When I heard of Helen Lowe-Porter’s description of translation as “this little art”, I never once associated anything disparaging to it. I took it as a term of affection. Little as in something I am fond of. And Lowe-Porter must have been fond of it, given the many years she spent translating Thomas Mann’s monumental opuses. I accept, however, that disparaging associations can and have been made by many and perhaps Lowe-Porter herself was disparaging her craft. She lived in self-effacing times after all. However, it is that disparagement that Briggs confronts head-on as she works out in what sense she can accept that word “little” in relation to literary translation.
“I can accept her (Lowe-Porter’s) little for as long as I can oppose it to trivial, to minor, to young. To the extent – that I can make it – speak of an art of attending to all the small differences.”, writes Briggs. Elsewhere she refers to translation as “this particular art”, and this book, written as she herself was translating Roland Barthes’s lecture notes, demonstrates just how particular the art of translation can be.
Take research. I don’t envy the research Katy Derbyshire undertook to translate Clemens Meyer’s Bricks and Mortar. (p74) Take precision with Briggs herself deliberating on how to translate the mundane French verb “faire” which Barthes uses in his lectures on writing. By her own admission, she gets it wrong. What she shows is the underlying depth of knowledge, bi-culturalism and ”the worry worry worry over the difference between this word and that” needed to render sense, nuance and intent accurately. (After all, if it was just a matter of vocabulary, then Google translate would be unsurpassable …)
Extending scope beyond the technicalities of translation, Briggs discusses relationships between translators and their authors. In contrast to her relationship with the deceased Barthes, there’s the relationship between Gide and Bussy, who was hopelessly in love with him. What a touching human interest story that is, told through many excerpts of from their correspondence. More surprises too with mediations on the translation of haikus and the relationship between the table that Robinson Crusoe built and translation.
But to return to Helen Lowe-Porter, who devoted much of her life to bringing Thomas Mann to an English audience. (It was her intellectual stimulus whilst she was raising her children.) Her translations are, however, somewhat divisive. Much has been made of the errors she made and the passages she cut, but does that mean that her work is valueless? I’d argue not. They have their place in the history of translation, now that there are now better translations out there. I don’t think Briggs is arguing that Lowe-Porter is a great translator, or that her mistakes should be overlooked, (Benjamin Moser’s got the wrong end of the stick in parts here) but she does admire her, giving her credit where credit is due.
Particularly on p 148-149 which for me also serves as a summary of the exhilaration experienced not just by Lowe-Porter, but, most likely by all exponents of “this little art”. And not only them. I found Briggs’s meditations exhilarating too. Not as a translator, not even as a potential translator (I have no ambitions in that regard), but as an avid reader of translations and occasional interviewer of translators. It’s fascinating experiencing what you go through. Even if vicariously. Thank you.
Footnote to self: A Ph.D dissertation with further comparative analysis of Helen Lowe-Porter’s translations
Am just reading this now and it’s particularly fascinating now that I do literary translation regularly myself.
Great review of a fascinating and thought provoking book. Ben Moser may have had a point but the way he chose to express it didn’t particularly help – one of the most strong pushbacks on a book review I can recall (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/20/books/review/letters-to-the-editor.html).
This – https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/benjamin-moser-and-the-smallest-woman-in-the-world/ – I think provides added context to the row about his review.
Fascinating additional information. Thanks. The intrigues of the literary world ….
The only think I know about Lowe-Porter is she censored the homosexuality in Thomas Mann’s books. That put me off her – is it addressed in This Little Art?
I don’t think so. Briggs’s angle is on her own translation conundrums. When she talks about Lowe-Porter, she talks about the admiration she has for her single-minded pursuit of translating Mann, given her circumstances and the condescension she met from all sides.
As for the censoring, we have to remember that Lowe-Porter lived in different times. And there’s a story that she cut things because Thomas Mann himself asked her to. I don’t know the exact details of what he asked her to cut. Further research required.
I just read the responses to Ben Moser that fulcherkim linked and I have revised my opinion based on those of high literary merit who came to her defense and the arguments they made.
I don’t think all of Moser’s criticisms are unfair, actually. Lowe-Porter did make mistakes, but, hell, anyone who works eight hour shifts for 10 years translating Mann’s Joseph doesn’t deserve to be written off entirely either.
Speaking of translation, have you read Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson? Trevor has a year long readalong going on his blog where we read a day’s entry at a time. I am currently reading about a week at a time as I am catching up between other books I read rather than mixing them. I was never good with reading more than one book at a time.
I haven’t. It’s one of those books I look at from the corner of my eye, but I’m unsure I want to commit.
It is big! You could probably read it in German though, where I think it is available in smaller chunks.
I could … if I wasn’t so lazy!
This book looks very fascinating, Lizzy! I have wanted to read this for a while! Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Looks like #FitzcarraldoFortnight is off to a great start 😁
Currently reading this myself and it really is excellent. So glad that one of your Fitzcarraldos so far has turned out to be a success.
As for Moser, I believe he’s caused a lot of controversy with his working methods, particularly on his renditions of Lispector. I can’t say I’m drawn to read any of his translations.
Just checked out the link to the LA Review piece above and that was what I had been thinking of….
Quite interesting. When I read a book in translation that I love, I must remind myself that I’m loving someone else’s version of the author’s words. Nice post. I’ve got a review up tomorrow.
This is one of the few editions of theirs which I was able to get from the library, but I’ve barely begun. It’s good to know that such a variety of readers have been and are enjoying it!