This Little Art

By Kate Briggs


Fitzcarraldo Editions
April 2018

Reviewed by Robert E. Tanner


At one point in Kate Briggs's delightful book about translating Roland Barthes, This Little Art, she admits that she cannot quite pronounce Barthes's name in French. She gives the vowel a slight British diphthong and confesses that her inability to say his name—the name of the author of two books she has translated, the man whose name she often has to pronounce in discussing her work—is humiliating. She tells herself it doesn't matter and asks if anyone really cares. She goes on:

Surely it doesn't really matter that when alone and left to my own devices, in the reading solitude in which this sense of a relation was formed in the first place, and with the inner voice that I use to speak silently to myself . . . in that voice, in my mouth:
      Roland Barthes rhymes with
      (with /a:t/)

And this is why I love This Little Art. The book is full of private moments, personal moments, artful moments that feel as though they have been written for me, although I know that they haven't, that I shouldn't be able to identify with this British-born, female translator, yet, as Briggs herself writes: 

this is what reading offers us: occasions for inappropriate, improbable identification with a character, a writer, an idea, an experience, a fantasy. Fantasies that apparently have nothing to do with me—isn't this, in its way, the power of a fantasy?—that do not appear to directly concern or pertain to me. But that catch me up nonetheless.

Of course, she is talking of identifying with Barthes, despite his homosexuality, despite his Frenchness, despite his fantasies of communal living that excluded women. Even as she knows these things about him, she is still caught up in the reading.

And Barthes himself, in the lectures Briggs translated as The Preparation of the Novel, does rather frequently identify with (although, he is careful to note, not compare himself to) Proust, Michelet, and Chateaubriand. He finds similarities in their working habits and, moreover, reverses the critical philosophy he espoused earlier in his career. In his most famous essay, "The Death of the Author," Barthes argued that the author's biography, politics, and intention did not matter; what mattered was the relationship between the reader and the text. Now, under the guise of looking for writing techniques, he allows himself to plumb the lives of those writers with whom he most identifies, those writers whose work he enjoys and most wishes to write himself. He is particularly caught up by a passage in Chateaubriand's Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, a passage quoted by Proust in Time Regained, by Barthes in The Preparation of the Novel, again by Briggs in This Little Art, and now, for completeness, here, in the translation of Time Regained by Andreas Mayor and Terence Kilmartin and revised by D.J. Enright:

I dined two or three times at the Governor's house, an officer full of kindness and good manners. He grew a few European vegetables on the hillside. After dinner, he showed me what he called his garden. A sweet and subtle scent of heliotrope was exhaled by a little patch of beans that were in flower; it was brought to us not by a breeze from our own country but by a wild Newfoundland wind, unrelated to that exiled plant, without sympathy of shared memory or pleasure. In this perfume, not breathed by beauty, not cleansed in her bosom, not scattered where she had walked, in this perfume of a changed sky and tillage and world there was all the diverse melancholy of regret and absence and youth.

A passage cited so frequently should be universal in its attraction, yet I am not moved—or that is what I wanted to write while drafting the outline for this essay, when quotations were still placeholders and I envisioned discussing how certain famous translators translated certain famous works for the money. Instead, I see that writing criticism possesses similarities with the process of translation. Briggs writes of:

how [she] would begin by writing a first English draft of the lecture courses, highlighting in yellow everything [she] was as yet undecided about until the screen was ablaze with it: a Word doc like a rapeseed field in flower. How [she] would go through the draft again and again, revising, reading it out loud, asking others to read it for [her], until eventually most of the yellow was gone.

I, too, begin with a field of rapeseed, highlights of facts I need to verify, highlighted summaries of quotes I need to find, the text yellow with placeholders and uncertainties.

And now, filling in the quote from Chateaubriand, typing out his words and letting them pass through my eyes, my brain, and out through my fingers in a superficial imitation of a translator's "handl[ing] every single word (space and punctuation mark) of the writing-to-be-translated," I find that I am caught up entirely by the arrival of the "diverse melancholy of regret and absence and youth." Now I feel the magic, and I wonder what I missed in those books I read once and never opened again.

I did not appreciate or particularly enjoy Madame Bovary on my first read, either. I read Francis Steegmuller's esteemed English translation, and perhaps I was too young. Perhaps I read too quickly. Coming from a personal history of popular and genre fiction, I don't think I knew what to do with Flaubert's lack of sympathy for his characters. I did not quite comprehend his contempt; instead I felt it as my own emotional distance. I didn't know why, but I didn't like any of the characters and I therefore didn't like this book that was proclaimed one of the greatest novels ever written. Because I was too young and egotistical to see the flaw in myself, I blamed the translation.

Criticism—particularly Nabokov's essay in Lectures on Literature—would eventually direct my attentions to what Flaubert was doing, and in subsequent re-readings I slowed to take in Flaubert's consummate skill and got caught up by the country fair scene, having finally to put down the book in order to give myself even more time to absorb the structure, for the ironic juxtaposition of the awarding of agriculture prizes against Rodolphe's seduction of Emma was suddenly too much, coming too fast. (And in checking these details, I am caught up once again, losing an afternoon to Flaubert's legerdemain.)

Briggs never mentions having to read and re-read before being caught up in a scene, and I suspect she begins with a generosity that believes in good intentions, in the value of a book that has been written, edited, published. She would remember the work behind the work, as she does with translations, finding a justification for the errors she reads about and subsequently cannot not see in Helen Lowe-Porter's nonetheless pleasurable translation of The Magic Mountain. Lowe-Porter asked her publisher to "look to the whole," which is what Briggs does, always aware of the greater context. Later she looks beyond the moment (and the meager product) of her translation group's laborious translation of Dutch, a language they hardly speak. You have to begin somewhere, Briggs argues, and this broadness of vision, this generosity is why I feel such warmth in This Little Art.

But the warmth—my visceral pleasure—is not the point. Briggs has an argument to make. "Don't do translations," she was warned "about a decade ago, by a well-meaning professor." There is no money in the pursuit. There are no professional benefits. There is no respect—only the dissatisfaction, the contempt, such as was slung on Lowe-Porter's translation of The Magic Mountain. Implicitly, this is what she was told.

Yet Briggs evidently loves translating, and she shows this love. I feel it in her talk of the necessity of bringing one culture's books into another and her discussion of translation as "broadly considered to be the most 'selfless' art." More so I feel it in her refutation of this definition, when she describes the gratification of puzzling out ambiguities and getting so close to the text that she handles each word until she feels, as Lowe-Porter once wrote, that she "had written the book herself." All of this Briggs argues with examples. All of this she tells with such affection that I want to translate. And I can understand her kinship—her identification—with Barthes, who expressed such love for his own reading. 

The Preparation of the Novel, a series of lectures Barthes delivered just before his death in 1980, concerns the (often practical) aspects of (what else?) preparing to write a novel. The volume of Briggs's translation includes Barthes's preliminary notes for his own unrealized novel, and judging by their scantiness (eight hand-written pages of outline), I believe the lecture was the important work. Although not quite the grand literary ouroboros of Proust, the lectures were an homage to that master. And, like Proust, Barthes ranges widely in the work. He talks, for example, of the pleasures inspiring him to prepare to write a novel. His descriptions of haiku and getting caught up by seventeen syllables are again so generous that I began reading and writing haiku myself. And this generosity, what Briggs describes as "warmth" in her discourse on how the changing perceptions of writers appear in the translations of their work, she deliberately put into her translation of Barthes's lectures, and it indomitably suffuses her own book.

The tone is appropriate for both. This Little Art was written for would-be translators, and the lectures of which The Preparation of the Novel is composed were implicitly given for would-be writers. Barthes wondered at the interest in the course for those who have no interest in writing, a doubt Briggs sidesteps in This Little Art through the implication that everyone should translate, not necessarily for publication, but for their own enrichment. She describes, as one example, the pleasure an acquaintance found in using her "very little French" to translate part of a French translation of Harry Potter back into English while on vacation in Normandy. "In fact," the woman explained, "it was totally fascinating."

Briggs believes in the fascination. Her faith in translation is consummate (despite her generosity in acknowledging the merits of counter-arguments), and she uses This Little Art to demonstrate the process of translation. I found this to be the most spellbinding aspect of the book, for translation is not a one-to-one transcription. The path is not direct. Briggs returns again and again to the idea of writing a new text, a text that comes from the source but is still (simultaneously) new, with each word "handled" by the translator. She describes her process of writing in English and highlighting her doubts, doubts which she argues this way and that way and which sometimes continue long after the publication of the translation. Six years after the publication of The Preparation of the Novel, she is no longer convinced by her translation of the common French word "faire" as "to write." Perhaps Barthes meant "how to make a novel"? This is a question answered with time. In the desultory nature of the book, she repeatedly shows how a translation debate could be settled, how all arguments could be laid to rest, and then, in the midst of thinking about something else, a eureka moment will provide inspiration and—finally—satisfaction.

And, of course, Briggs argues, being able to pronounce Roland Barthes's name matters. "How we say these names is one of the ways we display and lay claim to familiarity, to intimacy, to a specialist knowledge of each other, and of each other's work." For a reader who felt such closeness, who identified so well with Barthes's lectures that she dedicated three years of her life to translating them, this must hurt. But I'm sure she takes comfort in knowing that when Barthes died, the last writing on his desk was entitled, in what Briggs—at last—settles on as a translation, "You always fail to speak, when you speak of what you love."