#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.

Latest Book Haul – and One Book Abandoned

Libraries and bookshops are my downfall. Despite the numerous ARCs I receive for review, I cannot resist adding to my TBR pile every time I enter one or the other building containing books. While it’s understandable that I try to save my already quite depleted wallet by going less frequently to bookshops (I’ve managed to reduce it to no more than 1-2 times a week!), I’ve recently changed my policy about library loans. I was trying to be realistic and not borrow more than I could consume in three weeks, but my local librarian told me that if a book hasn’t been on loan for a year, it gets sent down to the basement of gloom known as ‘Reserve Stacks’. After a few years of gathering mould there, they are killed off. [I’m not sure if they get given to charity shops or pulped, everyone seems coy about that.] Besides, PLR are a source of author revenue. So I now borrow books merrily, try to renew them when I can, or return them unread and borrow them later again.

What have I acquired this week?

I bought Kate Briggs’ This Little Art, a long essay about the art of translation, with many revelatory examples. All of the readers of translated literature in my timeline have been raving about this book, and as an occasional dabbler in translation myself, I had to have a personal copy, so I could underline passages of interest.

I finally acquired Sebald’s The Emigrants (transl. Michael Hulse), which (it won’t surprise those long-term readers of my blog to hear) is one of my favourite books. Exile and loss, displacement and nostalgia – yes, please! I should have got it in German of course (yes, I’m still snobbish about preferring to read books in the original where I possibly can), and I probably will at some point when I am next in Germany. The last book I got is not a translation from German but written by a German who emigrated to England. It was an impulse buy: Fred Uhlman’s Reunion. I’d vaguely heard of Uhlman, but have never read anything by him and I am always, always fascinated by stories about the personal experience of the rise of totalitarianism in Germany in the 1930s.

At my local library, I was pleased to find Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, which I have already devoured. The sentences and the landscape and atmosphere are so perfect, I found myself seething with envy on every page. I also picked up Marina Lewycka’s The Lubetkin Legacy, for a comedic change of pace. I’ve read one or two of her novels in the past and enjoyed the voice of the outsider gently mocking life in England. Last but not least, I got A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven, because American dysfunctional families are so much weirder and deadlier and more fun to read about than European ones.

However, I’ve had to abandon one of the books I recently borrowed from the Senate House Library. I am patient and usually give books a good 50-100 page chance before reluctantly putting it aside, and normally the setting of an international conference would appeal to me. But alas, Brian Aldiss starts off his novel Life in the West far too slowly, with details which not only seem irrelevant, but also of horizontally reclining platitude. For example:

By each place was a name card, a microphone, a folder and pencil, a shining drinking glass with a sanitary paper lid, and a bottle of San Pellegrino mineral water still beaded from the refrigerator. Thomas Squire found his name looking up at him, and sat down, laying his briefcase before him… He opened his folder. In it was a ballpoint pen, clipped to a timetable of the sessions of the conference with a list of speakers. Tucked into the pocket of the folder were some foilwrapped perfumed tissues for refreshing the face and hands, and a map of the city of Ermalpa and surroundings, presented by courtesy of the local  tourist board.

As a former conference convenor, this feels to me more like a checklist for event organisers. Would you read any further? This was a serendipitous pick from the library, but hey ho, you can’t win them all.