The English channeler: Red Hook’s Charlotte Mandell translates modern French classics

Charlotte Mandell (photo by Tim Davis)

When she was a child, Charlotte Mandell used to summer in the Alps, and she had to learn French quickly to keep up: “It helped a lot, being able to go there and hear it spoken.” So much so that by the time she had turned 15, the Boston-raised Mandell could comfortably read and speak the foreign language.

Perhaps this ought not to surprise us. An award-winning French translator, the 50-year-old Red Hook resident has been crucial in bringing contemporary French literature to an English-language audience. Her versions of Jonathan Littell, Claude Arnaud and especially Mathias Enard have received acclaim and awards from major literary committees like the Man Booker Prize, and she is a regular translator for works from renowned indie presses like New Directions and New York Review Books Classics.

Mandell attended the Boston Latin School, focusing on languages. She took two years of Ancient Greek and six of Latin, which she considers foundational to her later work in French. It was during an AP Latin class that Mandell had her first serious taste of translation, when the class rendered all of Virgil’s Aeneid into English.


Mandell’s career began after she graduated from Bard College, with a book of literary essays by Maurice Blanchot; further Blanchot translations eventually earned a prize from the Modern Language Association. The intervening years have seen renditions of Flaubert, Balzac and Proust, and she has become the sole English translator of Prix Goncourt winner Mathias Enard, arguably the most provocative and interesting writer (apologies to Houellebecq) in modern French literature.

As Mandell has grown in acclaim, she increasingly translates works with which she is unfamiliar. This is how she prefers to work: “I’ll never read the book beforehand,” she says. “That’s one of my only rules.” Mandell will read and translate near-simultaneously, a sentence-by-sentence project that can move at a snail’s pace – about ten draft manuscript pages per day – but that she finds exhilarating. “It feels much more alive to me that way,” she explains. “I’m more involved in it creatively, like I’m helping to write the book as I go along.”

Her first goal is to find the book’s original “voice,” nebulous as it might be, and then render it as if the author had written in English. Take Zone, Enard’s mammoth, 500-plus page run-on sentence that encompasses seemingly all of European atrocity past, present and future. Zone is set during the span of a single train ride, giving the novel a rhythmic, mechanical pace more fitted to the possibilities of the original French. Once Mandell clued into this quality, she says, the act of translating became “much more fluent” – so much so that she had to force herself to stop writing at the end of the day: “I was completely immersed in the journey.”

This results in a conversation between author and translator that Mandell likens to living within whatever novel she is currently working on. “You find the spirit of the book.” While often intoxicating, certain works have proven less pleasant to inhabit. Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, is a thousand-page Holocaust novel narrated by a Nazi official with “a very specific, cold, unfeeling, unsentimental voice.” So enveloped was she in the character that Mandell began to have nightmares about him, even as him. The intensity of this act of recreation easily becomes exhausting – so much so that she rarely translates for more than a few hours at a stretch. “It’s like being a medium,” she says. “You’re channeling something and you’re taken over by it, completely immersed in it.”

As intensely as Mandell identifies with her work, however, she does not want readers to spot her in it. She relates a remark from Nicholas de Lange, who worked with the late Amos Oz, that a translator is like a good butler, “always there and appearing when you need things, but whom you never actually notice.” She would rather that the book appear as if it had been written in English to begin with, without the imposition of an external style. “I want the book to speak for itself,” she says.

Even if “a good translator,” in her words, “should disappear,” Mandell wants readers to understand just how much work is involved in her profession. She researches references, follows-up on footnotes and occasionally asks authors for clarification. “I think that translators are really the best scholars of a text that they translate,” she says. “They have to know everything about whatever they are translating. It should read fluently, like it was the easiest thing in the world to do; but there’s a lot of work that goes into it.”

Not that Mandell herself has receded from the picture. She excels at rendering obscure, dense authors like Enard and André Breton into English, and has been rewarded for it. She’s likely to be approached by publishers, and has become Enard’s personal translator. The next several years will see publication of works by Breton, Jean Genet, Paul Valéry and a “a huge Balzacian book” by Enard unlike anything the author has yet written.

And in her downtime? “I translate Proust,” she says through a laugh. “I just do more translations.”