24 November 2009

MCT: Walter Benjamin

The essay in MCT is “The task of the translator” - originally the introduction to Benjamin's own translation of Baudelaire's Tableaux Parisiens. Benjamin wrote in German, but that doesn't excuse this sentence:
Translatability is an essential quality of certain works, which is not to say that it is essential that they be translated; it means rather that a specific significance inherent in the original manifests itself in its translatability.

In the English, at least, there's an unfunny pun on the meaning of essential, followed by an explanation that explains nothing. The whole piece is horribly written, with huge paragraphs, twisted syntax, and unhelpful similes and metaphors. A key metaphor is that of the 'life' of literary works. In fact, Benjamin is at pains to point out that he is not being metaphorical when he uses the term.
The concept of life is given its due only if everything that has a history of its own, and is not merely the setting for history, is credited with life.

Translation is a way in which the life of a work is continued; this is one of the reasons translations have to be renewed.

The bulk of the essay, though, is on the question of literalness v freedom in translation. Benjamin separates out meaning and 'the inessential'. In this passage, I think there's insufficient consideration of what those terms really mean. Benjamin show that a totally literal translation is impossible, so then goes on to say that translations serve language – both the source and the target. He refers to the Romanticists' views on translation – he's talking about Schlegel etc – and their view that translations should enrich the target language, bringing in new concepts and terms. I think I have the same trouble with this as I had with Schlegel in Venuti's book.

More worringly, he seems to believe in the idea of a pure language (I think – it really is hard to grasp what he's going on about), a language of forms, of which all real languages are a poor approximation.
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. 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.

Honestly, at this point he seems to me to have crossed the line into the mystical. The wall/arcade metaphor sounds biblical, and the editor's note tells us that Benjamin at this time (1923) was studying Hebrew and considering taking a teaching post in Jerusalem. The text ends with some comments on 'Holy Writ':
in which meaning has ceased to be the watershed for the flow of language and the flow of revelation. Where a text is identical with truth or dogma, where it is supposed to 'the true language' in all its literalness and without the mediation of meaning, this text is unconditionally translatable.

One thing my readings of the extracts in MCT is showing me is that they are only a sketch of the writer's work, often a sketch of a relatively small part of it. I've read some Benjamin before – ages ago, the essay on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction – too long ago to remember anything about it, except the sense that it raised exactly the questions that its title promises. The current essay is also about reproduction of a work, but exactly not in a mechanical way. I shouldn't discard Benjamin's work on the basis of this essay, but it really hasn't encouraged me to read any more.


BG said...

As someone who had to study Benjamin as part of his MA in German, I can say that this is not a bad translation: he's equally opaque in the original. For reasons I've never understood, this is considered a virtue by his academic critics, who like to go on about his "deliberately difficult" prose style.

Brian said...

BG - thanks for the comment. I've spent most of my working life trying to explain complicated things in simple terms, and it can be done. It annoys me when people like Benjamin (and lots of others) don't even try.