This Little Art

In This Little Art, Kate Briggs sets out to dismantle what she later calls a ‘romantic attachment to a monographic single-handed authorship’. A French-speaking character in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain who asks another to converse in German is overlaid with Briggs’ own experience of reading this exchange in English. An awareness of the linguistic layers between character and narrator, writer and reader, writer and reader and translator, signals the adventure promised in Briggs’ text.

The essay comprises meditations on what it means to translate, how we translate, and the communicative means by which it is possible to translate. From the perspective of a virtual age, how should the word ‘original’ evolve post print? Will ‘borrowed’, ‘influenced by’, ‘the right word in the right order’ (evoking Virginia Woolf) suffice? ‘Simple-complications’ happen when words are spoken, especially when they state: this is a translation. Translation theorist and scholar Theo Hermans makes much of this and the performative power of speech (a bit like interpellation, but with the objective of making the subjects active and aware) when it comes to translated literature.

The spoken word occupies centre stage throughout the book, while its relation to the written is probed; Briggs spent three years translating a lecture course by Barthes’ that took him just eight weeks to write near the end of his life. Forming a conversation between these incommensurate labours, Briggs lays her own thoughts alongside lines from the lecture notes— themselves neither a form wholly spoken nor wholly written. We get a glimpse of the marginalia left behind by Barthes, and can see what finally went into the lecture, and what did not. Such choices are revealed as crucial, not just to the act of writing, but also that of translating, and help us to unravel the idea of the final, ‘true’ text (especially if it is a classic) as sacrosanct.

Briggs juxtaposes the revelations and frustrations she encounters while translating Barthes’s lectures with other translator/writer pairings from literary history. Helen Lowe-Porter, who translated Thomas Mann’s work, including The Magic Mountain ,embarks on the task primarily to challenge herself intellectually and beyond the domestic duties involved in raising three children. It was Lowe-Porter who called translation ‘a little art’ in the 1950s. Dorothy Bussy, André Gide’s translator, leaves behind an intriguing correspondence with the author, exchanged in English and French over decades. By charting historical writer/translator relationships, Briggs makes visible the translator as writer.

In another essay—a mix of memoir, treatise, apologia, manifesto, and critical essay—Briggs evokes the translator’s feelings in relation to the perception of her role: of feeling belittled, worried about making mistakes, holding back urges to rewrite, negotiating with the idea of being faithful to the text, the creative force and desire triggered by another’s work. While reading This Little Art I became preoccupied with the function of desire and went back to A Lover’s Discourse (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978) where Barthes (via Richard Howard) writes, ‘What thereby closes off the lover’s language is the very thing which has instituted it: fascination.’

Some of the most common analogies, adjectives and metaphors still used to describe translators and the act of translating are negative, even dismissive: that it’s something easy to not think about; an usurpation; inking over; a sort of stammering; and, most commonly, selflessness. A prolific Spanish to English translator, Briggs points out, has been very recently called ‘a selfless artist’. Is ‘selflessness’ in this context a virtue, a state for translators to aspire to? Then there are the numerous instances of translation being described as woman’s work: the invisibility, under-appreciation coupled with the self-sacrificial. But Briggs, citing past and present translators, shows us a thriving network of support, engagement and elevated thought. She also acknowledges the material conditions that support literary translation: questions of choice, privilege, pleasure, fees, ideal conditions, and necessity.

Like the reviewer and the editor, the literary translator is seen as operating on the margins, often misinterpreted as the writer manqué. Briggs makes the translator visible, documenting her experience of both the constraints and the joys of her labour. Briggs sets these on the table (an object and metaphor that Briggs keeps going back to throughout the book, as she rereads Robinson Crusoe) and slowly dismantles them, affording readers the opportunity to re-think and reassemble ideas with her. This playfulness includes riddles (‘What rhymes with Barthes?’), everyday epiphanies, and a game of word ‘tag’ as chapter titles are carried over. We may find Briggs sitting comfortably alongside contemporary writers exploring the boundaries of non-fiction: Maggie Nelson, Mary Ruefle, Rebecca Solnit.

Briggs shows that translation is not just an intellectual exercise, it is also a political act. Enabling words and ideas to travel from language to language carries a weight of responsibility. Briggs suggests that as readers we listen, really listen, to the expanding and contracting world as we continue to learn, in Barthes’ words, what is so undeniably crucial to the current climate—comment vivre ensemble —how to live together.

Sohini Basak is a writer based in India

This Little Art by Kate Briggs is available from Fitzcaraldo Editions, £12.99,