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critical reflections translations language games

On Benjamin On Translation In Translation, Part I

January 1, 2022


Never having learnt German, my acquaintance with Walter Benjamin’s essay on translation was initially through the Harry Zohn translation, a translation that is often pretty but also what one might term ‘abstruse.’ It was only upon reading the Steven Rendall translation that I was finally able to arrive at a coherent and satisfactory interpretation of Benjamin’s essay. For while the Rendall translation is on occasion less pretty than the Zohn translation, Rendall does, nevertheless, give us a Benjamin who is incisive and precise, unlike Zohn whose Benjamin is often lost somewhere along the abstruse-obscure-obscurant cline. Furthermore, Rendall’s translation regularly accords with the wonderful French translation by Maurice de Gandillac (proofread by Rainer Rochlitz). This has led me to accept Rendall’s as the definitive English translation.

I present here a critical reading, through a semiotic lens, of “The Translator’s Task.” Together with it, I present comparative notes on the three translations referenced. The notes focus on the following three types of academic translation problems:

(a) problems arising in relation to the translation of key terms and ideas;
(b) the translation of complex chains of anaphoric reference, so common in philosophical texts;
(c) a reader’s worst nightmare: two translations that diverge in meaning …

I end with a set of rules of good practice for academic translation. These rules are derived from the critical comparative notes and, needless to say, my own academic translation practice.

On Benjamin On Translation In Translation, Part I:
A reading of the essay through a semiotic lens


Viewed through a semiotic lens, the thrust of Benjamin’s conception of translation may be summed up thus: translation is an indexical icon of “pure language.” Note that Benjamin’s focus here is specifically on the translation of “great literary works.” (This significance of this focus will become clear in Part III.)

We begin with a consideration of Benjamin’s model of language.

For the sake of convenience, I shall reference the three translations of Benjamin’s essay using only the name of the translator, followed by the relevant page number.

Benjamin’s model of language

Benjamin speaks of the intentions of languages, “what they want to say” (Rendall, 77). Within the intention of a language, he states, we must distinguish the language’s “modes of meaning” (Rendall, 78). These modes of meaning must be considered at two analytical levels. The first level is that of the particular elements of a language—“words, sentences, structures” (Ibid.). At this level, the mode of meaning of one language stands in a relationship of mutual exclusion to the modes of meaning of other languages. Thus, the German Brot and the French pain “signify something different to a German or a Frenchman” (Ibid.).

We may understand this as follows: a word within a language may be glossed to explain what it is and what it is not with respect to other nearby terms in that language. The set of these nearby terms shapes the native speaker’s understanding of the term itself. By contrast, the structure of correspondence between two words of different languages is a very different matter, given the differences in the two sets of nearby terms. For instance, the German need not be aware of this set of nearby terms in French, which is why she would understand Brot in dependence on its nearby terms in German and would, perhaps, understand pain as well, effectively, as Brot. By contrast, a “Frenchman” would understand pain in dependence on its nearby terms in French and would perhaps understand Brot, effectively, as pain. In general, the native language’s set of nearby terms would influence the speaker’s understanding of the foreign language term. Thus, the German Brot and the French pain would “signify something different to a German or a Frenchman.”

The second level at which modes of meaning must be considered is that of the language as a whole. At this level, the modes of meaning of one language complement those of other languages: at the level of language as a whole, considering the intended object “taken absolutely” (Rendall, 78), the modes of meaning involved in words such as Brot and pain complement each other since both “‘intend’ the same object” (Zohn, 74).

Now, within any single, uncomplemented language (that is, considering the first analytical level), the intended object remains forever hidden1. One reason for this would be that a language, for Benjamin, is in a constant state of transformation, so that the intended object can never be independently present in any way therein (Rendall, 78). This is why the revelation of the intended object requires the complementary relationship of languages, the harmony of their modes of meaning.

When and how will the intended object emerge, revealing itself in all its glory? To understand this, we must consider the fundamental postulate of Benjamin’s model.

To be continued in On Benjamin On Translation In Translation, Part II

Comparative Critique of the Three Translations:
Considering terms in translation

I present here two examples of types of problems one regularly encounters with terms in academic translation.

Example 1: On the term “mode” in the Harry Zohn translation

Zohn uses the term “mode” in two distinct ways in his translation. First, he uses it to characterize translation: “Translation is a mode” (Zohn, 70). This notion remains fairly mysterious throughout the essay, the word “mode” scarcely clarifying what it might mean.

Second, Zohn uses “mode” in relation to the intentions of languages and words: “mode of intention,” “modes of this intention,” “these modes” (Zohn, 74).

Given that we have the same word, viz. “mode”—used once to characterize translation, and then in relation to the intentions of languages and words—must we, as readers, infer some connection at some level between its two modes (!) of usage? Whether or not there is a connection between these two instances of “mode” is thoroughly unclear. One may, consequently, go so far as to say that this is an instance of bad translation.

Rendall, by contrast, is careful to use two different words in the two instances: in the Rendall, translation is a “form,” and it is “modes of meaning” that words and languages possess, as opposed to the Zohnian “modes of intention” (Rendall, 76, 78; my emphases).

Gandillac’s French is similar to the Rendall in using two different words: it uses “forme” (Gandillac, 245) in case of the Zohn’s “mode.” And it uses “manière de viser” and “mode de visée” (Gandillac, 251) in case of the Zohn’s “mode of intention” and the Rendall’s “mode of meaning.”

In light of the above considerations (and others), I, as a reader, chose to use Rendall’s translations in my interpretation of Benjamin’s essay in English.

Example 2: On the terms “signify,” “mean,” “intend,” and their variants, in the Steven Rendall translation

In his translation of a passage discussing “modes of meaning,” Rendall variously uses “mean,” “signify,” and “intend,” or variants thereof (Rendall, 78). The differences in meanings (!) of these words is far from clear, given that they are fairly interchangeable and used in myriad ways in English academic literature.

In case of the German Sinn, Rendall helpfully specifies in a footnote that he always translates it as “sense” and not “meaning” (Rendall, 83). He does not include footnotes to explain his usage of “mean,” “signify,” and “intend” and their variants. Nevertheless, his translation is coherent and comprehensible since his use of these words manifests discernible patterns. These patterns permit the reader, with a little effort, to draw inferences about the relations between the different words, and thereby arrive at a coherent interpretation of the passage.

Consider the Rendall passage:

This is one of the basic laws of the philosophy of language, and to understand it precisely we must distinguish the mode of meaning within the intention of what is meant. In “Brot” and “pain,” what is meant is the same, but the mode of meaning differs. It is because of the mode of meaning that the two words signify something different to a German or a Frenchman, that they are not regarded as interchangeable and in fact ultimately seek to exclude one another; however, with respect to their intended object, taken absolutely, they signify one and the same thing. Thus whereas these two words’ modes of meaning are in conflict, they complement each other in the two languages from which they stem. And indeed in them the relation between the mode of intention and what is meant is complemented. (Rendall, 78; my emphases)

Let us compare it with the corresponding passage in the Zohn:

Without distinguishing the intended object from the mode of intention, no firm grasp of this basic law of a philosophy of language can be achieved. The words Brot and pain “intend” the same object, but the modes of this intention are not the same. It is owing to these modes that the word Brot means something different to a German than the word pain to a Frenchman, that these words are not interchangeable for them, that, in fact, they strive to exclude each other. As to the intended object, however, the two words mean the very same thing. While the modes of intention in these two words are in conflict, intention and object of intention complement each of the two languages from which they are derived; there the object is complementary to the intention. (Zohn, 74; my emphases)

The following are two examples of what I mean by discernible patterns in the Rendall.

First, consider the regularities of word usage in the Rendall: “signify” is present exclusively as a verb, none of its other forms being used; “meaning” appears exclusively in the collocation “mode of meaning”; “meant” appears exclusively in the collocation “what is meant”; and forms of “intend” appear exclusively in the use of “intention” and the collocation “intended object”2. This is an instance of what I term a discernible pattern: it helps the reader to relate words, and thereby the concepts they are involved in communicating, despite the fact that the words themselves are vague and very similar.

A glance at the corresponding words in the Zohn, highlighted above, suffices to show us that it lacks this regularity of usage.

Second, consider the following two sentence fragments from the Rendall:

because of the mode of meaning … the two words signify something different to a German or a Frenchman (my emphases)


with respect to their intended object, taken absolutely, they [the two words] signify one and the same thing (my emphases)

Note the following three points regarding these two fragments:

The discernible pattern here is:

subject [Brot, pain] + verb [signify] + object [involving same/different]

Discerning this pattern allows the reader immediately to search for a reason for the difference: why does the same pairing of a subject and verb produce two different results? The reader may then infer that the first sentence speaks of modes of meaning at the level of words, which entails that the words signify “something different.” The second sentence, by contrast, speaks of the “intended object, taken absolutely,” which must then be a different analytical level in the model. At this analytical level, which the next sentences clarify is that of languages as wholes, the words signify “the same thing.”

Once again, a glance at the Zohn passage shows us that such patterning is absent therein.

Thus it is that a clear, coherent, discernible patterning of words in the translation enables the reader to comprehend the original’s message even when vague and similar words have to be used.

Rules of Good Academic Translation Practice

# Rule 1.

Avoid using the same word within different terms and concepts, unless the original does so.

If it is absolutely necessary to use the same word, use contextual clues to guide the reader towards the different senses of the word in the different contexts (see Rule #2 on discernible patterning).

If this is not possible, include a translator’s footnote.

# Rule 2.

If it is necessary to use similar words, words whose meaning is vague, or words that are used in myriad ways in academic literature, then involve the words in discernible patterns of relationships with the words and text surrounding them. The interested reader will then be able to discern the patterns and use these as a guideline to infer the relationships between concepts involved.

To be continued in On Benjamin On Translation In Translation, Part II

(full bibliography for the entire article)

Benjamin, Walter. 2000. La tâche du traducteur. Maurice de Gandillac, translator and Rainer Rochlitz, proofreader. In Oeuvres, I. Paris: Éditions Gallimard. 244-262.

Benjamin, Walter. 2007[1968]. The Task of the Translator. Harry Zohn, translator. In Illuminations. Hannah Arendt (ed.). New York: Schocken Books, 69-82.

Benjamin, Walter. 2012[2000]. The Translator’s Task. Steven Rendall, translator. In The Translation Studies Reader. Lawrence Venuti (ed.). London, New York: Routledge, 75-83.

Leach, Edmund. 1970. Claude Levi-Strauss. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

de Saussure, Ferdinand. 1971. Cours de Linguistique Générale. Paris: Payot.

Silverstein, Michael. 2000.Whorfianism and the Linguistic Imagination of Nationality. In Regimes of Language. Paul Kroskrity (ed.). Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research Press, 85-138.

Silverstein, Michael. 2003. Translation, Transduction, Transformation: Skating “Glossando” on Thin Semiotic Ice. In Translating Cultures – Perspectives on Translation and Anthropology. Paula Rubel and Abraham Rosman (eds.). New York, Oxford: Berg, 75-105.


  1. One is reminded here of the Saussurean conception of language. For Saussure, the valeur of the signified can only be known at the systemic level of language as a whole, as different from all the other valeurs of all the other signifieds within that language (Saussure 1971: esp. 159). The difference is that, for Saussure, this valeur can be known within the system of a single language, independent of other languages. For Benjamin, by contrast, the intended object is forever hidden within a single language, and can only emerge when languages complement each other fully. ↩︎

  2. I recognize that the term “mode of intention,” used towards the end in the Rendall passage, would seem to break this regularity. This term is deeply problematic and appears only once in the entire essay in Rendall’s translation. I shall discuss it in a future post. ↩︎