My final read for the #fitzcarraldofortnight is a book I was very excited to read; I picked it up in one of the publisher’s flash sales a while back, and I don’t really know why it took me so long to get to it – thank goodness our reading event gave me the necessary nudge!

The book in question is “This Little Art” by Kate Briggs and I know enough about it to know how highly regarded it is. Briggs is a an author, teacher and translator (hence one of my favourite kind of people), and most notably has translated two volumes of notes for Roland Barthes’ final lectures into English. (There really *is* a thread running through all of my current reading, isn’t there??) “This Little Art” is, then, in simple terms a book about translation – but, goodness, *what* a book!

The point seems to be this: left to its own devices, the path of reading is very rarely chronologically ordered, thematically coherent, limited by language or respectful of borders. Books open out onto, they cross with and follow haphazardly on from one another. Left to its own devices, the path of reading strays all over the place.

The art of translation often seems to me some kind of arcane mystery, practiced by brilliant people who have not only the ability to read in two languages, but also to convert one to the other bringing all the nuances of the original language with it – I think it involves fairies…. “This Little Art”, however, rather brilliantly lets the reader get inside the whole process as Briggs meditates on the art of the title, her own particular experience and method, and the complex relationship between the translator and their specific author.

That relationship is a vital one, and Briggs illustrates this with the experience of two women translators – Helen Lowe-Porter, who was Thomas Mann’s original translator to English, and Dorothy Bussy who not only rendered Gide into English, but also had a long and loving friendship with him. Lowe-Porter coined the phrase “this little art” and her story is fascinating; an intelligent woman, married with a family, her work could almost be regarded as a hobby, yet she took it extremely seriously, committing large portions of her life to it. Bussy, however, was somewhat in love with Gide (although she was obviously not his type) and they maintained a close and emotional relationship over many years, with Gide choosing her as his preferred translator. The connection between them was particularly charged and potent, as Briggs reveals in quotes from their letters which she features.

Interestingly, Lowe-Porter has been much criticised in recent years for the decisions she made and the methods she used when translating; which reminded me again of Constance Garnett’s pioneering versions of the Russian classics. “Square Haunting” nudged my memory of how the Bloomsberries were so responsible for bringing Tolstoy, Dostoevsky et all to the English speaking public, and I know that Garnett’s work is nowadays considered flawed. Yet, as Briggs makes clear, it’s easy to be dismissive of the work of the past, taking an all too arrogant academic outlook on pioneers and discounting the connection they had with the works and the authors. Tastes and fashions and approved methods in translation change. Can we dismiss for example the Maudes, who were actually Tolstoy’s translators of choice, and instead go for a modernised prose translation? It’s a knotty problem, and I digress a little.

Typically, though, the relation you form is with the writer – your sense of the writer – who wrote the book first. If my friend feels the way he does about Calvino (about Calvino and not Weaver), it is because translation makes this possible: it is precisely this chance of forming a reading relationship with a writer writing in another language that a translation, making no official claim to original authorship, also produces.

However, as I read on, it became obvious why Briggs had chosen them as examples of the close association between author and translator; as much of Briggs’ narrative explores her translation of the Barthes lectures and her attachment to ‘her’ author is striking. I mentioned in my review of “Essayism” that much of Dillon’s book was informed by his relationship with Barthes, and I use the term advisedly. In an intense reading experience, I’ve realised, you *do* feel as if you have a personal connection with the author, and it’s something which has happened to me on a regular basis (I have regular intellectual crushes on writers). Briggs also pinpoints this element of the writer-reader relationship, and of course this is enhanced even more when the reader is also the translator of the work into another language. They become not only a reader, but in fact partly the writer of the book. This latter element is something which vexes Briggs throughout the narrative: is the translator also the author? How much fidelity *should* you have to the original text? Should you go for a literal (and potential flat and awkward) version (my view of the P/V renderings…)? Or should you, like Lowe-Porter, point to the overall feel of the translated work and whether this is in keeping with the original? Is perfect translation *ever* possible? And so on.

Reading the same books as someone else is a way of being together. This is the premise of seminars, book-clubs, of so many friendships and conversations. What it is to discover that you’re currently reading the same book as someone else – especially someone you don’t know all that well. The startling, sometimes discomforting, effect of accelerated intimacy, as if that person had gone from standing across the room to all of a sudden holding your hand.

One particular episode which stuck with me and highlighted the complexity of translations was in the section of Brigg’s books where she considered part of Barthes’ last lectures which was concerned with Haiku. It’s not a form of writing I would particularly have connected with the French theorist, but he apparently personaly translated, from English to French, many of those which featured in his last lectures. This leads to a fascinating section where Briggs, instead of trying to translate back, searches instead for the original English versions. But her understanding of what the English should be, based on Barthes’ French renderings, brings no success initially until after a moment of clarity she looks for alternative English words to the ones she initially thinks he means. This really emphasised for me how complex an art translation is, where the choice of a single word matters (and in fact Briggs reveals how she would now change one particular word choice she made in her Barthes’ lecture translations!)

Festooned with post-its – always the sign of a good book! 😀

It does seem to me, from reading this wonderfully discursive, always fascinating and incredibly thought-provoking work, that translation must be one of the most complex and under-appreciated arts going. Which word to choose? What is the background context to the work you’re translating? Should you leave bits out? This latter is a particularly emotive issue, and a charge levelled at many early translators; though it’s preferable to the experience I had when reading a collection called “The Stray Dog Cafe” and discovering that the translator had seen fit to *add* bits to a Mayakovsky poem….. =:o

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 literatures 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 experience of failing to understand them, of being confused and challenged by them.

Anyway – I could ramble on forever about “This Little Art” but I won’t. I shall just say that it is a magnificent, immersive and marvellous book, full of so many insights into not only translating but literature itself and how and why we read. All of the books I’ve read for our #fitzcarraldofortnight have been excellent, but “This Little Art” is really something special (as you can no doubt tell from the amount of post-its…). Even if you’re not particularly interested in translation I think you should read it, because it’s so good; but if you are, oh boy, are you in for a treat! 😀

(For other posts on this book, Lizzy has written about This Little Art here and Simon shared his thoughts here)