Some Notes on Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator”

“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”

Talking about “The Riddle of Poetry,” as part of his Norton Lectures at Harvard University,  Jorge Luis Borges referred once to a famous sonnet by the great English Romantic John Keats: “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” in order to explain the ‘riddle’ hidden behind the language of poetry.

At this point, it might be a good thing to say that, according to Charles Cowden Clarke — who by the way happens to be the one source of the whole story — this sonnet was written one night of October 1816, soon after he and Keats had spent a whole night reading George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s books. So impressed was Keats with Chapman’s translation that after he and Clarke parted “at day-spring” Keats sent his friend a letter containing the famous verses as a gift.

Borges knew Keats’ poem by heart. During the lecture, he used the last sestet to illustrate one important point — that language is not only a ‘medium’ for communication but also for “passion and pleasure.” Here is Borges’ rendering of Keats’ sestet:

Then felt like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or’ like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific -and all his men
look’d at each other with a wild surmise-
Silent, upon a peak in Darien

I think that Keats’ sonnet and Borges’ reading of it are an excellent way to approach the problem of translation, particularly Walter Benjamin’s take on it. But first let’s talk a little bit about Benjamin.

Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator

In his introduction to a translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens, Benjamin asks whether a translation is meant for readers who do not understand the original — to which he responds that it isn’t. The task of the translator, he explains, is “finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of” the original’s “mode of signification.” Therefore, a translation is no meant for an idealized reader or readers but for the language those readers use — to release in it “that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.”

What is this “pure language”? A few people have tried to provide an interpretation to this enigmatic  term.


For instance, translation scholar Susan Bernofsky argues that this ‘pure language’ is some unmediated form of a (still) non existent global language…

For Benjamin, pure language is a form, not an actual active language: it is the intersection of all the world’s individual, human languages – making it, in a sense, post-human. It doesn’t exist yet in actuality, but it will some day, eventually, in the messianically distant future (pace de Man) when the borders separating all the languages of the world from one another have become so blurry that they all merge into one. Translators are the ones doing the blurring, in case you were wondering.

There is an intrinsic impossibility in Bernofsky’s program though. This distillation of a global, all-encompassing messianic  ‘pure language’ requires something that is either outside of history or, at least, at the end of it. Why? Because, as she says, such a language doesn’t “point to the world of things and ideas, which lies outside” it. Basically, it is ‘pure form’, a non-entity in much the same way an abstract point is a non-entity, ‘pure form’, in the realm of mathematics. Can this non-entity really mean anything? What is the relationship between it and the point of its production? On the other hand, can language — written or spoken, visual o textual, etc. — really exist outside of history? Is there any clear relationship between language and history?

Brecht and method

At the end of his book on Brecht’s method, Fredric Jameson adds an epilogue in which he discusses three additional “temporalities.” Jameson’s book is mostly a reflection on Brecht’s praxis and its connection with his “productivity.”

I think here Benjamin is referring to a work’s historicity, in the Jamesonian sense. Each literary work has its own historicity embedded into its language. The fact that translations are part of the afterlife of literary works seems to support this idea. If what a translator wants is to find that echo of the original “mode of signification,” then his/her task is no other than reconstructing the original’s totality.

For Benjamin, the best translation is the literal one or, better yet, the interlinear. The juxtaposition of the literal translation and the original facilitates the turning of the translated words into the original. Rather than trying to convey some concealed meaning, the task of the translator is thus to express the “central reciprocal relationship between languages.”

The Argentinian critic Beatriz Sarlo argues that behind the translator’s task there is the impulse to undo the Babelian project — the drive for mutual misunderstanding. Benjamin doubts the feasibility of such a project, since the task of the translator doesn’t relies on the similarities among languages but on their differences.