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  • Broken Vessels:Philosophical Implications of Poetic Translation (the limits, hospitality, afterlife, and Marranism of languages)
  • Andrés Claro (bio)

PRELIMINARY NOTICE OR RHETORICAL EXERGUE(from translation testimonies to four variations on the broken vessels motif)

In recent decades, the conceptions, strategies, and implications of translation have been promoted to the rank of first-order philosophical and cultural problems. The explosive multiplication of transfers between territories and cultures, on the one hand, and the doubt that has been cast over the transparency claimed for the communication of meaning and the universality of representation, on the other, have created a growing awareness of the importance of the difficulties and solutions involved in the different ways of understanding and practicing translation, where poetic versions have always been seen as the extreme case. Amidst all these developments, the task of the translator is tending if anything to be overdetermined: the [End Page 95] semantic, epistemological, ethical, historiographic, and even transcendental problems that arise in the passage between languages and literatures, as well as the trouvailles devised to cope with them, have been extended to other systems of signs and treated as keys to the understanding of communication in general; figurations of the act of translating at particular times and places, meanwhile, are given a privileged place when it comes to assessing self-comprehension and relations between cultures.

In contrast with today's outpouring of interest, however, the place formerly occupied by thinking about translation in the intellectual history of the West can only be described as marginal, and it was more often than not detached from the realm of theory and the philosophical spirit. Actual writings about translation had a singular status, neither central nor canonical: they have to be tracked down in dedications and prefaces, correspondence and disputes, criticism and reviews, dictionary or encyclopedia essays and articles, in passages from treatises on rhetoric, grammar, poetics, or exegesis -in short, in a whole corpus which is often "testimonial" in nature and where the literary translator narrates, rather as though in a travel log or black box, the vicissitudes encountered in the attempted journey between two languages, literatures, or poetics. Contrary to what might be imagined, however, the unsystematic, testimonial character of these writings is a great advantage. For these testimonies breathe a sincerity rarely encountered in philosophical and scientific treatises, which in their striving for consistency with general theories about signification, language, and more recently culture, tend to turn a blind eye not only to the difficulties and limitations that arise when passing between two tongues, but also to the revealing frailty of the solutions found along the way.

It is precisely by privileging one single motif from one of these historic testimonies about literary translation—namely, the well-known symbol of the "broken vessels" that appears in Walter Benjamin's "The Task of the Translator" (the prologue to his German version of Baudelaire's Tableaux parisiens)—that it becomes possible to articulate certain semantic, ethical, historiographic, and what, for want of a better term, one could call transcendental implications of poetic translation. To the same end, one can consider [End Page 96] other insights—oppositions, differences, or complicities—from a range of other important testimonies to the work of the translator throughout Western history and graft them between the lines of this motif.

To represent the relationship between languages, as well as those between translation and original, Benjamin writes:

Just as fragments of a vessel, in order to be articulated together, must follow one another in the smallest detail but need not resemble one another, so, instead of making itself similar to the meaning [Sinn] of the original, the translation must rather, lovingly and in detail, in its own language, form itself according to the way of signifying [Art des Meinens] of the original, to make both recognizable as the broken parts of a greater language, just as fragments are the broken parts of a vessel.

(in Jacobs, 755)

Such is the motif, then, the "broken vessel," a symbol on which everything that follows can be thought of as a series of possible variations:

  • • In the first place, symbolizing renunciation of something that can never be possessed: like the...


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