a few thoughts on translating, from Walter Benjamin

drawn from Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator,” written in 1923. This version was translated into English in 1968 by Harry Zohn.

1. “In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful.” Art, Benjamin says (and I’m leaving all his original gender markers here), “posits man’s physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response.” [Note: Reader Response theory would come along a few years after this, so stick with him for the sake of the argument]. So therefore the point is not perfect understanding on the part of the reader, but that the artist creates and the reader experiences. Given this, how can a translation claim to be for readers who don’t understand the original? Only inferior translations seek to explain, and they are inferior exactly in the way they miss the transmission of art’s “inessential content.” Translation, therefore, should serve the art, not the reader.

But do we not generally regard as the essential substance of a literary work what it contains in addition to information—the unfathomable, the mysterious, the “poetic,” something that a translator can reproduce only if he is also a poet?

2. Translation is a kind of afterlife, a transformation and renewal of something living, and in the process the original itself undergoes a change. Translation is not the sterile equation of one language to another, but is a literary form “charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own.”

3. The transfer of all of a poem into another language can never be total, but what can carry is that elements in a translation which goes beyond transmittal of subject matter.”

Even when all the surface content has been extracted and transmitted, the primary concern of the genuine translator remains elusive. Unlike the words of the original, it is not translatable, because the relationship between content and language is quite different in the original and the translation. While content and language form a certain unity in the original, like a fruit and its skin, the language of the translation envelops its content like a royal robe with ample folds.

4. The task of the translator consists in finding the intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original. This is a feature of translation which basically differentiates it from the poet’s work, because the effort of the latter is never directed at the language as such, but solely and immediately at specific linguistic contextual aspects. [note: with the advent of language poetry, this may no longer true]

5. Sparks of Light—Benjamin used the Kabbalistic metaphor of the creation of the world being the breaking of a vessel which released sparks of light into everything. In this understanding, redemption will come when all of these have been found, released and gathered up. Out of this understanding, he writes about a kind of original “pure” language which survives behind the scenes in all resulting, scattered, languages.

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. […] On the other hand, as regards the meaning, the language of a translation can—in fact, must—let itself go, so that it gives voice to the intention 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 intention. Therefore it 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 completion. 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.

6. The task of the translator

Rather, for the sake of pure language, a free translation [that is, one that isn’t literal] bases the test on its own language. 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 recreation of that work. For the sake of pure language he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.


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