Charlotte Mandell on Translating Blanchot

Mark Thwaite (Ready Steady Book) talks to Charlotte Mandell about translating the French writer and theorist Maurice Blanchot
Charlotte Mandell
Charlotte Mandell

I first came across your name as a translator of the work of Maurice Blanchot. What first got you interested in Blanchot?

Fate. My friend Pierre Joris, who translated Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community, was asked by Helen Tartar (then editor-in-chief at Stanford University Press) to translate La part du feu. He didn’t have the time, so he recommended me. I sent in a sample chapter – I was only 24 then and the only book-length work I’d translated was a book of poems, Le feu l’ombre, by the French poet Jean-Paul Auxeméry. Helen liked the straightforwardness of my translation, the fact that it didn’t use any acadamese – I tried to translate Blanchot as simply and as honestly as I could.

Do you find the close reading required to translate a work has helped you to understand Blanchot more clearly than you would otherwise have done?

Definitely, yes. I feel I’ve never really “read” a work until I’ve translated it. I also make it a rule never to read too far ahead in the book I’m translating – that way everything is fresh and new, and I can’t form any preconceived notions about what will come next. I figure the author never had the luxury of reading his book beforehand, so why should I? (In the case of Blanchot it’s a little different – I’d already read many of his books in French when I was a student in Paris.)

Do you think “the common reader” can get much out of Blanchot or should he be left to academics?

Reading Blanchot is a little like watching someone think. You have to have patience, since his essays move by nuance and suggestion, and come to focus slowly. English readers – Americans especially – are used to being fed information; in the case of an essay, they’re used to the conventional statement-exposition-conclusion format. The nice thing about Blanchot (and the thing a lot of people find exasperating about him) is that he doesn’t follow that formula, or any formula for that matter. Often no conclusion is reached. The subject is examined, and questioned, and looked at from different angles, but never really resolved. I like that a lot – it’s sort of like reading poetry. [Read More]

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