Kate Briggs, “This Little Art”

It’s an exciting moment for new books on literary translation. One I read with special pleasure recently was Karen Emmerich’s Literary Translation and the Making of Originals, which argues clearly and cogently something that everyone in the field has no doubt viscerally felt but perhaps never articulated: that virtually every discourse of translation studies is predicated to a greater or lesser extent on the assumption that we know what an “original” is and can define it as a stable entity. The notion of stability is deeply embedded in the vast majority of our metaphors for discussing translation as transfer, and this book – by putting that stability in question – radically unsettles the field while at the same time opening up immediately compelling possibilities for new readings and understandings of the manifold, multifaceted relationship(s) between translation(s) (necessarily understood as inherently plural) and the shifting linguistic field that contains and comprises them (itself always in flux). She also teaches us new things about Gilgamesh, Greek folk songs, Emily Dickinson, Cavafy, and Jack Spicer. That was a great read.

And then this spring I picked up the new book This Little Art by Kate Briggs, a fascinating meditation on the art of translation that brilliantly intertwines threads plucked both from the world of books and ideas (particularly Roland Barthes, whom Briggs has translated) and the fabric of real life – the experience of attending an exercise class in Paris, issues of childrearing, and, yes, wrestling with translation problems. Delving into Thomas Mann, Briggs reexamines the work of Mann’s much-disparaged first English translator, Helen Lowe-Porter, finding much richer contributions to the development of the translator’s art than Lowe-Porter is generally given credit for. In challenging us to complicate our thinking about translation, Briggs’s book-length essai gains in depth on virtually every page, exploring all the different ways texts grow, expand, and shift in translation as new webs of association are woven in their new linguistic and cultural contexts. Her book is the perfect companion piece to Emmerich’s: two different approaches that both, with satisfying clarity, invite us to augment our thinking about what translation is and how it works.

I picked up Briggs’s book again three weeks ago when the The New York Times Book Review published a shockingly dismissive review of it by a reviewer who I’m not sure even read the book. The NYTBR editors must have had their doubts too, since they included Briggs’s book on a list of recommended new titles in the very next issue. If you’re interested, you can read the letter that a handful of colleagues and I co-authored in response to the review. Or just pick up Briggs’ book, and Emmerich’s, head to a beach or park or wherever you like to do your summertime reading, and enjoy!

A third recently-out title that belongs on this list is Mark Polizzotti’s Sympathy for the Traitor, which I very much look forward to picking up after I’ve read my way out from under the big juicy pile of National Book Award submissions (so many fantastic books in there!) currently impeding movement in the hallway of my apartment. Longlist forthcoming in mid-September.

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  1. Denise says:

    Thank you for doing that for Brigg’s book, which I also found wonderfully refreshing! I keep recommending it to everyone I know!

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