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Compass interview

Compass interview

Mathias Enard discusses the theme of otherness in Compass and translator Charlotte Mandell talks about her policy never to read too far ahead in a book when translating.  

This is part of our series of Man Booker International Prize 2017 longlist interviews.  

Mathias Enard, author of Compass

What has it been like to be longlisted? 

An immense honour!

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted novel Compass?

Over the course of a long night of insomnia (instead of a Thousand and One Nights it’s a Thousand Nights in One) Franz Ritter, in his Vienna apartment, thinks back on the long course of his love for Sarah – and on his travels, often in her company:  Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus, Tehran…  Compass tries to sketch a grand panorama of the cultural (literary, artistic, musical) relations between East and West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, through this long love story. 

Could you talk about the theme of otherness in Compass?

The other, alterity, is one of the themes in the heart of Compass.  The Other whom we desire, whom we seek to know, whose differences attract us – the other whom we approach through love, passion, friendship or knowledge.  Compass sets out to construct an erotics of knowledge in the passion of alterity. Passion for remote languages, landscapes and far-off cities, but also for the musicians and poets who come from there.    


Charlotte Mandell, translator of Compass

What has it been like to be longlisted? 

This is very exciting for me, and gratifying, since I put so much work into Compass, and it’s such an important book – the fact that the judges recognised its worth means a lot to me.  Being a translator can sometimes be a lonely profession, since our work is so often overlooked or ignored, so the fact that the Man Booker International Prize recognizes both the author and the translator is a wonderful thing.

What did you like most about translating Compass?

I liked the rhythm of the prose, the propulsive quality of the narrative, the sort of melancholy, Viennese tone of the narrator’s voice.  For me, plot and character aren’t as alluring as language:  if a sentence is well-constructed and the language is engaging, I am immediately seduced. I grew up learning Greek and Latin and so I have a soft spot for difficult grammatical constructions – I find translating them at once challenging and gratifying; I feel a sense of accomplishment if I’m able to take a difficult French sentence and convey it believably and fluidly in English.  That’s one of the reasons I like Énard’s prose so much – it is never boring or pedestrian. 

You make it a policy never to read too far ahead in a book when translating. Why is this?    

I figure the author wasn’t able to read his book beforehand, so why should I have that privilege?  By not reading ahead, I feel I have more of a creative hand in writing the book afresh, so to speak – where translating is really re-wording.  If I read the book beforehand it would be a dead thing to me.  I like not knowing what comes next; I think that lends my translation a sense of immediacy and aliveness, a sort of breathlessness that might not be there if I knew what was coming.  If I wrote fiction or poetry, I would want language to lead me where it liked – I wouldn’t want to know beforehand what I was going to write.  I think the most interesting writers today – Robert Kelly, Roberto Bolaño, Thomas Bernhard, Mathias Énard – use language as a revelatory tool, to find out what it wants them to say, instead of as a mere tool for communication, to convey something they already know. Maurice Blanchot talks about this difference very convincingly in The Book to Come