Translation: Contemplating Against the Grain
(A Talk on Walter Benjamin given at Stevens Institute in 1999)

by Murat Nemet-Nejat

I want to discuss translation, not as an auxiliary activity to literature; but as an independent genre, like the lyric or epic, with a distinct ethos and mode of thinking. I’ll conceive of translation as the anarchic poetic form of our time.

Two works on translation stand out in 20th century, Walter Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator and Jack Spicer’s poem essay After Lorca: two islands separated by a dialectical ocean, each the other’s other. Either contains within itself a contradiction, two assertions apparently negating each other. Only facing up to these contradictions can the genre of translation, its power be understood.

Walter Benjamin’s essay begins stating, “any translation which intends to perform a transmitting cannot transmit anything but information—hence, something inessential.” Towards its end the essay states, “A real translation is transparent.... This may be achieved, above all, by a literal rendering of the syntax which proves words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator. For if the sentence is the wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade.” How can this be? Not only does this sentence contradict the earlier one—if information is inessential, how can literalness be the primary element?—but it contradicts itself. If the sentence is the wall before the original, how can a literal rendering of syntax be the arcade? How does a sentence become—through literalness—a transparent space?

This thrilling sentence contains a crucial idea on language. Before exploring it further, let me fast forward:

Benjamin’s “literalness” is Jack Spicer’s “present” in his dictation process, of writing against the grain. In terms Spicer sets in his letter to Lorca, “literalness” and “writing in the present” are each other’s correspondents, Benjamin’s real lemon corresponding to Spicer’s real seaweed. What is that real which each is after “phantasia non imaginari” (p. 34, The Collected Books of Jack Spicer), what is “to translate real objects”(p. 34, The Collected) or, in Benjamin’s terms, what is it—if not facts, or an image or a picture—that a translation translates, what is the task of a translator?

The second startling concept in Benjamin’s essay is that of “translatability”: “... the utter preponderance of content, far from being the lever for a translation of distinctive mode, [it] renders it impossible. The higher the level of a work, the more does it remain translatable even if its meaning is touched upon only fleetingly” (p. 81, Illuminations).

In other words, distance, alienness, lack, mismatch between languages increase the translatability of a work. Translation is an intensification—not a bridging—of distance (a message from the Spicerean outer).

Or: translation does not translate meaning but a glimpse of the lack of it—the feeble insufficiency of the host language.

Here is Benjamin’s third step, his Hegelian synthesis. Each language has an “intention” and “[modes] of its intention” (p. 74, Ill.). The modes of intention are trapped in individual languages, “words, sentences, structure [being] mutually exclusive.... Brot and pain ‘intend’ the same object, but the modes of this intention are not the same” (74, Illuminations). No language can fulfill its intention alone but must join the intentions of other languages supplementing each other in the realm of “pure language”(74, Ill.), logos.

Translation is a movement towards logos by both languages, changing them both.

The intention of translation as a genre is to break out of the trap of its linguistic system,  starts out of a lack, of suppressed meaning, of distance in the host language. In its longing for linguistic complementation, in pure language, which in essence is a political longing, translation violates, blurs, makes meaningless the closed system (the modes of intention) of the second language—in Spicer’s term, its “furniture,”—revealing its suppressed moral, political, anarchic intention.