Interview with Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandell

French-American Foundation: What is your professional background, and what led you to translation? Lauren Elkin: I’m a writer and an academic; I write on 20th and 21st century women’s writing and visual art, and recently published a book about women in urban space called Flâneuse: Women Walk the City (FSG). I’ve lived in France more or less since 1999; living between two languages and cultures for nearly twenty years, I basically live in a state of translation, no matter where I am. So it’s like a personal ethos as well as an occupation. I’ve been translating articles and interviews for years, but this is the first book I’ve translated. 

Charlotte Mandell: I’ve been translating French books for twenty-five years now; my first published translation was The Work of Fire by Maurice Blanchot, published in 1995.  I first became interested in translation in high school; I attended Boston Latin School, where I studied Latin for six years -- in my last year there I translated the Aeneid, and I was hooked. 

Why did you decide to translate Jean Cocteau: A Life? And how much did you know about Cocteau before deciding to embark on the project? 

CM: I feel a great debt to Cocteau because of his films, The Orphic Trilogy especially. Orphée is one of my favorite films, along with La Belle et la bête.  Film meant a lot to me as I was growing up – I minored in it in college and studied the semiotics of film in Paris – and I love the poetry and mysteriousness of all of Cocteau’s films.  I also like the fact that as a true poet he is a scholar of the whole; no field is foreign to him, everything is interesting to him. 

LE: Charlotte brought me on board to co-translate because the book was so long, and the publisher needed it done more quickly than she could do on her own, given her other commitments. I was familiar with Cocteau’s work but had very little knowledge of his life before working on the book. I developed such deep sympathy for him that I cried when I translated the chapter about his death! 

What were some challenges that you encountered while translating the book—besides the sheer length of Arnaud’s work? 

CM: I enjoyed translating Cocteau’s poems, and keeping straight the details of his immensely interconnected relationships.  

LE: Arnaud is a maximalist, and I am not, and there were times when I had to fight the urge to streamline his prose. 

For people who are curious about Cocteau, what are some aspects of his life that you found particularly interesting or unexpected? 

LE: How much the Surrealists hated him, and how much they bullied him - out of jealousy, irritation, and homophobia. It was shocking. 

CM: Cocteau’s connection to Proust was interesting, as was his relationship to Raymond Radiguet. His interactions with the Surrealists are also fascinating, as is the way his relationships with some of his lovers animate some of his films. 

How do you approach the task of translating, especially when working with a partner? 

CM: I always make it a point never to read too far ahead in the text I’m translating; that way I feel I can take more of a creative role in rendering the text into English.  Not knowing what comes next makes my job much more interesting.  Since I translated the first half of the book and Lauren translated the second half, we each worked independently of each other and edited each other’s work at the end, which worked out well.  

LE: I translate as I go along - something I learned from Charlotte - and only ever read maybe a few sentences ahead. It’s like discovering the book at the same rate as the reader. It was a pleasure working with Charlotte. I was intrigued to see her edits especially to my work; she’s much better than I am at getting the English into English, if that makes any sense. I read aloud as much as possible to be sure the sentence structure doesn’t sound too French, but it still creeps through. 

What does the Translation Prize mean to you and how do you think it benefits translation and the literary world? 

LE: It’s such an honor to be nominated for this award; it feels incredibly validating. I can only imagine that’s how it feels to other translators - we spend all this time laboring to make this work accessible, and it’s nice to have that specific kind of creativity acknowledged. We live in a culture that valorizes fiction above all else, but in a way that often reduces it to story-telling - what the novel or story is “about.” Translation has traditionally been approached as if language were similarly pellucid - here’s what Madame Bovary “says,” it’s now legible to someone who doesn’t read French. I think it’s a good time for translation into English partly because of the kind of fiction that’s being produced in English; there’s more recognition recently for work that opens up the creative process in some way, that blends and problematizes genres - I think that’s where an appreciation for the act of translating can come in as well, in thinking about language as process, rather than jumping past it to “meaning.” 

CM: I think any prize that focuses more attention on the art of translation is an important one; too often translations are overlooked or ignored.  

Are there other French-language books that you appreciate that you would like to see translated for English-speaking audiences? 

LE: I’m really glad that Deep Vellum Press has committed to publishing work by female members of the Oulipo like Anne Garréta or Michèle Audin; I’d also like to see more work by Claude Cahun accessible to English speakers. 

CM: I think Madman Bovary by Christophe Claro is very much worth translating and publishing in English; in it, the main character is so upset by a recent breakup that he enters the Flaubert novel and changes the course of the story.  Claro’s most recent novel, Hors du charnier natal, which centers on the Russian anthropologist Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay and about the search for identity, should also be translated into English.  

If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring translator, what would it be? 

LE: Read everything! Read horizontally as well as vertically, as I heard the late Eve Sedgwick say when I was in graduate school; read widely outside your field as well as deeply inside it. You never know how something is going to feed the work and your mind can get stale reading the same sort of thing over and over. You need to keep your voice open and supple. Also it helps you identify future projects and writers you want to champion. 

CM: Just do it!  I remember the great Italian translator William Weaver saying just that, over fifteen years ago, at a Bard College conference on translation.  The only way you can really learn about translation is by translating as much as you can.  Don’t overthink a translation; just go with the flow and revise later.  Don’t doubt yourself.  

Could you tell me about any current projects that you are working on? 

CM: At the moment I’m translating Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’éléphants by Mathias Énard, about Michelangelo being commissioned by the Sultan of Constantinople to design a bridge over the Golden Horn.  It’s a beautiful book about creative failure.  My translation of Énard’s Compass was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker International Fiction Prize, so I’ll be going to London for those events in June.  

LE: I’m just finishing Michelle Perrot’s Histoire de chambres, a history of the bedroom, for Yale UP. And then I’m going to finish my second novel, which I’ve been writing in both French and English; part of it comes out in one language, part comes out in the other, and then I translate across to create two original manuscripts. It means it’s taking nearly twice as long to write, but for some reason I have to do this book this way. 

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About Lauren Elkin

Lauren Elkin is a writer, academic, and translator, and the author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Her work has been published in, among others, the New York Times, The Guardian, Frieze, and the White Review, where she is a contributing editor. She lives in Paris.

 

About Charlotte Mandell

Charlotte Mandell has translated over forty books from the French, including works by Proust, Flaubert, Genet, and Jonathan Littell.  Her translation of Zone by Mathias Enard was awarded a grant by the NEA in 2010. Her translation of Enard's Compass has recently been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Fiction Prize.