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Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” – Part III



A final look at Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator.” If you haven’t already, check out Part I & Part II.

For the great motif of integrating many tongues into one true language is at work. This language is one in which the independent sentences, works of literature, critical judgments, will never communicate–for they remain dependent on translation; but in it the languages themselves, supplemented and reconciled in their mode of signification, harmonize. If there is such a thing as a language of truth, the tensionless and even silent depository of the ultimate truth which all thought strives for, then this language of truth is–the true language. And this very language, whose divination and description is the only perfection a philosopher can hope for, is concealed in concentrated fashion in translation.

The original text — Benjamin seems to be saying — is itself an approximation of Truth. And so, each translation is a further triangulation around an epicenter of true meaning. Of course, this may call into question the authority of the author, but Benjamin separates the two tasks by designating translation as a “mode.”


He clarifies this difference further, comparing a translator to a philosopher like himself:

There is no muse of philosophy, nor is there one of translation. But despite the claims of sentimental artists, these two are not banausic. For there is a philosophical genius that is characterized by a yearning for that language which manifests itself in translations…[T]ranslation…is midway between poetry and doctrine. Its products are less sharply defined, but it leaves no less of a mark on history.


We should hope that translation — especially the translation of literature — should strike somewhere boldly between poetry and philosophy.


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Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” – Part II

Continuing our series on Walter Benjamin, Eric selects certain passages from “The Task of the Translator” and relates them to our work at Archipelago:

Translation is so far removed from being the sterile equation of two dead 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.


Here, Benjamin emphasizes the dynamic quality of translation. Whereas the original text remains static over centuries, new translations continue to appear with generations, reviving the text, such as Scott Montcrieff’s original English translation (and subsequent revisions/edits) of Proust and Lydia Davis’s recent English translation.


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 form 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.


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Libretti & All: Auden the Translator





A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.
— W.H. Auden, The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose: Volume II. 1939-1948


In addition to his own verse, Auden translated a number of works into English, including the Mozart libretti The Magic Flute and Don Giovani. For Auden, opera libretti sat firmly with the European poetic tradition.

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Benjamin's "The Task of the Translator" – Part I



Benjamin’s essay most relevant to our work here at Archipelago has to be “The Task of the Translator.” Originally written as an introduction to his translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens, the essay stands on its own as a translator’s manifesto. Over the next few weeks, I’ll highlight some particularly explorative statements, and I encourage anyone to leave a comment with their thoughts, rants, diatribes, etc. Discuss!

[A translation’s] 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 inessential. 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 information–as even a poor translator will admit–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 consequently we may define as the inaccurate transmission of an 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 original does not exist for the reader’s sake, how could the translation be understood on the basis of this premise?

These two, bold statements twist together to form a thought difficult for me to fully understand. He seems, at first, to suggest that translation is a middle-ground between meaning and music. The next sentence, however, clarifies this further:

Translation is a mode.

And later:

As translation is a mode of its own, the task of the translator, too, may be regarded as distinct and clearly differentiated from the task of the poet.

Benjamin separates the action of the translator from the poet or novelist, giving translators their due independence as artistis in their own, distinct way.


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GUEST POST: Mary Ann Newman – Translators: Handmaidens or Guerrillas?

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Catalan translator Mary Ann Newman kicks off our GUEST POST series which features translators, thinkers, and enthusiasts in the field. Newman offers her invaluable insight into the underappreciated world of the translator:


The core challenge for translation is the question of professionalism. What, for translators, is almost always a vocation, is treated by the publishing industry as an avocation.  The office of translator, and the act of translation, is gravely undervalued, and all the judgments that derive from this lack of esteem–compensation, reflection in reviews, presence in bookstores, etc.–suffer the effects.


I believe there is a blind spot in this regard. One of the great Catalan fiction writers, Quim Monzó, is also a great translator, with a true vocation. Twenty years ago he wrote what amounted to a manifesto renouncing translation. His reasoning was professional: publishers paid whatever the market rate was for paper, ink, machinery, wrote off checks of 200,000 pessetes for cover art that took at most a day, and in many cases, a matter of minutes, and yet balked at paying translators more than 100,000 pessetes for three to six months’ work. Monzó makes his living as a writer and a journalist: he was not willing to treat translation as anything less serious.


This challenge, this unacknowledged professionalism, contains its own opportunity. Translators must devote our own (precious, underpaid) time to reflecting on our work, both theoretically and empirically. The Translation Committee of PEN American Center has been grappling with these questions and will soon be publishing a toolkit to offer support and solutions, and a reviewers’ Hall of Fame to acknowledge excellence in translation criticism.


Strides have been made of late in bringing attention to translated literature–the Bridge Series, Chad Post’s Three Percent website, Susan Bernofsky’s Translationista blog, et al.–, and translations, even from lesser-known languages, are proliferating. Yet there is still a sense of swimming against the tide. Recently translators have been trying to establish a dialogue with publishers and reviewers–in sessions at the PEN World Voices Festival or the ALTA conference, for example–but both groups have seemed loath to cede much territory to translation. Some publishers are fearful that any mention of the translation, or space devoted to the translator’s name, is a disincentive to purchase. Reviewers, often constrained to 500- or 750-word reviews, are reluctant to expand the space they allot to mentioning the translator’s name and “able” or “seamless” (or “clumsy”) translation. Or, they are understandably fearful of making mistakes when they do not speak the original language or have knowledge of the context of the text.


The standard attribute of a quality translation–its invisibility–is at least partially responsible for the situation. Translations are not invisible. They are palpable and three-dimensional: that book you hold in your hands (or on your kindle) was written by a translator, no matter who the author is. The translation is an indispensable stage in the history of the text. The translator is a witness, a privileged actor in the regeneration of the text. He or she has information no one else is privy to, and which every reader could potentially be interested in.


Hence it would be useful for translators to provide publishers and reviewers with interesting information regarding, let’s say, the history of the book–if it is a rediscovered classic, why did it fall out of favor, or why was it never translated?; or the challenges of the language–what words, phrases or concepts have no equivalent, and might affect the reception of the book?; or the cultural or literary context: what aspects of the book have appeared in criticism and reviews in the original language, to which reviewers do not have access?; what are the possible parallels in English or other familiar languages; what historical information will enrich references in the text?…


Translators are shape shifters:  we perform and are transformed by every new book and author and character even as we transform the text. And we are accustomed to being the handmaidens (and manservants) of authors. We can also serve the publisher, reviewer, and, ultimately, the reading public, by bringing the translated text into the foreground. But we must also be warriors: denial or omission of the translation is, frankly, not only lazy but duplicitous. There is no reason for translations not to be hot properties or for their sale not to be good business. Translators can help make them cool or sexy. But there must be a sea change in the perception–no, the attitude–of the industry toward the translated work and toward the translator’s role.


We claim to live in a globalized world–translation is our medium. Surely it is time for translators, publishers and reviewers to sit down together and bang out a new set of rules.


Mary Ann Newman is the former Director of the Catalan Center at New York University, which was an affiliate of the Institut Ramon Llull. She is a translator, editor, and occasional writer on Catalan culture. In addition to Quim Monzó, she has translated Xavier Rubert de Ventós, Joan Maragall, and Narcis Comadira, among others.