The Art of Survival: The Translation of Walter Benjamin
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The Art of Survival:
The Translation of Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin is experiencing a startling new life. The translation project at Harvard University Press intends to make Benjamin’s writings more accessible to English-speaking readers, while many scholars know Benjamin already. At least, they know his name, which seems to be everywhere. “The name Walter Benjamin resounds through contemporary literary and cultural criticism,” as a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education states. Benjamin has come to be identified with erudition and sophistication, but also with obscurity. It remains unclear to what purpose his name is invoked, or what his writings can be said to achieve. Among some theorists, it has become almost standard practice to mention Walter Benjamin, to show that one is thoroughly informed, and has left no stone unturned. Thus we hear a theorist referring to “the Benjaminian ear” in a paper for the general public on Freud, as though confident that everyone would (or perhaps would not) be familiar with the allusion. For Benjamin is known as an obscure writer, in at least two senses of the word: his works cannot be assimilated easily into the academy (as Freud’s are) and they are difficult to read. Some fifty years after his death, Benjamin’s literary figure comes to life. Is the indeterminacy of Benjamin’s literary identity the key to his survival?

Benjamin’s name may appear, but his writings seem curiously difficult to categorize according to any recognizable discipline of literary and cultural scholarship. What scholarly discipline would have Benjamin as its subject? For his work can seem convoluted to an almost unreadable degree, requiring any reader who would know him to exert considerable effort and scrutiny. Its difficulty may suggest even to the rigorous English-speaking scholar, reading in translation, that Benjamin’s writing would be more comprehensible in the original German—especially if one did not know the language. In point of fact, knowledge of German does not simplify the matter [End Page 95] of reading Benjamin altogether, nor vouchsafe the comprehensibility of his writing, as his essay, “The Task of the Translator” makes clear.

The Task of the Translator

Translations, Benjamin insists from the outset, are not intended to enable the reader to comprehend a piece of writing. Instead, the translation is an object distinct from the original—even distinct from the translator—which survives by living away from the original (temporally, spatially, and linguistically). The object of Benjamin’s essay is to re-evaluate literary work away from authorship and originality, and away from polemical determinism (meaning, message, content). The original’s content, its author’s intention, its translator and the translator’s understanding of the original are not significant to the afterlife of the translation.

Translation survives in a form unrelated to the original. “In a curious way,” Paul de Man writes, “translation canonizes its own version more than the original was canonical. . . . [Y]ou cannot, Benjamin says, translate the translation” (35). The translation takes on a life of its own. “Translation issues from the original—not so much from its life as from its afterlife,” writes Benjamin (“Task,” 71). Twice in the lines that follow, Benjamin mentions the “survival” of the translation over the original, but in typically cryptic terms.

Zwar nicht aus seinem Leben so sehr den aus seinem “Überleben” Ist doch die Übersetzung später als das Original und bezeichnet sich doch bei den bedeutenden Werken, die da ihre erwählen Übersetzer niemals in Zeit alter ihrer Entstehung finden, das Stadium ihres Fortlebens.

(51)

Not so much from its life as from its afterlife. For a translation comes later than the original, and since the important works of world literature never find their chosen translators at the time of their origin, their translation marks their stage of continued life.

(71)

Benjamin puts in quotation marks, as though to indicate a special use of the German, the verb used as noun—“Überleben,” which in its ordinary usage means to outlive. “Not so much from its life but as [the original] outlived, survived.” The sentence in the translation suggests that the original emanates a spirituality that the translation can plug into. Instead...