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About a third of the way through Kate Briggs’ absorbing, intimate exploration of what it means to translate, she has Elena Ferrante appear and announce: “When I read a book, I never think of who has written it – it’s as if I were doing it myself.”
This bold claim of authorship is not as straightforward as it seems. Ferrante, amongst other things, is recollecting a childhood response to a phrase in Madame Bovary – the way a line, a sequence of words, can feel as if they were written for you. But employed in Briggs’ brilliant blend of essay, biography and manifesto, it becomes even more multifarious: at once an examination of the subjective nature of the experience of reading; a playful reference to Barthes’ The Death of the Author; a nod to the regular purging of translator by reader, publisher and reviewer; and the proposition that reading – and, boldly, crucially, translating – is an act of creation, is an art (though just a little one, of course).
This last idea, and the teasing “little” of the title, is the meat of Briggs’ book-length essay. She playfully yet determinedly dismantles the platitudes and received wisdom associated with translation – not least the assumption that translating is marginal to the ‘true’ art of writing, the slippery notion of ‘fidelity’ to an original text, and the well-worn image of a translator as a frustrated writer. Peeling back layers of meaning to question and uncover the essence of translation, she lifts it up and turns it in the light, showing us its intricacies, perfections, flaws and peculiarities, just as you would of a piece of art.
A translator and writer, Kate Briggs teaches at the American University of Paris and the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, and has translated Roland Barthes’ lecture notes for two courses at the Collège de France. It is these notes that provide one of the many entry points to her genre-bending work: Barthes sits alongside warmly flickering reels of Briggs’ personal life, an examination of Robinson Crusoe’s table-building, a biography of translator Helen Porter-Lowe, and epistolary exchanges between Andre Gidé and his translator Dorothy Bussy. We find ourselves just as stimulated in Barthes’ lecture hall as we do in a Parisian exercise class. She writes about her varied subjects with authority and yet modestly, tentatively – at times circuitously – advancing an idea over several pages only to stop and say: Possibly. Or not. Or, quite simply: I don’t know. This narrative amalgam of erudition and vacillation cleverly encapsulates the paradox of translation: at once definitive, because the words have been – have to be – chosen, and endlessly mutable, because it could always have been – and could still be – something else.
It is a quietly powerful thing, to make a decision. To choose between endless possibilities, put pen to paper and decide, announce: This, not that. Briggs describes how, in one of his lectures, Barthes produces an unusual image, that of a woman ‘stopping’ a ladder in her tights by wetting a finger with saliva and touching it to the ladder – like, Barthes says, a writer creating a “halt or temporary immobilisation in the run of culture”. Briggs extends the image: a translator, she posits, also presses her finger “down on the run of alternatives, the run of endless translation possibilities . . . and makes it stop”.
This stopping, this choosing, does not come without a price. A translator’s work – narrowing endless possibilities to just one – will always remain invisible to the reader. Yet accompanying any such decision is a vulnerability, a potential for embarrassment caused by a misreading or a mistake gleefully pounced upon by a reviewer. Particular attention is paid to translator Helen Lowe-Porter, whose translation of The Magic Mountain was the subject of a scornful essay listing its (many) errors. As Briggs points out: “translators are makers of wholes” and subjective beings determined to a great degree by place and time. And, besides, it is a price worth paying for the “extraordinary intellectual adventure” Briggs shows us. In many ways, This Little Art is a call to arms, a rallying cry: Translate! The poor pay, the impracticalities, and challenges are no counter to the thrill, the intellectual joy, the “peculiar hubris of wanting to rewrite sentences that you didn’t write”.
This precarious balance of multitudes is best realised in a stunning section on Helen Lowe-Porter, who refused to send a translation to her publisher until she felt like she had written the book herself:
What a privilege: to look after her children, while also doing the work she loved. Work that challenged her intellectually. Living a don’s wife’s life in Oxford, translating, writing out again, with her own hands and for years and years, the books that she admired.
But then – think about it: Can you imagine how difficult it must have been? A baby in the next room; elsewhere, a toddler, and another older child: deep inside the project of remaking the sentences of Der Zauberberg.
But no, that’s not exactly right either: she could afford a little maid, couldn’t she? She paid her £40 a year.
What pleasure: gaining indirect – unwarranted? – access to and simulating, in the comfort of her own home, the gestures of creative authorship.
What thanklessness, though.
What misassigned, regrettable power.
What admirable dedication.
And willing self-effacement.
What quantity of mistakes.
What an extraordinary intellectual adventure.
All of it, all at once.
This Little Art is generous, sentimental and needle-sharp, fierce and hesitant, flawed and perfect. All of it, all at once. This, in the end, is Briggs’ dazzling conceit: This Little Art enacts what it is describing, the way it is written echoing what is written. We walk through her mind, we see her hover over thoughts, question herself, stop, start again. What could be read as misplaced self-effacement (Is this what I mean?, she wonders) is actually bold and brilliant: the gloriously digressive, curious, self-questioning, unapologetically subjective act of translation. In Briggs’ pauses, negotiations, vacillations, queries and many varied answers we see a translator at work – a writer at work – deliberating, deciding, stopping the run, making art.
Kate Briggs’ This Little Art is available from Fitzcarraldo Editions for £12.99