As a first-year Ph.D. student, I took a class from a History professor who promised that if there were one thing his students would learn from him, it would be how to read a book.
Here is his advice. First you skim the blurb on the back cover. Next you look at the index to see what the important terms are. Then you glance at the bibliography to find the important interlocutors. Next you peek at the introduction and the conclusion, paying special attention to the first and last paragraphs. Finally you look at the table of contents to get a sense of how the argument unfolds, and, if you have time, speed-read a chapter that is of particular interest to your own work. Then, to make sure you’ve extracted the maximum from the book in question, you write yourself a small note in the following form: “Author X’s book about Y and Z argues P and Q using methods D and E and evidence from F and G.” And voilà, you’ve read a book. Rinse and repeat. Try to read at least five books every day.
I suspected then, and have only grown more certain since, that this is a terrible way to read any book, even dry-as-dust history monographs. But there are few books for which this method would prove more disastrous than Kate Briggs’s This Little Art. The back cover promises “a genre-bending song for the practice of literary translation, offering fresh, fierce and timely thinking on reading, writing and living with the works of others.” It also gives us an assessment of Briggs as “a truly remarkable writer: distinctive, wise, frank, funny and utterly original.”
Instead of an index there is a note on sources:
It seemed impossible for me to write an essay about translation (as a form of close and long-term engagement with the work of others) without engaging very closely and at length with the work of others. I have done this in a variety of ways: citation, translation and citation, translation and paraphrase, translating and writing into and out of the passage at hand, writing and speaking with someone else’s words or letting someone else’s words write and speak their way through me. […] I have indicated what I’ve been doing, and on the basis of which source, in the notes below.
The notes that follow do indicate some of what Briggs has been doing with the work of others in the pages of her essay. Some but not all. There is not a note for every source. And there is not an “indication” for every combination of translation, citation, paraphrase, re-translation, and repetition. Still, while not comprehensive, the notes make for fascinating reading, giving examples and interpolations alongside sources and explanations of method.
There is no introduction or conclusion as such. The first chapter begins, “It’s Walpurgis-Nacht in the sanatorium and Hans Castorp, the hero of The Magic Mountain, has been made to feel hot and reckless by the atmosphere of carnival.” The final chapter ends, “Let’s say I’m actively parrying against the all-purpose explanation.”
The table of contents announces seven chapters (the numbers are mine): 1) Dragonese, 2) D̶o̶n̶'̶t̶ Do Translations, 3) And Still No Rain / Roland Barthes Rhymes with, 4) Amateur Translator, 5) Maker of Wholes (Let’s Say of a Table), 6) Who Refuses To Let Go of Her Translations Until She Feels She Has Written the Books Herself (Or, Translation and the Principle of Tact).
I am interested in tables, so I turn to the fifth chapter and start skimming. It begins with the Bibliothèque François Mitterand in Paris (the one with the four right-angled towers facing in on each other like open books and the “sunken forest garden” in its center). It ends with a plea to recognize the singularity of every translation. Ah, I think, she is here also “actively parrying against the all purpose explanation.”
And so: Kate Brigg’s book, This Little Art, is about translation, dragons, and tables. It argues for singularity and against all-purpose explanations. It applies the methods of genre-bending song and active parrying to evidence from Roland Barthes and the Bibliothèque François Mitterand…. You see? It’s terrible. Best to start again. Best to engage more closely and at length with this work of an other.
Kate Briggs was never my teacher. But she almost was. A year before the frustrating semester with the professor of five-books-per-day History, I was an MA student in the now-defunct Cultural Translation program at the American University of Paris, the same program where Kate Briggs taught a module on experimental translation in which she developed at least some of the ideas of her book. Since graduating from the Cultural Translation MA program I’ve spent seven years with one foot in the world of academia and another in that of (literary) translation. The more I learn about both these worlds, the clearer it becomes what a privilege it was to be the recipient of such a startlingly original and intellectually rigorous education. Still, my time there did not overlap with Kate Briggs’s. Reading her book is for me a way to revisit the missed encounter, to learn some of the lessons that I might have learned if she were my teacher. How different would I be today as a translator and intellectual had I entered the program one year later? It’s hard to say. But mostly, reading This Little Art, I feel that I might have been a different reader. A slower reader. A reader who reads again, obsessively, repetitively. A reader who cares more about the pace of reading. A better reader.
Say it all too fast and we’re already at some all-purpose consensus. (Because who, really, could dispute the fact that books come from other books, that we all, indeed, have precedents?) Say it too fast and then: What else is there to say? We – you, I – switch off.
Kate Briggs tells a story of Roland Barthes telling a story about pacing. Two stories. At least two stories – other stories could also be about pacing since very few stories are not, in however indirect a way, about rhythm and relative speed. The first involves Barthes, an amateur piano player, listening to a radio emission of Bach being played on the harpsichord. The piece in question is one that Barthes himself likes – or rather “loves” if one, like Barthes, takes seriously the etymology of the word “amateur” – to play on the piano. But when Barthes plays it, he does so at a quarter of the pace of the radio broadcast. The professional musician is without a doubt “correct” in his pacing, but the piece is nevertheless lost to Barthes: “all the characteristics he had come to associate with the piece had disappeared.” Like translation, a musical recital is a repetition of an original. The French for rehearsal: répétition. The speed of the repetition changes everything.
The second story:
I think again of the woman he describes glimpsed from his window in the lecture notes on How to Live Together: the mother (or was it one of those nurses or nannies? – there are still so many of them working in the jardin du Luxumbourg) walking with her child, with her charge, in all likelihood on their way to or from home from the park, pushing the empty buggy out in front of her, while holding the little boy by the hand, while walking at her own pace, too fast for the small boy. […] An image briefly described, but one that Barthes insists is central – crystallizing – for all that he would come to think and say about rhythm and power, about the effects of imposing one rhythm on – overwriting – another.
This image turns out to be crystallizing for Briggs as much as Barthes; it is one she will evoke time and again, making a case for sensitivity to pacing, in reading and in translation. The work of translation dictates its own (slow) pace; it “demands a certain, un-condensable time with a work, and therefore, also, with the questions animating that work.” Like the little boy, it cannot be made to speed up without falling out of sync. One effect of slowing down when reading translations – slowing down to a pace closer to the pace of translation itself – is that one may begin to realize, not just to know in the abstract but to “stop and properly register,” that the work in question is twice-written, the second time by a translator. “This is a translation” each translation whispers sotto voce, a whisper that is just audible if one slows down the recording (enregistrement), slow enough to properly register…
* * *
Roland Barthes’s Collège de France seminars make for strange reading. The obvious reason is that they were not composed to be read at all. Or at least not read on the page by a general public. Lectures limn the regions between the ephemerality of speech and the permanence of writing. Far from literary bids for immortality, this kind of writing is moribund from the beginning: “A public lecture, openly offered, ventured speech, writing written for the lifespan of saying it out loud, is something that must and wants to die.” Public lectures, then, make an odd case for translation, which, as Walter Benjamin famously argued, is a way to usher in a text’s afterlife or survival [Überleben].
Kate Briggs is the translator of two of Barthes’s Collège de France seminars – How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces, and his final seminar, The Preparation for the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars at the College de France (1978–1979 and 1979–1980). These works, in translation, are kept in their lecture formats, suggestive and elliptical, notes for a discussion rather than the discussion itself. In French there now exists a new edition of La Préparation du roman based not on the lecture notes but on the recorded lectures themselves, transcriptions of the spoken that ironically seem more written than the scripted notes. Reading the Barthes seminars has many rewards, but it is heavy going and ultimately disappointing to many who have grown to love Barthes’s writerly prose. (It was Barthes, of course, who gifted literary studies with the enduring, though often challenged, distinction between styles that are lisible and scriptible, readerly, or made-for-reading, and writerly, or made-for-writing). The new edition of La Préparation du roman, taken from the oral, is oddly closer to this writerly prose. At moments of reading Briggs’s This Little Art, however, it comes to seem to me that Barthes’s translator’s reflections on the same subject matter that he broaches in the seminars is more Barthesian than either notes or transcript. These are moments of radical translation, translations that are, in the fullest sense, true (writerly) rewritings.
* * * *
So what exactly do we learn about translation from Briggs? What exactly do I, not present at Briggs’s seminars, learn from her writing?
It is not clear that Briggs intends to give lessons at all, but the ones she nonetheless conveys are certainly not meant to be universal ones; if anything, Briggs draws our attention time and again to the singularity of specific translations. The three dominant figures in This Little Art are each what Briggs calls “Lady Translators,” a deliberately “old-fashioned and unlikable and deeply condescending” phrase chosen to depict “those translators apparently at liberty to pick their projects, to follow their inclinations.” The three Lady Translators of This Little Art – Helen Lowe-Porter, Dorothy Bussy, and Briggs herself – are women who choose to translate gay men – Thomas Mann, André Gide, and Roland Barthes – in a certain (Barthesian) act of unrequited love. This Little Art is rich, full of insightful anecdote and surprising analysis. But what sticks with me, what I have learned and retained from this teacher who was never my teacher, from this book that was never a textbook, is a vivid sense of how often the normal moves of translation critique miss almost everything that is worth noting about the “little art” they seek to elucidate, especially when they forget the importance of pace, when they disregard the fact that the writing-again that is translation is also a writing-anew, and when they ignore the motivations, affect, and singularity of individual translators.
Jan Steyn is a translator and critic of literary works in Afrikaans, Dutch, English, and French. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at Cornell University where he studies and teaches contemporary world literature.