#FitzcarraldoFortnight: This Little Art

Kate Briggs: This Little Art

This delightful, quirky essay about literary translation by Kate Briggs, based on her own translation of Roland Barthes’ lecture notes (but moving far, far beyond that) was the perfect book at the perfect time for me, as I myself embark upon a journey as a professional literary translator. I have stuffed it full of little post-it notes, and will probably return to it again and again. It’s the kind of book that you never really finish reading – it is designed to stimulate your thought and your passion for words, language, for finding the right word.

There are far too many ideas here for me to do them justice, but here are some of the things that most resonated with me:

  1. The translator is always demanding a suspension of disbelief from the reader – asking you to go along with the fiction that these characters are talking or thinking in English, that what you are reading is in fact the language of Barthes or Thomas Mann or anyone else.
  2. Helen Lowe-Porter was Thomas Mann’s first translator into English and at the time her translations were phenomenally successful, but she has since been criticized for making mistakes, for changing things around, misleading the readers. There is a fierce rivalry (as well as comradeship) between translators, especially when it comes to classic writers, because it is quite hard to get funding for a new translation, how hard it is to fight copyright issues and publishers’ interests – and so to see someone else do a far worse translation and thereby block your chances of doing another one for perhaps 20-30 years… But, Briggs argues, who are we to decide what makes a good or bad translation? While it should be possible to correct obvious mistakes and offer alternatives, it should be done in a spirit of improvement – because can we really be sure that we are getting better at translation over time, rather than merely following a current fashion?
  3. Translators may wish to transmit the original author’s voice as much as possible, but they will never be entirely neutral and impersonal instruments. They are always putting all of themselves – their background, experience, personality, emotions, associations – into the final work.
  4. Yet translators need to be humble – the work itself humbles them every single time. Regardless of how much experience you might have translating, you always start each fresh work from a position of not knowing. You are opening yourself up to learning, to interpreting, to being curious and honest and self-critical.
  5. A bit of a reality check: A translator’s work ‘is celebrated if and only if the work she is translating is worth celebrating; there is no celebrating her achievement from that of its original author. As a consequence of this… mediocre translators of successful books sometimes get unduly praised, while those more talented translators translating less visible works hardly get noticed at all.’
  6. Some argue that there is one perfect translator for a particular book – or at least the right translator, who can truly get under the author’s skin. (I have the tendency to believe that about myself and Mihail Sebastian and am somewhat miffed that he has already been translated into English, see point 2 above). But Kate Briggs argues that books don’t come with designated translators, they don’t have built-in protocols or rules that you have to obey for success, otherwise you will be a failure. It’s about a million different tiny choices, and the same translator might make different choices a day or two later.

I hope that gives you a flavour of the book – and yes, it does refer to Barthes a lot, but it was never Barthes himself that I objected to, merely the pretentious young men at university who were forever quoting him as scaffolding for their own hastily built, shoddy work. I’ll end with a wonderful plea for more translated work, which chimes so well with my own beliefs:

Yes… do translations, for the simple reason that we need them. We need translations, urgently: it is through translation that we are able to reach the literature written in the languages we don’t or can’t read, from the places where we don’t or can’t live, offering us the chance of understanding as well as the necessary and instructive expereince of failing to understand them, of being confused and challenged by them.

21 thoughts on “#FitzcarraldoFortnight: This Little Art”

  1. Wonderful review, Marina! I want to read this book! On point #2 you have mentioned, I remember when the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation came out, Pevear wrote that their translation was the most accurate one and readers, many of them veteran War and Peace fans, replied that Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation was clunky, while Rosemary Edmonds translation read better, to which Pevear replied that their translation was clunky, because Tolstoy’s prose was clunky. It was very interesting to read. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Marina! Wish you all the very best in your translation adventures!

    1. I’ve read a lot about the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations and have to admit am not a big fan. But then, I don’t know Russian and I understand they try to stick quite close to the original. Sometimes it’s better to not be too close to the original, because it just doesn’t work in the target language? Anyway, this always leads to very lively (and endless) discussions among readers and translators.

  2. This is really interesting, Marina Sofia. One doesn’t read a lot of books about translation, so it’s fascinating to hear about this one. And the fact that it’s also well-written, useful, and engaging just makes it even better. And you are quite right about the timing; It’s a good sign for your new endeavour (if you believe in signs).

  3. Great review, Marina. Isn’t it wonderful? I finished it last week and wrote my review yesterday, and interestingly one of the quotes I pulled out was the one which struck you. It’s a book with so much in it (including Barthes, who seems to be haunting me right now!) – I definitely could do with reading it again.

    1. Barthes was quite an interesting guy and I do like a lot of his stuff, but he does sometimes belabour a point. Or at least that’s how I remember him – maybe I was less patient in my youth.

  4. I’m just starting this & hope to finish it this week. I’m liking it very much so far. I was glad to see her discuss Lowe-Porter & not entirely negatively–I certainly read Mann first in her translations and enjoyed them.

    Thanks for a great review!

    1. I’ve noticed that I often have a preference for the first translation I ever read of a certain work. I suppose it remains to my mind the ‘voice’ of an author that I clicked with. That doesn’t stop me from seeking out different translations of certain favourites (for example, Genji Monogatari and Cavafy’s poems, neither of which I can read in the original – and wishing I could have a hybrid compilation of all my favourite bits of translation).

      1. That’s certainly true of me for Cavafy as well. I still prefer the Keeley & Sherrard versions I read first to the other versions I’ve read, and I definitely felt the Mendelson version (much to my disappointment) was fairly flat.

        But I think I do prefer the Wood translations of Mann; the beginning of Doctor Faustus for instance just felt funnier in Wood than in Lowe-Porter, which it’s meant to be, right? But I certainly got a lot out of Lowe-Porter’s translation and Mann does say nice things about her in The Story of A Novel, though it is also true Mann is on his best behavior in that book.

        1. Keeley and Sherrard for me too, although I am now trying a bilingual version, let’s see how that goes. I haven’t read Mann in translation, so I can’t really tell. But I’ve often been struck by the differences between translations in Romanian and English of French and Russian writers in particular.

  5. I love that first point as it emphasise the importance of trust and faith on the part of the reader, maybe with a degree of emotional investment too. it sounds like the prefect book for you. Right text, right time.

  6. I never realized that translators are so involved in trying to market books to publishers though I guess makes it sense as a way to bring a book to their attention. Love that last quote, as a reader I’m very grateful that there are those who take all the challenges on.

    1. It is very often a labour of love, with a translator doing a sample few chapters for free of a writer/book they believe has great potential, then hawk it around various publishers in an attempt to get them interested and actually pay for the rest of the translation. As Briggs says in this book, nobody ever does translation with the hope or illusion that they will become rich.

  7. I guess it’s tempting to want to be the ‘definitive’ translator of the classics and they certainly get more recognition, but as a reader I’m happy to see translations of previously untranslated contemporary books, even if the translator tends to get overlooked. When you consider how differently reviewers see the same book, it’s not surprising that translators think each other have got it wrong from time to time… it must be impossible to keep subjectivity out completely.

    1. Well, they do say that there’s room for a new translation of a classic every 30-40 years or so, because our language and our tastes have changed. Funny that no one wants to rewrite the original classic to fit in with the changing times – or maybe that’s what all those film adaptations are doing.

  8. I do think that every single award to an author of a translated work should be given to the translator as well. It is definitely not an easy task. I like Sian Reynolds’ translations of Fred Vargas’ books, and love Stephen Sarterelli’s translations of Montalbano’ and his wacky cronies in Andrea Camarelli’s books. His end notes are great.
    However, one thing I dislike: When a translator works on a book meant for a U.S. audience, it should contain words and verb tenses we read over here. I’ve read books with the strangest word configurations (and spellings) in translated works. It’s not usual, but it happens.

    1. I agree, so much of our enjoyment of a piece depends on the translation – and we often don’t even notice them (because they sound so natural). We only notice when the translation is bad! I tend to be of your school of thought as a translator – I try to find something that sounds natural to the speakers of the target language, rather than stick word for word to the original.

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