Book Review

This Little Art by Kate Briggs

a wonderful, unpretentious, essay on translation

I’m typing this on my phone sat in the back of a car being driven across Southern Ontario. I’ve just spent a couple of days in Ottawa to attend a funeral, and though I didn’t have much time to explore the city, I was pleasantly surprised by the landscape and the architecture of the place.

What I’ve found disconcerting about living in Toronto is how new and how organised its grid system feels: the way space is used in the city I live in feels, to me, artificial. Yes, a grid system is a practical and sensible way to arrange a city, but as, from a philosophical perspective, I believe humanity to be a scourge and a curse, to acknowledge our species being so self-consciously destructive of the natural environment makes me feel uncomfortable. Yes, those of us who are “alive” “need” shelter, but building more cities feels, I dunno, wrong. Ottawa feels much more like a city that has been constructed organically. Not every street is straight, there are buildings with more than two stories for more than like one tiny district and there is lots of architecture that is more than a hundred years old. It’s next to a massive river, there are hills and bridges. It reminded me a bit of Edinburgh. Starved for European cities, I suppose, seeing familiarity in the distinct. It’s obviously not very much like Edinburgh at all.

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I’ve been reading This Little Art by Kate Briggs. Though I was away for less than 48 hours I brought four books with me, and none but this have I touched lol. Classic me. This Little Art (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017), though, is a wonderful fucking thing and I feel bad for not having read it before: I’ve owned this copy since it was published.

This Little Art is an essay about translation. Briggs is the translator of a recent publication of a lecture series delivered by Roland Barthes towards the end of his life. Briggs teaches translation, too, and is a clear bibliophile. This book – which I might go so far as to describe as “page-turning” – is about Helen Lowe-Porter, the translator of Thomas Mann; about Dorothy Bussy, the translator of Andre Gide; about Barthes, about living in a foreign country, about reading and about how creativity relates to translation. 

The discussions are brisk and engaging, Briggs switching between her focuses to raise the clarity related to her central concerns.

Translation is important, it is a powerful and potent way to allow cultural exchange, it affords understanding and description of lives different from our own and draws attention to the global world in which we live. Using her knowledge of Barthes’ theories and the theories that have developed from [and otherwise since] them, Briggs writes compellingly and succinctly about the ways in which the role of the translator has been historically maligned. The title comes from a quotation from Lowe-Porter, whose once-acclaimed translations of Mann were aggressively and snobbishly ridiculed in a series of academic essays and later letters in the LRB in the nineties. Briggs writes about the idea of translators as hobbyists, of its reputation as a “little”, domestic, feminine craft. Translation is seen as reflective, as if it is of something else rather than of itself, it is as if the doting spouse to the dominating politician husband who takes pride in the fact that he’s never boiled an egg. This is obviously bullshit, but this is an idea that – maybe (though probably not) less misogynistically – persists.

Translation, of course, is fucking hard. Translating something that is difficult (e.g. academic texts, poetry, modernism) is obviously harder, while simultaneously being less economically rewarding. Hard work and poor pay, translation is something that no one does unless they want to: it is this combination that allowed it to gain its rather drawing-room air: because it is effortful but unlucrative (though maybe slightly more lucrative than writing poetry lol), because it is a labour of love, of care, of affection. You must be in a text to understand it, one must connect with something, vigorously, to render it in a different form.

“Literature in translation” is writing that is seen as lesser due to its perceived lack of originality, but it’s actually writing with incredibly tight constraints. Even if you’re not translating Perec’s A Void, it’s constrained, but to a purpose. Translation isn’t just swapping out every word and putting the new sentences in the right order: this falsely presumes that vocabulary and thus sound and tone have no connection to meaning.

Briggs has produced a book here that convinces of the importance of translation, of its complexities and the ways in which what has been considered a “good” translation has changed. It’s interesting, it’s informative, it’s very well written, very intelligent and if you have an interest in international literature I’d describe this as near-essential. I’ve read about translation before, and I often find that translators tend to write about themselves and their art in quite an arrogant way, confident in their importance towards cultural interchange. Briggs describes the value of her craft without sneering at those who are not translators. It’s a great book. I do do do recommend.

Order This Little Art direct from Fitzcarraldo via this link 


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Order my raucous poetry collection via Open Pen.

Order my sad prose chapbook via Selcouth Station Press.


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