Review published on November 6, 2017.
Kate Briggs teaches at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam and has translated two volumes of Roland Barthes’s lecture notes from French into English. A “little art” is how Helen Lowe-Porter, who translated Thomas Mann’s works into English in the 1920s to 1940s, referred to translation – a rather disparaging phrase that echoes the widespread opinion that translation is a lesser skill than writing, that only those who can’t produce their own work are reduced to translating others’.
It should not come as a surprise that Briggs takes issue with this belittling argument. Translation is not a substitute for one’s own writing, she contends, but a unique form of engaging with language and literature. It’s about solving word problems, as Lydia Davis has described, as well as about being seized by particular works or even individual sentences. For instance, Elena Ferrante claims to have never gotten over a line from Madame Bovary in which Emma exclaims at her daughter’s ugliness.
In essence, Briggs asserts, reading a translation involves a suspension of disbelief: you know that the words you are reading originally appeared in another language, but you must attempt to forget about the middleman and absorb them afresh. As she puts it, “there’s something from the outset speculative and, I would say, of the novelistic about the translator’s project, whatever the genre of writing … The translator asks us to go with the English”. However, one should bear in mind that no translation comes with “the promise of zero distortion,” since the individual translator brings to the work their own style and set of experiences.
I learned that translators earn a shockingly low per-word fee that is not in keeping with the amount of time it takes to do the work well (perhaps £90 for 1,000 words). I was interested in Briggs’s general thoughts about the translator’s art, but not necessarily in her extended examples: Lowe-Porter’s experience with Mann, Barthes’s interest in haiku, and so on. At 150 or 200 pages this would have been a fine, tightly honed essay; at more like 360 pages, it is rambling and likely to lose readers partway, unless they have a vested interest in translation.
Rebecca Foster 3/1
This Little Art by Kate Briggs
Fitzcarraldo Editions 9781910695456 pbk Sep 2017
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