Translation, Description, and Gertrude Stein

  • onDecember 12, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • byKate Briggs

Recently, I have been thinking about translation as a form of description. I’m not sure if this is a new idea or a very old one. Perhaps it has already been thoroughly considered and exhausted. But the parallel occurred to me for the first time a few months ago, and I have been pondering it intermittently ever since. The reason for this was—and is—Gertrude Stein.

In February of this year, a new exhibition opened at the Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam, the city where I live. The exhibition was titled BABEL and marked the return of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s famous painting, The Tower of Babel (1568), to the collection, which, along with a number of other fifteenth and sixteenth century Dutch paintings, had been on display in Japan. The Tower of Babel, famously the origin-story of linguistic diversity and confusion, and thus, of translation—an origin story that has itself been much translated, as the translator Ann Goldstein recounts in her recent column for this magazine. As part of the exhibition, Karin de Jong, a Rotterdam-based artist and curator, devised the Babel Bookspace. And Karin in turn invited me, together with bilingual writer Moosje Moti Goosen, to plan an event as part of her program of events. Moosje and I knew immediately that we wanted to make the process of translation—that very often solitary, somewhat mysterious, and for the most part undocumented activity—appear in the exhibition somehow. We knew that we wanted to stage the translation process—its difficulties, its doubts, its enthrallments—in such a way that the process was still very clearly ongoing. In other words, we knew we were less interested in showcasing translation expertise than in opening the process up both for ourselves and for others. But how?

It was Moosje’s idea to try translating Gertrude Stein. Stein is famous for her relations with the artists of her time, and several important works of Cubism, the movement with which her writing is often associated, are held in the Boijmans. Moosje had long been fascinated by Stein’s Tender Buttons, a book of prose poems in three parts—“Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms”—first published in 1914. In response to Karin’s invitation, Moosje and I proposed to turn the Babel Bookspace into a temporary translation zone. We invited a small group of interested writers, translators, artists, and academics to work with us—urgently and audaciously—on translating all fifty-seven of Stein’s “Objects” poems over the course of a single day in May. Stein’s writing is notoriously strange and estranging. The object titled PEELED PENCIL, CHOKE., for example, reads: “Rub her coke.” It asks its readers to settle into an unsettling space of sonorous and evocative non-understanding—and it seems to ask this of its translators too. It was not at all clear to us what an “accurate” Dutch translation of Stein’s “Objects” poems would look like, read like, or sound like. This is what made our task very hard. But it is also what made it feel very open. As we worked, we frequently stopped to read aloud what we had produced so far, to debate the merits of this or that approach, this or that decision, and to engage with members of the public who had happened across our project as they visited the BABEL exhibition. Working collectively, we felt enabled, with our varying levels of English and Dutch, our varying degrees of familiarity with the work of Gertrude Stein, to test and fail, experiment and play. We titled our project Supposing you do not like to change, which is a line taken from Tender Buttons. We subtitled it “studies in translation,” which is a rewording of Stein’s own subtitle, “studies in description.” Or, to more precise, in the poster we made for the project, we redacted “description” and replaced it with “translation,” like this: “studies in description translation.”

And it is this minor (or was it a major?) intervention on our part that has been preoccupying me ever since. Stein called her prose-poems Object-Descriptions. By doing so, she challenges us to rethink what we mean by description—what we expect of a description. The dictionary says that a description is a “statement or account giving the characteristics of someone or something.” But Stein’s poems ask: Which characteristics? The most general and salient? The most overlooked and particular? Or all of them, all at once? And from whose perspective? In what light, at what time of day, and in the context of whose solitary or busy life? Stein also called her poems Object-Portaits. Ekphrasis is the term for making a written description of something visual and I am aware that ekphrasis is often theorized as a process of translation. But I am thinking more specifically of translation as a written description, in one language, of a piece of writing already written in another. In other words, I have been wondering whether “description” really needed to be crossed out and replaced with “translation” for our project, because perhaps they are fundamentally related.

Let’s say that a (literary) description is a concerted effort to give the characteristics of the object in a way that is meaningful for others. We expect a description to be attentive. But we don’t expect to have access to the thing itself, to compare the description with its referent, because what is being described may well not exist. Instead, we judge a description on how far it succeeds in producing a (new or familiar) mental image in the reader. How it does this may well be partial, unexpected, challenging. But we allow room for partiality, and challenge, and subjectivity: we accept that this is how the thing appeared to this person, at this time, in this light, on these terms. Rather than invalidate it, this time-stamped, newly-shed light can be what gives the description its interest and power. Might this offer a way of thinking about translations?

As I said: I don’t yet know. I can anticipate the objections. I know that the translator’s responsibility to what she translates is, or can be, very different from the writer’s to what she describes. But then I am reminded of a piece of writing advice that Gustave Flaubert is said to have given Guy de Maupassant. It was an instruction for literary description:

When you pass a grocer sitting in front of his door, a concierge smoking his pipe, or a cab rank, show me that grocer, that concierge, their attitude, their physical appearance and [. . .] do this in such a way that I cannot confuse them with any other grocer or concierge; and with a single word show me how one cab horse is different from the fifty others ahead or behind it.1

With its emphasis on paying close attention, on precision and—especially—on the requirement to reproduce, in ways very much left up for invention, the singularity of what is being described, this reads to me as anticipating Stein’s project, undertaken about three decades later. It also reads like an instruction for a kind of translation.


1. Cited in the introduction to Guy de Maupassant’s Afloat (trans. D. Parmée). New York: New York Review Books, 2008 (originally published 1888).


by Kate Briggs
Author, This Little Art (2018)
Translator, The Preparation of the Novel
How to Live Together by Roland Barthes

Images ⓒ Tor Jonsson