Benjamin_Task of the Translator

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Unformatted text preview: 74 19005—1930s read“ for the next two hundred years. Such facts of translation are not to be lamented, however, but celebrated, studied historically, and interrogated for their ideological implications. Borges argues that “it is [the translator’s] infidelity, his happy and creative infidelity, that must matter to us.” Of course, not all infidelities are equal to Borges. In his detailed discussion of the different translations, he performs ideological critiques that expose their invest— ment in various cultural values and political interests, Orientalist and anti—Semitic, masculinist and puritanical, middle—class and academic. His approach is exemplary: he analyzes textual features, such as lexicon and syntax, prosody and discourse, and explains them with reference to the translator’s “literary habits” and the literary traditions in the translating language. Borges most appreciates translations that are written “in the wake of a literature” and therefore “presuppose a rich (prior) process.” This leads him to value “heterogeneous” language, a “glorious hybridiza- tion” that mixes archaism and slang, neologism and foreign borrowings. What he misses in a scholarly German translation is precisely the foreignizing impulse of the Romantic tradition, “the Germanic distortion, the Unheim/ichkeit of Germany.” At the end of the 19305, translation is regarded as a distinctive linguistic prac- tice, “a literary genre apart,” writes the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, “with its own norms and its own ends” (Ortega y Gasset 1992: 109). It attracts the attention of leading writers and thinkers, literary critics and philologists. It becomes the topic of scholarly monographs that survey translation theory and prac- tice in particular periods and languages (e.g. Amos 1920, Matthiessen 1931, Bates 1936). And it generates a range of theoretical issues that are still debated today. In 1937 Ortega takes up these issues in “The Misery and the Splendor of Translation,” a striking philosophical dialogue that argues for the continuing importance of the German translation tradition. The “misery” of translation is its impossibility, because of irreducible differences which are not only linguistic, but cultural, incommensurabilities that stem from “different mental pictures, from disparate intellectual systems.” The “splendor” of translation is its manipulation of these differences to “force the reader from his linguistic habits and oblige him to move within those of the [foreign] author” (Ortega y Gasset 1992: 108) For Ortega, translating is useful in challenging the complacencies of contemporary culture because it fosters a “historical consciousness” (ibid: 110) that is lacking in the mathematical and physical sciences. “We need the ancients precisely to the degree that they are dissimilar to us,” (ibid: 111) he writes, so that translating can introduce a critical difference into the present. Further reading Benjamin 1989, Blanchot 1997, Jacobs 1975, Kelly 1979, Kristal 2002, Nouss 1997, Reichert 1996, Robinson 1991, Steiner 1975, Venuti 1995 Chapter 7 Walter Benjamin THE TASK OF THE TRANSLATOR: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE TRANSLATION OF BAUDELAIRE’S TABLEAUX PARIS‘IENS Translated by Harry Zohn I N T H E A P P R EC 1 AT I O N of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful. Not only is any reference to a certain public or its representatives misleading, but even the conceptIOf an “ideal” receiver is detri- mental in the theoretical consideration of art, since all it posits is the existence and nature of man as such. Art, in the same way, posits man's physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response. No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener. ls a translation meant for readers who do not understand the original? This would seem to explain adequately the divergence of their standing in the realm of art. Moreover, it seems to be the only conceivable reason for saying “the same thing” repeatedly. For what does a literary work “say”? What does, it communicate? It “tells” very little to those who understand it. Its essential quality is not statement or the imparting of information. Yet any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information — hence, something incssential. This is the hallmark of bad translations. But do we not generally regard as the essential substance of a literary work what it contains in addition to informa- tion v as even a poor translator will admit A the unfathomable, the mysterious, the “poetic,” something that a translator can reproduce only if he is also a poet? This actually, is the cause of another characteristic of inferior translation, which conse: quently we may define as the inaccurate transmission ofan inessential content. This will be true whenever a translation undertakes to serve the reader. However if it were intended for the reader, the same would have to apply to the original. If the 1923 76 WALTER BENJAMIN original does not exist for the reader’s sake, how could the translation be under- stood on the basis of this premise? ' Translation is a mode. To comprehend it as mode one must go back to the orig— inal, for that contains the law governing the translation: its translatability: The question of whether a work is translatable has a dual meaning. Either: Will an adequate translator ever be found among the totality of its readers? Or, more perti- nently: Does its nature lend itself to translation and, therefore, in View ofthe significance of the mode, call for it? In principle, the first question can-be dcculed only contingently; the second, however, apodictically. Only superhctia-l thinking will deny the independent meaning of the latter and declare both questions to be of equal significance. . . . it should be pointed out that certain correlative concepts retain their meaning, and possibly their foremost significance, ifvthey are referred exclusively to man. One might, for example, speak of an uniorgettable life or moment even if all men had forgotten it. if the nature of such a life or ‘moment required that it be unforgotten, that predicate would not imply a falsehood but merely a claim not fulfilled by men, and probably also a reference to a realm in which it is fulfilled: God’s remembrance. Analogously, the translatability of linguistic creations ought to be considered even if men should prove unable to trans‘ late them. Given a strict concept of translation, would they not really be translatable to some degree? The question as to whether the translation of certain linguistic creations is called for ought to he posed in this sense. For this thought is valid here: If translation is a mode, translatability must be an essential feature of certain works, Translatability is an essential quality of certain works, which is not to say that it is essential that they be translated; it means rather that a specific significance inherent in the original manifests itself in its translatability. it is plausible that no translation, however good it may be, can have any significance as regards the orig— inal. Yet, by virtue of its translatability the original is closely connected VWlth the translation; in fact, this connection is all the closer since it is no longer of import— ance to the original. We may call this connection a natural one, or, more specifically, a vital connection. 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 afterlife. For a translation comes later than the original, and since the important works of world literature never find their chosen translators at the time of their origin, their translation marks their stage of continued life. The idea of life and afterlife in works of art should be regarded with an entirely unmetaphorical objectivity. Even in times of narrowly prejudiced thought there was an inkling that life was not limited to organic corporeality. But it cannot be a matter of extending its dominion under the feeble scepter of the soul, as Fechner tried to do, or, conversely, of basing its definition on the even less conclusive factors of animality, such as sensation, which characterize life only occav sionally. The concept of life is given its due only if everything that has a history of its own, and is not merely the setting for history, is credited with life. in the final analysis, the range of life must be determined by history rather than by nature, least of all by such tenuous factors as sensation and soul. The philosopher’s task consists in comprehending all of natural life through the more encompassing life of history. And indeed, is not the continued life of works of art far easier to recognize than the continual life of animal species? The history of the great works of art tells us THE TASK OF THE TRANSLATOR 77 about their antecedents, their realization in the age of the artist, their potentially eternal afterlife in succeeding generations. Where this last manifests itself, it is called fame. Translations that are more than transmissions of subject matter come into being when in the course of its survival :1 work has reached the age of its fame. Contrary, therefore, to the claims of bad translators, such translations do not so much serve the work as owe their existence to it. The life of the originals attains in them to its ever‘renewed latest and most abundant flowering. Being a special and high form of life, this flowering is governed by a special, high purposiveness. The relationship between life and purposefulness, seemingly obvious yet almost beyond the grasp of the intellect, reveals itself only if the ultiu mate purpose toward which all single functions tend is sought not in its own sphere but in a higher one. All purposeful manifestations of life, including dieir very purpo- siveness, in the final analysis have their end not in life, but in the expression of its nature, in the representation of its significance. Translation thus ultimately serves the purpose of expressing the central reciprocal relationship between languages. It cannot possibly reveal or establish this hidden relationship itself; but it can repre- sent it by realizing it in embryonic or intensive form. This representation of hidden significance through an embryonic attempt at making it visible is of so singular a nature that it is rarely met with in the sphere of nonlinguistic life. This, in its analogies and symbols, can draw on other ways of suggesting meaning than intensive - that is, anticipative, intimating — realization. As for the posited central kinship of languages, it is marked by a distinctive convergence. Languages are not strangers to one another, but are, a priori and apart from all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to express. With this attempt at an explication our study appears to rejoin, after futile detours, the traditional theory of translation. if the kinship of languages is to be demonstrated by translations, how else can this be done but by conveying the form and meaning of the original as accurately as possible? To be sure, that theory would be hard put to define the nature of this accuracy and therefore could shed no light on what is important in a translation. Actually, however, the kinship of languages is brought out by a translation far more profoundly and Clearly than in the superfi- cial and indefinable similarity of two works of literature. To grasp the genuine relationship between an original and a translation requires an investigation analo~ gous t0 the argumentation by which a critique of cognition would have to prove the impossibility of an image theory. There it is a matter of showing that in cogni- tion there could be no objectivity, not even a claim to it, if it dealt with images of reality; here it can be demonstrated that no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original. For in its afterlife — which could not be called that if it were not a transformation and a renewal of something living v the original undergoes a change. Even words with fixed meaning can undergo a maturing process. The obvious tendency of a writer’s literary style may in time wither away, only to give rise to immanent tendencies in the literary creation. What sounded fresh once may sound hackneyed later; what was once Current may someday sound quaint. To seek the essence of such changes, as well as the equally constant changes in meaning, in the subjectivity of posterity rather than in the very life of language and its works, would mean — even allowing for the crudest psychologism A to confuse the root cause of a thing with its essence. More 78 WALTER BENJAMIN pcrtinently, it would mean denying, by an impotence of thought, one of the most powerful and fruitful historical processes. And even if one tried to turn an author's last stroke of the pen into the coup de grace of his work, this still would not save that (lead theory of translation. For just as the tenor and the significance of the great works of literature undergo a complete transformation over the centuries, the mother tongue of the translator is transformed as well. While a poet’s words endure in his own language, even the greatest translation is destined to become part of the growth ofits own language and eventually to be absorbed by its renewal. Translation is so far removed from being the sterile equation of two (lead languages that of all literary forms it 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. if the kinship of languages manifests itself in translations, this is not accom~ plished through a vague alikeness between adaptation and original. It stands to reason that kinship does not necessarily involve likeness. The concept of kinship as used here is in accord with its more restricted common usage: in both cases, it cannot be defined adequately by identity of origin, although in defining the more restricted usage the concept of origin remains indispensable. Wherein resides the relatedness of two languages, apart from historical considerations? Certainly not in the similar- ity between works of literature or words. Rather, all suprahistorical kinship of languages rests in the intention underlying each language as a whole m an intention, however, which no single language can attain by itself but which is realized only by the totality of their intentions supplementing each other: pure language. While all individual elements of foreign languages »- words, sentences, structure e are mutu‘ .illy exclusive, these languages supplement one another in their intentions. Without distinguishing the intended object from the mode of intention, no firm grasp of this basic law of a philosophy of language can be achieved. The words Brat and pain “intend” the same object, but the modes of this intention are not the same. it is owing to these modes that the word Brot means something different to a German than the word pain to a Frenchman, that these words are not interchangeable for them, that, in fact, they strive to exclude each other, As to the intended object, however, the two words mean the very same thing. While the modes of intention in these two words are in conflict, intention and object of intention complement each of the two languages from which they are derived; there the object is comple- mentary to the intention. In the individual, unsupplemented languages, meaning is never found in relative independence, as in individual words or sentences; rather, it is in a constant state of flux until it is able to emerge as pure language from the harmony of all the various modes of intention. Until then, it remains hidden in the languages. If, however, these languages continue to grow in this manner until the end of their time, it is translation which catches fire on the eternal life of the works and the perpetual renewal of language. Translation keeps putting the hallowed growth 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? This, to be sure, is to admit that all translation is only a somewhat provisional way ofcoming to terms with the foreignness of languages. An instant and final rather than a temporary and provisional solution of this foreignness remains out of the reach of mankind; at any rate, it eludes any direct attempt. indirectly, however, the growth of religions ripens the hidden seed into a higher development of THE TASK OF THE TRANSLATOR 79 language. Although translation, unlike art, cannot claim permanence for its prod— ucts, its goal is undeniably a final, conclusive, decisive stage of all linguistic creation. in translation the original rises into a higher and purer linguistic air, as it were. It cannot live there permanently, to be sure, and it certainly does not reach it in its entirety. Yet, in a singularly impressive manner, at least it points the way to this region: the predestined, hitherto inaccessible realm of reconciliation and fulfillment of languages. The transfer can never be total, but what reaches this region is that element in a translation which goes beyond transmittal of subject matter. This nucleus is best defined as the element that does not lend itself to translation. 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. For it signifies a more exalted language than its own and thus remains unsuited to its content, overpowering and alien. This disjunction prevents translation and at the same time makes it super~ fluous. For any translation ofa work originating in a specific stage of linguistic history represents, in regard to a specific aspect of its content, translation into all other languages. Thus translation, ironically, transplants the original into a more defini- tive linguistic realm since it can no longer be displaced by a secondary rendering. The original can only be raised there anew and at other points of time. It is no mere coincidence that the word “ironic” here brings the Romanticists to mind. They, more than any others, were gifted with an insight into the life of literary works which has its highest testimony in translation. To be sure, they hardly recognized translation in this sense, but devoted their entire attention to criticism, another, if a lesser, factor in the continued life of literary works. But even though the Romanticists virtually ignored translation in their theoretical writings, their own great translations testify to their sense of the essential nature and the dignity of this literary mode. There is abundant evidence that this sense is not necessarily most pronounced in a poet; in fact, he may be least open to it. Not even literary history suggests the traditional notion that great poets have been eminent translators and lesser poets have been indifferent translators. A number of the most eminent ones, such as Luther, V055, and Schlegel, are incomparably more important as translators than as creative writers; some of the great among them, such as Holderlin and Stefan George, cannot be simply subsumed as poets, and quite particularly not if we consider them as translators. As translation is a mode of its own, the task of the translator, too, may be regarded as distinct and c...
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