Thoughts on Reading Kate Briggs’ This Little Art

In an essay on Stendhal, Roland Barthes wrote, translated by Adam Thirlwell, of the marked difference between Stendhal’s journals and the richness of his novels: ‘What happened between the Travel Journal and The Charterhouse of Parma, is writing.’ Kate Briggs, in This Little Art asks a similar question about the idea of the art of translation and whether it would be more appropriate to consider the translator as a craftsperson or artisan, rather than an artist. Helen Lowe-Porter, after all, ‘didn’t write [The Magic Mountain], as [she] would no doubt have also been very ready to concede.’ Briggs quotes Lowe-Porter: ‘You see, the job is to some extent an artist job,’ adding ‘she refused to send a translation to the publisher until she felt as though she had written the book herself.’

My first reading of Mann’s The Magic Mountain was twelve years ago. I was late to Mann, overly influenced by Nabokov’s disdain, who considered Mann one of those ‘puffed-up writers’ that traded ‘in great ideas’. I read Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation over a couple of weeks, too quickly for I was skipping over some of the extended philosophical debates between Settembrini and Naphta. After this somewhat fierce first reading, unable to part company with the author’s voice, I immediately read the book again, taking more time to unpick not only the face offs between the liberal and the Marxist, but also the context for the rival revolutionary forces the two intellectuals represented. After following several rabbit holes, I had spent quarter of the year with Mann’s book and its related reading.

In my secondary reading around The Magic Mountain, I came across Timothy Buck’s virulent article in the TLS, in which he meticulously takes apart Lowe-Porter’s translation as ‘a pseudo-Mann’. In This Little Art, Kate Briggs reviews the debate that followed Buck’s critical evaluation. It’s worth pointing out that Buck does not advocate the later translation by John Woods, considering both debased versions of Mann’s German. Briggs approaches the debate about this, and to a lesser extent around the translation of André Gide’s novels, with less sanguine gloom, exploring the divergent conceptions of what translation should be and can be as a historical and cultural phenomenon.

As a primarily anglophone reader—my limited French will not stretch to Proust— I require a translator to meditate with The Magic Mountain and work in many other languages. Briggs quotes Barthes: ‘Of course I can read the great foreign novels translated into French, like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Don Quixote, etc,’ and adds: ‘All those novels? Yes, read them. I’ve read them. I have. Let me insist that I have read them.’

What I enjoyed most of This Little Art is the speculative voice. It gives space for me to pause in my reading and wonder if I could insist that I’ve read those books or just English translations of those books. I won’t truly be able to confidently insist that I’ve read Proust until I can read it in the French, nor The Magic Mountain in German, but if I waited to acquire those languages I’d be more like a friend who refuses to read translations, considering them to be lesser adaptions of the great novels. I am grateful to those that practise this little art for the compromises we must make to read life-changing foreign works of art.

12 thoughts on “Thoughts on Reading Kate Briggs’ This Little Art

  1. I’m very much the same – and I accept that I’m never likely to learn the languages to read this books in the original, so I’m eternally grateful to translators. I know people who say they won’t read translations and I think that’s their loss. Even if what I’m reading is a version of the original, I’m still able to experience something of the book that I couldn’t otherwise. The Briggs book is excellent and I’m with Barthes! 😀

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  2. what about Perrault , the Grimm Brothers and the like?
    a little girl who only knew Spanish and Yidish and the language of tears and fears
    How would I have ever met them?
    I love Russian authors, Olga Tokarczuk and Ludmilla Ulitskya—and I´d have never read them as I do not know a word of Russian.
    the list is so long!
    thanks to the art of translation and all my gratefulness to the ones who do them…

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  3. It seems that every time I read a discussion or article on translation, some obnoxious dweeb like Buck or Nabokov claims that all of us uni-lingual plebes have read only “debased versions” of this or that novel. What is the point of such comments?? I read The Magic Mountain in the original Lowe-Porter translation and it absolutely blew me away. If that’s debased, I’ll take it. Same goes for Constance Garnett’s translations from Russian.

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    • Debased is such a strong word. I would not go so far. But inferior in most cases, surely. (In most cases because I’ve heard the argument that Moncrieff’s interpretation of Proust is more beautiful than Proust.) But such arguments interest me only in passing as they are about style. I insist that I’ve read Proust, and Mann, and Dante, and Homer. I insist. But given an infinite amount of time and patience, would we not all read what Mann intended us to read, rather what Lowe-Porter (thankfully) gave us?

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      • I’m not even sure I’d say inferior b/c the only way to properly judge is to be fully immersed in both cultures. Sure I’d love to have infinite time and patience, but how many people can really be in that position? If I went to Germany for a year, I’d probably be able to gain at most an academic appreciation for Mann in German, as opposed to a visceral, life-changing reaction from reading Magic Mountain in English. People like Bush can analyze translations line by line and say this or that about them, but what it really comes down to is the emotional power one feels from reading an entire novel. That’s what the Bushes and Nabokovs of the world seem to misunderstand in their “more erudite than thou” eggheadedness.

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  4. WHAT A BARREN EXCHANGE THAT IS! all what has been said about “original language”
    I fully agree with Philip
    what a loss would have been not to know the works of the immortal!
    I learn English and I had to manage with French
    BUT THE RUSSIANS! The great Polish writers…the German, etc.etc
    If I had never read Shakespeare, Dostoiewsky, Kafka, Proust…my life, our lives would have been poorer, indeed…
    give me translations…I want to know the odes by the great Greeks!
    Aren´t we lucky? we have master pieces in all the languages of the world!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Lucky indeed. I would not wish to be without the translations that comprise most of my reading life. But still a little voice insists, “Take the time to learn to read Homer,” and not a translation.” There was a time before our attention became degraded when readers would want to know the originals.

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      • “take the time” makes me see a time when there stands a candle and big, huge texts, manuals near by and you, me…could make time because there was no hurry, but still,
        you must have had bread in your teeth, some coal in the stove… to sit comfortably by the candle light and toil at the translation of the Great Ones!
        in the good old times when there was no gadgets to toy with?.Sorry, English, as you are well aware. is noit my native language…

        Liked by 1 person

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