...a poignant account of what this translation compulsion might be. She elegantly likens it to the actions of the avid but amateur aerobic exerciser who wakes up every morning to attend her dance class purely for the pleasure of energetically mimicking the gestures of others ... Faithful to this intuition, This Little Art reads like a jubilant tribute to that vital impulse that marks the reader’s attempt to engage with the pleasure of the text at the very basic level of language ... a beautiful homage to the late Barthes ... This Little Art inherits his unfulfilled desire to write a novel and traces around it a convincing plea for the art of translation.
This Little Art is a non-straightforward critical book about the nature, necessity, and stakes of translation ... she writes in cubistic, subject-changing bursts and leaves rhetorical questions hanging open for unnerving lengths. The book can feel ingrown, elusive, and shaggy until its long-game structural and emotional logic becomes clear ... In a way, the book is a continuous redefinition of translation, with the stakes growing ever higher ... She has sectioned it unusually—not into chapters, but into meditations of varying length that leave off somewhat unpredictably and start afresh, unindented, on a new page. Rather than developing her argument sequentially, she keeps looping back to pick up an idea that was whispered ten pages earlier ... She is using novelistic means—what many would consider the big art—to give an interior life.
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 this has to be a compelling argument for doing them.' But this is not an argument. It is an assertion, and Briggs misses the opportunity to examine it ... Despite her tone, these are good questions; like many others in this book, they dangle unanswered.