Six Questions for Charlotte Mandell, Translator of Zone by Mathias Enard

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One of my New Year’s “resolutions,” if you will, is to do more interviews in this site in 2011. I like to do them, they’re interesting, and they’re a great way to get some other perspectives on here.

So, the first of what I hope will be a lot, lot more is with translator Charlotte Mandell, whose translation of Zone by Mathias Enard was just published by Open Letter (you can read my review of the book here.)

No doubt if you’ve been following this site at all over the past few months, you know that Zone is one of the bigger (physically and substance-wise) French novels to be published in the past few years. Claro, the acclaimed novelist and translator of Pynchon, Vollmann, and Gaddis into French, called it one of the important books of the decade. It’s a 517-page book that’s essentially one huge run-on sentence, and it’s something like a stream of conscious history of the clash between East and West in Europe for the past 2,000 years.

Mandell is one of the major translators from French working today. She’s done over 30 books, including the huge (again, physically and substance-wise) The Kindly Ones, Proust’s The Lemoine Affair, numerous works by Maurice Blanchot, and Pierre Bayard’s, Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong. Here, we talk about Zone.

Scott Esposito: According to the information on your website, you’ve translated some 28 books since 2001, including The Kindly Ones, which is nearly 1,000 pages. How long were you working on Zone, and how did it compare, in terms of difficulty, rate of progress, etc to other books you’ve translated?

Charlotte Mandell: Good grief! I thought that was a mistake when I read it–28 books in 10 years does seem like a lot . . . It took me about 6 months to translate Zone, and then a few more months to revise it. I’ve almost always worked under pressing deadlines, so I’m used to working fast, and once I’d started translating Zone it was honestly very hard to stop. For one thing, there are no obvious resting places, since there are no periods! So I had to mark out ahead of time where I would stop for the day, so that I didn’t overdo it. It was really a joy translating Zone, since it felt like a long prose poem in which I could give myself free rein.

SE: Funny that you mention that. I felt that unstoppability while reading (and others have told me they did too), and it seems it works the same for translating the book. Like you, I had to tell myself to slow down, and one way to do it was to look up just a fraction of the references in this book. There are tons! At the end of the day, the book feels like a cross between a postmodern novel of information and a modernist stream of conscious novel, maybe something William Gaddis would have come up with. How do you classify it, and do you see any novels in the French landscape that resemble or contextualize it?

CM: I suppose the first book that comes to mind as a sort of precursor to Zone is Michel Butor’s La Modification (published in English as Second Thoughts). It too is about a man on a train journey, and it’s narrated solely in the second person. The entire narration revolves around the narrator’s thoughts and memories, and nothing actually “happens” in the book (except that the narrator changes his mind—hence the title—by the end of the book).

You’re right, there are a lot of references, and I think all the books mentioned in Zone influence Enard’s narrative in subtle but meaningful ways: Tsirkas’ Drifting Cities; William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch; Pound’s Cantos; Finnegans Wake; Apollinaire’s Zone; Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night; and especially Malaparte’s masterful Kaputt, one of the most underappreciated (and well-written) war novels I can think of, narrated from the point of view of the losing side.

In terms of the contemporary French literary landscape, I think Zone shares a lot of similarities with The Kindly Ones: in fact I can think of no other French novel today that mentions Bardèche, Brasillach, and Burroughs!–though I think it was Edgar Rice Burroughs in The Kindly Ones . . . Both narrators are fascists (a recovering fascist in the case of Zone, but a fascist nonetheless), and both are consumed by their respective wars. Also, both The Kindly Ones and Zone incorporate dreams, fantasies, and memories into the narrative in interesting ways–the boundaries between fantasy and reality are often blurred.

I think Enard and Claro also have some things in common, in the risks they take in terms of narration and style. Claro’s recent Madman Bovary comes to mind, if only for its narrative inventiveness, and for its way of portraying a narrator consumed by a book (the way Zone’s narrator is consumed by a briefcase). I heard that Enard and Claro traveled around Europe once performing a magic show–I’m not sure if I dreamt that, but it sounds very apt!

SE: If you know one thing about Zone you know that it’s a 500-page book that’s one huge run-on sentence. Despite how daunting that sounds, I found the book rather quick once I got into it–it’s not so much that the lack of periods ceases to be noticeable as that I just got used to reading a text primarily governed by commas. What do you think of the conceit, and did it force you to approach the book differently as a translator?

CM: You’re right, the commas do take the place of periods. I think it’s a vividly appropriate conceit for a narrative that takes place entirely on a train, since it feels very rhythmic and also inexorable–the sentence keeps going on, just like the train, and it won’t stop until it reaches the terminus. I like the fact that the book has exactly 517 pages, which is the same number of kilometers from Milan to Rome. So the narrative is very closely linked to the train ride, especially with the chapters in the Table of Contents referring not to the actual chapter breaks but to the towns the train is traveling through at that point in the book. Time and space are very closely linked, both in the narrative and on the page. History in Zone is a very personal thing, and, as Stephen Mitchelmore points out in his review of the book, the narrator discovers that history is not temporal but spatial: it surrounds the narrator as he travels through Italy and crowds in on him like so many vengeful ghosts. I also love the conceit that the book the narrator is reading is reproduced word for word inside the narrative itself—very Tristram Shandy-like. And that book that’s reproduced is also the only thing told from a female perspective, whereas almost all the narratives in the Zone are very male-oriented. And those periods do give the eye a rest, don’t you think? –Though I have to say I was always glad to get back to the sentence—periods are so restrictive . . .

SE: Obviously, taking the period out of the equation forces a significant shift in punctuation in this book. Did you more or less follow Mathias Enard’s lead on the punctuation, or did you make any significant shifts from what he did in the French? And how did the punctuation come into play as you attempted to recreate in English the frequent shifts in mood and register that the book’s narrator goes through?

CM: Funnily enough, I don’t think I made many changes in the punctuation. Somehow the run-on sentence moved very easily, almost effortlessly, into English–is it because the narrator admires William Burroughs and Ezra Pound, I wonder? Zone was one of the most effortless books I’ve ever translated, once I got into it and began to inhabit the voice of the narrator. I make it a policy never to read too far ahead in a book, so that I feel I’m part of the creative process as I’m translating the book–I figure the author didn’t have the luxury of reading his book ahead of time, so why should I? I also like not knowing what’s going to happen next, so that my translation can feel as fresh as the original. Of course once I’m done with the rough draft I go over and revise and revise–I usually end up with three or four drafts of a book before I’m happy with the final version. But that policy of not reading ahead helped me in the case of Zone, I think, since there is such an interesting progression in the narrator’s voice as the book goes on.

I sent the final draft to Mathias Enard when I was done, and he made surprisingly few changes. He seemed happy with how it sounded in English, which of course was a huge relief to me.

Actually one of the things Enard wanted to change was my translation of the very first–well, I can’t say sentence, but the first line of the book: “tout est plus difficile à l’âge d’homme,” which I had initially translated as “everything is more difficult when you’re an adult.” Enard pointed out that “l’âge d’homme” is more fraught in French, and it conjures up Dante’s “midway through life’s journey”–he wanted it to bring Dante to mind, but also that midlife crisis moment that the narrator is experiencing. So Robert (my husband, the poet Robert Kelly) remembered the Fool’s song in “Twelfth Night”:

When that I was and a little tiny boy
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

and Mathias and I agreed that that “man’s estate” was a good phrase, and more resonant than just “adulthood” or “manhood.”

SE: I like that idea of not reading ahead as you translate–sort of like a translation version of Cesar Aira’s “constant flight forward,” or Javier Marias’ insistence on not “knowing” any more than his protagonists do as he writes. And it seems particularly true to a book like Zone. I’m thinking in particular of that segment where Francis dreams of the “railway grim reaper,” this little guy with a train schedule who can tell Francis just where he’ll be based on where he’s been. It drives home how locked in Francis feels to what he sees as his destiny, how all these horrible memories and historical facts dominate his mind. How did you see him changing as the book moves forward?

CM: I love that railway grim reaper section! In fact the whole “plot” of the book is there, with episodes and page numbers and everything. That’s a very good point about Francis feeling locked up in his past, sort of the way the briefcase is padlocked to the luggage rack. It’s hard for me to put into words, but I guess I see Francis’s narrative evolving from that initial trapped, locked-up feeling to a feeling of openness and uncertainty. All his adult life Francis has spied on other people, and in a way that briefcase is his way of controlling other people’s lives and fates. I think a pivotal point in the book is when Francis, still drunk and hung over from July 14th celebrations, knocks on Stéphanie’s door near the end of the book and sees himself reflected in her face, in the horror that appears on her face when she sees him. I think that’s the first time he begins to have some sort of self-awareness, some sort of realization of the depths to which he has fallen. And after that I see a sort of release in the narrative, a kind of desire to let go and not control things anymore, like that memory he has of swimming after dolphins near a deserted beach by the Mediterranean in Egypt. It’s interesting that we don’t actually learn Francis’ full name until almost the middle of the book, when there’s a shift in the narrative from a focus on external things–the things that Francis is spying on–to a more introspective viewpoint, when we start to learn more about Francis himself.

I think that “Chaldean giant” that appears in his fantasy of the airport terminal at the very end is another apparition of St. Christopher, the statue that came to life and dragged him out of the canal in Venice when he was dying–it’s a desire to be saved, a desire to throw the briefcase into the Tiber and give up all his various identities and start over again. We as readers may wonder if any of that will actually happen, but at least the desire to let go is there . . .

SE: That’s a beautiful sentiment to end on, but I can’t help but ask one more question. I like that you key in on that scene where Francis sees himself reflected in Stephanie’s eyes as being pivotal for him, because throughout the book I was picking up on a real strong “otherness” vibe. (My personal favorite in this theme has to be that incredible scene where Francis re-enacts in his head the (possibly apocryphal?) story of a drunk and beleaguered Malcolm Lowry coming within a hair’s breadth of strangling his wife to death before pulling back when he feels himself open into her. It’s so raw and bracing, yet also strangely sublime, even a little mystical and humbling.) And narratively, I like the idea of the super-spy getting a new lease on life by giving up the urge to subject everything to his gaze, to instead allow the possibility of bring gazed at. I want to take this all back to the language, this labyrinth of words that is all we have of Francis, as well as this idea of history being so overwhelming, becoming this destiny a person can be caged in. Do you read this impulse toward the other as perhaps Francis breaking free of the prison house of language/history, an idea that of course has been quite a favorite of French theorists?

CM: Hmm, that’s an interesting reference, The Prison-House of Language, Jameson’s classic book. I think in the case of Zone it’s more the prison house of history that Francis is escaping from–and in fact language seems to be the one thing he uses that sets him free, or almost does, since it is through this labyrinth of language that he starts to find his way out. Language is a prison-house most of all for people who have only one language as their point of reference. Francis, however, is interesting in that he is bilingual, or perhaps multilingual (since he seems able to read Burroughs and Lowry in English, and the Pound quotes at the beginning and end are both in English), and also multinational (as a French-speaking Croat who assumes a [madman’s] French identity). So Francis speaks at least French and Croatian, and maybe that’s one of the things that saves him: he sees language not so much as a prison but more as an interesting form of escape. He is, however, trying to flee from the prison-house of History (with a capital H)–in fact that would be a great subtitle for the book: Zone, or The Prison House of History! Maybe we can coin a new phrase . . .

Joyce famously writes “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”–Zone is an embodiment of that nightmare, and Francis too seems as if he’s struggling throughout the book to wake up from that long journey that is history.

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Thanks for this very enlightening interview. I’ve had Zone on my shelf for a few weeks now, waiting to tackle it. I think the time is near.

Thanks for introducing yet another book I must read. Just bought it and might push it to the top of my que after this great interview (Tom McCarthy’s C has been number 1 for the past three months, but I always find a reason to push it back one). Your interviews with translators have been my favorite posts to read. The one last year with Margaret Jull Costa was also a classic.

I have almost finished “Zone” and I must say it is an absorbing read. It does not read like a translation (staid) at all. I am aware of a voice in my head that carries me along through this train journey. A remarkable achievement and a great book.

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Scott Esposito. Scott Esposito said: Six Questions for Charlotte Mandell, Translator of Zone by Mathias Enard: One of my New Y… […]

[…] about himself in what one might call supplements to the "Confessions." These… »Six Questions for Charlotte Mandell, Translator of Zone by Mathias EnardOne of my New Year's "resolutions," if you will, is to do more interviews in this site in 2011. I […]

[…] Scott Esposito: According to the information on your website, you’ve translated some 28 books sinc… […]

[…] Next is the notorious one-sentence monster French novel, Zone. As I tend to champion a high modernist/postmodernist aesthetic here, this is a book that clearly strikes a chord with many readers of this site. That contributed to the sale, as well as my interview with the book’s translator, Charlotte Mandell. […]

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[…] One of the first reviews of Zone actually appeared in the Quarterly Conversation last year (or maybe even in 2009 . . ), and to celebrate the launch of the English-language version, Scott Esposito interviewed translator Charlotte Mandell: […]


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