‘It is not easy to think about translation’. [book review]

A review of This Little Art by Kate Briggs

As well as being the home of such literary-fiction luminaries as Olga Tokarczuk and Adam Mars-Jones, independent London-based press Fitzcarraldo Editions has made a name for itself as the publisher of brilliant essayists. One of these white-bound titles (blue covers denote fiction) that I have had my eye on for some time is Kate Briggs’s seminal This Little Art, an homage to literary translation that takes the form of a 365-page monograph.

This Little Art Kate Briggs

A monograph is defined as ‘a paper, book, or other work concerned with a single subject or aspect of a subject’, but I’d venture to say that this book is so much more than that. Yes, it is about translation, but it also takes in subjects as diverse as novel writing, motherhood, Robinson Crusoe and the park culture of Paris. Written in a fragmentary style, with passages ranging from a single line to a few pages, it is a multi-layered and incredibly beautiful meditation on translation, literature and the very act of thinking.

Kate Briggs is perhaps best known as the translator of Roland Barthes’s lecture series The Preparation of the Novel and How to Live Together (Columbia University Press), and it is from this impressive starting point that she takes us on a journey through the process of translation. She touches on why translation is important, why certain people feel compelled to do it (‘what is it that you have found in the practice of translation?’ she asks us), and what it is that makes a ‘good translation’ – if indeed such a thing can be said to exist. For Briggs, translation is inseparable from writing, and as Barthes concerned himself with the making of novels for an entire course of the lectures she translated, this book is as essential for anyone interested in writing as it is for those involved in translation.

Briggs’s direct style of prose – addressing the reader as ‘you’ and offering us insights into her everyday life and personal history – makes This Little Art an incredibly engaging book to read, despite the complexities underpinning it. The format, too, is of assistance here: what appears to be a meandering journey of contemplation, broken up into snippets of thought, is actually a highly structured and well-considered essay. No matter whether you’re a professional translator or an avid reader interested in how it all works, I’d class this as vital reading. Insightful and philosophical, it doesn’t aim to lecture but instead to ask, to make us think for ourselves about things we might take for granted. ‘I offer them here as possibilities to think on’ is a phrase typical of Briggs’s approach to her subject – one that I found to be both approachable and compelling.

Translation, Briggs writes, is ‘an everyday peculiar thing’. When we read a work in translation ‘we receive it twice-written’, marked not only by the author – her personality, emotions, philosophy, thought processes, writing habits – but also by exactly the same things in the translator. Very often translators are seen as a sort of side note, the enablers of our reading experience, but in This Little Art Kate Briggs gives them space to live and breathe, become figures just as large as the author. While she relates some of her own translation experiences, she also tells the fascinating stories of women such as Helen Lowe-Porter, translator of Thomas Mann, and Dorothy Bussy, translator, great friend and unrequited lover of André Gide. She invokes the names of Lydia Davis and Constance Garnett, but writes few words about the (male) literary giants these remarkable women translated. The translator – always a she in Briggs’s essay – takes centre stage in what is a truly refreshing piece of writing.

Refreshing in terms of content, but also its style. It is very hard to capture the activity of thinking on paper, particularly when ostensibly writing an essay – on their journey from mind to paper, thoughts do have a tendency to become framed – but Briggs manages to convey the process to remarkable effect. There are many more layers of thought to be peeled back here, making This Little Art a book that will keep on giving. Having read it once, I already know I’ll be returning again and again.

A beautiful example of thoughtful contemporary essay writing, this is a book that deserves to become a classic of its kind. Deeply intelligent, carefully considered and written in language that can’t fail to appeal, This Little Art is at its core a tribute to – and defence of – the often unsung practice of literary translation. Quiet and unassuming, perhaps, but definitely not ‘little’ in the sense of insignificant or simple, translation is, as Briggs states passionately – several times and always in the same words – something that is essential to communication and literature itself. ‘We need translations, urgently’, she writes. I couldn’t agree more.

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