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On Benjamin On Translation In Translation, Part III

February 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 III:
A reading of the essay through a semiotic lens

(Continued from Part I and Part II)

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 task of the translator: fidelity and freedom in translation

Another aspect of translation’s indexical iconicity is more familiar, relating to the “reproduction of the sense” (Rendall, 80) of the original work. Traditional notions of fidelity demand that the translation reproduce—iconize—the sense of the original. In doing so, the translation is then also an index of that original, pointing to it as such.

Benjamin, however, has a somewhat different conception of fidelity in translation. For Benjamin, both the sense and the poetic significance of the original literary work depend on the particular elements—“words, sentences, structures”—of its own language. Note that, for Benjamin, the poetic significance of the original lies not merely in the meanings of its words but “is rather achieved … through the way in which what is meant is bound up with the mode of meaning in the particular word” (Rendall, 80).

How must this sense and its poetic significance be reproduced in translation? What does fidelity mean here? What, in other words, is the translator’s task?

Benjamin uses the metaphor of the “fragments of a vessel” that must be fitted together to reproduce the vessel: the fragments need not resemble each other. What is needed is that they “correspond to each other in the minutest details,” for the vase to be fitted together anew (Rendall, 81). Similarly, translation must:

fashion in its own language, carefully and in detail, a counterpart to the original’s mode of meaning, in order to make both of them recognizable as fragments of a vessel, as fragments of a greater language (Ibid., emphases added)

Simply put, fidelity in translation dictates that the latter must index pure language.

Benjamin’s notion of freedom in translation is similarly conditioned by his conception of pure language: it is the translator’s task to set free in her own language “the pure language spellbound in the foreign language, to liberate the language imprisoned in the work by rewriting it” (Rendall, 82). The extent of such possible liberation of the language imprisoned in the original depends on that original itself. We turn therefore to a consideration of the types of literary works that are, for Benjamin, “translatable.”

The original literary work in Benjamin’s model

We have noted that Benjamin focuses on great literary oeuvres. These works possess what he terms “translatability” (Rendall, 76, etc.); they call for their own translation. This is, no doubt, in consonance with the sacred growth of languages towards their messianic end: great works must be thus translatable for true translations to be able to test regularly the state of growth of languages and their distance from the ultimate revelation of pure language.

The translatability of the original depends on the “value and dignity” of the original’s language (Rendall, 82-83). To put it telegraphically, the value and dignity of an original’s language is inversely proportional to the degree to which it is laden with sense, that is, with a message that must be communicated. (One may think of non-literary, pragmatic texts to understand Benjamin’s point here.) For if an original is heavy with sense, with a message that must be reproduced in translation, then its translation is weighed down by that sense reproduction, weighed down within the modes of meaning of the particular elements of the language of the translation—its “words, sentences, structures”—that are required to construct anew that sense, that message, in the language of translation1. The echo of such a translation and its reverberations would die out rapidly in the face of the weight, as it were, of this sense to be reproduced. The translator of such an original is consequently distracted from her true task and the raison d’être of translation, namely, the indexical iconization of pure language. This is why, for Benjamin, such originals are low in value and dignity.

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

A Comparative Critique of the Three Translations:
On translating long chains of anaphoric reference

(See Part I and Part II for a discussion of terminological problems that regularly crop up in academic translation.)

I present here a discussion of the difficulty of translating anaphoric chains of reference, regularly encountered in philosophical but also other genres of academic writing. English deictic forms do not communicate much information. Think of the terse English “it” as opposed to its equivalent, far more forthcoming French forms – celle-ci/ celui-ci/ celles-ci/ ceux-ci, for instance, which are marked for both gender and number, thereby permitting much longer chains of anaphora with far greater textual distances between anaphor and referent, even quite comfortably accommodating multiple anaphoric chains within a single sentence.

Let us consider first Zohn’s version of a somewhat involved sentence:

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. (Zohn, 74; emphases added)

Zohn’s attempt here is to keep two distinct anaphoric chains in play in a single sentence. The first chain is bolded, its referents being the two words Brot and pain, followed by two anaphoric references (these words, they). The second chain’s referents are the German and the Frenchman, followed by a single anaphora (them)—found bang in the middle of the first anaphoric chain! Certainly, the passage ends up being comprehensible, but it makes for an effortful read.

Is there a better way of handling this, a way that is less taxing to the reader?

We turn to the corresponding sentence in the Rendall, which has:

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 … (Rendall, 78; emphases added)

Rendall does it with only one chain of anaphoric reference, viz. that pertaining to the two words Brot and pain, followed by two anaphoric referents (the two words, they). The sentences are structured such that the German and the Frenchman do not require any anaphoric reference. This is far more elegant, far easier for the reader to understand.

But, one might persist in one’s defense of the Zohn, perhaps Zohn was attempting to remain faithful to something in the original. To consider this, we turn to the corresponding sentences offered us by the French Gandillac translation:

Dans «Brot» et «pain», le visé est assurément le même, mais non la manière de le viser. Car en raison de ce mode de visée les deux mots signifient quelque chose de différent pour l’Allemand et le Français, ne sont pas pour eux interchangeables et même, en fin de compte, tendent à s’exclure l’un l’autre ... (Gandillac, 251; emphases added)

Gandillac’s French thus involves two anaphoric chains of reference like the Zohn. Nevertheless, the structure is quite different: the second chain is extremely short, viz. that involving the referent of the German and Frenchman (l’Allemand et le Français), and the single anaphor (eux). Here the anaphor’s reference is clear since it is the closest to its referent within the text. There is no crisscrossing of the two anaphoric chains either. Instead, the short chain is embedded within the longer one.

Structurally, the relative positionings of the two sets of referents and their anaphora in the French are clearly closer to the Rendall than to the Zohn. The case for Zohn’s fidelity to the original would thus seem rather weak.

In sum, Rendall’s translation proves superior yet again to the Zohn: it avoids multiple, crisscrossing chains of anaphoric reference that can be quite taxing to the English—or, indeed, any—reader, particularly in light of the fact that English anaphora tend to be sparing in the information they communicate.

Rules of Good Academic Translation Practice

(See Part I and Part II for rules 1-3.)

# Rule 4.

(4a) The translation’s chains of anaphoric reference must reflect those of the original accurately. Nevertheless, the different grammatical requirements of the two languages must be taken into account when constructing those chains in the target text.

(4b) In case of long anaphoric chains in the original text, the academic translator’s task is to interpret the original, and to recast the anaphors in the target text, re-stating the referent as and when required.

Such insertions of the referent in the target language may well entail that the translated text is fundamentally an interpretation by the translator. This interpretation, and thereby the translation, must be consistent, with a view to permitting the reader to understand the referent, whether through a study of the chain itself, or by virtue of other clues furnished in the chain’s context, that is, in the contents of the text.

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

(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 this metaphor of the “weight” of the sense or message of the text is my own. ↩︎