This Little Art

This Little Art

Like much of the rest of the (literary) translation world, I have been reading and enjoying Kate Briggs’ essay This Little Art, recently published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

It is her obviously, unambiguously and unashamedly personal and subjective thinking on translation and writing, both her own and other people’s. Yet perhaps because of this, it also has a resonance that makes me want to punch the air and say: “Yes! That!” I recognise that feeling, that image, that idea of this thing that we do. I love the fact that she cites How to Train your Dragon alongside Barthes and Derrida. I love her defence of everyone’s right to their own taste in literature.

Imagine: if we were all to fall in love with the same person! Likewise, with literature: some of us will fall in love with some texts and others with others… If we were all to only ever desire the same book, then what would be written would always be the same book, which is not the case.

It is about literary translation, but a lot of the musings are applicable to all kinds of translation, the process by which it is done. “A to and fro, a relay: a venturing of something new on the very close basis of something that already and persistently exists.” We want to get it right, but what does right mean? We have our response to the text, and what makes good English, our own style, which might be very different from the author’s style, languages that might work very differently while needing to say the same thing, yet maybe the point should be to emphasise the differences that make it exciting, or maybe to make it smooth and unjarring…

All this is considered with reference to Robinson Crusoe making a table, the much-criticised translations of Thoman Mann by Helen Lowe-Porter, and Kate Briggs’ own translation of lectures by Roland Barthes, among much else. She takes issue with reviewers who seek out mistakes in a spirit of “gotcha!”, pointing out that a translation also needs to be taken as a whole:

I think we owe translators, and perhaps also ourselves, some recognition of what it might have meant to have handled every single word (space and punctuation mark) of the writing-to-be-translated, to have taken a decision in relation to its every single word (space and punctuation mark), and indeed to have written every single one of its parts […], which might in turn be another way of saying each and every one of its risks.

There are occasional little vicarious thrills when someone I know, or at least have met, gets a mention. There are also little irritations – I’ve been spending way too much time lately obsessing over hyphenation and splitting sentences over lines, and it irks me to see examples of the things I’ve been ruthlessly tracking down on behalf of certain clients.

life-struc-
turing. Agh – ugly!

But now, am I “gotcha-ing”? No, actually, I don’t think so. That’s an issue with the layout rather than the text, but it’s like a wrong note in the middle of a symphony, or “great routine, shame about the wobble”, or the burnt turnip in the middle of an otherwise amazing tasting menu that I still remember more clearly than all the other beautiful courses and flavours! And it’s the fear of making a mistake of that sort (i.e. one that mars the reader’s enjoyment or understanding of the text) that drives my (our?) perfectionism. (I also don’t know if I can entirely forgive the use of a word like unparadigmatizable, but that’s a matter of taste.)

Obviously, I don’t agree with everything she writes – it’s way too personal a book for that.  It’s written in little snippets that make it perfect for dipping in and out of, as well as more sustained reading, and there’s plenty to mull over in between times. This is an interesting, inspiring and entertaining read for anyone interested in translation, or language in general.

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About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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