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Charlotte Mandell on Translating The Kindly Ones

To complement all the review coverage that Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones has been receiving, Ron Hogan from Beatrice, has posted a piece by Charlotte Mandell about translating this controversial novel:

People talk about ‘free translation’—and they usually mean something that I’d judge sloppy or pretentious. For me, my real freedom as a translator is to follow strictly, alertly, joyfully, the moves and rhythms of the original text. I want the reader to know exactly what the author thought—and when he thought it. That means I want the translation to present ideas, images, events in as close as humanly possible to the order in which those ideas, images, events occur in the original. I want the reader to hear the author think.

And to do that, I have chosen to translate right from the start of the text: I do not read ahead. I don’t read the book before I translate it. I don’t want to know what it means before I go through the actual formation of its meaning word by word. In that way, I not only try to keep the reader in mind (so that if I come to a puzzling passage I can guess the reader will be puzzled too, and I’ll try to find the best words to make the passage clear), but I also have the tremendous experience of, so to speak, accompanying the author in the act of composition. I follow at his pace, and go through his discoveries. [. . .]

As Littell pointed out in an interview, we have heard the victim’s story over and over. Now we need to hear the perpetrator. We need to try and figure out his motives, his excuses. And what a perpetrator Max is—his keen aesthetic sense constantly lures us into his mind. And then again and again we have to make our own choices, our own abstentions. What a moral workout the book puts the reader through—and that is a large part of its greatness, and my own satisfaction in what could otherwise have been a horror show. This is not the One Good Nazi of the sentimental (and to me disgusting) movies. This is the Evil Nazi, and we are in him for a thousand pages, and have to make our own way out. No consolations, no forgivenesses. I think about Paul Celan’s famous question, and realize we have to become the ones who witness the witness.

The whole piece is definitely worth reading, especially since Charlotte knows this book on such an intimate level.



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