and poems, and he was very helpful in going over my translations and suggesting alternatives if he didn’t agree with my choice of words. The Jean-Luc Nancy books that I enjoy translating the most are the lyrical ones — The Fall of Sleep, Listening, and now Coming, just out from Fordham UP — since although they’re categorized as philosophy they come very close to poetry in their evocative and subtle use of language and wordplay. Working with Jonathan Littell is very rewarding since he’s the only author I’ve ever translated who’s completely bilingual, so he has a very specific idea of what he wants in a translation. We both have similar backgrounds — he translated Blanchot and Genet when he was in college, and we’re both about the same age — so working with him comes very naturally. Translating Mathias Énard is always interesting because his style is constantly changing: each new book by him is totally different from the book that came before, so I can never get too comfortable in a particular voice or narrative style. He has a wonderful way of inhabiting his characters so that they’re not only believable and plausible but entirely lifelike — so my challenge when translating him is to convey that believability and lifelike-ness, and also to capture each book’s own narrative voice.

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about Zama, which sounds like a monumental work, and an incredible feat of translation. Can you tell me a little about what it was like working on it? How long did it take you to translate it? How did you first become interested in it?

ESTHER ALLEN Zama took shape in a very different way from any other book I’ve worked on: a slow process of perception and recognition. I was invited to an “Editors and Translators Week” in Buenos Aires in 2005, the first time I’d ever been there. What I learned was that Argentine literature within Argentina had a rather different cast of characters from Argentine literature outside of Argentina. Everyone was talking constantly about César Aira, a name I knew only vaguely at that point. Antonio Di Benedetto was another name perennially invoked, a long-dead novelist and short story writer I’d never heard of. Zama, a novel first published in 1956, was the Di Benedetto book most often mentioned, but the publishing house was out of copies the day I visited so I came back with El silenciero and Los suicidas, the second and third books in his so-called “trilogy of expectation,” — which isn’t really a trilogy in the sense of having been intended as a trilogy by its author, but which does function conceptually as a trilogy, though the three books that comprise it are as different from each other as they could be.

I started reading El silenciero as soon as I got back but it simply wasn’t the moment for me to read that book: I wasn’t there yet. What I did do at that point to advance the Di Benedetto project (though I couldn’t have known it would have that effect) was strongly recommend that the Fundación TyPA, which organizes the Editors and Translators Week, set aside their insistence that all participants be fluent in Spanish, and invite some U.S. editors of real clout such as Barbara Epler of New Directions and Edwin Frank of New York Review Books Classics. The language barrier was easily enough overcome by having someone accompany and interpret for them, and these were people who could really do things for Argentine literature.

Barbara had already begun publishing Roberto Bolaño by the time she went to Buenos Aires for the Week; she met César Aira while she was there and redoubled her commitment to publishing him. Edwin went a couple of years later, and someone thrust a copy of Zama into his hands. He sent it to me when he got back and I read it and suddenly understood what everyone had been talking about five years earlier. The report I wrote him — in June of 2009 — began with a single line: “It’s a masterpiece.”

Habent sua fata libelli goes the old Latin adage: books have their fate. That has certainly been true of Zama. So much was necessary in order for that book to have a chance at the reception it deserves. First of all, it took the very impactful reception in English of Roberto Bolaño, a writer for whom Antonio Di Benedetto is absolutely fundamental. Bolaño’s famous short story “Sensini” — the first story in Last Evenings on Earth, which was the first Bolaño book New Directions published in the United States — is about Di Benedetto, and alludes explicitly to Zama. That came out in 2006, and the Bolaño phenomenon has not ceased to expand out from there since then.

Argentina was the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October of 2010, but Zama posed a number of extremely complex translation problems and it simply wasn’t feasible to have it published in time for the Fair. After that, we got word that the great Argentine filmmaker Lucretia Martel was working on a filmed version of it, so for quite a while it seemed like a good idea to postpone publication until the film came out. All that while, I kept returning to the translation, tinkering with it, rethinking it, simply because I could, and because the book consistently rewarded such intense scrutiny.

Finally, in 2016, Edwin decided we had waited long enough and NYRB brought the book out just in time for the most disastrous election in our nation’s history. Which, in retrospect, seems the perfect moment for it to have entered Anglophone consciousness. Zama is a historical novel, but it is about the future as much as it is about the past; its eponymous central character lives out the last decade of the 18th century with his entire being turned towards the past: the Spanish empire and its bureaucratic hierarchies, which he wishes to ascend. Meanwhile, Zama remains completely oblivious to the post-imperial future that the new century is about to bring, though signs of it are all around him. We in the United States are in much the same situation now, I fear; still thinking almost entirely in terms of the past and oblivious to or in denial about the future.

If I had to pick the most important book I’ve ever translated, I would have to say that it was Zama.

CHARLOTTE MANDELL That’s fascinating — I can’t wait to read Zama. It does sound like the perfect book for our time. It’s interesting that we both have translations coming out that are very appropriate for the dark times we’re living in now. In my case, Mathias Énard’s Compass is a sort of Ode to the Other, a kind of dreamscape in which East and West intermingle, a search for Pessoa’s ‘east of the East’ — and proof that fear of the Other is due to pure ignorance, since to the wise nothing is foreign. When it comes to delving into the depths of the soul and exploring the outer boundaries of the Self, we are all immigrants, strangers in a strange land.