The Art of Translation

On Kate Briggs's THIS LITTLE ART

Somehow, Kate Briggs wrote a 360-page book on translation that is utterly riveting. This Little Art is about translation but also writing, language, communication, ambition, gender, literary history, and more. I mean, with 360 pages, she can fit a lot in, but making it all cohere could not have been easy. Somehow she does it so elegantly, so lightly, so naturally.

As I read, I thought about how Briggs’s publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions, labels all their nonfiction books “essay” no matter how long the particular book is and without regard to whether it is a collection of discrete shorter pieces or not. This is not how we (meaning I and the people I read and interact with) usually use that term: I think of an essay as a short piece of creative nonfiction, defined by its shortness. Using “essay” to refer to long works of writing as well as short ones makes a whole lot of sense, at least if we mean long works that don’t fit into other nonfiction genres (memoir, history, etc.) and that are in some way essayistic. This would involve shifting our definition of “essay” away from length and toward a certain style and method. And it would mean defining that style and method. This is an intriguing possibility, but it hasn’t caught on (yet).

But This Little Art does everything I think of essays as doing: it explores, meanders, records the writer’s thinking. It feels like the closest thing possible to a mind on the page. There’s a sense of presence, of the author’s voice, as a companion who is there to help us think through a problem. Briggs goes all in on the idea of an essay as a space for exploration: she does a lot of stopping and starting, twisting and turning, trying to see her subject from every possible angle. It’s written in seven chapters, each made up of short sections. These are often as short as a paragraph or two or even just a couple of sentences, and sometimes as long as a few pages. Each new section gets a new page. This leaves a lot of white space, which, on the one hand, makes the book more pages than strictly necessary, but also creates a feeling of openness. There’s room to move around and time to stop and think.

Frequently, a new section will introduce a turn in the argument or a qualification to the previous section’s idea or a new wrinkle in the subject she’s examining. Sections often start with phrases like “Yes, but…” “I don’t know. I don’t think so,” and “On reflection I would answer differently now.” Briggs will sometimes write in stuttering fragments as if she’s struggling with an idea. For me, there was just the right amount of this uncertainty on the sentence, paragraph, and section level to create a feeling of thinking through complexity. Any more of this and it might sound mannered or fake, but to me it works.

So what does she actually say about translation? So many things. She writes about how translation is a form of fakery we easily accept as real, although there are bumps in the process of creating the illusion that the characters are speaking in English when they are really speaking in German or whatever (for example when they switch to a third language such as French). But of course not only are the characters not actually speaking English, the characters aren’t actually speaking at all! They are made up! Translating fiction means creating another layer of illusion on top of the original one.

She writes about a professor who told her, “Don’t do translations.” This is a starting point for thinking about the status of translations: they are absolutely necessary for cross-cultural understanding, for broadening our knowledge and experience, for getting out of our narrow ways of thinking. But translation isn’t always, or even often, given a lot of respect. Is translation writing? Is it original and creative? Or is it derivative and formulaic? Is it an art or a craft? Neither? Or somehow both? Translators are powerful — they can boost a writer’s reputation with a good translation or harm it with a bad one — but they are underpaid and under-recognized.

She writes about Helen Lowe-Porter, a translator of Thomas Mann beginning in the 1920s. She wrote hugely popular translations that people still read, and she devoted years and years of her life to this work. At the same time, she wrote as an “amateur,” what Briggs calls a “lady translator,” and her work came in for a lot of criticism for its mistakes. Briggs thinks about the way this criticism is gendered, and how the whole idea of the amateur lady translator, not capable of doing Thomas Mann justice, is dripping with sexist disdain. Briggs recognizes the significance of the mistakes Lowe-Porter made, but asks us to think about the larger contexts of the time Lowe-Porter was writing in, when translation conventions were different than they are now. Briggs points out that her explicit goal was to make the novels readable and enjoyable in English, and she did exactly that.

Briggs begins one chapter with an anecdote about a roomful of scholars laughing at Lowe-Porter having said that she never considered a translation finished “unless she had the feeling she had done it herself,” as though she could write like Thomas Mann.

But…a translator does do the writing herself. She literally wrote the whole thing! Yes, she didn’t write the original Buddenbrooks or The Magic Mountain, but every word of the translation is one she decided on. Thought about this way, translation opens up a whole raft of questions about what is original and authentic and what it means to be creative.

There’s just so much in this book. I haven’t even gotten to Roland Barthes, whom Briggs has translated (specifically, two volumes of Barthes’s lecture notes, including The Preparation of the Novel). She brings in so much of what she loves about Barthes and has learned from him. She writes about Robinson Crusoe and Andre Gide and To the Lighthouse and U&I and haiku and more.

It is a true essay in that it’s about one thing and many things all at once. It’s also a demonstration of and argument for appreciating human complexity and idiosyncrasy. It is a call to rethink things we take for granted — writing, reading — and, especially, a call for nuance in the way we think about the people who read and write and translate. Let’s have délicatesse, a word she takes from Barthes, possibly translated as “tact”:

Délicatesse is a name given to the small-scale, everyday practice of values such as goodwill and attentiveness, what Barthes also calls ‘sweetness’ (la douceur), values in the form of behaviours that parry the already decided, the apparent self-evidence, the all-purpose explanation — and attend instead to those small, fleeting and fragile moments in life where, as Samoyault puts it, ‘individualities truly express themselves in their truth.’

Translation may be a “little art,” but, in the right hands, its meaning and significance extends into the whole world.

Don’t Forget About

PopCo by Scarlett Thomas (Mariner Books, 2004): Scarlett Thomas has written 10 novels so far (plus other books), three of which I have read, and all of them are strange, funny, unpredictable, kind of awkward (I think on purpose) but very enjoyable. PopCo is named after a company that makes games and toys for children, and it tells the story of Alice, one of their employees. Alice doesn’t like her company’s practices, but she enjoys her job making games involving spying and codes. The novel follows events during the course of an employee retreat. This is the kind of book that stops for long stretches to explain math concepts and how to crack codes, and also the kind of novel where characters talk to each other in ways people don’t in real life. I’m happy to accept that lack of realism when the author is clearly out to do other things. In this case, it’s an exploration of work, the corporate world, consumerism, marketing, and technology, and it’s tremendously fun to read.

Publishing This Week

New books out this week that I haven’t yet read and am adding to my TBR. (Quotations from the publisher):

  • King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes, translated by Frank Wynne (FSG Originals, originally published in 2006): nonfiction on sex, gender, rape, and prostitution: “An autobiography, a call for revolt, a manifesto for a new punk feminism.”

  • Gallery of Clouds by Rachel Eisendrath (NYRB): an homage to Philip Sidney’s Arcadia — which sounds like not my thing! — but this book is about a lot more: it’s a hybrid work that “extols the materiality of reading, its pleasures and delights, with wild leaps and abounding grace.”

  • In Concrete by Anne Garréta, translated by Emma Ramadan (Deep Vellum Publishing): from what I hear, this is full of puns and wordplay, and so must have been a challenge to translate. It sounds strange and great: it “follows the mania that descends upon a family when the father finds himself in possession of a concrete mixer. As he seeks to modernize every aspect of their lives, disaster strikes when the younger sister is subsumed by concrete.” Okay?!

New on the TBR

New books acquired (quotations from the publisher):

  • Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf, 2021): this is a novel about a woman walking around a city having feelings, which is exactly my kind of book, and after reading Brandon Taylor’s piece on this novel and the new Cusk book, I had to get a copy.

  • Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed (Duke University Press, 2017): Duke University Press had a 50% off sale recently (sadly now over), and I snatched this and the next book up. It’s a book on “how feminist theory is generated from everyday life and the ordinary experiences of being a feminist at home and at work.”

  • The Blue Clerk by Dionne Brand (Duke University Press, 2018): I asked for recommendations on what to get from the Duke UP sale, and at least two people mentioned this book: “Through these essay poems, Brand explores memory, language, culture, and time while intimately interrogating the act and difficulty of writing, the relationship between the poet and the world, and the link between author and art.”

Added to my wishlist (books that have caught my eye but I don’t yet own):

Currently Reading

  • Bina: A Novel in Warnings by Anakana Schofield (NYRB, 2021): I am so excited about this book! As I write, thirty pages or so in, it’s weird and great. Bina is an older woman who is fed up and has a lot of warnings she wants to share with the world.

  • Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse by Anahid Nersessian (University of Chicago Press, 2021): this book contains some conventional literary criticism and also more personal, meditative takes on Keats’s odes. At 160 pages, with the mix of criticism and personal essay, it’s the perfect book about books.

The Cormac Report

We went to a bookstore this afternoon. (I was happy to see that the bookstore was busy, but people were ignoring the store’s system to limit the number of customers inside, which was irritating. I imagine the store employees are so, so tired of dealing with it.) Cormac has been to this store before, but this time he decided he was really, truly in love with this place and wanted to live there. He announced this loudly several times. On our way out, he made up a little song about it, none of which I remember, but it was definitely enthusiastic even if the lyrics didn’t rhyme.

What did he buy? The latest Ivy and Bean book, a book on cat breeds, and a huge book on Pokémon. I had no idea he was interested in Pokémon. I have no idea what Pokémon is, to be honest. As far as I know, Cormac has learned about it from classmates and has never played any Pokémon game. But we let him buy whatever he wants from the bookstore, so Pokémon it was. We’ll be hearing a lot about it in the future, I’m sure.

Have a good week everyone!