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