A Precarious Privilege

Kate Briggs, This Little Art

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 400pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781910695456

reviewed by Annie McDermott

I don’t know how stockings are made nowadays, Roland Barthes says in a lecture he delivered in 1980, but when I was a child they were knitted. He describes growing up surrounded by women who were ‘obsessed with the risk of getting a hole in their stockings’ which would then form a ladder, and the gesture ‘whereby a woman would wet a finger in her mouth and apply it to the weave, cementing it with saliva, and in this way she would stop it.’ He remembers, too, a tiny stall of stoppeuses near the apartment he grew up in in Paris; ‘workers whose working lives were spent “stopping” stockings and sometimes other items of clothing’. In his lecture, Barthes uses the stoppeuse as an image of the writer, creating ‘a kind of catch or halt or temporary immobilisation in the run of culture’. In This Little Art, her book about, among many other things, translating Barthes’ lecture notes into English, Kate Briggs uses the same image for translation.

The translator, she says, wets her finger and ‘presses it down on the run of alternatives, the run of endless translation possibilities […] and with all the delicate immobilising power of saliva on wool, she makes it stop.’ The work of choosing between these endless possibilities becomes invisible the moment the finger comes down and a translation is complete. Briggs, however, in this wide-ranging and inventive celebration of the practice of translation, makes this work visible again. We see what it is to feel one’s way into a sentence, testing the different options, feeling their difference: ‘The course is like a flower’, Briggs first ventures for one of Barthes’ phrases. Then: ‘A lecture course, it is like a’; ‘The lecture course, if I may, is like a flower, but that will fade away’; ‘A lecture course is      will die away.’ And the ‘if I may’ – should it be ‘if you will, or if you’ll allow me, or if I may or indulge me on this or as it were or so to speak’? Briggs doesn’t tell us her eventual solutions to the translation dilemmas she describes – this book prefers questions to answers.

The translator’s sense that hovering around each word are unused alternatives, words that mean almost the same thing but not quite, becomes a way of writing and even thinking in This Little Art. When Briggs pauses over words and phrases, we see the parallels between feeling one’s way into a sentence and feeling one’s way into an argument; between translating, writing and thinking itself. She describes the constraints of translating ‘leading me (forcing me?) outside of what I might already be capable of writing’, for example; concludes of one line of Barthes that ‘all this means – or, more literally – all it wants to say is […]’; and muses that perhaps ‘you’ll hear me say there are works in French I haven’t truly? or fully? or properly? read because I have only? read them in translation’. This is a book in which the thinking is in motion, pre-stoppeuse: ‘Is this what I mean?’ Briggs asks herself at one point, answering: ‘Possibly. Or, no. That is, I don’t think so.’

It would be easy for a book in which the thinking and writing is so flexible, so mobile, to feel insubstantial or vague, but This Little Art does just the opposite. Briggs weighs every word and every idea carefully, generously, considering it from all angles before moving onto the next. A particularly characteristic moment comes when she is considering how different ways of speaking – the various European languages used at the sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, for example, or the Dragonese spoken by the dragons in a children’s book she’s reading to her son – can be represented in written English. She asks: ‘say you’re a writer and you want the dragons in your story to speak in some ancient icy reptile tongue. What do you do?’ This is no whimsical question tossed out into the ether. On the following page Briggs continues, business-like: ‘Well, it would seem you could do one of two things.’

By making space for various possibilities to coexist, in the language and the argument, This Little Art also avoids becoming what Briggs calls ‘some all-purpose consensus’. As she moves between places as varied as Parisian dance aerobics classes, Robinson Crusoe’s island, the sunken forest garden in the Bibliothèque François Mitterand and the next room where her four-year-old son is singing the wrong words to a Madonna song, Briggs allows herself to be contradicted every step of the way. For much of one chapter of the book, for example, Briggs explores why people want to translate and how they come to do so, feeling her way into the idea that it’s about ‘actively adding yourself to an existing work’, about wanting to rewrite sentences that you didn’t write the first time around. But then: ‘A friend who translates academic articles for a living once listened very patiently to my account of how translation begins before saying: You know? For me, on the other hand. It is really not. Like that at all.’

Because, of course, the material conditions under which translators work vary enormously, and, for Kate Briggs, avoiding ‘some all-purpose consensus’ means acknowledging this too. This Little Art engages powerfully with crucial questions of gender and class by embracing their contradictions, showing that various things can be true at once. The fact that Thomas Mann’s translator, Helen Lowe-Porter, was a ‘stay-at-home mother of three’, translating ‘in the intervals of rocking the cradle’, coexists with the fact that being able to do just that, especially in the comfortable surroundings of a ‘don’s wife’s life’, is a great luxury. The fact that there were indeed mistakes in her translation of The Magic Mountain coexists with the fact that a 1995 article in the Times Literary Supplement complaining of these errors also considers it ‘worth noting’ that Mann would have preferred a male translator for the book. And, then as now, the ‘extraordinary intellectual adventure’ of translating coexists with its ‘thanklessness’ – it is a privilege, but a poorly-paid and ‘precarious’ one.

‘It is not my aim to celebrate these conditions, exactly’, Briggs writes; ‘it’s rather to recognise them in order for there to be a chance of varying them’. She does this particularly successfully in relation to gender, teasing out the prejudices faced and freedoms enjoyed by Helen Lowe-Porter and Dorothy Bussy, the translator of André Gide, and in doing so makes her book quietly radical. What she does celebrate, however, is the ‘extraordinary intellectual adventure’ itself, using well-chosen details to bring even the more absurd aspects of it to life. The specialist knowledge the translator has to acquire about countless different topics, for example: Briggs finds herself reading ‘an article on the internet by Caroline Whetman titled “A UK view of Pinks vs. Carnations”: as well as the generic variance, I learn, the former are much older.’ The translator’s insecurities, too, find their prefect expression in the fact that Briggs, in preparation for talking about her finished translations in public, has ‘sometimes practised saying the name Barthes out loud on my own at home.’

There is no other book on translation quite like This Little Art. It is a triumph and a joy; an ever-shifting kaleidoscope trained on a process which is too often invisible; and a reminder that choosing between one word and another is the basis not only of translation, but of working out what we think about the world.