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  • The Performance of Translation: Benjamin and Brecht on the Loss of Small Details
  • Patrick Primavesi (bio)

The question of translation, as reflected from different viewpoints by Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, offers a methodological framework concerning the relation between text, performance, and gesture. Beginning with a short commentary on the well-known essay “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers,” (“The Task of the Translator” [1921] 1989), this article points to some principles of translation and “translatability” which Benjamin opened up by his particular style of writing. Benjamin deconstructs the most common metaphors of translation theories such as “resemblance,” “adequacy,” and “faithfulness” to the original. Brecht developed a similar concept of translatability and of gestures as “theatrical thoughts,” especially in connection with his Galileo, which he translated together with the actor Charles Laughton. In this context, the current idea of performance as a kind of translation finds its counterpart in the notion of translation as performance.

In “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers” (“The Task of the Translator”) 1 Benjamin calls into question some traditional theories that tend to restrict the translation process to the communication of the meanings and intentions of an original text. Instead, he outlines an idea of translatability (Übersetzbarkeit) based on the assumption of a kinship and a mutual “agreement” of the different languages. Translation would then promote a development of language in general that Benjamin describes in terms of a messianic theory of redemption, and as an exchange between the art forms as material languages (Benjamin 1989, 4:9ff; see also Benjamin 1989, 2:140ff, 156). This ideal community of languages needs to be performed—and this is perhaps the most important and fascinating aspect of Benjamin’s theory of translatability, because it also determines his style of writing and thinking. We might even say that Benjamin’s essay performs translation, dislocating the common understanding of the word “translation” and some of the most widespread metaphorical expressions related to this subject (see Jacobs 1975:756).

A prevailing concept of translation theories has always been the notion of “resemblance.” To a certain extent, a translation would have to look like the original, which is supposed to be fixed and inalterable. The task of the translator remains contradictory: He is forced to adapt his own language more or less mimetically to a foreign text—comparable to an actor wearing a costume that [End Page 53] doesn’t fit well. On the other hand, he is obliged to destroy and replace the original text with a new one that eliminates the traces of the old, even hiding its disappearance. Besides the numerous theoretical approaches and practical efforts to solve this problem, there are also proposals for redefining or even rejecting the task, particularly when poetry and dramatic literature are concerned.

As poetry offers and enables much more than the communication of a message, theatre can’t be reduced to a more or less appropriate translation of a text. The various features and qualities of a performance go far beyond the rendering of a writer’s intention. And the fact should be considered as well that the different forms of avantgarde theatre in this century not only challenged the dominance of the dramatic text, but also developed new and different forms of translation besides the traditional identification with characters and actions. This may lead us to the theatrical nature of translation in general, to a scene of gestures that maintain and justify the exchange of signs and meanings in the “afterlife” of texts. Benjamin and Brecht have illuminated the interrelations between theatre, translation, and the perception of gestures in literature by crossing the borders between theory and practice, text and performance, language and body. And both of them, more or less explicitly, deconstruct the traditional patterns by which translation theories usually reflect the communication of intentions and messages.

According to Benjamin’s essay the text of the translation is marked by an inevitable failure. Thus, the translator enacts the ideal of translatability not by communicating the meaning of the original work, but on the contrary, by a deformation or even destruction of the work of literature in so far as it has been the expression of an individual intention. From this point of...

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