About Anthony

Time's Flow Stemmed is a notebook of my wild readings.

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.

Genre no longer interests me. . .

Quote

“Genre no longer interests me. What interests me is mystery. Is there some ritual attached to mystery? I believe there is. In order to adhere to the certainty of things. Meanwhile, I somehow already adhere to the earth. I am a daughter of nature: I want to hold things, feel them, touch them, I want to exist. And this is all part of a totality, of a mystery. I am but one being. But there was a difference between the writer and me (or am I wrong? I cannot be certain). But no longer. I am but one being. And I leave you to be yourself. Does that frighten you? I believe it does. But it is worthwhile. Even if it hurts. For the pain soon passes.”

Clarice Lispector, Words From the Typewriter

The march toward old age. . .

Quote

“The march toward old age, and let’s say it plainly, toward death, continues to provide unimaginable surprises, as if everything were an invention, a spectacle in which I am both actor and audience, and in which the scenes are characterised quite often by their parodic quality, like a laughable but also harsh theatrical illusion.”

Sergio Pitol, The Art of Flight

I became a particle of light myself. . .

Quote

“As I crouched on the pavement now, looking down at the stagnant green water, I could picture as in a dream or a film that spot as it had appeared back then, some fifteen years earlier: a spot clad in flowers and fruit trees, where the sunshine seemed to have congealed. It was bright and tranquil, disquietingly so. That was the sight that presented itself just beyond the historic old gate, as one stepped under it out of the avenue’s din of tramways and traffic. I used to think that I must never tell anybody about this discovery of mine. No one else must know about this place that made me yearn to dissolve until I became a particle of light myself. The way that light cohered in one place was unearthly. I gazed at its stillness without every going in through the gate.”

Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light

Franz Kafka’s letters. . .

Quote

“But I still can’t comprehend it. Why did I get up back then and, only half-awake, walk over to the bookshelves? Why did I pull out the volume with Franz Kafka’s letters, which revived the moment of my birth in me, and everything else? No, for as long as I can stand it I won’t read any more, for as long as even the shadow of a memory brushes me as I walk past the shelf with his books I won’t take out another volume, I won’t open another page. And this shadow will brush me for as long as I’m still breathing and see the books standing there. No, I won’t read any more. For as long as I’m still breathing, I won’t keep on reading. One thing or the other.”

Ilse Aichinger, Breathing as an Imposition