Bright arrogance #3

Benjamin, translation, and the sacred sound

It is a common misconception that Walter Benjamin’s writings on translation, specifically “The Task of the Translator,” support and even found a translation practice that calls itself “experimental.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.  With regards to translation, Benjamin was a fundamentalist in more ways than one. Benjamin was searching for a sacred language, the true Word of God, in a translation — although it is perhaps paradoxical that his searches were inspired as much (if not more) by writers like Baudelaire as by Holy Writ. Perhaps for this reason he remains interesting for contemporary readers, this imposition of prelapsarian oddities into the modern purview which characterizes Benjamin’s method in general, and makes him less an ideologue than a magician who can coax out of centuries of cultural detritus the sacred sound.


There are two categories of this sacred language that need to be parsed to get some sort of idea of what he was after. First, there was the language of God— the Word or Logos, the set patterning of the world which guaranteed that Scholastic inquiries into the Book of Nature, the catena aurea or “great chain of being,” would not come up empty handed (and it was to these older theories of the relation of nature to a holy grammar that Baudelaire referred back in his poem “Correspondences,” which has been translated more manically by Brandon Brown and Marie Buck, among others)[1]. These correspondences were set in play by God’s naming—names which are now unavailable to us, unnameable. However, the second layer of sacred language is the Adamic — this blissful, effortless bestowing of language to things that Adam engaged in before the Fall, and which we can imagine remained somewhat operative, albeit compromised, until the catastrophe of Babel. Adam, as the first translator, is not “making shit up,” when he names the world— rather, as Benjamin points out in an early essay on translation, Adam’s spontaneous coding of the world is receptive to “the conception of the nameless in the name.”  He picks up, in a sense, on God’s radiant intention, and as such is the archetype of the blameless translator. For Benjamin, Adamic perfection in the face of the thing itself is the deepest foundation of any theory of translation, and explains the convertibility of all languages (even though most proponents of machine translation would say that this deep connection to a common meaning is beside the point)[2].


But it is precisely Benjamin’s rebellion against translation-as-information (and against new information economies in general) that gives him contemporary applicability. It is in his critique of a literary work as “information,” and translation as a mere transmittal of content, where experimental translators find an ally. What’s essential in a poem is the non-communicable, the non-translatable; in fact, he implies that it is precisely the most “untranslatable” poems that have, paradoxically, a higher “translatability”: “The higher the level of a work, the more does it remain translatable even if its meaning is touched upon only fleetingly.”  His critique of bad translations (and, by association, bad all-too-translatable poetry) is isomorphic with his notion of the loss of “aura” in the age of mechanical reproduction. In reinstituting the proper strangeness of translation, a translator may be restoring the aura of the inexplicable in the act of translating the world.





1. Forthcoming in the Winter 2015 issue of the Western Humanities Review is a selection of experimental translations of Baudelaire's "Correspondences," including work from Erin Moure, Lisa Robertson, Bob Perelman, Orchid Tierney, Maria Damon, Danny Snelson, Marcella Durand, Sandra Simonds, Stephanie Barber, Evan Peterson, Marie Buck, Brandon Brown, John Tranter, Christopher Vandegrift, Mark Johnson, Amaranth Borsuk, Gabriela Jauregui, Sean Bonney, Robert Mittenthal, Clark Lunberry, David Reisman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Joseph Mosconi, and Kalan Sherrard. 

2. See David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? pp. 83-84