#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.