The Task of the Translator

Walter Benjamin says that ‘translatability’ is one indicator of a work’s quality. He likes the interlinear version of the Scripture because it is [literal enough to] let the reader see what the original says, without blocking the poetic qualities of the original from view.

Sarah Dudek does not really like his theories of translation. I see her point and I am not at all convinced I understand or accept his idea of pure language, and I might learn something more about the background of Benjamin’s ideas on this matter by reading Rodrigo Duarte’s article “Benjamin’s Conception of Language and Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory” (Kriterion 1 [2006]).

Still I like the kind of translation Benjamin likes, and like him, I do not think of literary translation as a secondary form of activity. From his famous essay:

1. Art … posits man’s physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response. (69, in the Schocken books edition)

2. Translations that are more than transmissions of subject matter come into being when in the course of its survival a work has reached the age of its fame. … [S]uch translations do not so much serve the work as owe their existence to it. The life of the originals attains in them its ever-renewed latest and most abundant flowering. (72; emphasis added)

3. Translation … of all literary forms … is the one charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own. (73)

4. [I]t is translation which catches fire on the eternal life of the works and the perpetual renewal of language. […] Translation keeps putting the hallowed growh of languages to the test: How far removed is their hidden meaning from revelation, how close can it be brought by the knowledge of this remoteness? (74-75)

5. In translation the original rises into a higher and purer linguistic air, as it were. […] The transfer can never be total, but what reaches this region is that element in a translation which goes beyond transmittal of subject matter. […] Thus translation, ironically, transplants the original into a more definitive linguistic realm since it can no longer be displaced by a secondary rendering. (75)

6. The task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original. […] [The translator] calls into [the language forest] […], aiming at that single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one. […] [Translation] intends language as a whole, taking an individual work in an alien language as a point of departure. […] (76)

7. [N]o case for literalness can be based on a desire to retain the meaning. Meaning is served far better – and literature and language far worse – by the unrestrained license of bad translators. (78)

8. Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another. In the same way a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel. (78)

9. [A]s regards the meaning, the language of a translation can – in fact, must – let itself go, so that it gives voice to the intentio of the original not as reproduction but as harmony, as a supplement to the language in which it expresses itself, as its own kind of intentio. (78-79)

10. [I]t is not the highest praise of a translation, particularly in the age of its origin, to say that it reads as if it had originally been written in that language. Rather, the significance of fidelity as ensured by literalness is that the work reflects the great longing for linguistic complementation. (79)

11. A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not black its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium to shine upon the original all the more fully. This may be achieved, above all, by a literal rendering of the syntax which proves words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator. For if the sentence is the wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade. (79)

12. Fidelity and freedom in translation have traditionally been regarded as conflicting tendenies. This deeper interpretation of [fidelity] does not serve to reconcile the two; in fact, it seems to deny the other all justification. For what is meant by freedom but that the rendering of the sense is no longer to be regarded as all-important? (79)

13. In all language and linguistic creations there remains in addition to what can be conveyed something that cannot be communicated; depending on the context in which it appears, it is something that symbolizes or something symbolized. It is the former only in the finite products of language, the latter in the evolving of the languages themselves. And that which seeks to represent, to produce itself in the evolving of languages, is that very nucleus of pure language. Though concealed and fragmentary, it is an active force in life as the symbolized thing itself, whereas it inhabits linguistic creations only in symbolized form. (79)

14. While that ultimate essence, pure language, in the various tongues is tied only to linguistic elements and their changes, in linguistic creations it is weighted with a heavy, alien meaning. To relieve it of this, to turn the symbolizing into the symbolized, to regain pure language fully formed in the linguistic flux, is the tremendous and only capacity of translation. (79)

15. In this pure language – which no longer means or expresses anything but is, as expressionless and creative Word, that which is meant in all languages – all information, all sense, and all intention finally encounter a stratum in which they are destined to be extinguished. This very stratum furnishes a new and higher justification for free translation; this justification does not derive from the sense of what is to be conveyed, for the emancipation from this sense is the task of fidelity. Rather, for the sake of pure language, a free translation bases the test on its own language. (79-80)

16. It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language. (80)

17. [Citing Pannwitz] “The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. […] He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language.” (81)

18. The higher the level of a work, the more does it remain translatable even if its meaning is touched upon only fleetingly. […] In [Hölderlin’s translations of Sophocles] the harmony of the languages is so profound that sense is touched by language only the way an Aeolian harp is touched by the wind. Hölderlin’s translations are prototypes of their kind; they are to even the most perfect renderings of their texts as a prototype is to a model. (81)

19. Where a text is identical with truth or dogma, where it is supposed to be “the true language” in all its literalness and without the mediation of meaning, this text is unconditionally translatable. In such case translations are called for only because of the plurality of languages. (82)

20. Just as, in the original, language and revelation are one without any tension, so the translation must be one with the original in the form of the interlinear version, in which literalness and freedom are united. For to some degree all great texts contain their potential translation between the lines; this is true to the highest degree of sacred writings. The interlinear version of the Scriptures is the prototype or ideal of all translation. (82)


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