Walter Benjamin & The Religion of Translation

by Sarah Dudek

In his essay “The Task of the Translator”, Walter Benjamin elevates translation to a level of the sublime that it has probably never since reached. This extraordinary piece, published as a preface to his own translations of Baudelaire’s “Tableaux Parisiens” in 1923, has highly influenced the theory of translation. Its enigmatic and mystical character launches a religion setting translation into a crucial position.

The topic of translation and the figure of the translator always struggle with the marginalization they are driven to within the literary scene. Translation is widely considered a secondary phenomenon, with the translator mostly hidden behind the predominant author. This might be an explanation for the fascination Benjamin’s uncommon and esoteric thoughts have.

For Benjamin translation is a means to aspire to “pure language”. He regards a process of supplement of languages as taking place through translation because of the difference between source and target language. This inadequacy is in itself the source of an enrichment of the target language: foreign, untranslatable concepts and structures are brought into a language and take part in the process of an ongoing complement of languages with its climax in “pure language”.

Benjamin’s thoughts cannot be understood without having a closer look at his concept of language—“pure language” seems a rather vague term. His whole project is so remarkable because it has an all-embracing notion of language as its basis: the world is made of language and the final aim is to understand this “textus” of the world, to achieve harmony between the inadequate human languages and the language of God. This thought is highly influenced by Jewish mysticism mainly bequeathed in the Cabbala and made more accessible to a broader public amongst others by Walter Benjamin’s close friend Gershom Scholem, a German Jew and later professor at the University of Jerusalem.

In order to reflect on the significance of translation it is a presupposition to ponder on the theory of language, which is necessary background for any concept of translation and translatability. Seven years before publishing his essay on translation, Benjamin had written the even more metaphysical “On Language as Such and the Language of Man”, in which he develops his idea of a distinction between the intellectual and the linguistic parts of the human being. Benjamin posited a universal sphere of concepts, which he called the “intellectual part”, totally self-sufficient and distinguished from the “linguistic part”. The two components of the human being are connected to some extent, but the linguistic part never covers the whole conceptual sphere. Thus it is not possible to articulate the totality of existing concepts: the various languages are inadequate, extending only over parts of the conceptual sphere, but varying in this extent and in the concepts of the intellectual sphere they cover—every particular language is able to articulate different intellectual content. The biblical idea of a once existing complete language in paradise disintegrated by God after the Tower of Babel grounds Benjamin’s theory of language. The particular languages are thus only incomplete pieces of the pure original. It is this idea which leads to the understanding of language as not only a communicative tool between humans, but moreover the realm of hidden divine truth, of something enigmatic which is totally free of meaning and resonating in the human languages. Benjamin builds his teleology on the basis of this mystical idea: the final aim is to approach divine language, in which all truth is hidden, but which is at the same time no longer communicative, but rather totally free of meaning. Translation is the decisive means to reach the final end: it completes languages, puts together the disintegrated “modes of intention”—as Benjamin calls the sphere in semiotics termed “signifier”—and works towards the perfection of the original, which can be considered incomplete, requiring translation: “Thus translation, ironically, transplants the original into a more definitive linguistic realm”, Benjamin states.

The right way of translating is important. Due to the characteristic of the final goal, the divine language—a language without any meaning—Benjamin focuses totally on the mode of expression, on language without content. According to him translations should not try to transfer meaning, but rather translate as close to the original as possible, by transferring its syntax and also its way of expressing concepts to the target language: “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 all the more fully.” Thus the extraordinary task the translator receives in Benjamin’s theory tends to reverse to an exceedingly binding restriction imposed on the translator lacking any granted creativity.

How can a theory that is so enigmatic, mystical and restrictive at the same time exert such an influence on the theory of translation? An impressive number of essays referring to Benjamin’s theory of translation have been written by renowned authors such as Peter Szondi, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, and many others. Among other things the space of interpretation Benjamin leaves open might attract, but moreover it is the strength translation gains through this process which proves fascinating and unique within the theory of translation.

It is remarkable and bound to the effect “The Task of the Translator” has had that Benjamin does not consider the reader. In the very beginning of the essay, one reads: “In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful. […] No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener. Is a translation meant for readers who do not understand the original? 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.” The end of any consideration for the reader of a translation provides freedom to the translator. The transmission of content is superfluous: if there is not receiver there is no demand for information. It is possible to focus only on aesthetics—as incomprehensible as the result might prove to be. Such a stance on translation justifies the existence and esoteric character of the society of translators inquiring the works of each other as well as their isolation from the widely ignorant sphere of readers. If the world is understood as language then it follows that aesthetics is the only thing that makes sense. To go with the early Nietzsche one can state that the world is only justified if considered an aesthetic phenomenon.

It might be for the abstract character of these thoughts that Benjamin’s essay was widely considered a theory of untranslatablity. This view is often taken by referring to the ambiguity of the title: the German title “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers” could also be translated as “The Surrender of the Translator”. But this is not contradictory to Benjamin’s belief in translatability: the above-mentioned inadequacy of every translation is re-valued by Benjamin and positively predicated with reference to the transparency for pure language. In addition, the essay was written as an introduction to Benjamin’s own translations of pieces out of Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal”. Certainly there is some truth in Stefan Zweig’s review on Benjamin’s translations from 1924, when he states that it is an “icy, unsensual and dead German way” of translating Baudelaire, freezing the original and depriving it of all sensual melody. It is true that Benjamin’s translations do not work for somebody reading Baudelaire in translation for the first time. Very little of the magic and the content of the poems are conveyed, due to the abstractions Benjamin condenses out of Baudelaire’s more descriptive verses.

With reference to the above-mentioned rejection of consideration for the reader Benjamin’s way of translating might make sense. To ask for whom he translates becomes a profane question—it is not applicable as a critique regarding Benjamin’s system. A more appropriate critique is the following: if translation is taken as a means to the end of pure language, it has to face the danger of losing its aesthetics due to a lack of independence. Opposing the concept of “l’art pour l’art”, it has a function in a teleological and religious process. In Benjamin’s theory decisions concerning aesthetics of translation have to consider the exposing of pure language beside mere aesthetic judgments. A language can certainly be enriched by other languages, but a coherent melody can hardly be found if the loyalty of the translation goes as far as imitating even the syntax of the source language. In this context Benjamin quotes Rudolf Pannwitz, one of the disciples of Stefan George, himself a translator of Baudelaire, as well as a predominant cultural figure and poet: “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English. […] The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue.” Inspiration by a foreign language sounds like a reasonable enterprise, but giving up aesthetic feeling in order to translate as loyally as possible has an effect on translation which reverses the whole project of Benjamin to its opposite: it makes translation a mere means, a tool without any independence, whereas the original would still have more freedom and thus the poet more concessions of creativity.

The ambiguity of Benjamin’s view becomes obvious when the relation between original and translation becomes topical: an imitation of the original does not make any sense for him because of the inadequacy of source and target language, but his demand for loyalty is not to ignore. The independence of the original can also be cast into doubt by his remark that the original demands a translation, that translatability is something inherent to it, as well as—with regard to the “messianic end of history”—considering Benjamin’s underlying teleology.

It is remarkable that in the English translation of “The Task of the Translator” by Harry Zorn the religious connotation of Benjamin’s terms is sometimes less obvious than in the German original. It might be the alienation one has towards such a mystical way of thinking and towards the ambiguity of Benjamin’s style of writing. Nevertheless, Benjamin’s theory of translation can only be understood in religious terms. It is bound to the Cabbalistic tradition, which is in itself enigmatic and contradictory—and so is Benjamin’s essay. Its magic is evoked by its ambiguity and its holistic aesthetics. In it, translation can live in its extraordinariness. Although it is not a theory of untranslatability, it is hard to think of its practical influence on translators. As mentioned before: the presupposition of his theory of translation is his “messianic” theory of language. It is hard to think of seriously accompanying Benjamin in looking to language for such a messiah.