Unlike most books about translation, Kate Briggs’s This Little Art does not ask what is lost in the journey from one language to another. Rather, it turns to the reader, the translator or potential translator, and asks, what have you found in the practice of translation? As Kate puts it in this conversation, “Of all the things that you might do in a life, why do this?” Why would translation be the form that someone’s writing would wish to take, and what possibilities, what unique and private pleasures, can this desire lead to?
The result is not only a generous and wonderfully subversive re-orientation of a discourse often limited to notions of fidelity and failure, but also a celebration of translation’s embeddedness in life. Based on her own experience of translating Roland Barthes’s late lecture courses, La Préparation du Roman and Comment vivre ensemble (as The Preparation of the Novel  and How to Live Together , respectively), Kate Briggs thinks through the ‘preparation of the translation,’ the complex and ever singular interplay between a life and a (re)writing project, using everything from Barthes’s own examples of The Magic Mountain and Robinson Crusoe to aerobics classes and misheard Madonna lyrics. The stories of two women translators—Helen Lowe-Porter, who first brought Thomas Mann into English and made his reputation abroad, only to later be maligned by a new generation of critics, and Dorothy Bussy, André Gide’s devoted friend, translator, and correspondent for over thirty years—endow the book with a passion and depth of character to rival a novel. That the reader could find her heart skipping a beat at an astonishing moment in the Gide/Bussy correspondence, even as an insight into translation, quietly building for pages, suddenly bursts into her awareness, is a testament to Briggs’s skill as a writer and thinker, and—for me, at least—a reminder of the love at the heart of the word ‘philosophy.’
Kate and I first met in 2011 at the American University of Paris, where I attended her translation workshop course as a master’s student. Our conversation was conducted via Skype on October 13, 2017.
— Madeleine LaRue
I would have loved This Little Art even if I didn’t know you personally, but I do love it more because I know you—it reminds me so much of you, it is so much your book. It has this openness that you always had to translation. What I love is your refusal to start from the points that other people start from: that translation means inevitable loss, that there’s this melancholy about it, that it’s always a type of failure. You do acknowledge those things, but you don’t want to focus on them—you want to talk about the positive production of translation. Yours is a really joyful approach to translation.
Well, first, I am so pleased to hear you say this. The workshop we did together was this very important testing ground for the ideas and approaches to translation that eventually found their way into the book. And there was a degree of deliberation in the effort to approach translation from a slightly different angle, as someone for whom translation has been a long-term, challenging, but also intensely productive, formative and—yes—joyful experience. I had thought for a long time that perhaps the way I came to translation was anomalous—it was very haphazard, and perhaps a bit wrong, in that I was by no means an expert on Barthes’s work. I felt for a long time that I probably should have been more experienced or have acquired more expertise, that it should have been someone else. But then eventually I came around to thinking: well, if this is how it has been for me, perhaps I’m not the only person who’s arrived at translation or who feels about it in this way. In the book I was trying to really examine how things have been for me, and trying then to think out from there, to see what these lived realities might actually mean, for myself and for others. Rather than starting from wherever I once thought (or felt that other people thought) I should be.
It’s funny: when we talk about writing, we seem to be very willing to allow for a degree of not-knowing. We know what writing involves, practically speaking—a person at a desk, working at a computer, or on a notepad—but we also know that those practical details tell us very little about what happens or how it happens. As a translator, on the other hand… I have often felt pushed up against a received understanding of what translation involves—the sense that we all already know what this is—which, in my experience, also tends to bring with it a whole set of expectations around how translators should approach or think about their work. I really didn’t want to repeat the things I have so often read or heard said about what we should all think and feel about translation. I wanted to work out what I actually thought and felt—thoughts and feelings that are perhaps a bit more complicated and contradictory than the ‘faithful’ or ‘generous’ or ‘modest’ or even the ‘free’ and ‘boldly unfaithful’ or ‘creative’ translator-position might allow for. So there is talk in the book about dancing and sweating and childcare and table-making—I wanted to find ways of talking about the practice of translation that actually made sense to me.
I was thinking about a lot as I was reading about how, in the translation workshop, every week we would have a theme, translation as X—translation as copying, translation as refraction, translation as dépaysement—and we would work with this theme and write about it. So as I was going through your book, I was thinking, “What is this translation as?” The first one is translation as affirmation: I accept the terms under which this writing has come to me, but I also accept that I can read it and participate in it, I accept that this is a proper text and not an inferior copy.
Yes, I think that’s what the opening section is all about—as I say repeatedly, I don’t read German, and yet here is this book, which I receive as The Magic Mountain, which has become very important to me. Perhaps it is worth making clear that all the materials that I draw on, all the books that I think with in This Little Art, whether it’s The Magic Mountain or Robinson Crusoe, are the books that Barthes was also thinking with [in The Preparation of the Novel and How to Live Together]. In other words, those are the books I was reading in order to translate Barthes’s lecture notes, and so they were the ones I was also thinking with as I was thinking about the translations. But beyond that requirement to read it, The Magic Mountain was also just this extraordinary reading experience. I mean, it’s an amazing novel. Unlike Barthes, who read it in Maurice Betz’s French translation, I received it in Helen Lowe-Porter’s English, in the form of the book-object that she made. The question I wanted to open the book with was: How to make the fact of this appear? How to make translation appear when, as we all know, it is so easy to lose sight of, so easy to forget and pass over? You know that famous line from Viktor Shklovsky? Something like “art exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony”—art exists to make things unfamiliar, to de-familiarize them even if ever so slightly, so they have a chance of being registered, kind of received in all of their strange particularity. How do you make the stone stony? I was thinking about that a lot: How do I make translation thick—
How do you make translation translation-y?
Yes! Because, when you don’t speak the original language, a translation is not something you move through on your way to something else, it’s what—it’s all—you have. And for me, having only two languages (and a very small level of a third), so much of my reading life has been about encountering books in translation: this has been my reading experience. When it comes to books written in German or Italian, or Korean or whatever, I don’t have and am unlikely to ever have another experience to measure it against. So there is affirmation, absolutely—to affirm, which for me meant finding ways of ever so slightly de-familiarizing the very familiar and obvious fact that we receive these books in translation, as translations.
A propos of thinking with those books because they were the ones that Barthes was thinking with: Somehow, your book was the first one that made me feel viscerally the erotics of translation. There are a number of sections where you’re relating something that Barthes talks about in the lectures, and sometimes it’s clear that you’re quoting him, and sometimes it’s clear that you’re paraphrasing him, and then at other times it’s not clear at all whether it’s you speaking or him, or both of you speaking together, and I just loved that. Of course, this is exactly what happens in translation, though you don’t always perceive it. But when it’s done well, when the reader is made to feel the fact of this intimacy, it feels so non-possessive, so generous, so complete, the opposite of trying to wrestle Barthes’s French body into an English garment.
Oh I’m glad! It’s definitely something I was aware of playing and working with. Sometimes what you describe happens explicitly—establishing Barthes’s “I” and then slowly disinvesting him of this “I” and investing myself in that speaking or writing position. I suppose when you have a close reading relationship with a body of work, you do often start to take on the positions that you find articulated there, or you find positions there that you didn’t know you held until you saw them articulated for you, in someone else’s prose. Certainly, this is what happened and is still happening to me as I read Barthes’s late lectures. I wanted there to be places in the book where the reader would think: okay, here’s Roland Barthes, here’s this passage cited, so this is clearly what he said. But then other places where it is clear that this is what she is saying that he said…but, hang on, since this is all in English now, wasn’t that already the case? And now here she is saying the same thing again, in what appear to be her own terms, which no longer have anything to do with him. I wanted to explore the complication of all of this: what it is to take on someone else’s phrasing, the thinking formulated in sentences written by someone else, and pushing it through your own body. That’s where the dance and the aerobics come in—the idea that these are your moves that I see you make, Instructor. But now I’m doing them. Now I’m taking them on, and testing what happens when I try them. Only this time with my different sensibility and my different body, my different context and historical moment, my different rhythm even... What happens? It’s something we were always exploring in the translation workshop, which was all about testing: what would happen if we were to do this? This seems to me a way of getting at the experimentalism I think is inherent in every act of translation: what it is to re-do something ourselves, to re-make some gesture, re-write some sentence, without knowing—without having any real way of knowing in advance—what will happen when we do.
With Barthes, when it came trying on his positions, his poses or figures—thinking here of what he says in the introduction to Fragments d’un discours amoureux, about the figure, understood in terms of those briefly held figures or shapes that gymnasts make, or ice-skaters—the question was always: How long can I hold it for? Before the pose collapses on me, or for me—or I collapse it?
I love it that you received all of this in terms of erotics. It is erotic. Certainly, it’s exciting. It gets me excited! Because it involves closeness, and responsiveness but also difference, and distance, a good deal of fantasy…
The book has such an elegant structure; there are so many different stories and threads that end up coming together and interacting productively, even as each one on its own feels whole and intact. And I guess—because a lot of these works came to you via Barthes, and yet you chose them for yourself too, as the works with which to think through these problems—I’d like to know about this boundary. Where does Barthes’s engagement stop and yours begin? Especially with regard to Helen Lowe-Porter and Dorothy Bussy, because these are both such moving stories—
I was very touched when you first wrote to me about the book and the prospect of doing an interview. You had singled out this one extraordinary line and moment in the Gide-Bussy correspondence—because I was the same! When I first read it—or came to it, as it comes very late in the selected correspondence, I was like … well, I think I had to put the book down and walk around the room for a bit. Your question is a tricky one. It reminds me of something that Daniel Hahn asked me when we were in conversation recently [at the book’s London launch], about my decisions, my selections and interventions—what I think he called the originality in the making of this book—and it stumped me a bit at the time. It’s true that, while I receive these materials from Barthes in a certain way, he is not at all interested in Helen Lowe-Porter (why would he be? he read the book in French) or in Dorothy Bussy. In fact, the Gide book that I read for the purposes of translating Comment vivre ensemble is not one that Bussy ever translated.¹ So while these stories are ones I initially came to through the project of translating Barthes, in many ways they extend and overreach that project; they can and should be considered on their own terms. I chose them, it’s true—and I chose to find out more and then to write about them. Which I think is a small indication of what a translation project can do for the translator: translating a book is never simply translating the words in a book, as if a book were this discrete, bounded object. It is an occasion for writing, for reading, for talking to other people, for researching, for living. For learning, basically.
Sort of in parentheses, on the Gide-Bussy story: I once tried writing about that before. I published an academic article on their correspondence.² And when I finished that article, although it does already contain some of the thinking and the material that ended up in This Little Art, I remember feeling like I’d killed it, this story I was trying to re-tell. I’d killed it by trying to make it do or stand in for something else. I was trying to use it as an example as a way of saying something broader about translation in general, even though the basic argument of the article was to say: look how complicated it is to talk about translation in general, when this correspondence shows us that each translation-relation is each time so singular and so specific. And so I had this ongoing worry when dealing with the Lowe-Porter and the Bussy material in the book. Here were these stories that had come to me via the experience of translating Barthes. But what is it to take those stories and try to make them speak to me and my experience? How do I balance what I want them to do for me in terms of my own thinking while also doing justice and giving room to them, to their projects and their thinking, which won’t always or necessarily chime with mine? And one way I found of managing this, or at least one conclusion I came to as I tried to manage it, is that everything has to do with pacing. There’s a refrain in the book which says: hold on, too fast, too fast, slow down. Sometimes it is very important to go fast, to skip and gallop from idea to idea, I know. But with Gide and Bussy, I found that I really wanted to—well, if you were to read the correspondence, you’d be reading an account of a friendship which went on for over thirty years, and they age, they get older, many different things happen. The moment that moved us both comes towards the very end. So the reason why I wanted to move in and out of that story, the reason why it gets interrupted and delayed, was I wanted to pace it in such a way that when you do finally get there as a reader, you have at least a chance of really thinking it and really feeling it.
Which is so novelistic!
Yes! And related, too, to this project of making translation translation-y. I was aware of trying to make arguments in such a way, or trying to talk about ideas in such a way that when you encounter them, you have a chance of feeling them. Because when an idea grabs me, when I receive it as true or as not true, convincing or unconvincing, I get excited, or angered, or disappointed. Which reminds a bit me of teaching. I remember a few times in our workshop when I’d try saying something, proposing something, some complication around translation that I’d been thinking about for a really long time, and I’d stage it like a revelation. I’d say: “I think it’s like this!” And I’d get so disappointed when the students would come back with: “Yeah, yeah, of course.” Or: “Yeah, yeah, we get it.” I’d think: really? Already? No, no, surely that’s too quick? Too fast? Come on, let’s go back, let’s find a longer way round of arriving at that point, let’s pace our arrival, delay it… I’m not proposing this as an effective teaching strategy! The point is, or the conclusion I’ve come to, is that argumentation—or even just thinking, thinking through and receiving the force of certain ideas—is all about pacing, timing. I wanted to write a book which would be quite explicit about trying to think through something—a question or set of questions—over time, and sort of with time. Which, not incidentally, is what Barthes was also doing in his lecture course, especially the last course on the novel: using the weekly sessions, and the gaps between them, staging this unfolding of a research inquiry, whose ending was by no means given in advance...
But to come back to your question about these stories: I remember reading the TLS article which criticizes the Lowe-Porter translations³ and thinking: Of course, I can see, terrible translation, how dare she! I remember getting transported by the argument, and thinking of course you shouldn’t have that many misphrasings, of course you shouldn’t have that many inaccuracies. I wouldn’t want that of my translations. If someone were to publish an article like this about one of my translations, I’d probably be devastated. But the way in which Buck was discrediting her work, the terms he uses… they really stayed with me. Eventually I came around to thinking—well, perhaps they describe me? And in which case, perhaps I should, perhaps I have to, accept them? And what would happen if I did? Her audacity—one of his criticisms is that she was unaware of or unwilling to accept her own limitations. And I remember thinking: yes, that’s exactly it! When you take on a translation of a work by a writer you admire, or even one you don’t, you’re translating something that you wouldn’t be capable of writing. So it’s precisely all about transcending your own limitations. It’s precisely all about not already having the requisite expertise in place before taking it on. Hence the particular structure of the book. Once I had decided to accept those terms at the end of the first section, to claim them as my own, the next question was: how do I take them seriously?
This seems to have so much to do with the dynamic we see recurring between these translators and their writers. Helen Lowe-Porter and Thomas Mann, Dorothy Bussy and André Gide, and then you and Roland Barthes—we have three women translators who are all brilliant, but who all find that their legitimacy is challenged either by outside forces (critics, publishers, the authors themselves) or by internal doubt. Their right to translate these genius gay male writers is constantly being questioned and scrutinized. You mention an instance of someone asking you whether you felt excluded by Barthes’s fantasies of an alternative sort of society in Comment vivre ensemble, since they seemed to be so resolutely male, as if your identification with his thought, his vision for this other possible life was somehow suspect or flawed. So in all three cases, we can tell that there’s a relationship of love, and yet the translators all experience a feeling of inadequacy or uncertainty at some stage—even as they rebel and say, No, I feel I have written this book myself. Dorothy Bussy says to André Gide, you feel that you can impersonate a woman’s voice, why shouldn’t I be able to impersonate a man’s?
That’s another really powerful moment in their correspondence.
Yes! They—you—insist on this right to identification, which of course Barthes himself also talks about.
It’s very important to me that these are all women translators, and I am fascinated by the dynamic you describe. I’ve sometimes spoken glibly to people about being somehow in love with Barthes’s late lectures. Because: what does that mean? What does it mean to ground a translation practice in love for a work, for a figure, for a myth, for someone I didn’t and can’t know? I well might say to you: I love this course on the novel. I find it extraordinary. I love these pedagogical moves that he makes, opening a private fantasy up to others, making a singly-authored, monological project at least potentially collaborative and dialogical. I love that Barthes himself is so uncertain—that his project might well fail, and in some ways it did fail (in that he never produced the Novel with a capital N) and I love how that real possibility was built into the very premise of the lecture course. I haven’t stopped thinking about Barthes’s course on the novel, and I marvel at it, and I guess I would describe it as love. But—who cares? Who cares how I feel about it, when it comes to making a translation? And why should they? When a translation should, of course, also facilitate someone else’s reading experience, someone else’s engagement with or rejection of that work? These are some of the questions I try to think through in the book. I was drawn to Lowe-Porter and Bussy because they, too, in in different ways, ground their authority and legitimacy as translators in their feelings for the work and the person who wrote it. While also taking into account the fact that something like an affective grounding for a translation project, whether in like or dislike, is very far from the norm—it is a privileged, uncommon position to be able to translate out of feeling. Hence the term ‘lady translators,’ which I coin and try to semi-embrace. As you point out, there’s also the fact that these translators are, like you and me, women. There has been great deal of important work on this by feminists working in the field of translator studies: the fact that translation has so often been seen and described as this kind of service, as a second-order, derivative but also necessary and therefore—that therefore, please hear that therefore with a big question mark after it—a kind of feminized practice, as this thing that gets done quietly and invisibly and graciously at home, like the washing.
The translator as humble helpmeet?
Yes, helpful and selfless. This sense that translation can’t be about ego, or about intellectual ambition or intervention or argument or audacity. But what I like about the deeply ambivalent—and actually quite horrible, certainly off-putting—term ‘lady translator’ is that it also says something about amateurism, and about leisure, about having the time to devote oneself to translations, and so also about privilege. This comes back to trying to look honestly at how things have been for me. On the one hand, translation has been a domestic, low-paid, relatively invisible practice. It has been a way of continuing to read and write while at home with a baby, without—at that point—any institutional affiliation. One of the reasons why my kids appear very briefly at different points in the book, and that Helen Lowe-Porter’s children appear—she was translating, as she puts it, with a cradle in the next room—is to affirm that yes, these have been the conditions of translation, and for many of us they continue to be.
This is also part of the emphasis you place on specificity and non-immobility, acknowledging everyone’s circumstances, how embedded the translation is in an individual life.
Yes, I wanted to try to attend to, to acknowledge the circumstances in which thinking happens, the places where reading happens, where writing happens, where and how knowledge gets shared and produced. We have these spaces that authorize and legitimize serious thinking: the seminar room in the university, the conference, the translation workshop, the library, and so on. But—this is a topic of conversation I have ongoing with my friend Daniela Cascella, whose new book Singed is in some ways all about this—those are clearly not the only spaces. I was thinking about how to translate Barthes’s sentences while also walking around the city park with my son, while playing Lego, while having a conversation with a friend about something else entirely. I wanted to let those other spaces of and occasions for serious thinking in. At the same time, it was very important to me not to be disingenuous about my position. These were my circumstances, and tricky in many ways, because I was doing it from home, and trying also to look after my small sons, and trying to find the requisite concentration. But, then again, I am so lucky: if I have been materially enabled to work from home (and I really like working from home!), to engage in such a low-paid, and for a long time undervalued activity, it is because I have a partner who was basically supporting us all and supporting this practice; it is because I am of a middle-class who has never known what it is like to be truly poor. What’s more, if I was undertaking these translations in particular, translations of a well-known thinker and writer, for a prestigious university press, then in the mix with what earlier I called ‘love’ there was, surely, a degree of calculation—a kind of speculation on the cultural capital that might eventually come my way from the fact of having done this. And in fact it was my translation work that led to the invitation to come and teach you! My point being: all of this is true, all of these different levels of circumstance and motivation can be true, at the same time, and within the same translator. Hence the resistance to the characterization of the translator as straightforwardly selfless and generous, which seems to me so simplistic. There are all of these different forces in play: I’m instrumentalizing my translation activity, yes, I’m also in service to the work and the author I’m translating, yes, I’m enabling his work to be read at all in this new context, I’m undervalued and overlooked, I’m invisible—which is still true. I find it extraordinary how often the labor of translation still gets passed over, unremarked, uncited, even by the most switched-on, the most astute and sensitive of our thinkers and writers, so attuned to so many other dynamics and asymmetries and realities, but not this one, it seems. Just look at the practices of citation—it’s as if this one didn’t really matter. I’m often invisible, but I’m also powerful—I’m all of these things at the same time.
You quote Spivak as saying that working with someone else’s title is one of the seductions of translating and so, as an exercise for myself—if you’ll forgive me—I took the liberty of thinking up alternative titles for your book. The first one is obviously La Préparation de la Traduction—
Oh, very nice!
—because just as Barthes is asking under what circumstances, what kind of life can lead you to write a novel, you’re also asking what kind of life, what circumstances can lead you to write a translation.
Yeah! That’s wonderfully insightful—yeah, I’ll go with that!
And the other one, which leads into my next question, is Translation: A Lover’s Discourse. We’ve been talking about what it means to ground one’s practice, at least partly, in feeling. But also, since A Lover’s Discourse is written in fragments, I wanted to ask about the format of the book. The way it’s laid out on the page is so lovely. I like the strange page breaks, how sometimes there’s only one sentence on an entire page. All this open space seems to resonate with other things you talk about—like, how do you show that the dragons in a children’s book are speaking Dragonese? Is it enough to print the Dragonese bits in a different font? Or, this is a haiku, so it needs to have a halo of empty space around it. It feels like the physical structure of the book, the actual layout, re-enforces a lot of what you say, and I was wondering whether it was like that from the beginning or something you integrated later?
Well, for a long time I had this project of writing a book about translation. But the problem was: writing about translation means, or can mean, writing about everything. Or potentially everything. I know you know what I mean! Translation is the whole world and everything and everybody and every language in it, and also it’s the whole world in relation to all the other planets, it’s geometry too, it’s mathematics, it’s metaphor, it’s communication, it’s repetition, it’s relationality, it’s eating and it’s like, argh! How do I make a path through this?
One way of trying to narrow it down was through the selection of my materials—I thought, well, I’ll write with what I have near me, the materials at hand (at my hands). But I also found, as a way of getting over the anxiety of producing long-form argument, it useful—this might sound silly—to increase the margins on my Word document to the biggest possible size. Which made quite a small space to write in at the center of each page. And I found that really enabling: the smaller space, but also to start thinking of each small page as its own unit. (At the time, I wasn’t particularly, or consciously, thinking about Barthes’s experiments with the paragraph, but of course they must have been there in the background.) Once I had started thinking about each page as operating on its own terms, I thought: well, perhaps I can use the turn of the page as a way of introducing energy, or momentum, or pause, or suspense. I liked the idea of this space-pause between one page and another, how long it takes someone to read and then … turn … opening up a pause for thinking. A space and another bit of time to think with me. These were discoveries for me, but though clearly the poets have been working with these possibilities for centuries! But the invitation of the book, materially as well as in terms of content, I hope, is to say: these are the questions I have been thinking about for a long time, and here is a space in which, here is a device with which I’d like to invite you to think about them with me.
For me, it induces in a very pleasant way a kind of reading as stammering. You do talk about stammering at several points in the book—a positive type of stammering, of accumulation. One thing, and then another thing, which is slightly different, but still part of what came before it.
There’s a really beautiful thing that Barthes says in Fragments d’un discours amoureux—I quote it in the book, in Richard Howard’s translation—where he says, “What if I were to think of you as a force?”
Yeah, this is so lovely.
And what if I were to think of myself as a force confronting, or being moved by, being pushed by or pushing back on your force. Barthes’s work has such force for me, as do the Lowe-Porter and Bussy stories. But they have different qualities—their forces or energies. So in the sequencing of this, in the composition of the book—in a way, it was also a bit like dancing. What moves can I make? There was something about bringing you in relation to you and then to me on the page, or across two pages…
You do have a very visual sense of translation. I remember in the workshop, we were always cutting things apart and taping them together and covering the walls with gigantic erasures. And this interest in seeing texts move through space seems to endure in the book, too—you re-arrange things and repeat things and physically juxtapose parts of text with others, and you ask how you can, typographically, make translation translation-y, whether by printing “TRANSLATED FROM THE GERMAN” on the title page or by putting all the Dragonese into Adobe Gothic. And, going back to the layout, the placement of your words on the page does something to their meaning, often introducing some element of humor, which I love, because that’s often so absent from translation discourse. Translation is so often made out to be this very serious thing, and your book is so funny!
Oh good! Ha! I’m glad!
The sequence where you borrow this idea of plugging ‘translation’ into dictionary definitions for ‘table,’ for example. You turn a page and suddenly you see, “If to translate is to table, then this means to submit for consideration, to purpose, as well as to suspend consideration indefinitely.” Amazing.
Or I like “waiting translations,” like you would wait tables, as a low-paid (but advantageously flexible!) way of earning a living.
I think perhaps the humor relates to, or is a kind of reaction against, my early training as an academic. When I was younger, I would set myself the exercise of trying to simulate the discourses of others in order to sound authoritative. I tried to write like the writers I admired or the tutors I’d had, I tried very hard to imitate their habits and their ticks and their transitions. I tried very hard to write with objectivity and authority, as if the one automatically produced the other. Perhaps it’s relevant that I had this metaphor for myself as I was writing the book. I found it very useful to think of the book as a house. I recently read Anne Carson say: “If prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it.” Amazing. Maybe I had that in mind?! Anyway, I remember thinking: so, this book has been a long time coming, this has been at least a decade of practice and reflection. Now that I’m actually, finally writing it, now that I’m building this house, of course I want you to come into it. I want you, readers, to feel welcome in my house. But at the same time—it’s kind of my house, you know? And in my house, well, surely that’s the one place where I can do what I want. So it’s my choice of music. My food. My energy. My fire! In my house, I can be myself. I give myself permission to be myself. Or, more accurately, I give myself to perform, in writing, some of the ways of being some of the different selves that make up what I presume to call myself. And so: the story of my son [mishearing Madonna lyrics and] singing “Poppadum peach!” through the wall. Which is a true story, and it’s silly and it made me laugh, but it also gave me pause. I thought about for a long time afterwards. It was part of life and, for that reason, I take it seriously. To come back to the point I made earlier, about how and where serious thinking happens, we think with our lives as much as we do with our books or podcasts or whatever. So the story I found it helpful to tell myself as I was writing was something like: Please come in, please stay with me, I’m working very hard to try to keep you in here with me in my house, reader, but also—does this sound really presumptuous as a strategy?
Not at all! It sounds very generous.
Okay, good. So, to complete the sentence: but also, I reserve the right to do what I want. To write with what matters to me. I’m very aware of the poses and the postures of what typically gets received as serious or authoritative thinking—I’ve seen—I think we all see a lot of that. But none of them are inevitable, I don’t think: writing with objectivity, with lucidity, with erudition, with detachment, with warmth, with humor, with anger. These are all rhetorical decisions. Not one of them is inevitable, all can be powerful and effective. But in my own house…well, how do I speak? In this book I’m writing, over time, editing and revising, how do I want to speak? Part of the project was to say: look, this is also ‘proper’ or ‘serious’ thinking, this is also what it looks like and where it takes place. It can look like a description of an aerobics class. It can look like an anecdote from my home life, my family life.
That feels very related to the gender question. Since academic discourse, historically, has largely been shaped by men, it still often has a preference for styles and techniques that are culturally coded male—you’ve alluded to this preference for what looks like logical objectivity, for example, as opposed to the subjective or the anecdotal.
And as opposed to being in your body! To being in a body—
That dances, sometimes poorly—
And sweats! So that also feels like a way to claim an exciting, different, productive space for writing voices.
None of this, I don’t think, is unrelated to Barthes’s own work and ongoing legacy. I think one of the reasons why Barthes is still being read and taken so seriously by so many of the exciting thinkers and writers we have today—he’s is very important to Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts, for instance, but also for Brian Dillon in Essayism, his book on the essay as a form and on essayism a kind of mode of being in the world, or in Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies—I think the reason why Barthes feels so relevant and so very contemporary is because what we’re describing, the fact of being in a body that thinks and feels and lets you down, in a body that can embarrass you as much as it can support you, a body that thinks and feels and ages—all of that is there in his work. Well, not all of it. Your question is about gender, and his is a male body of course: a white male body. My kind of body, our kind of bodies, don’t very often figure in his work. There’s that extraordinary line from the Mourning Diary, “You have never known a Woman’s body!” And then, in Howard’s translation, the response: “I have known the body of my mother, sick and then dying.” It’s very powerful. In my book, I take up the image of a walking woman, walking with her child and her empty pushchair, who Barthes glimpses from his window and who I try to claim as—well, me. I worry about how presumptuous it sounds to say: I’m going to take on the lessons of Roland Barthes, I’m going to write into his lessons, take this glimpsed woman and occupy her position for a while, pause on the street and look back up. But this is what he was inviting his students to do. At least, in a certain way he was. The invitation was to take on his questions, to push at them, to fill in the squares that he claims to have been merely sketching out, contouring. Also, to take on his mode of questioning, of phrasing questions, running the risk of speaking from lived experience. This is how I saw my practice of translation: as a way of taking the lecture course so long after the fact, as a way of being a conscientious student of that work. And to take that role seriously meant, to me, not just describing or speaking to but also finding ways of extending some of his lessons… Of course I’m not Roland Barthes, am nothing like Roland Barthes, and he’s nothing like me. So how then do I arrive at a place where I can give myself permission, or where it makes sense to me, nevertheless, to put what I have received from him into different practice in my own work?
Taking on each one of a text’s, or an idea’s, risks, as you put it in the book.
The risk is in trying it out. Translation is one powerful way of trying out an idea, a position, a way of writing, a mode of address. That’s where the amateurishness and the aerobics come in—it is about trying these moves out, and running the risk that one might get them terribly, colossally wrong. Perhaps it won’t be funny when I try it, only embarrassing. Perhaps this story I’m telling won’t speak to anyone else, perhaps it will only be solipsistic and self-indulgent. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood, misheard. One could always get it terribly wrong, of course, in writing as in translation. One could even do harm…
Do you think this is why someone might care whether you love the text or not? You don’t take on those risks with as much abandon unless you love it?
Possibly, yes. It’s an interesting question because you do read about other translators—brilliant translators—who purposefully don’t read what they’re translating before they embark on it. So there the whole question of having an established relationship with a work feels entirely moot. Then again, perhaps we could push this a bit further and ask: why would these translators receive and agree to undertake that project in the first place? Surely there must already be something about the aura of the work, the cultural capital it has accrued that is drawing them to it? Because it is an extraordinary risk, I think, to take on two hundred pages, to make a promise to translate them without knowing what or who you’re going to be spending time with. Then again, as we both know, and this is something I try to stress in the book, the exercise of translation just is interesting. It is interesting in and of itself. Whether you care about the book or not, whether you like it or not, whether you think it’s well written or not, translation—as a kind of site of inquiry—produces its own fascinations. There is something inherently fascinating about trying to take that sentence and make it again in a different language—the way that does things, produces new questions, new knowledge, even. There’s something about that process, integral to that process, which creates a space for interest and learning and possibility regardless of what you’re translating.
I like this, too, as a central question of the book: What do I get out of translating? Why is this the form that my writing often wants to take? This seems like an important re-orientation of the discussion around translation.
Yes, that is definitely the central question: Why do translations? So often, the answer to that question, the one we hear all the time is: because they’re necessary, the world needs them, because translation a good thing to do. Brilliant. Yes. We need translations, of course we do, perhaps now more than ever. But a different, and to my mind equally important question has to be: okay, but why would you write a translation? Of all the things that you might do in a life, why do this? Especially when—clearly this has radically changed even since we first met five years ago, in terms of the new visibility and celebration of translators in our current moment—but even with these fantastic changes, there’s still a question of why, for instance, translate a novel rather than write one? And I don’t feel like the answer that says, “because it’s a good thing to do” is adequate. I don’t want to play down those motives of generosity to or engagement with the world, clearly. But they don’t account for everything. I don’t think they’re necessarily reason enough to invite more people to do more translation. Which is absolutely my ambition in the book, to say: look, perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you, monolingual person, to do a translation, but you could. I really think you could. Perhaps even you should? Perhaps translation, the writing of translations, amateurishly, is an activity available to all of us—this is one of the propositions of the book: one that could be productive for more of us, to engage with at one time or another.
I think it’s absolutely okay to ask: What are the more selfish, the more private pleasures that might encourage an individual to engage with translation, beyond the broader project of what a translation does for others? And to engage with it over a period of time, because translation does take a long time? Certainly, for me, it was never about doing it for the world, particularly. I was translating a canonized writer, whose reputation was established. There was no intervention with my translations—not in the way that I see other translators consciously engaged in translation as a form of language activism. It was important in the book to point that out, because doing so then allowed me to ask what to my mind is a crucial question, as important for the translation activist as it is for the solipsistic translator as it is for the would-be translator: So what is it then? If not in giving something to the world, where else might we find the interests, the fascinations, the trouble in and with writing translations? And how to describe—to affirm them?
Are you working on a translation at the moment?
Yes, in a way. I have this ongoing project that I keep picking up and putting down, which is a retranslation of Émile Zola’s manifesto Le roman expérimental. I’m very interested in this term ‘experimental,’ in what our investments might be in the term when it is applied to writing—basically, in what we mean when we talk about ‘experimental’ writing, whether we know even! And whether this has anything at all to do with what Zola meant. I’m also interested in what a new translation of that text might do now—in what kinds of conversations I could start, by way of a translation. But actually, I’m not sure if I would call it a translation: translation is one of the writing processes I’m using, but by no means the only one. Funnily enough, when I did the talk with Daniel Hahn, I found myself saying out loud that I’d always hope to have a translation project going alongside my other writing projects. Afterwards, Jacques Testard, my editor at Fitzcarraldo Editions, was like, “Really? I’ve never heard you say that before!” It’s true, when I was first discussing this book with Jacques I was very keen on stressing my writing projects that don’t involve translation, or not in such a direct and obvious way. I’ve started work on a new essay, for example, a long essay about the novel, and so also about duration and interruption, which I might end up calling a novel—we’ll see. But on reflection I think I would hold to what I said out loud. I think I would always want to have a translation project on the go in one way or another. I find it very productive to have translation as part of life—as a part of what I do in my life. I’ve never translated a novel, for example. In the Barthes translations, there are elements that are novelistic, but yes… that’s something I’d very much like to do.
Kate Briggs is the translator of two volumes of Roland Barthes’s lecture and seminar notes at the Collège de France: The Preparation of the Novel and How to Live Together, both published by Columbia University Press. She teaches at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam.
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity for Music & Literature. She lives in Berlin.
¹ Judge Not was translated by Benjamin Ivry and came out in 2010.
² Kate Briggs, “What we talk about when we talk about translation: The Gide/Bussy correspondence,” Translation Studies 5, no. 1 (2012): 64–77.
³ Timothy Buck, “Neither the Letter nor the Spirit,” TLS, October 13, 1995.