Bright arrogance #4

Translation as total listening

Image courtesy Kalan Sherrard

Like many traditional translators, Benjamin describes a bad translation as the “inaccurate transmission of inessential content,” an inaccuracy that experimenters may revel in, as they amp up the noise between versions . . . We could say in a Lacanian moment that these new translators make a pere-version of the original, seemingly derailing the paternal metaphors and prohibitions implicit in God-as-namer and the translator as the guarantor of the name. But what would it mean to take Benjamin seriously (and, with Lacan, to avow the unavoidability of the paternal imago), to search for the Adamic patois, divine remnants of the sacred language in the infomatic jumble of disaggregated signs in our literary arcades? To seek . . . the unnameable.


As we pointed out in the last post, it is a mistake, at least on the surface, to read Benjamin as authorizing the more wild, postmodern translations that have emerged from the contemporary collisions of language poetry, conceptual writing, flarf and the world-wide-web. The same year that Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics was published in Paris (1916), Benjamin wrote that the notion of the arbitrariness of the sign, the “accidental relation” of word to object, was a bourgeois conception, and that “the word of God silently radiates in the mute magic of nature.”  Given that Benjamin’s essay was published only posthumously, he may have realized how out-of-step he was, or rather, that he needed to find a way to admit this materialist arbitrariness, while maintaining the validity of his mystical theory of language.


The key might lay in a gesture he makes towards the end of “The Task of the Translator,” in which he posits interlinear Bibles as his ideal of translation. Because the interlinear version attempts no rearrangement of the new text into common syntax, it maintains its sense of foreignness. By keeping the foreign in the foreign, and thus implying that the only translational “fidelity” is a kind of reductio ad absurdum to the shape and sounds of the original, he shares in what Edmund Wilson called (disapprovingly in response to Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin) “the perversepedantic impossible.” Nabokov’s Onegin, Hölderlin’s Sophocles, Robert Browning’s Aeschylus, David Melnick’s Homer, and Louis and Celia Zukofsky’s Catullus, all attempted, in differing degrees, to create exceedingly strange texts by resorting to a dogged literalism, or transliteralism, of the text.[1] Browning admitted his adventure “toilsome and fruitless;” Hölderlin’s may have been the product of madness or the despair of impending death; whereas, on the other side of the mirror, the Zukofsky’s “breathing with” Catullus and Melnick’s active queering of the translational imperative (homoeroticizing Homer rather than homing-in on meaning) have launched a more positivistic trajectory toward new literary communities.[2]


One could say that these are failed projects only to the extent that one requires a literary text to communicate clearly. Rather, they dispel this fiction, and practice what George Steiner calls the “total listening” of good translation: “The more receptive our listening inward, the better the chance that we shall hear a force and logic of expression more central than ‘meaning’ . . . . It is then, in Heidegger’s terms, that we hear ‘language speak’ (die Sprache sprechen), that we separate its own ‘saying’ from our accidence, as does the poet.”  Such translations are Benjaminian in that, while maintaining some attempt at tiqqun, or restoration of the sacred language which seeds itself in the ambiguity of poetic incommunicability, they are part of a process of unfolding that is always historical, temporal, never self similar, foreign to itself even as it attempts momentary absolute unity. The noise they make is not the product of the postmodern clash of ideolects and ideologies, but rather is sound, unsymbolized and unsymbolizable . . . Perhaps not God, but, as an analog of Lacan’s lalanguage, a glimpse of the Real.




1. For Zukofsky and Melnick, this transliteralism is primarily along the axis of sound, rather than meaning, given their almost total dependence on homophonic effects. For Jean-Jacques Lecercle, the motivated deformation of homophony is the "principle device" by which to counter Saussurean arbitrariness, forming "points of subjectivity" or "points of poetry" in an otherwise presumably non-referential system of discretely analyzable units. Such language-lovers as Melnick or Zukofsky are "the ghosts that haunt the linguist, their dubious practices the shadowy picture of his rational praxis."

2. Ron Silliman's categorization of Melnick's experiments as "noble shipwreck," however, may qualify this positivism. The notion of Zukofsky's "breathing with" the poem comes, via Judith Goldman, from David Wray.