a rope fastened between
critical reflections translations language games

On Benjamin On Translation In Translation, Part II

January 15, 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 II:
A reading of the essay through a semiotic lens

(Continued from Part I)

Note that, 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.

The model’s fundamental postulate

Languages, Benjamin states, are in a state of constant transformation. In fact, they are growing, and it is a “sacred growth,” towards the “messianic end of their history” (Rendall, 78). It is at this endpoint that the perfect harmony of the modes of meaning of all languages will be achieved, all languages complementing each other. And from this harmony will emerge the intended object, in pure language1 (Rendall, 78).

This, then, is the teleology of Benjamin’s model of language. It involves a theological assumption, which places the model outside the realm of the social scientific.

If, Benjamin says, we accept this postulate of the “sacred growth” of languages towards the messianic end of their history, then translation becomes something extremely significant. For translation, he says, can test that sacred growth of languages, to determine how distant the intended object, hidden within an individual language, is from its revelation.

On the indexical iconicity of translation

Benjamin writes of translation that:

In translation, the original develops into a linguistic sphere that is both higher and purer… it points at least, in a wonderfully penetrating manner, toward the predetermined, inaccessible domain where languages are reconciled and fulfilled. (Rendall, 79)

Benjamin terms the language of translation the “language of truth – the true language” (Rendall, 80).

How does the translation attain a “higher and purer” linguistic sphere than the original literary work? How is the language of translation “true”? And what would the difference be between the “true language” of translation and “pure language”?

The “intention” of the original literary work, Benjamin states, is only ever directed “toward certain linguistic ways of structuring content,” never towards language as a whole (Rendall, 79-80). The translation’s “intention,” by contrast, starts from a single work of art, but is directed towards a language as a whole, that is, the language into which the work is to be translated. Benjamin sketches the metaphor of the “forest of language” to discuss this: the original literary work lies in the middle of such a forest of its own language. The translation, by contrast, remains outside, facing this forest. From this position,

the translation calls to the original within, at that one point where the echo can produce in its own language a reverberation of the work in the foreign language (Rendall, 80)

This rather abstruse metaphor may be understood as follows: the translation calls to the original at the center of its “language forest” (Zohn, 76). Its call produces an echo, that is, in the language of the translation. If the translation’s call falls at precisely the right point with respect to the original literary work, then its echo reverberates through the original’s language forest. The metaphor of this reverberation, of the echo in the language of translation within the language forest of the original, accords with Benjamin’s notion of the complementing of languages’ intentions, and the harmony of the modes of meaning of languages.

This, then, is a key aspect of what I term translation’s indexical iconicity in this model: this reverberation, of translation’s echo within the original’s language forest, is iconic of that harmony of modes of meaning of all languages that will reveal pure language at the messianic end of languages’ history. Simultaneously, the “true language” of translation is indexical of that “pure language” that will be revealed at languages’ messianic end time. This, then, is the sense in which translation’s language is “true.” This, then, is how translation relates to the original literary work, and occupies a higher and purer linguistic realm than the latter.

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

A Comparative Critique of the Three Translations:
Considering terms in translation

I present here an example of a third type of problem one encounters with terms in academic translation.

(See Part I for a discussion of examples of two other types of terminological problems in academic translation.)

Example 3: on the notion of “messianic” in Benjamin’s model of language

Consider first the Zohn translation of Benjamin’s discussion of how languages grow:

In the individual, unsupplemented languages, meaning is never found in relative independence, as in individual words or sentences; rather, it is in a constant state of flux—until it is able to emerge as pure language from the harmony of all the various modes of intention. Until then, it remains hidden in the languages. If, however, these languages continue to grow in this manner until the end of their time, it is translation which catches fire on the eternal life of the works and the perpetual renewal of language. Translation keeps putting the hallowed growth of languages to the test: How far removed is their hidden meaning from revelation, how close can it be brought by the knowledge of this remoteness? (Zohn, 74-75; emphases added)

Consider next Rendall’s translation of this passage:

In the individual, uncomplemented languages, the intended object never occurs in relative independence, for instance in individual words or sentences, but is rather caught up in constant transformation, until it is able to emerge as pure language from the harmony of all these modes of meaning. Until then it remains hidden in the various languages. But if languages grow in this way until they reach the messianic end of their history, then it is translation that is ignited by the eternal continuing life of the works and the endless revival of languages in order to constantly test this sacred growth of languages, to determine how distant what is hidden within them is from revelation, how present it might become in the knowledge of this distance. (Rendall, 78; emphases added)

Finally, consider the Gandillac translation of the same:

Dans les langues prises une à une et donc incomplètes, ce qu’elles visent ne peut jamais être atteint de façon relativement autonome, comme dans les mots ou les phrases pris séparément, mais est soumis à une mutation constante, jusqu’à ce qu’il soit en état de ressortir, comme langage pur, de l’harmonie de tous ces modes de visée. Jusqu’alors il reste dissimulé dans les langues. Mais, lorsqu’elles croissent de la sorte jusqu’au terme messianique de leur histoire, c’est à la traduction, qui tire sa flamme de l’éternelle survie des œuvres et de la renaissance indéfinie des langues, qu’il appartient de mettre toujours derechef à l’épreuve cette sainte croissance des langues, pour savoir à quelle distance de la Révélation se tient ce qu’elles dissimulent, combien il peut devenir présent dans le savoir de cette distance. (Gandillac, 251; emphases added)

What we see in the three translations of this passage is that two—viz. the Rendall and the Gandillac—include the term “messianic” ("messianique" in French). The third, viz. the Zohn, does not include this term.

Now, as it so happens, the notion of the “messianic” in the end of languages’ history is crucial to understanding Benjamin’s model of language, as was discussed above: the term communicates clearly the theological nature of the teleology of Benjamin’s model, culminating as it does in the revelation of pure language at this messianic end of languages’ history. Zohn’s translation, quite inexplicably, does not include this term, speaking only of languages’ “hallowed growth” until “the end of their time.” The Zohn does use the term “revelation” but it is included in rather a subtle fashion, speaking of how “far removed … their hidden meaning [is] from revelation.” In the absence of the term “messianic,” it is rather unclear that the growth of languages is hallowed precisely in the sense that it is a growth towards revelation, that is, the revelation of pure language. The mere inclusion of the term “messianic” clarifies the model immediately.

Rules of Good Academic Translation Practice

# Rule 3.

Include key terms explicitly, especially when they are crucial to communicating the sense of the original.

As mentioned, the reader innocent of a knowledge of German has no way of knowing why Zohn omits the term “messianic,” and only knows that it is included in both the Rendall and the Gandillac.

If, for whatever reason, a key term must be left out—perhaps it is only implicit in the original text, for instance—then include a translator’s footnote explaining that implicit meaning which would not otherwise be clear to the reader.

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

(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. Note that Benjamin’s revealed intended object thus remains a linguistic object to the very end. He does not speak here of extra-linguistic objects or realities although, of course, he does not speak either of the relationship between pure language and reality. ↩︎