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Andrew Benjamin_on Benjamin - TRANSLATION AND THE NATURE OF...

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Unformatted text preview: TRANSLATION AND THE NATURE OF PHILOSOPHY A new theov of words AN DREW ENJAMIN R ROUTLEDGE London and New York / 7 87 Chapter Four WALTER BENJAMIN AND THE TRANSLATOR’S TASK One of the most significant conclusions to emerge from the preceding evaluation of Davidson’s conception of translation was the impossibility of any attempt to gnderstand translation in terms of rational recovery. It also casts doubt on the viability of trying to incorporate concepts of fidelity into discussions of translation, if fidelity is understood in terms of the re-expression of the original’s content. The move away from a conception of translation articulated in terms of the opposition between the inside and the outside must therefore, as a consequence, focus on the translatability of any text. If it is no longer possible to provide the conditions of existence for the possibility of translation in terms stemming from rational recovery -— where what is recovered and re-expressed is the original content of the original text -— then the emphasis must shift to the text itself and hence to a concern with language. It is precisely this move that is made by Walter Benjamin. While there are a number of points that must be clarified, in particular what is meant by the terms ‘text’ and ‘language’, this can only be done after having looked at his work on translation. Benjamin’s text will allow for the possibility of developing a conception of translation that neither succumbs nor subscribes to the problems and difficulties that have been identified in the work of Heidegger, Seneca, and Davidson. In other words what emerges from his text is a conception of translation that takes place beyond, and is to that extent therefore not advanced in terms of, the distinction between the literal and the figural. It is perhaps not surprising that there are many possible ways in — paths of approach — to Walter Benjamin’s famous paper on translation; ‘The Task of the Translator’.l This paper was written 86 WALTER BENJAMIN AND THE TRANSLATOR’S TASK in 1923 and it formed the introduction to Benjamin’s own translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisian. The volume itself caused Benjamin a great deal of emotional pain. In a letter to Scholem2 he complains that the review by Stefan Zweig in the Frankfurter Zeiturzg both failed to come to terms with Baudelaire’s poetry, and rather than ignoring the preface only ‘mentioned it in a snide remark’. Zweig remarked on its difficulty. A comment that clearly irritated Benjamin. And yet if nothing else is accurate in Zweig’s review he is certainly correct to say that the text is complex and elusive. It is of course also allusive, for resonating within it is one of Benjamin’s major areas ofinterest and influence, namely Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism. It must be added of course that the text is not reducible to the articulation of this element. Indeed it would always be possible to find other aspects that appear in his work and discuss the text in terms of them. It would for example be possible as julian Roberts3 has indicated to account for his concern with symbols in terms of the theories of Klages or to explain, in part, his theory of language in terms of a mediaeval theory of intentio, as is indicated by Peter Szondi4 in a footnote to his discussion of Benjamin’s work on translation in his paper on Celan’s translation of a Shakespearian sonnet. However, for these present concerns Kabbalah will provide an outline that will allow for that specific reading of the text sanctioning a reworking of translation. Kabbalah must emerge from within the exposition itself". It goes without saying that the concerns of this text must in the end resonate beyond this initial attempt to outline its meaning. Perhaps even resulting in a translation of translation. Benjamin’s text commences, as Paul de Manc’ amongst others has pointed out, with a refusal of the very possibility of what has come to be called Rezeptionxdst/zetik. However this refusal is not in any straightforward sense a critique. It is rather a dramatic counter that is enacted in the text’s opening lines, In the appreciation ofa work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves helpful.7 Works of art — objects of interpretation — for Benjamin, are not ‘intended’ for their recipients. ‘No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener’. How is the distancing of reception supposed to be understood? At this 87 TRANSLATION AND THE NATURE OF PHILOSOPHY stage it is not possible to give a definite answer to this question except to say that it opens up the world of the text as the locus of investigation while at the same time closing the world in which the text is situated. Benjamin pursues his line of questioning by trying to determine for whom a translation is undertaken. Consistent with the approach mentioned above, Benjamin argues that a translation cannot exist ‘for the sake of a reader’. What is of interest here are the moves made in the argument; for within them Benjamin characterizes two inadequate conceptions or understandings of translation. The first of these is the assumption, on the part of the translator, that the literary text ‘says’ something. For Benjamin the saying of something — the telling — is the conveying of information which is dramatically opposed to the essential quality (Wesentliches) of the literary work. At play here is a theme that occurs throughout Benjamin’s writings. In both ‘The Storyteller’8 and ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’ Benjamin distinguishes in a fundamental way between ‘information’ and the ‘story’. The importance of this distinction lies in the way in which Benjamin connects the life of the story as opposed to the life of information to two distinct conceptions of time. In ‘The Storyteller’ he states: The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at the moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.9 As was mentioned the significance of this passage is not located in the opposition between information and story as such, but rather in their connection to time. The difficulty, in moving from one text to another, is that there is no direct analogue to the story when Benjamin is writing specifically about translation. There is however an analogue in regard to time. The temporality of the story, as opposed to the temporality of information, will emerge. as the temporality within which translation from a Benjamiman perspective must be understood. The reference to information and the possible reduction of the literary work to information is an important move not just in clarifying what is to be understood. by the literary as such but also because it implicitly introduces time into the problem of translation. 88 WALTER BENJAMIN AND THE TRANSLATOR’S TASK V Any translation that aims to convey something reduces the status of the literary work to information and in so doing transgresses its ‘essential quality’. However the essential is not an addition — a secondary effect — that would be the result of poeticizing information. (A formulation that, as has been suggested, stems from Plato.) To treat the literary work in this way would once again be to fail to understand what was at stake in translation and therefore what it was that was being translated. The important consequence of this second characterization of bad translation is found in the fact that it was articulated in terms of the distinction between the literal and the figural. Benjamin’s critical refusal of such a conception of translation becomes therefore a refusal of the predominance and centrality of this distinction within translation. It has already been noted that the semantic economy that this distinction puts in play governs both Plato’s understanding of poetry and Heidegger’s conception of translation. Part of the force of Benjamin’s text is that it begins with a refusal of this distinction. Having cleared some of the way Benjamin can now begin with a positive description of translation: Translation is a model (Ubersetzung ist eine Form). To comprehend it as a model one must go back to the original, for that contains the law governing the translation; its translatability.lo The most important way of understanding the question of translation is therefore, following Benjamin, to ask whether the ‘essence’ (Warm) of the work can be translated. Benjamin is using the interplay of Warm and Warmtlic/m to repose delicately the problem of translation. In the opening pages the Werentlic/m (essential quality) of the work is said not to be equatable with information. He then asks does the Wesen of the literary work ‘lend itself to translation’? He concludes by saying that ‘if translation is a model, translatability must be an essential feature of certain works’ (Wenn chrutzung cine Form ist, so my} Uberselzbarkeit gewissen War/cm wemztlich rain). The essential has shifted therefore from being an unnamed entity to now being implicitly equated with translatability. This thereby enacts a shift from a concern simply with the meaning of words to language. Translation pertains not to meaning but to language itself. Once again this must be understood as an implicit critique of the distinction between form and content; a distinction that is itself a restatement of the earlier and perhaps enduring 89 TRANSLATION AND THE NATURE OF PHILOSOPHY distinction between the literal and the figural. Benjamin uses the idea of translatability to reformulate the relationship between the original and the translation. by virtue of its translatability the original is closely connected with the translation. . . .We may call this connection a natural one, or, more specifically a vital one.Just as the manifestations of life are intimately connected with the phenomenon of life without being of importance to it, a translation issues from the original -— not so much from its life as from its after-life.” The translation issues not from the life of the text but from its after-life. Here is found the fundamental distinction between leben and fortleben that dominates Benjamin’s work on translation and which is later taken over and adapted by Derrida.12 In fact in Benjamin’s discussion of the relationship between history and life, in which the ‘range of life’ is described as ‘determined by history’, he suggests that the history of works of art reveals their potentially ‘eternal afterlife’. The importance of this is that it introduces an explicit temporal dimension into the concern with translation. The direct result is that it underlines the importance of the recognition that translation is itself articulated within a specific temporal schema. It also works to redefine the essential nature of the object of interpretation (what is often loosely called the work of art). This conception of temporality is the one alluded to in the distinction between the story and information. The essential is re—expressed in terms of translatability and now translatability has itself been re- expressed in terms of fartleben; i.e. in terms of after-life/survival; the capacity of the work to live on. It is at this stage that Benjamin’s text takes a difficult turn and yet it is one that is sanctioned by the approach that has already been observed. Rather than restricting manifestations of life to an end which is life, their end becomes ‘the expression of its essence, in the representation of its significance’ (dcr Ausdruck seine: Wesens, fiir die Darstcllung seiner Bedeulung). The consequence of this for translation is that the intention of translation becomes the expres- sion of ‘the central reciprocal relationship between languages’. However, this sounds, as Benjamin himself admits, like a return to traditional conceptions of translation because it could be seen as depending upon a posited similarity between languages. Benjamin distances himself from the project of linguistic similarity with the 90 WALTER BENJAMIN AND THE TRANSLATOR’S TASK following important expression of how he understands the relationship between the original and the translation. To grasp it he argues, requires an investigation analogous to the argumentation by which a critique of cognition (die Erkenntniskritik) would have to prove the impossibility of an image theory (einer Abbila'tht’orie).13 Clearly what Benjamin has in mind here is a particular Kantian argument concerning the nature of images. While Benjamin does not mention it by name an instance of Kant’s position can be found in the argument —- located in ‘The Schematism of the Pure Concepts of the Understanding’, in The Critique of Pure Reason —— which advances the’position that it is ‘schemata, not images of objects, which underlie our pure sensible concepts’. For Kant, the image is a product of the empirical faculty of reproductive imagination; the schema of sensible concepts, such as of figures in space, is a product and as it were, a monogram, of pure a priori imagination, through which, and in accordance with which, images themselves first became possible. B181/Al42” The condition of possibility for the existence of images is not a world of objects but a ‘pure a priori imagination’. The image therefore neither seeks nor is it to be understood in terms of an object — an original — of which it is an image. Concepts, and hence the work of the a priori imagination are the condition of possibility for objects which then come to be reproduced. The analogy with translation is that any real understanding of the nature of translation would be impossible ifit were thought to consist of (and hence be understood just in terms of) its likeness to an original. In just the same way as the condition of possibility for the production of images lies in the reproductive imagination not in the ‘object’, translation is only possible if it is linked to the linguistic reality of the original. The connection between original and translation does not lie therefore in a domain dominated by mimesis but rather one orchestrated by what Benjamin describes as the ‘kinship’ of languages. ‘Kinship’ involves the essence of language not a mimetic relation made possible by the commonality of language. A point that is reinforced by Benjamin’s argument that in the survival of the literary work the original itself undergoes a change. In order to be consistent with the consequences of the implicit 91 swam”... - wowwmmwm.“m mwwwanWW“W'wx~w ~V’vmmwav « N». w»!v~n«1m;- . TRANSLATION AND THE NATURE OF PHILOSOPHY critique of Rezeptiormislhetilc that opened the text this change can only be explained by reference to the essential nature of the literary work itself. Clearly one of the major elements at play here and which emerges both from Benjamin’s recourse to Kant as well as his introduction of the idea of ‘kinship’ is an attempt to move translation (and by extension language) away from any under- standing of them that is situated within the domain of mimesis.‘5 For Kant the image does not have a mimetic relationship with the original. Consequently it cannot be either discussed or understood in terms of its simply reproducing something. Arguing this would involve ignoring the role Kant assigns to the a priori imagination and would thereby reduce the work of the imagination to no more than the reproduction of images. This will also be the case with translation. While it may seem, on the surface at least, to be a straightforward move, inherent within it is a radical break not simply with a Platonic conception of art and hence the history of mimesis but, and perhaps more radically also with the conventional philosophical and literary categories within which language and translation are conventionally understood. Fundamental to mimesis is the distinction between the inside and the outside and, as has already been noted,“’ it is this distinction which features within the preceding discussions of translation. The philosophical consequences of the removal of mimesis as the ground of translation will be dealt with in the final chapter. The task now is to make sense of the idea of ‘kinship’ given that it does not refer to the commonality, be it philological or historical, of languages. In order to achieve this end Benjamin draws a distinction between what Zohn in his translation of the text calls ‘the intended object’ and ‘the mode of intention’ (der Intention yam Gemez'nten, and die Art ales Meineus). The force of this distinction lies initially in its providing a way of understanding the relationship between languages and hence the possibility of developing a conception of translation that does not depend upon mimesis. Benjamin prefaces his drawing of the distinction with the following important claim concerning ‘kinship’ among languages: all suprahistorical kinship of languages rests in the intention underlying each language as a whole — an intention however which is realised only by the totality of their intentions supplementing each other: pure language (di: reins Spraclz:).‘7 92 WALTER BENJAMIN AND THE TRANSLATOR’S TASK The first thing to note is Benjamin’s use of the term ‘suprahistorical’. In using it he is not simply putting historical connections between languages to one side, more importantly he is positing a fundamental relationship between languages in general rather than simply between two specific natural languages. It is in relation to these considerations that Benjamin draws the distinction between ‘the intended object’ and the ‘mode ofintention’. The example that he uses concerns the words Brat and pain. He says of them that they: Both intend the same object but their modes ofintention are not the same."3 What Benjamin means by this is that while on one level the ‘same’ object may be involved the word Brat has different connotations, or to be more exact it occupies a different place in a signifying chain than is the case of the word pain in French. They have therefore different meanings. The modes of intention cannot be reduced to each other, even though their intended objects are, on one level at least, identical. Modes of intention mark the relationship between languages. But it is a non-reductive relationship that points to a resolution or coming together. To use Benjamin’s term, it is a relationship that can be ‘harmonised’ because of the ‘kinship’ between languages: a ‘kinship’ pointing to ‘a pure language’ (rein: Sprac/w). Benjamin also makes use of the expression ‘pure language’ in his 1916 paper, ‘On Language as such and on the Languages of Man’.‘9 It would be fruitful to pursue some of the topics discussed by Benjamin in that paper; first because he deals in an important way with the question of translation and second it will prepare the way for an eventual coming to terms with the still unresolved problem of the relationship between ‘pure language’ and the multiplicity of natural languages. It will be of value therefore to compare the resolution offered in this earlier treatment to the one that occurs in the later study of the translator’s task. The 1916 paper on language is notoriously difficult and as a consequence, rather than attempt to sum it up, I want to focus on the problem of translation. However, even this attempt to delimit the task still necessitates some preliminary explication. It should also be noted that despite this paper containing not just a number of theological motifs but a commentary on the first two books of Genesis, 93 .~....mn TRANSLATION AND THE NATURE OF PHILOSOPHY Benjamin is at great pains to point out that his ostensible concern is not theological as such, rather it is one starting from a consideration of what can be learnt from a consideration of theological themes about the nature of language. The extent to which this is a successful strategy cannot be considered imme...
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