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  • The Debt of the Translator: An Essay on Translation and Modernism
  • Alina Clej (bio)

Les poèmes ont toujours de grandes marges blanches, de grandes marges de silence où la mémoire ardente se consume pour recréer un délire sans passé.

—Paul Eluard, L’Evidence poétique

What are the seductions of translation for the modernist writer? The question needs to be asked if one considers at least two of the most representative figures of modernism: Baudelaire and Benjamin. Baudelaire spent a good part of his time for about fifteen years translating the works of Poe. He also spent more than two years translating and adapting De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) and their sequel Suspiria de Profundis (1845), which are incorporated in his own Paradis artificiels (1860) under the title “Un Mangeur d’opium.” 1 Benjamin was also engaged for several years in translation projects, which included Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal and Tableaux parisiens (1923), to which the essay “The Task of the Translator” stands as a preface, and three volumes from Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. 2 Notwithstanding the material concerns that may have prompted this unusual expenditure of time and effort on the part of these two writers—both lived in a state of chronic insolvency, and were dependent on the publishing market to survive—it seems that there was more a stake in their translation ventures than a mere pragmatic interest. [End Page 7]

In both cases, the authors they translated were also a major source of inspiration to which they were indebted. In both cases, this poetic dependency manifests itself in an addictive use of quotation, which escapes its derivative status by evolving into an original technique of creative appropriation, or rifacimento, to use De Quincey’s term. 3 Moreover, what is “refashioned” in this process is not just the other’s discourse, but the writer’s own subjectivity as well. I will argue that in these particular forms of poetic liability, which are, to some extent, part and parcel of the process of writing and literary transmission, one may discern a more insidious form of literary dependency, which is, I believe, specific to these authors, while being at the same time a symptom of modernity at large. I will use Benjamin’s essay, “The Task of the Translator” to illuminate the theoretical questions raised by this particular phenomenon, and Baudelaire’s Paradis artificiels to explore the consequences that this phenomenon can have for the individual writer.

Towards the beginning of his essay on “The Task of the Translator,” Benjamin calls the relation between the translation and the original “a natural one, or more specifically, a vital connection” (1969, 71). The original depends on the translation to come into full bloom, and in the process of facilitating this “abundant,” though belated “flowering,” “the mother tongue of the translator is transformed as well” (Benjamin 1969, 72–73). Although the relation between translation and the original may appear to be one of mutual dependency, it becomes clear, however, that this image of organic harmony is deceptive. 4 The original exists, in fact, in an independent sphere, unlike the translation, which has a derivative or attendant status. “Translations,” Benjamin argues, “do not so much serve the work as owe their existence to it” (Benjamin 1969, 72). Even more, they turn out to be “superfluous,” Unable to reproduce the inherent unity of meaning in the original, the translation “envelops its content like a royal robe with ample folds” (Benjamin 1969, 75), concealing, as it were, its own inadequacy. But something does emerge from this incongruous, ironic relation between translation and original, which has nothing to do with either one. 5 This is, according to Benjamin, an intimation of the ultimate “kinship” of all languages, “which is realized only by the totality of their intentions supplementing each other: pure language” (Benjamin 1969, 74). The “embryonic attempt” of making visible this “hidden” significance redeems the inadequacy of the translation, and saves it, in a sense, from ridicule.

Benjamin’s essay raises some of the issues that preoccupy us here. To displace Benjamin’s terms, what can possibly be the relation...

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pp. 7-26
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