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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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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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Walts of the Fairy Tale: Benjamin & Disney

a. MON - Benjamin Fairy Tales

I’ve been reading (wrestling?) with some essays by German thinker and translator Walter Benjamin lately. Many of his essays relate directly to the work we do here at Archipelago Books, so over the next few Tuesdays, I’ll be pulling some relevant sections from Illuminations, translated into English by Harry Zohn, and attempting to digest them. Feel free to comment with your own thoughts, rants, professions, or raves.


To begin, here’s a passage on fairy tales from “The Storyteller,” which illuminates a few aspects of our recent Selected Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Peter Wortsman:


“And they lived happily ever after,” says the fairy tale. The fairy tale, which to this day is the first tutor of children because it was once the first tutor of mankind, secretly lives on in the story. The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales. Whenever good counsel was at a premium, the fairy tale had it, and where the need was greatest, its aid was nearest. This need was the need created by the myth. The fairy tale tells us of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which the myth had placed upon its chest. In the figure of the fool it shows us how mankind “acts dumb” toward the myth; in the figure of the man who set out to learn what fear is it shows us that the things we are afraid of can be seen through; in the figure of the wiseacre it shows us that the questions posed by the myth are simple-minded, like the riddle of the Sphinx; in the shape of the animals which come to the aid of the child in the fairy tale it shows that nature not only is subservient to the myth, but much prefers to be aligned with man. The wisest thing—so the fairy tale taught mankind in olden times, and teaches children to this day—is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and with high spirits. (This is how the fairy tale polarized Mut, courage, dividing it dialectically into Untermut, that is, cunning, and Übermut, high spirits.) The liberating magic which the fairy tale has at its disposal does not bring nature into play in a mythical way, but points to its complicity with liberated man. A mature man feels this complicity only occasionally, that is, when he is happy; but the child first meets it in fairy tales, and it makes him happy.


I’m interested in this idea of a forked courage – both cunning and high spirits in the face of adversity. The heroes and heroines as the Brothers Grimm portrayed them have this three-dimensionality.


Maybe this is why many of the Disney versions of folk characters seem flat to me: they lack this two-pronged personality, verve and wit. Snow White certainly has Übermut – but cunning? Cunning belongs solely to the Witch.


I’m not sure what Belle was reading, but I bet it wasn’t Benjamin.