This Little Art
A translator interposes themselves invisibly (or quasi-invisibly (invisible by convention)) between the author of a text, for whom the translator stands in the position of a reader, and the reader of that text, for whom the translator stands in the position of the author. The translator negotiates the text on behalf of a reader whose language is not that of the author, and adds, for the eventual reader, another layer in the suspension of disbelief in their willingness to accept that the words of the translator *are* the words of the author while at the same time acknowledging that they are entirely different words in a different language. To translate, in the words of Kate Briggs in her fine, thoughtful work on translation, “complicates the authorial position, sharing it, usurping it, sort of dislocating it.” Although the translator aspires to invisibility as a remaker of text, translators are not, and should not be considered as, by themselves or by others, “neutral, impersonal transferring devices.” The remaking of text in the person of the translator refracts both in their capacities as a reader and as a writer. “I read with my body,” says Briggs. “I read and move to translate with my body, and my body is not the same as yours. Translation is a responsive and appropriative practising of an extant work at the level of the sentence, working it out, a work-out on the basis of the desired work whose energy source is the inclusion of the new and different vitality that comes with and from me.” Translation is the most intimate possible relationship between two persons, though one of those persons may well be unaware of this intimacy. The translator assumes responsibility not only for the words and intentions of the author, but also for their identity as an author, at least in so far as the readers in the host language are concerned. The translator *becomes* the author for those readers. Or, rather, translation is the most intimate possible relationship between three people, for the willingness of a reader to allow the subsuming of their awareness by the author is replicated in the translator-as-reader who must concurrently become the translator-as-author for the host language reader. Briggs describes the relationship she has with Roland Barthes, whose ‘Le Préparation du Roman’ she is translating as ‘The Preparation of the Novel’, and, indeed there are passages in her account in which the identities of the two elide and it is uncertain whose words, and whose ideas, are on the page. Briggs sees the role of the translator as to *identify* with the author, rather than to supplant, or to be compared with, the author. The translator “undertakes to write translations not as a means to demonstrate their expertise but precisely because they know, without knowing exactly how or in what particular ways, doing so will be productive of *new* knowledge.” The constraint of the extant text liberates the translator-as-writer from the perils of self-expression and the impediments to discovery imposed by one’s identity. To express oneself lies within one’s capabilities and is a fundamentally reductive procedure. Only constraints will lead a writer beyond safe territory, and the constraints of an extant text can lead a translator-as-writer to new discoveries about language and about the limits and potentials of praxis of both writing and reading. “Don’t all writing projects,” Briggs asks, “involve working within existing rules and parameters that guide and to some degree direct what is possible to write? All writing is to some greater or lesser extent determined by constraints. The constraints on how far I can go, the limits on my making-up, the limits on doing what I want, are what interest me. They interest me because they instruct me, leading me (forcing me?) outside of what I might already be capable of writing, knowing and imagining. I don’t want to just make something up.” An effective way to make without making up is to remake. Praxis without ego reveals much about the mechanisms of personhood, so to call it, readership, authorship, and about the mechanisms of language that give rise to these roles of praxis. A translation is a product of its time can be replaced by new translations, more in keeping with the times of new readers, perhaps, in the way that the original cannot be so renewed or updated. An original text goes on being the original text. For someone to write it again in the original language is generally considered a crime against the text (except perhaps when the rewriting is so different from the original as to constitute a commentary or a riff upon it). A translation can be remade without affecting the authenticity of the work. Does this suggest that translation is more akin to reading than to writing (as in the generation of texts), in that the text is fulfilled in an interchangeable other? Is all reading in effect, in any case, a translation from the language of the text’s composition to the language of the reader’s comprehension, even though those languages are ostensibly the *same* language? Is an interlingual translator nothing more (and nothing less) than a textual vector, broadening the scope of the writing/reading project performed by persons whose intimacy is entirely inherent in this vector? In this respect, translation should be considered to take its risks on criteria of soundness and comeliness, rather than on criteria of exactitude or goodness. “My work is fascinating and derivative and determining and necessary and suspect,” says Briggs. “It is everywhere taken for granted and then every so often [inappropriately] singled out to be piously congratulated or taken apart.”
Part-memoir, part-essay, Kate Briggs's THIS LITTLE ART is a genre-bending manifesto and song for the practice of literary translation, offering fresh, fierce and timely thinking about the various aspects of translation: what it involves, who does it, why they do it, its strange status and why it matters. Taking her own experience of translating Roland Barthes's lecture notes as a starting point, the author threads various stories together to give us this portrait of translation as a compelling, complex and formative activity. She recounts the story of Helen Lowe-Porter's translations of Thomas Mann, and their posthumous vilification. She writes about the loving relationship between Andre Gide and his translator Dorothy Bussy. She recalls how Robinson Crusoe laboriously made a table, for him for the first time, on a desert island. With THIS LITTLE ART, a beautifully layered account of a subjective translating experience, Kate Briggs announces herself as a truly remarkable writer: distinctive, wise, frank, funny and utterly original.
'Kate Briggs's THIS LITTLE ART shares some wonderful qualities with Barthes's own work - the wit, thoughtfulness, invitation to converse, and especially the attention to the ordinary and everyday in the context of meticulously examined theoretical and scholarly questions. This is a highly enjoyable read: informative and stimulating for anyone interested in translation, writing, language, and expression.' - Lydia Davis, author and translator
Kate Briggs is the translator of two volumes of Roland Barthes's lecture and seminar notes at the College de France: THE PREPARATION OF THE NOVEL and HOW TO LIVE TOGETHER, both published by Columbia University Press. She teaches at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam.