A Brief, Non-Comprehensive, Somewhat Inconclusive, and Yet Still Intriguing, Analysis of Themes Concerning Audience and Translatability within “The Task of the Translator” by Walter Benjamin (With Guest Appearances by Jacques Derrida and the Tower of Babel)

This blog  post is a little different in that it’s a little more of what I originally wanted to use this blog for, namely an investigation of ways to think about translation. What follows is an adaptation and amalgamation of some presentation notes, a paper, and class notes, all for my Translation & Ethics course, centered around the essay “The Task of the Translator” by Walter Benjamin. The other philosophers and their papers are a mixture of lenses I was required to use and my own intuition.

“The Task of the Translator” can be considered one of the most difficult texts in terms of literary theory. Hundreds of people have written articles or given talks about this paper, so it remains entirely possible that I am reinventing some wheels here. The purpose of the presentation I gave and the short paper I wrote was to open the way for a discussion about and explore “The Task of the Translator,” using select excerpts from works by Paul Ricoeur, Edward Said, Jacques Derrida, and Gayatri Spivak as comparative lenses, to both answer and create questions about Benjamin’s philosophy and the philosophy of translation in general.

So let’s dive in.

As a frame with which to examine this text, let us first start with Derrida’s “From Des Tours de Babel.” When we examine Derrida’s treatment of the myth of Babel we are confronted with an essential truth: when conducting a linguistic analysis we cannot ignore what language we are using to describe the linguistic phenomena under scrutiny and we must always consider the language in which the work we are consuming was written in and translated into. For example, Benjamin wrote in German, and both Ricoeur and Derrida wrote in French, but the sources used for this paper were in English translation. That this discussion is taking place in English while the source texts (with the exception of Said and Spivak) were not is an indication that we are indeed a few steps away from the philosophies of the original, and we must grapple with the fact that what we are reading is not the unvarnished text as the author published it, but translated through the lens of another individual.

While pondering the nature of philosophical translation, we might consider Ricoeur’s position on the translation of philosophy from his essay “Translation as challenge and source of happiness,” taken from his book On Translation:

The translation of philosophical works, which is of greater concern to us today, reveals difficulties […] insofar as it springs up at the actual level of the carving up of semantic fields, which turn out to be not strictly superimposable on one another. […] Not only are the semantic fields not superimposed on one another, but the syntaxes are not equivalent, the turns of phrase do not serve as a vehicle of the same cultural legacies; and what is to be said about the half-silent connotations, which alter the best-defined denotations of the original vocabulary, and which drift, as it were, between the signs, the sentences, the sequences whether short or long. It is to this heterogeneity that the foreign text owes its resistance to translation and, in this sense, its intermittent untranslatability. (6)

There is a great deal to unpack from this passage, but the core philosophical question at play as it relates to this paper is: how can we let these difficulties inform our examination of the philosophical texts at hand? Without consulting the original we cannot know exactly what is at stake, what the translator shifted or omitted, and we as readers and interpreters must put our trust in the translators of these texts to have given them to us with their essence intact. In order for us to determine what translation of that essence might be, let us turn to The Task of the Translator.

To begin, I will posit two questions, the second of which is most relevant at this time, though the first is to be pursued throughout the investigation of the second. Firstly, what did Benjamin consider to be translatable? Secondly, what did he consider to be the purpose of translation?

In answering the second question first, one might consider that, to the practical mind, the point of translation is communication, as a form of transmitting communication between two parties that do not understand each other because of a linguistic barrier. This is, after all, the premise of the myth of Babel: that God has inhibited communication via scattering different languages across the peoples of the world. (Coincidentally, a key point in Derrida’s essay is that God has both imposed and forbidden translation at the same time (222).) This certainly applies to vernacular translation of everyday activities; when I am in the San José airport in Costa Rica I must translate from my native English “Where is the bathroom?” to my second language Spanish and ask “¿Dónde está el baño?” Literary translation is another matter because it concerns a work of art, and, according to Benjamin when we appreciate artistic works “consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful. […] No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.” (71) For Benjamin, an ideal audience for a text does not exist, because the art does not presuppose a response from the receiver and is not concerned with a response, or the attentiveness of said response.

Benjamin applies this theory across all works of art, and what struck me when reading this passage was what the ramifications are when applied to the idea of authorial intent. For certainly writers of literary works have an intended audience in mind. Even so, as Said points out in his essay “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals”, “Authors and publishers have very little control over what is reprinted and recirculated. For whom does one write, if it is difficult to specify the audience with any sort of precision?” (21) Taking these two texts together, the idea that emerges is that the work, once it has been completed and released into the world is outside of the control of the author, and thus to consider their intent behind the creation of the work and the intent of the work itself as the same is a fallacy. We must wonder, then, what does the text mean to communicate?

According to Benjamin, each literary work has an essential quality, which “is not statement of the imparting of information. Yet any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information — hence, something inessential.” (71) Benjamin does in fact believe that there can be something essential in certain literary works that can be translated, in that translatability is an essential feature in some works.

Returning to the question of what Benjamin considered to be translatable, we must examine the qualifying questions he puts upon those works, given that, for Benjamin, questioning the translatability of a work “has a dual meaning. Either: Will an adequate translator ever be found among the totality of readers? Or, more pertinently: Does its nature lend itself to translation and, therefore, in view of the significance of the mode, call for it?” (72) The first question is contingent; the second, apodictic. Benjamin’s rationale is thorny here, but his argument seems to be that some original works have an essential quality that lends itself to translation, and indeed have an inherent significance that manifests itself in the translation.

 For Benjamin, translation is the afterlife of the original, coming later than its source, “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.” (73) The translation renews the life of the original, and it is to the translation that the original owes its continued existence. All the same, change to the original is inherent to the translation, because for it to strive for the original and remain unchanged would not be the renewal of the afterlife. Benjamin goes further in describing the maturation of language, and how “Even words with a fixed meaning can undergo a maturing process.” (74) Benjamin’s analysis of the evolution of words and language speaks to the idea that an individual culture within a language shifts, even without considering translation as an instigating factor. Languages evolve, and that applies to both the language of the translator and the language of the translated. In his analysis of the kinship between languages he gets to the philosophical concept of “pure language”:

all suprahistorical kinship of language rests in the intention underlying each language as a whole — 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. [emphasis added] While all individual elements of foreign languages — words, sentences, structure — are mutually 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. (75)

These intended objects are essentially translatable, as their core meaning is echoed and mutually intelligible across linguistic barriers once the translator has completed their task, which according to Benjamin “consists in finding that intended effect […] upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original.” (77) In other words, the translator’s task is to engage with the pure language beneath the translation and communicate the intention of the word. Not the author’s intention, and not the historical intention, which is a human history, and not the pure language or the plurality of language. Pure language brings us back again to the idea of Babel, the scattering of languages from the one heavenly tongue.

For Benjamin, translation is the supplemental construction of pure language:

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 […] For this very reason translation must in large measure refrain from wanting to communicate something, from rendering the sense, and in this the original is important to it only insofar as it has already relieved the translator and his translation of the effort of assembling and expressing what is to be conveyed. […] A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original more fully. (79-80)

There is a coexisting relationship between the translation and the original, a richness that comes from their blend to create a new form of language. For surely the original has been changed in form as it has been translated out of its source text, but at the same time, the language that the work has been translated into has been changed by the inclusion of the translation. Through his inclusion of a quote from Rudolf Pannwitz, Benjamin proves himself a supporter of Schleiermacher’s notion of foreignization in translation, as he advocates for allowing the foreign tongue to change the target language. By virtue of the translation, the target language gains depth and expands in its scope.

The contrast to foreignization is assimilation, wherein the translation is adapted to focus on the target language, and any ripples that may disturb the reader of the translated text who is unfamiliar with the language and the culture of the original are smoothed away. When comparing the two practices, the obvious dimension along which to compare them is not simply their fidelity to the meaning of the original text, but their broader ethical implications. Loss is inevitable in translation, but the extent of that loss is determinable. The most salient quality here is the agency of the text versus the agency of the translator versus the agency of the target language.

Here I would like to consider Spivak’s definition of the task of the translator, taken from her essay “The Politics of Translation”:

Language is not everything. It is only a vital clue to where the self loses its boundaries. The ways in which rhetoric or figuration disrupt logic themselves point at the possibility of random contingency, beside language, around language. Such a dissemination cannot be under our control. Yet in translation, where meaning hops into the spacey emptiness between two named historical languages, we get perilously close to it. […] Although every act of reading or communication is a bit of this risky fraying which scrambles together somehow, our stakes in agency keeps the fraying down to a minimum except in the communication and reading of and in love. […] The task of the translator is to facilitate this love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying, holds the agency of the translator and the demands of her imagined or actual audience at bay. [emphasis added] (313)

I bring in this Spivak quote because I would like us to think about Spivak and Benjamin’s differing perspectives regarding audience. Spivak imagines a diverse and global audience, and focuses on the individual, international, ethical, and political consequences of translation. Benjamin is concerned with bringing the original work and target language together to form the translation that builds a kind of bridge between the earthly world and the heavenly world, taking an incredibly theological approach. His view of language is something encompassing that contains essential and universal truths, and that may become pure.

Meanwhile, Spivak is outright states that language is not everything, and focuses on the connection between the original and the translation as superseding the agency of the translator, their responsibility to and the actions of the audience. In this way Spivak advocates for the primacy of the original text, seconded only by its connection to the translation. Similar to Benjamin’s rejection of the audience, Spivak places them last in terms of priorities. According to Spivak, the translator owes their loyalty to the original and its context and how those play into and integrate themselves with the translation, rather than the demands of a monolingual audience.

To investigate again this question of who the audience is and how important they are, let us consider again the perspective of Said, who comments that we should all

operate on today with some notion of very probably reaching much larger audiences than any we could have conceived of even a decade ago [2001 vs. 1991], although the chances of retaining that audience are by the same token quite chancy […] The quandary is a real one, whether in the end to repel readers […], or to attempt to win readers over in a style that perhaps too closely resembles the mindset one is trying to expose and dismiss. (22)

Said is describing original, monolingual, political content, but the message he has to give still applies to translation. While Benjamin did not think it useful to consider a work to be for the audience (and therefore a translation not for an audience) one could rightly argue that this assertion is absurd for two reasons. Firstly, and superficially, because if one does not consider their audience and produce and market toward that audience, it is entirely possible that there will be no audience, and the work will never be appreciated, understood, or even see the light of day.

The second is investigated via returning to Derrida’s treatment of Babel, wherein he focuses on the concept of proper names, and their interface with untranslatability. The puzzle when it comes to understanding and proper names is, as Derrida puts it, that “understanding is no longer possible when there are only proper names, and understanding is no longer possible when there are no longer proper names.” (220) Derrida’s illustration of the proper name exposes their nature as the key to translation. As immovable and (mostly) unchanging between languages they are untranslatable, and yet they also stand as pillars around which we relate meaning and thus are the true enablers of translation. This theme of balance parallels Said’s critique of the audience. Where translation as a theory needs both the translatable and the untranslatable, translation as a practice has to balance between the desires of the audience and the desires of the text. Therefore, the audience does in fact play a vital role in the process.

Since we are already contemplating Derrida, let us return to where we started, namely, the attention we must pay to the language(s) we are using to engage in discourse about translation. There are numerous points to expand on here, such as the complexities of translating a text that is composed of multiple languages, or indeed the consequences of homonyms. But I would like to end on a piece of irony that I noticed when reading the Derrida essay in conjunction with Benjamin’s. In the last paragraph Benjamin explains why translations of translations are impossible, “not because of any inherent difficulty but because of the looseness with which meaning attaches to them.” (82) This quote is something to ponder when considering Derrida’s text, which contains multiple translations of translations. Within the essay Derrida compares multiple translations of a snippet from the myth of Babel, and English-speaking readers are supposed to accept these translations at face value, despite the fact that they are translations of translation. But how can we trust a literary analysis of something twice (or more) removed from its original tongue? Would there be any meaning left at all?

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator.” Translated by Harry Zohn. Schulte and Biguenet, pp. 71-82.

Derrida, Jacques. “From Des Tours de Babel.” Translated by Joseph F. Graham. Schulte and Biguenet, pp. 218-227.

Ricoeur, Paul. On Translation. Translated by Eileen Brennan, Routledge, 2006.

Said, Edward. “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals.” Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation, edited by Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood, Princeton University Press, 2005, pp. 15-29.

Schulte, Rainer, and John Biguenet, editors. Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Spivak, Gayatri C. “The Politics of Translation.” The Translation Studies Reader, 3rd ed., edited by Lawrence Venuti, Routledge, 2012, pp. 312-330.

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3 thoughts on “A Brief, Non-Comprehensive, Somewhat Inconclusive, and Yet Still Intriguing, Analysis of Themes Concerning Audience and Translatability within “The Task of the Translator” by Walter Benjamin (With Guest Appearances by Jacques Derrida and the Tower of Babel)

  1. Super-Duper blog! I am loving it!! Will come back again. I am bookmarking your feeds also.

    Liked by 1 person

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