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the Complete Review
the complete review - translation

This Little Art

Kate Briggs

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To purchase This Little Art

Title: This Little Art
Author: Kate Briggs
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2017
Length: 365 pages
Availability: This Little Art - US
This Little Art - UK
This Little Art - Canada
This Little Art - Deutschland
Este pequeño arte - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Fitzcarraldo Editions

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Our Assessment:

B : engaging personal reflections on translation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 11/10/2018 Marina Warner
The NY Times Book Rev. . 1/7/2018 Benjamin Moser
Süddeutsche Zeitung A 23/12/2021 Insa Wilke
TLS . 1/12/2018 Natasha Lehrer

  From the Reviews:
  • "Her engaging memoir unfolds in unnumbered, untitled, unstructured short chapters: a pillow book on the translator’s love affair with words and writers, it ventriloquises Barthes’s late style of ‘biographical nebulae’, which aimed ‘to put a little bit of “psychological” affectivity back into intellectual production: to give the “Ego” a bit of an opportunity to speak’. In disciple-like fashion, Briggs explores his idea of ‘writing as a radical practice, an obsessive labour, a way of life’." - Marina Warner, London Review of Books

  • "One of the many risks of imbibing too much Barthes is that his writing is as notable for fudging and preciosity as it is for insight, and Briggs shares with him a tendency to imprecise language (.....) The perilous influence of Barthes in thinking about translation is evident in other ways, too. (...) This placing of subjective impressions over objective scholarship makes Briggs’s interest in Helen Lowe-Porter, Thomas Mann’s translator (and Boris Johnson’s great-grandmother), dismaying." - Benjamin Moser, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(E)ine funkelnde, anregende Schrift zwischen Memoir und unterhaltendem literaturphilosophischen Essay, der Übersetzerinnen des 20. und 21. Jahrhunderts würdigt. (...) Briggs schreibt nicht, möchte man meinen, sie tanzt. Sie denkt in der Schreibbewegung und das nicht allein, sondern mit einer Vielzahl anderer Stimmen ihres Metiers zusammen und sie macht das als Vorgang deutlich im Text, den sie klug zwischen zwei Polen organisiert: zum einen der Geschichte von Helen Lowe-Porters Diskreditierung, der ersten Thomas-Mann-Übersetzerin ins Englische. Zum anderen dem eigenen Verhältnis zum späten Roland Barthes" - Insa Wilke, Süddeutsche Zeitung

  • "In This Little Art, a digressive, scholarly, absorbing 350-page essay, Kate Briggs roams across the vast terrain -- practical, theoretical, historical, philosophical -- of translation. Briggs’s writing is erudite and assured, while maintaining a tone that is modest and speculative; this paradox encapsulates something of the essence of translation, which is always contingent (no translation is ever definitive) yet also -- for its time at least -- authoritative. (...) Never losing sight of her own subjective position with regard to the activity of trans­lation, and to Barthes himself, Briggs weaves in and out of our relationship with translation, as translators, yes, but also, and no less pertinently, as readers and writers. (...) This Little Art is a meticulously suggestive attempt to describe what translation is, what the translator does, to demonstrate it, explain it, feel it." - Natasha Lehrer, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       This Little Art takes it's title from Thomas Mann-translator Helen Lowe-Porter who, in her essay 'On Translating Thomas Mann' wrote:

After all, every translator knows that translating is a sort of trick, a device like the sleight-of-hand operator's to attract attention to something in order to distract it from something else. There is a sense in which all art fits into such a definition -- witness the double sense in which the word itself can be used. So also word-craft. When we speak of the little art of translating I am content to have the word used in this double sense. On the other hand I please myself, privately, by thinking of it as a "mystery" in an archaic and now very modern literary sense.
       Mann's The Magic Mountain, and Lowe-Porter as translator of that -- and a great deal more of Mann's work -- feature prominently in Briggs' broad and personal consideration of translation. Divided into seven main chapters, these are further divided into shorter sections, each begun on a new page, some only a paragraph long and few extending over more than two pages -- a kind of meandering around and across the subject, though with several main points of repeated convergence, including Lowe-Porter, as well as André Gide translator Dorothy Bussy, and Roland Barthes, whose late lecture courses and seminars Briggs has translated.
       Biography features in This Little Art, as Briggs looks at how Lowe-Porter and Bussy lived and worked, as well as their relationship with their favored authors, and Briggs also writes quite a bit about her personal experience (though, since he was already dead, her relationship with the author whose work she translated is of a different sort). Amusing, in a way, is how she describes how translators -- including Lowe-Porter and herself -- to some extent chanced into translating and being picked up by publishers (which, I'm afraid, also says something about just how casually many publishers and editors are about translation); among the arresting small chapters is the one that reads:
     In 1927, Mann's preferred translator for The Magic Mountain either fell or jumped out of a window. Soon after that, David Horton reports, the publisher Alfred A. Knopf moved to confirm his agreement with Helen Lowe-Porter.
       As with much of the book, this is the sort of titbit about which there surely would be much more to say, and where one wishes Briggs had explored or explained more.
       Briggs also looks at the nature of translation, and the issues it raises -- including that thorny one of fidelity to the original (text and language). She notes Timothy Buck's: "devastating and, in the field of translation scholarship, now notorious indictment of the quality of Lowe-Porter's translation" -- but notes also:
Is John E. Woods's newer translation of Buddenbrooks , published in 1993, for example, better than Lowe-Porter's ? Not really, Buck concedes. For Woods, too, makes a number of comprehension mistakes. Is Woods's 1995 translation of The Magic Mountain an improvement on Lowe-Porter's ? No, says Michael Wood
       Briggs clearly feels a warmness -- and admiration -- for Lowe-Porter and what she did-- materially well-off enough to do this work for which she was not well-paid, but also with children underfoot. (She also notes with evident satisfaction that: "New versions of Mann's works have appeared in the years since Knopf's claim on the rights expired in the 1970s, but Lowe-Porter's work is still everywhere in print" -- though old translations tend generally to stick around in the world of publishing (think Constance Garnett's translation from the Russian), not least because it's cheaper than doing it right over.)
       The second part of This Little Art is titled: 'Don't Do Translation' (in the table of contents, the 'Don't' is struck through, but it isn't in the chapter-heading-proper), as Briggs recalls:
     Don't do translations, I remember being advised, about a decade ago, by a well-meaning professor. At least, not if you're planning on making a living. Or, let's say, on getting a job in the university. It's a thankless thing, really.
       The situation seems to have improved some -- at least in academia, where translation is now taken a bit more seriously -- but it apparently still doesn't pay well. Briggs is somewhat torn, too -- wondering the extent to which translation is also an excuse not to write a work of one's own (while still writing, in a way -- a way that many translators would argue is a similar creative and personal undertaking).
       Briggs acknowledges that the author she translated, Barthes, had his own peculiar relationship to translation -- frustrated by the limitations of what he could only read in translation, while seeming apparently near indifferent about the translation of his own work. She quotes from an interview with Barthes-translator Richard Howard, who describes Barthes as: "not an anxious author about his translations"; among the examples Howard gives:
I remember calling him up once and saying that he had referred to somebody inadequately or incorrectly, as I just knew. Did he want me to silently correct the mistake ? He said, “Oh, of course. Do whatever you want. I have no idea.” And then there was some question of some king or even Egyptian pharaoh, and he said, “Well, make it up. Make it up. I don’t remember the case myself. If it’s not correct in the French text, just make up something.”
       A different extreme Briggs mentions is Jacques Derrida's thought-experiment of a translator given the space, time, and words: "to explicate, clarify and teach the semantic content and forms of the text", with Nabokov's Eugene Onegin-'translation' as something of an example of that (where, as she notes (quoting David Damrosch), the actual poem: "takes up only one seventh of the edition's fourteen hundred pages".) As she points out:
The only problem with such an undertaking, following Derrida's argument, is that 'this operation, which occurs daily in the university and in literary criticism, is not what is called translation, a translation worthy of the name, a translation in the strict sense, the translation of a work'. In its length, its excessive expansion and additional over-length, it has become something else: translation plus commentary, criticism, explanation, gloss, scholarship.
       (Personal aside, and just a reminder of where I stand on this question: when reading this passage I was sighing in satisfied ecstasy at the thought of this beautiful vision-concept, this ideal: "Yes ! yes ! yes ! translation-plus ! yes !")
       Translation remains, of course, so very slippery, in both theory and practice. A nice example Briggs gives is from a student in her translation class:
She gave the group an original piece of writing and its translation, but had privately made them swap places. So what we read was an excerpt from a novel originally published in English but presented to us as if it were a translation from the French. Everyone was predictably critical of the English (in other words the original), finding it to be in different ways poorly written, misjudged, mistaken with regards to the rightness of the French (which was actually the translation).
       Looking at translation from many vantage points, and taking a very anecdotal and personal approach, Briggs brings a lot about the subject up for discussion. But there are an awful lot of questions posed in This Little Art -- the text is full of question marks -- and not that much follow-through. Briggs puts a lot out there -- but she doesn't really dig very deep into much of it; for all the examples, there isn't that much discussion, or real consideration of the issues (the Derrida-example is among the few that is at least followed through to something of a conclusion -- though I'd argue that there is a lot more to be said/argued about about that as well). It's a valid approach -- simply making readers aware of these many issues and questions, perhaps prodding them to think for themselves, certainly has some value -- and the enthusiasm with which the book has been received suggests it resonates with many, especially translators (Benjamin Moser, with his notorious review in The New York Times Book Review, being the rare exception), but there are certainly points one wishes she had followed up on, going further and deeper.
       Engaging in its presentation. and good in its posing of so many important questions, I would nevertheless have wished for Briggs to be (much) more probing in considering responses and answers. The accumulation of examples does add up to quite a bit, but, for better and worse, This Little Art is very much a book of personal engagement with translation -- and even as such, is too often unwilling to dig deeper into many of the questions it asks.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 August 2023

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This Little Art: Reviews: Kate Briggs: Other books by Kate Briggs under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British-born author and translator Kate Briggs teaches at the Piet Zwart Institute.

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© 2023-2024 the complete review

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