THIS LITTLE ART
By Kate Briggs
365 pp. Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Even — especially — for those who are at home in different languages, translation is maddening. “Hundreds of times I have sat, for hours on end, before passages whose meaning I understood perfectly, without seeing how to render them into English,” wrote the great English Orientalist Arthur Waley. Anyone who has ever tried translation knows the feeling: Some are put off by its endless puzzles; others find them as addictive as chess.

Kate Briggs’s “This Little Art” is a meditation on translation, mainly derived from her experience translating two volumes of lectures by Roland Barthes. It is full of quotes like the above, and of speculations about how translation interacts with, distorts and intensifies reading: “This is a translation!” she writes, of her own book. “I feel sure that something would happen — some adjustment to your reading manner would be very likely to occur — if you were to hear me all of a sudden insisting that it is.”

One of the many risks of imbibing too much Barthes is that his writing is as notable for fudging and preciosity as it is for insight, and Briggs shares with him a tendency to imprecise language: “We need translations,” she writes. “The world, the English-speaking world, needs translations. Clearly and urgently it does; we do. And

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