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On Benjamin On Translation In Translation, Part IV

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

(Continued from Part I, Part II and Part III.)

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 translation of the Holy Scriptures—the ideal of all translation

The works of greatest value and dignity, Benjamin avers, are the Holy Scriptures. These are “unconditionally translatable” and

just as language and revelation must be united in the text, literalness and freedom must be united in the form of an interlinear translation. (Rendall, 83)

This interlinear translation of the Holy Scriptures is, Benjamin says, the ideal of all translation.

I interpret this as follows: in the Holy Scriptures, where “the text belongs immediately to truth,” translation is freed from the need to iconically reproduce the sense of the original in a different language. Interlinear translation is, therefore, precisely the form that lends itself to this type of translation. For it does not seek to reproduce the original’s sense in reliance on the particular elements of a different language. The interlinear translation of Holy Scriptures is thus truly and wholly indexically iconic of pure language, without the distraction of mere sense reproduction of the original text in the translation’s language.

Of relevance here is Benjamin’s discussion of the difference between words and sentences in the true language of a translation:

True translation is transparent: it does not obscure the original, does not stand in its light, but rather allows pure language, as if strengthened by its own medium, to shine even more fully on the original. This is made possible primarily by conveying the syntax word-for-word; and this demonstrates that the word, not the sentence, is translation’s original element. For the sentence is the wall in front of the language of the original, and word-for-word rendering the arcade. (Rendall, 81)

Benjamin asserts here that “the word, not the sentence, is translation’s original element”: the sentence is a “wall in front of the original” while the “word-for-word rendering” is an arcade.

I understand this as follows: the sentence consists in words that are bound up in the structures of the language. The sentence is thus rigid, as it were, with the modes of meaning specific to the language at the level of its particular elements. It, therefore, serves well to reproduce the sense of sentences within an original work. Words, by contrast, if treated individually, are more tractable, easily separated, broken up, to reveal the structure of the sentence behind the overall sense that the latter constructs. This is why a “word-for-word rendering” is like an arcade: it allows light to shine through upon the original and indexes the original in a more transparent fashion than a sentence-by-sentence rendering would. This is why an interlinear translation, a “word-for-word rendering,” of the Holy Scriptures is, for Benjamin, the ideal translation.


To recapitulate then: the “true language” of translation is an indexical icon of “pure language.” It iconizes that future harmony of modes of meaning of all languages that will be attained at the messianic end of the history of languages, from which will emerge, in all its glory, the intended object. Translation iconizes that harmony with its “true language” that emerges in the reverberation of translation’s echo within the language forest of the original literary work. Translation also indexes that harmony and pure language, just as a fragment of the broken vessel indexes the whole vessel that is to be fitted together.

Of interest to social scientists and theoreticians of translation is this idea of translation as an indexical icon. For Benjamin, it indexically iconizes pure language. However, Benjamin’s assumption of a theological teleology may be supplanted by a different, social scientific assumption. One may forego the notion of sacred growth and a messianic end to languages’ history. One may choose instead an assumption that is valid within the realm of the social scientific, for instance, that languages possess an underlying or immanent structure, akin to Saussurean structure, that may be studied “constructively, that is, empirically and pragmatically” (Silverstein 2000: 108-109; 2003: esp. 76-77 for a summary).

I suggest, in sum, that the idea of translation as an indexical icon of some higher or deeper form of language, an idea inspired by Benjamin’s essay, is “good to think with”1.

A Comparative Critique of the Three Translations:

(See Part I and Part II for a discussion of terminological problems that regularly crop up in academic translation, and Part III for a discussion of translating long chains of anaphoric reference.)

A reader’s worst nightmare—when translations diverge in their meaning …

It turns out that the Zohn and Rendall translations of the passage are saying different things at two points in at least one key passage.

The Zohn translation of the passage is:

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; emphases added)

The Rendall reads:

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; emphases added)

First, at the beginning of the passage, the Rendall translation states that, to understand the basic law of a philosophy of language under consideration, it is necessary to “distinguish the mode of meaning within the intention of what is meant [= the intended object].” In effect, the Rendall seems to state here that the mode of meaning must be distinguished within the ‘intention of the intended object.’ What is the ’the intention of the intended object’ in Benjamin? This is unclear and sounds strange since elsewhere in the essay, it is words and languages that intend; the intended object does not itself intend ever.

The Zohn translation, by contrast, speaks of “distinguishing the intended object from the mode of intention,” so as to understand that law of the philosophy of language. This too is unclear: as was mentioned, words and languages intend an object, that is then the intended object. It is not clear, therefore, where distinguishing (a mode of) intention and its object would get us. The rest of the text that follows does not elucidate this either.

We thus have—horror of horrors—two translations that apparently diverge in their meaning, and that are, additionally, thoroughly unclear. In other words, the two translations are irreconcilable, and each is irresolvable!

Second, at the end of the passage, the Rendall translation states that in languages, “the relation between the mode of intention and what is meant is complemented.” I take this to mean that, at the level of languages as wholes, the relationship of the “mode of intention” and the intended object in one language is complemented by other such relationships in other languages. One problem here is that this is the only occasion on which the Rendall uses the term “mode of intention.” This term thus remains completely opaque in the absence of any patterns of its usage, raising the questions: what would the difference be between a “mode of intention” and an “intention” of a language? What is the difference between “mode of intention” and “mode of meaning”? To which no answers are furnished: in the absence of discernible patterns of usage, it is impossible to infer anything about the term “mode of intention.”

The Zohn translation here states something that looks very different: on the one hand, the “intention and object of intention complement each of the two languages from which they are derived” (emphases added). On the other, “the object is complementary to the intention” (my emphases). The Zohn thus offers not one but two notions of complementarity. Furthermore, neither of the two bears any resemblance to the Rendall on this point. The two translations are, once more, irreconcilable, and each is irresolvable!

The two English translations thus leave the reader in a quandary. Why do they differ? Which one communicates better Benjamin’s message? The reader turns to the French translation in the hope of solace. The corresponding passage in the Gandillac translation reads:

Pour saisir exactement cette loi, une des lois fondamentales de la philosophie du langage, il faut, à l’intérieur de l’intention, distinguer ce qui est visé de la manière dont on le vise. 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, alors que, pour ce qui concerne le visé, pris absolument, ils signifient une seule et même chose. Tandis que la manière de viser est en opposition dans ces deux mots, elle se complète dans les deux langues d’où ils proviennent. En elles, en effet, se complète la manière de viser, pour constituer le visé. (Gandillac, 251)

To begin with the second problem, the one occurring at the end of the passage: where the Rendall has “mode of intention,” the Gandillac has “manière de viser,” which is uniformly the equivalent of Rendall’s “mode of meaning.” Is “mode of intention” then merely a horrible typographic error in the Rendall translation? This is what I assume in my interpretation adopted above.

Next consider the problem at the start of the passage: what is it that needs to be distinguished in order to understand that basic law of a philosophy of language? The Gandillac states, effectively, that in languages, modes of meaning complement each other to constitute the intended object.

The Randall, recall, gives us:

we must distinguish the mode of meaning within the intention of what is meant.

This, in accordance with the Gandillac, should read:

we must distinguish the mode of meaning, within the intention, of from what is meant.

The word “of” must be replaced by “from,” and we need to throw in two commas for good measure. Once this is done, the Rendall matches the Gandillac, God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world!

Rules of Good Academic Translation Practice

(See Part I, Part II, and Part III for rules 1-4.)

# Rule 5.

(5a) Proofread, proofread, proofread!

(5b) If an opaque term appears only once in the translated text (that is, assuming that “mode of intention” is not an error), it is not possible to guide the reader using discernible textual patterns. In such cases, include a footnote or the original term in parentheses—something, anything!

(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. On the difficulties of translating Levi-Strauss’s “bon à penser” as “good to think” or “good to think with,” see Leach (1970: 32). ↩︎