Taking a Little Art into Your Own Hands
by Dawson F. Campbell
The unwritten question in reading Briggs’ final two chapters together is How should we judge translations with tact? How do we handle a polyphony of readings? Especially when this chorus of possibles must be resolved into a single rendering? This question is implicit where, in the penultimate chapter, Briggs begins a short section on criticism by suggesting how we ought not to judge translations...
The little art: the craft of translation as dubbed by Helen Lowe-Porter; as written by Kate Briggs, a book on that craft: This Little Art (2017). Briggs (author, translator, teacher) made waves on the literary scene with her deep, erudite, and often eccentric meditation on the art of translation—how she experiences it, how others have too. These waves ripple to this day, as evidenced by her award from the Windham Campbell Prizes which calls attention to her “brilliant first book [that]… defies categorization.” Taking up—and in many ways reinventing—the form of the long essay, Briggs considers her relationship with translation through the experience of rendering into English Roland Barthes’ own relationship to reading and writing in his lecture notes for The Preparation of the Novel; but she also writes as a reader of translations, reflecting on the books that have deeply affected her and on other women’s relationships to their own readings and translations, namely Helen Lowe-Porter and her translation of Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain, etc.) or Dorothy Bussy and her translation of André Gide (The Counterfeiters, etc.). In the last chapter of her book, Briggs pays special attention to Barthes’ concept of “délicatesse”—which has been rendered before her as “tact” in the English translation of Le neutre by Rosalind Krauss and Denis Hollier—as a way to conduct her thinking. Taking her musings as a point of departure, we might use Briggs’ work to think about thinking and writing about translations—that is, judging them and eventually writing translation criticism—with tact. We may come to consider how tactfully making and thinking about translations effectively opens literature to an ever-unfolding, ever-burgeoning transtextual network—a text that is perhaps not new per se, but is always opening to different and original literary horizons.
Tact: “an attentiveness to difference, an effort made to not treat all things in the same way; ‘active protests’ or ‘unexpected parryings’ against the all-purpose explanation” (Briggs 312).
Briggs often conveys her thoughts through images and anecdotes which, through what we stress to be a process of thinking and writing, morph into unconventional metaphors for translation. For example, Barthes, by way of Briggs, contemplates the ancient art of floriculture from the Tang and Sung dynasties. This excursus climaxes in the revelation that each flower was prescribed its own unique gardener—a handsome maid in full costume was charged with the peony, the winter plum was to be nurtured by a pale, slender monk: “To each flower its own special attendant” (Briggs 328). Does providing each flower with a different and specific caretaker, however, amount to tact? Or again, would each winter plum blossom for another attendant? In the last budding of this metaphor, Briggs suggests that no, tact requires the translator to act within the “unsystematizable, [the] unparadigmatizable” (Briggs 332). The translator, for Briggs, pays a special and personal attention to her flowers—even if she is not the so-called and ever-allusive preferred translator, the ostensibly preordained and special patron of any particular text. This thinking is a kind of response to Antoine Berman’s diagnosis of translation in his introductory essay to L’Épreuve de l’étranger, “La Traduction au manifeste,” where he describes the ambivalent position of the translator: “He considers himself a writer but is only ever a re-writer. He is an author—and never The Author. His work as translator is a work, but never The Work” (Berman 18-19; my translation). Briggs protests against this very ambivalence, this anxiety of deviation: the translator will—cannot help but—be different than the author. A protest, therefore, against an anxiety of identity as well: Briggs recommends that the translator be herself and treat the work authentically, as she reads it (because reading always comes before writing, as Barthes so memorably shows.)
A second Barthes anecdote—this time listening to a movement of Bach for harpsichord on the radio (a rendering that, according to Briggs, Barthes disliked as it was too far removed from his personal feelings toward the movement, developed through hours of practice at his piano). Seven pages later, Briggs takes up that thread again and weaves it into a kindred sentiment: how translators feel a strong affinity to the texts they rewrite. She observes that
[…] translations are… produced from a reader’s felt relationship to a piece of writing, her enthusiasm for it… translation as a practice is a way for such a reader to add, attach, append herself (actively, ongoingly) to that writing by writing it herself and, in so doing, for her to change it, distort it precisely because what she has made is not it but something else (something new) that is now set in relation to it but might very well come to be read as it. (Briggs 138)
What can often be painted as a monochromatic, dry, objective, and almost algorithmic transfer from one language to another is here given life, painted in the technicolour of feeling. Briggs rejects the idea of an objective translation, a “correct” translation. She suggests instead that what is (re)produced is not what was, but instead becomes—it cannot help but become—something new in surprising ways; something personal that exists in dialogue with its previous and new contexts in space and time; the product of a subtle relationship that remains “in relation” to the author and his translators’ own reading(s). To translate with tact, then, is to translate without expecting to write the same book (à la Pierre Menard). Rather than being a futile attempt at a Nietzschean eternal return, translation is a proliferation of difference, and not simply in terms of saying the same thing in other words, in a different tongue, but as a natural sort of distortion—in a way that is just as much metamorphosis as it is metaphor. The tactful translator understands and embraces that all she can do is write the source through herself, write her reading experience in all its difference and singularity—something the tactful reader must also come to accept when they are tempted to read it, the translation, as it, the source.
The unwritten question in reading Briggs’ final two chapters together is How should we judge translations with tact? How do we handle a polyphony of readings? Especially when this chorus of possibles must be resolved into a single rendering? This question is implicit where, in the penultimate chapter, Briggs begins a short section on criticism by suggesting how we ought not to judge translations. We should not judge translations by picking out perceived mistakes and suggesting alternatives, suggesting personal preferences, personal readings that are thus divorced from the task at hand, namely, to write about another’s transcribed reading. Rather, Briggs, after Lowe-Porter’s request that the translation critic look to the whole, suggests that “we owe translators… some recognition of what it might have meant to have handled every single word (space and punctuation mark) of the writing-to-be-translated, to have taken a decision in relation to its every single word (space and punctuation mark), and indeed to have written every single one of its parts…” etc. (Briggs 268). Granted, but how, then, are we to judge translations? And is there not a whole that extends beyond the final stop? How far should the critical reader go when looking to the whole, especially given the evident dearth of translation critics who have the specialised skillset, the inclination, and the free time to undertake such an endeavour—a labour that is so evidently undervalued?
Tact: an effort made to not treat all things in the same way; to realise that the translation is not the source, that it ought not to be treated as the source, that the critic’s reading is still only a reading of a reading (…of a reading?). If we consider reading as an extension of writing (or is it writing that is an extension of reading?…), then we ought to think of translation as we think of writing, too: the same, but different—with tact, of course. Briggs writes through Barthes:
[In] “Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure” … he first formulates his desire for a novel and points to Proust as a model. Given the title, should we expect this lecture to be on Proust? Barthes asks out loud. Yes and no. The actual topic will be—if you will, says Barthes, if you’ll indulge me on this: Proust and me… In making this association between myself and Proust, by putting us both on the same level in this way, the point is—once again, the note of caution—not to compare myself to a great writer, but rather to affirm, in a very different manner, that I identify with him: confusion of practice, not of value. (Briggs 271)
Later, Briggs makes Barthes’ sentiment even more lucid when she has him “identify with the writer-as-labourer” (Briggs 272), gesturing toward the communion made in working language. The translator must share this experience as she too must identify with the writer-as-labourer. The desire to translate is thus similar to Barthes’ own: that is, the desire to write after the author.
With whom, then, does the translation critic identify? His is a doubled identification, with both the translator and the writer-as-labourer—the critic wants to write after the author as well as the translator. We then come to understand the sentiment of the critic who, as Michelle Woods puts it, seeks to “justify their own taste preferences” (cited in Briggs 266): this reaction is the result of the critic identifying with the author alone, the critic breaching tact, not treating the translation as something else, not treating it at all, not looking to the whole, but only to a part. To identify simultaneously with the translator- and the writer-as-labourer is to engage with what it means to write and what it means to write after. That is, the nature of this piece of writing as writing something else—as writing a reading.
Briggs, following a long trajectory that began, perhaps, with Augustine of Hippo and continued on through Walter Benjamin and Antoine Berman, is leading us toward a kind translation criticism that attempts to come to terms with how we ought to think about translations and what it means to write that thinking down, to document a reading in the form of translation as well as criticism. What started as an exegetical tool by Augustine, a method to narrow down the meaning from the interstices of multiple translations to find the true biblical word, developed into a post-modern theory in Briggs that sees translation as an expansive practice, reminiscent of Benjamin’s theory of languages-in-translation working as supplements to each other, reaching toward the platonic ideal behind separate signs (Benjamin 74). With Briggs, however, we are not seeking out pure language. Instead, Briggs illustrates the critical capacity of translation in its power to document a reading, arguably the closest readings there are. Because readings are multiple, and identification is too: there are as many ways to identify with the author as there are ways to tend a peony, to cultivate a garden, to shape a letter. To judge translations, finally, to practice translation criticism, is to recognise how it identifies with the source, how you, the critic, identify with this identification; to identify what this dialogue (between source/translation/criticism) reveals of the Original as an emergent network, always in the process of identifying and developing, parodying and contesting—as a great palimpsest of readings and writings.
To be blunt: Tact is not Délicatesse. But rendering it in these terms has an effect: it puts tact and délicatesse in relation; it compels what is idiolectic of an English and a French to dialogue; it brings two readings face to face, encouraging them to identify with one another. As Berman wrote, translation has the potential to reveal “l’autre versant du texte,” the other side, the other face, the other aspect of it (Berman 20). Or as Benjamin would have it in “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers,” it sur-vives the text, it engenders an Überleben, an “afterlife” as rendered in the English. This “afterlife” metaphor accords the translator’s pen its own creative influence. In Benjamin’s view, moreover, not only is the translation the afterlife of the source, it also marks the “birth pangs” of an original language-of-translation (Benjamin 73). Benjamin gestures toward a human understanding of translation, away from the technical, where reproduction is much less sure than re-production.
Yes: in translation, rather than re-producing, meaning and affect proliferate. Berman, again, laid the groundwork for this kind of thinking, acquainting his reader with the Dutch poet Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft who self-translated a collection of epitaphs about his recently deceased wife into a sequence of several languages before finally returning to Dutch “as if,” Berman postulates, “he needed to pass through an entire series of languages and auto-translations to realise the true expression of his pain in his native language” (Berman 13; my translation). Hooft’s work on expression was necessarily done between languages where meaning proliferated, gathering intensities from one language to the next. The entire process of Hooft’s auto-translation created a poem-in-translation, whose successive translations connected one to the other, spreading out across a field of potential meaning before Hooft was finally able to achieve his final product—a Dutch that is perforce plurilingual. Berman’s autre versant turns out to be one among many. It would, therefore, be erroneous to say, as Berman does, that translation makes the text “pivot”; it must certainly be the case that each translator evokes different and multiple potentials within the work. The translation does not force the text to pivot but compels it to proliferate along a transtextual network. And this is undoubtedly what Benjamin himself was doing when he spoke of pure language and languages as fragments, or the text as a forest and the translation as an echo therein. Benjamin’s conception of the language-of-translation is that the text is made whole or is in the process of becoming whole with each successive translation. Rather than indicating a nostalgia for a pre-Babelian homogeneity, this paradigm marks a movement toward heteroglossia, plurilingualism within the monolingual; this situatedness requires a(nother) (re-)translator, language, context—in short, difference—along which something original might be created again, differently. Briggs’ Tact is in this way a resistance to the final word, an ethos of translation that decides to leave the end point forever open.
Tact is artful, good art has tact—meaning that art is a form of repeating differently. As T. S. Eliot famously proposed: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different” (206). Briggs’ reflection on translation is another step toward revaluing and revaluating this undertaking that has too long been considered technical rather than artful, a process more akin to the work of a bilingual dictionary than to that of the literary achievement of the writing that came before it. Briggs’ is a reflection that urges us to take the “little” out of This Little Art and compels us to “look to the whole”—to consider translation as it operates within literature, as it weaves together the particular parts of the world’s readings.
And to judge accordingly.
 The Experience of the Foreign and “The Manifestation of Translation”, respectively—as translated by Stefan Heyvaert, SUNY Press, 1992.
 “Il se veut écrivain, mais n’est que ré-écrivain. Il est auteur—et jamais L’Auteur. Son œuvre de traducteur est une œuvre, mais n’est pas L’Œuvre.”
 Though, remember, it is made so in Krauss and Hollier’s work on Barthes’ Le neutre.
 As Joseph F. Graham indirectly translates it in his 1985 English rendition of Des tours de Babel, an essay by Jacques Derrida.
 “[…] comme s’il avait eu besoin de passer par toute une série de langues et d’auto-traductions pour arriver à la juste expression de sa douleur dans sa langue maternelle.”
Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator,” Translated by Harry Zohn, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Schocken Books, 1985.
Berman, Antoine. “La Traduction au manifeste,” L’Épreuve de l’étranger : culture et traduction dans l’Allemagne romantique. Gallimard, 1984.
Briggs, Kate. This Little Art. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017.
Eliot, T.S. “Phillip Massinger,” Selected Essays. Faber and Faber, 1951.
Dawson F. Campbell is an aspiring literary translator and M.A student in Translation Studies at Concordia University in Montréal. Some of his renderings from French to English have appeared in The Lyre and De Voix Vives. He is currently beginning to work on translating a first novel.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, September 7, 2021