THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF
TRANSLATION
DONALD WELLMAN
Poetry is never transparent. It is always
material.
My notes taken recently on Walter Benjamin’s,
“The Work of the Translator,” echo the notes I
took more than thirty years ago. Is there some
eternal truth latent to this perceptible
redundancy? No! Nonetheless, I do not intend an
exercise in reverence. I have imbibed Benjamin
without worshipping him. With respect to my
topic, “the impossibility of translation,” Benjamin
is of foundational importance in the area of
translation theory, offering a constructive
critique of common expectations. I will also
apply “my Benjamin” to the demands of
reading poetry, in any language.
In the spirit of an assemblage that attempts to speak for itself,
most of the slides that follow are citations.
Some texts have a quality of translatability, others do not.
Translation is properly essential to certain works: this does not
mean that their translation is essential for themselves, but rather
that a specific significance inherent in the original texts expresses
itself in their translatability. (Rendall 153).
La traducibilidad conviene particularmente a ciertas obras, pero ello
no quiere decir que su traducción sea esencial para las obras
mismas, sino que en su traducción se manifiesta cierta significación
inherente al original (Murena 129).
Übersetzbarkeit eignet gewissen Werken wesentlich – das heißt
nicht, ihre Übersetzung ist wesentlich für sich selbst, sondern will
besagen, daß eine bestimmte Bedeutung, die den Originalen
innewohnt, sich in ihrer Übersetzbarkeit äußere.
Translations that are more than transmissions of a message are produced
when a work, in its continuing life, has reached the age of its fame. Hence
they do not so much serve the work's fame (as bad translators customarily
claim) as owe their existence to it. In them the original's life achieves its
constantly renewed, latest and most comprehensive unfolding (Rendall154).
Las traducciones que son algo más que comunicaciones surgen cuando
una obra sobrevive y alcanza la época de su fama. Por consiguiente, las
traducciones no son las que prestan un servicio a la obra, como pretenden
los malos traductores, sino que más bien deben a la obra su existencia. La
vida del original alcanza en ellas su expansión póstuma más vasta y
siempre renovada. (Murena130).
In ihnen erreicht das Leben des Originals seine stets erneute späteste und
umfassendste Entfaltung.
Essences, with which the logos is in several senses equivalent,
especially in their most intimate manifestations cannot be caught;
writing can at best present variants. This is true of each unfolding
of an essence in each language of its residence. In this regard
no translation would be possible if, in accord with its ultimate
essence, it were to strive for similarity to the original (Rendall
155).
no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove
for likeness to the original (Zohn 73).
ninguna traducción sería posible si su aspiración suprema fuera
la semejanza con el original (Murena132).
keine Übersetzung möglich wäre, wenn sie Ähnlichkeit mit dem
Original ihrem letzten Wesen nach anstreben würde.
immanent tendencies can arise anew out of the formed work. (Rendall155)
las formas creadas pueden dar origen a nuevas tendencias inmanentes
(Murena132)
immanente Tendenzen vermögen neu aus dem Geformten sich zu erheben.
I am using concepts of folding and immanence in a Spinozistic sense following
the model of rhizomatic growth developed by Giles Deleuze and elix
Guattari in Milles Plateaux.
One can extract from a translation as much communicable content as one
wishes, and this much can be translated; but the element toward which the
genuine translator's efforts are directed remains out of reach. It is not
translatable, like the literary language of the original, because the relation
between content and language in the original is entirely different from that in
the translation. In the original, content and language constitute a certain
unity, like that between a fruit and its skin, whereas a translation surrounds
its content as if with the broad folds of a royal mantle. For translation
indicates a higher language than its own, and thereby remains
inappropriate, violent, and alien with respect to its content. In the translation,
there is a fracture between the content and language that constituted a unity
in the original (Rendall158).
The language of the translation is always inadequate or broken with respect
to the content of the translation. I am about to posit an eternal inadequacy
of language with respect to content.
Por importante que sea la parte de comunicación que se extraiga de
ella y se traduzca, siempre permanecerá intangible la parte que
persigue el trabajo del auténtico traductor. Ésta no es transmisible,
como sucede con la palabra del autor en el original, porque la relación
entre su esencia y el lenguaje es totalmente distinta en el original y en
la traducción. Si en el primer caso constituyen éstos cierta unidad,
como la de una fruta con su corteza, en cambio el lenguaje de la
traducción envuelve este contenido como si lo ocultara entre los
amplios pliegues de un manto soberano, porque representa un
lenguaje más elevado que lo que en realidad es y, por tal razón, resulta
desproporcionado, vehemente y extraño a su propia esencia. Esta
incongruencia impide toda ulterior transposición y, al mismo tiempo, la
hace superflua, (Murena135)
Genauer läßt sich dieser wesenhafte Kern als dasjenige bestimmen,
was an ihr selbst nicht wiederum übersetzbar ist. Mag man nämlich an
Mitteilung aus ihr entnehmen, soviel man kann und dies übersetzen, so
bleibt dennoch dasjenige unberührbar zurück, worauf die Arbeit des
wahren Übersetzers sich richtete. Es ist nicht übertragbar wie das
Dichterwort des Originals, weil das Verhältnis des Gehalts zur Sprache
völlig verschieden ist in Original und Übersetzung. Bilden nämlich diese
im ersten eine gewisse Einheit wie Frucht und Schale, so umgibt die
Sprache der Übersetzung ihren Gehalt wie ein Königsmantel in weiten
Falten. Denn sie bedeutet eine höhere Sprache als sie ist und bleibt
dadurch ihrem eigenen Gehalt gegenüber unangemessen, gewaltig und
fremd. Diese Gebrochenheit verhindert jede Übertragung,
wie sie sich zugleich erübrigt.
My conclusions, concerning the argument so far:
The object of the translator is the language that he faces. The object of the poet is a
feeling that will come to exist in words. However, there are English language schools of
poetry that since Derrida have taken language in this sense, as opposed to sentiment as
their object.
The object of translation has become not the essence of the original but a relationship to
the language of the original, seeking some essence or reverberation between the two
languages, during the act of translation.
However, unlike a literary work, a translation does not find itself, so to speak, in
middle of the high forest of the language itself; instead, from outside it, facing it,
and without entering it, the translation calls to the original within, at that one
point where the echo in its own language can produce a reverberation of the
foreign language's work (Rendall 159).
Unlike a work of literature, translation does not find itself in the center of the
language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without
entering, aiming at that single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own
language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one (Harry Zohn 76)
Porque la traducción, al contrario de la creación literaria, no considera
como quien dice el fondo de la selva idiomática, sino que la mira desde
afuera, mejor dicho, desde en frente y sin penetrar en ella hace entrar al
original en cada uno de los lugares en que eventualmente el eco puede
dár, en el propio idioma, el reflejo de una obra escrita en una lengua
extranjera. (Murena 136).
Die Übersetzung aber sieht sich nicht wie die Dichtung gleichsam im innern
Bergwald der Sprache selbst, sondern außerhalb desselben, ihm gegenüber und
ohne ihn zu betreten ruft sic das Original hinein, an demjenigen einzigen Orte
hinein, wo jeweils das Echo in der eigenen den Widerhall eines Werkes der
fremden Sprache zu geben vermag.
What is pure language, how does translation serve it?
Translation alone possesses the mighty capacity to unbind it from meaning, to
turn the symbolizing element into the symbolized itself, to recuperate the pure
language growing in linguistic development (Rendall162).
Por el contrario, en las lenguas, esta última realidad fundamental que es
lenguaje puro, si está sólo ligada a lo lingüístico, es la riqueza única e
inmensa de la traducción (Murena 140)
Von diesem sie zu entbinden, das Symbolisierende zum Symbolisierten selbst
zu machen, die reine Sprache gestaltet der Sprachbewegung
zurückzugewinnen, ist das gewaltige und einzige Vermögen der Übersetzung.
“Pure speech” is language that breaks the bond between the symbolizing and
the symbolized, breaks the transparency of reference, the convenient ligature or
coding that seeks to regularize the relationships between languages.
Speech is never pure. It is always multivalent and internally in consistent. It is
polysemous.
The issue of polysemy is central to Derrida in his “Plato’s Pharmacy.”
Pharmakon is one of those words with multiple even contradictory senses
that make translation impossible. In certain sentences it may have one
meaning, in others, the contrary. In this analysis of the Phaedrus, writing is
first offered as an aide to memory, a cure or a remedy. The god,
representing the logos, Thamus (Ammon), who the created word, rejects
this gift, proffered by Theuth, as a form of poison, for poison is anther
meaning implicit in the Greek pharmakon. The king contends that because
of this “drug” the living meaning of words learned by heart will now
disappear into a technically contrived form, writing. I chose this
interpretation to disclose the indissoluble links that bind one word and
how the analysis of the semantemes in a second language unravels those
bonds..
Of course there is a further unraveling, there always is with Derrida. It
seems that while has played with various terms associated with pharmakon,
for instance, pharmakeus, which can mean “magician” or “sorcerer,” he has
neglected to cite the very important concept enshrined in phramakos or
“scapegoat.” Socrates who does not write will in fact commit ritual suicide in
a form of purification, by some lights of the city. Pharmakos is of course the
living being that is sacrificed for the welfare of the community. All scenes of
the pharmakon complex now collide in a multivalent polysemy that makes
translation impossible
In John Ashbery in which language has in some senses broken down.
Excerpt from John Ashbery’s, “On Leaving the Atocha Station”
The worn stool blazing pigeons from the roof
driving tractor to squash
Leaving the Atocha Station steel
infected bumps the screws
everywhere wells
abolished top ill-lit
scarecrow falls Time, progress and good sense
strike of shopkeepers dark blood
no forest you can name drunk scrolls
the completely new Italian hair…
Here is a translation by Julio Mas Alcaraz
El desgastado taburete resplandece
palomas del techo
conduciendo el tractor para aplastar
Saliendo de la estación de Atocha acero
golpes infectados los tornillos
pozos por todos los sitios
abolida la cubierta mal iluminada
cae el espantapájaros
Tiempo, progreso y sentido común
huelga de comerciantes sangre oscura
ningún bosque que pueda llamar ebrio desplaza
el completamente nuevo cabello italiano…
With respect to phonology, the sounds of Chinese, Greek, Romance and
Native American languages have transformed the sounds of English. It is
in the resonance between sounds that one language most comes to
embody qualities that arrive by means of translation, that is where
translation is “purest,” though not perhaps for the “purists” among us.
To complete my impossible discourse, I will cite a passage from Charles
Bernstein’s “Artifice of Absorption.”
Charles Bernstein:
A dense or unfamiliar vocabulary
can make a poem hard to absorb, not only by calling
attention to the sound qualities of its lexicon
but also by preventing any immediate processing
of the individual word’s meaning. At some point,
the appropriate reference sources may be consulted—
but this is by no means the only way to hear
or understand the work.
Un vocabulario denso o no familiar
puede hacer que un poema sea difícil de absorber, no solamente
al llamar la atención sobre las cualidades sonoras de su léxico
sino también por impedir el procesamiento inmediato
de cualquiera de los significados de los vocablos. En algún punto,
la apropiada fuente de refencias puede ser consultada.
Pero esta, de ningún modo, es la única manera
o entender la obra. (tr. Heribierto Yepez).
My conclusion:
The siting / citing
of sounds and words in lines
is now the task of the translator
and the task of the poet,
facing any or all languages.
My texts:
Jacques Derrida. “Plato’s Pharmacy” in Dessemination. Tr. Barbara Johnson. Chicago
University of Chicago P. 63-171. Originally El pharmakon de Plato 1968.
Benjamin, Walter. The Translator’s Task, Tr. Steven Rendall, Erudit: TTR. Volume 10,
numéro 2, 2e semestre 1997, p. 151-165, http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/037302ar.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator” in Illuminations. Tr. Harry Zohn. NY:
Schocken, 1978.
Benjamin, Walter. „Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers.“ In: ders. Gesammelte Schriften Bd.
IV/1, S. 9-21. Frankfurt/Main 1972.
Benjamin, Walter. “La Tarea Del Traductor” en Angelus Novus, tr. H.A. Murena.
Barcelona: Edhasa, 1971.
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The Impossibility of Translation Donald Wellman