Kate Briggs — On Table-making and Translation

In the following post, Kate Briggs, the translator of How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces, discusses the challenges and joys of translating Roland Barthes.

“If I identify with Robinson Crusoe it’s not only because it took me far longer to write the lecture notes again in English than it did for Barthes to produce them in French (a matter of years versus a matter of months). It is also because translating Barthes has been an extended apprenticeship in writing.”—Kate Briggs

Roland Barthes, How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday SpacesDaniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is one of a handful of literary works that feature prominently in Barthes’s How to Live Together, and I re-read it for the purposes of the translation. This time around I was struck by one of the projects Robinson Crusoe sets himself quite early on in the novel: he decides to make a table.

The problem is Robinson Crusoe has never made a table before, just as he has never planted a crop before, glazed earthenware or cultivated goats. Of course, Robinson Crusoe is familiar with what it is he’s trying to make. He’s not about to make something wholly unprecedented—to invent the table, for example. His problem is how to make a table in these new, unlikely circumstances. He soon realizes that the methods used back in Hull, England will not work here: he doesn’t have the materials to hand, or the tools, plus there is the issue of personal aptitude (again, he’s never done this before). It is the unavailability of those original means of production that makes his problem interesting: as Robinson Crusoe is well aware, here on his deserted island there can be no question of making a table in the same way as the tables he’d written on prior to the shipwreck. This is the method he eventually comes up with:

If I wanted a board, I had no other way but to cut down a tree, set it on an edge before me, and hew it flat on either side with my axe, til I had brought it to be as thin as a plank, and then dub it smooth with my adze. It is true, by this method I could make but one board out of a whole tree, but this I had no remedy for but patience, any more than I had for the prodigious deal of time and labor which it took me up to make a plank or board. But my time or labor was little worth, and so it was as well employed one way as another…

So: one tree felled for every plank of wood. Some years later, Robinson Crusoe completes his task. The method is almost comical in its laboriousness (Wasn’t there a serviceable tree-trunk or rock ledge nearby?) and yet it is the closest analogy I have to the work of translation.

If I identify with Robinson Crusoe it’s not only because it took me far longer to write the lecture notes again in English than it did for Barthes to produce them in French (a matter of years versus a matter of months). It is also because translating Barthes has been an extended apprenticeship in writing – in writing an extant text again in entirely new circumstances, and with very different means at my disposal. What excites me most about translation – but also one of the things I find most difficult – is the way it forces you out of any acquired writing habits.

Translation is an exercise in uncovering new resources in the familiar language, expanding your vocabulary, giving a different cadence to your sentences. But actually allowing this to happen is not always so easy. I’d often read back over a passage I’d translated and realize that I’d been trying to make Barthes’s syntax fit some preconceived idea of what makes a good sentence. I had missed the point of the writing lesson. It was also important to remember that I was working with lecture notes, not books. The writing I was translating was originally intended to be read aloud in the amphitheatres of the Collège de France, a bit like a score for an oral performance. So the lesson in how to write was in fact a lesson in how to write a lecture course: how to make writing sound as if it had been written to be spoken, how to achieve Barthes’s unique combination of authority and humility– a quality he terms ‘non-arrogance’. Of the many revisions I made to the translation, it was the moments when he addresses his anticipated audience directly – wondering about their interest in his course, for example (Are they bored? Are they disappointed?) – that I found myself returning to over and again. I was working with a written trace of the lectures; nonetheless, those moments seemed especially ephemeral – it felt important to catch them in the right way.

The analogy with Robinson Crusoe makes translation sound like a very solitary, slightly mad, probably quite self-indulgent activity: the kind of work that gets done out of sight for the translator’s own private purposes. I’m not convinced that this is the best way to approach a translation project, but it has certainly been true for me. All the way, that is, up until now: the point at which the translation is published. All of a sudden, that very personal relationship with a mass of writing built up through a daily familiarity with the text is opened up to other readers. All of a sudden, decisions that seemed immutable start looking very provisional again.

Among those decisions, the question of titles is probably one of the most important. With Comment vivre ensemble the decision made itself: How to Live Together was the obvious translation. But questions could be asked about the subtitle: Novelistic (Why not stick with Romanesque?) Simulations of Some (Why not A Few?) Everyday Spaces (Why not Spaces of Daily Life?). I actually feel fairly sure of my decisions here, but with La Préparation du roman, or The Preparation of the Novel, the first volume of Barthes’s lecture notes that I translated, although the last lecture course that Barthes would deliver at the Collège de France, it is a different matter. The de in the title can be read as either of or for: preparation of the novel, preparation for the novel. And in the lecture course it is clear that Barthes means both. He compares the work of preparing to that of a dress-cutter arranging sections of fabric on her worktable: the course is engaged with finding and preparing the materials of the novel, which for Barthes consist of notes taken directly from life.

At the same time, he is interested in how a would-be writer (Roland Barthes, for example) might prepare for the novel, from the life-events that can suddenly make writing a novel seem possible, necessary even, to practical considerations such as choosing the right kind of desk, or blocking time for writing out of a busy life-schedule. I made my decision based on two factors. First, it seemed to me that the second kind of preparation –preparing for – could be heard in or at least extrapolated from the preparing of the novel but that this was not the case the other way around. Second, I felt that preparing for the novel kept the novel at bay somehow. It makes it clear that the novel is still – and, as it would turn out, forever, to come – and posits a distinction between that ultimate writing project and the labour of its preparation. It seemed important to hold onto the possibility that novel-writing was already happening. The possibility, as Barthes notes at one point, that the projected novel might be exhausted by (or indeed achieved) by its preparation in the form of a lecture course. Those were my reasons. But it’s now over two years later, and I’m still wondering whether or not I made the right decision.

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