Translating Translation

Walter Benjamin on the Way to Language

by Veronica O'Neill (Author)
©2018 Monographs 190 Pages


What is it about Walter Benjamin’s «Task of the Translator»? As it is clearly seminal to Translation Studies, why is it rarely taken seriously? This book re-examines Benjamin’s text in a broader context and sheds light on this question, so revealing its true potential for Translation Studies and beyond.
When examined in the light of an ontology of language and translation, Benjamin’s philosophy of language displaces age-old and sterile translation theory debates and re-conceptualises translation theory. This broadens the scope of Translation Studies and allows for the relevance of Benjamin’s theory. It is no longer just one theory among many within translation theory. It instead underlies and relates to all translation theories.
This book is of interest for Translation Studies as much as for Benjamin scholars.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of abbreviations
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • 1 Literal vs. free
  • 1.1 Beginnings
  • 1.2 The Bible
  • 1.3 Theory and practice
  • 1.4 Other traditions
  • 1.5 Towards extremes
  • 1.6 Benjamin’s ‘literal’ and ‘free’
  • 1.7 Translatability
  • 2 Benjamin and duality
  • 2.1 Contents
  • 2.2 Methods
  • 2.3 Peer perception
  • 2.4 Contemporary perception
  • 2.5 Beyond ambiguity
  • 2.6 Correspondence
  • 2.7 Following Benjamin’s gaze
  • 3 Kinship
  • 3.1 Problematic of difference
  • 3.2 Difference de-problematised
  • 3.3 Blind first-step
  • 3.4 Stepping back
  • 3.5 Words – signposts or imposters
  • 3.6 Essence or universality
  • 3.7 Faith/ontology – meaning
  • 3.8 Origin/phenomenon – history
  • 4 Pure language
  • 4.1 Where
  • 4.1.1 Neighbourhood
  • 4.1.2 Blind-spot
  • 4.2 How
  • 4.2.1 Position of translator
  • 4.2.2 Process
  • 4.2.3 Ways of thinking in terms of different cultural experiences
  • 4.3 Why
  • 4.4 Conclusion
  • 5 Practical potential
  • 5.1 Underlying role of translation in practice
  • 5.2 Benjamin and Heidegger: translation theory
  • 5.2.1 Literal beyond literal vs. free
  • 5.2.2 Heidegger’s pre-step
  • 5.2.3 Region of the same
  • 5.2.4 The absent in the present
  • 5.3 The translation: how it is done
  • 5.3.1 History: time
  • 5.3.2 Poetry/thinking
  • 5.3.3 Naming, definition, passing-away
  • 5.4 Conclusion
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

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List of abbreviations

AS: ‘Anaximander’s Saying’. Heidegger

GAP: ‘God and Philosophy’. Levinas

ITM: ‘Introduction to Metaphysics’. Bergson

OGTD: The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Benjamin

OLAS: ‘On Language as Such and on the Language of Man’. Benjamin

OT: On Translation. Ricoeur

TT: ‘Task of the Translator’. Benjamin

WTL: On the Way to Language. Heidegger.

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This book began with a sense of something more. As an MA student of Translation Studies, where Walter Benjamin’s ‘Task of the Translator’ was of course, along with other seminal texts, required reading, I was struck by this text that stood out for me from all the others. This was not due to any special insight or relevance within the self-stated terms of reference of translation theory; in fact, within these terms it seemed rather limited, and I questioned its reputation as a seminal text. I wondered whether this was due to misinterpretation of the text by translation theory, but this did not prove to be the case. If anything, it was too well interpreted. When a text is so successfully appropriated by seemingly diametrically opposing theories, and that interpretation is not incorrect, the only conclusion to draw is that the terms of reference within which the interpretation is occurring are limited relative to the text in question. There was clearly more to Benjamin’s theory of translation than could be encompassed by any one side of the debate within translation theory.

It was this sense of something more that led to this book. As translation theory proved inadequate to grasp the full significance of ‘Task of the Translator’, my first step was to broaden the scope of the context, and an interdisciplinary approach encompassing Philosophy and Translation Studies provided this context. Through research for a PhD Translating Translation: Following Benjamin (NUIG 2013), Benjamin’s text, from the perspective of its extensive interpretation by translation theory, was examined in the light of phenomenology and shown to offer something foundational to translation theory as a whole rather than to be just one more theory among many. The following illustrates this journey.

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It’s hard to know where the idea for this book began, where to start in terms of acknowledgements and gratitude. It seems like it’s always been there, slumbering, raising its head in momentary realisations: the realisation of transitoriness in the childhood contemplation of a leaf, the anxiety of existence in the realisation of the transitoriness of anything manifest in a moment, while the moment itself and as such is constant and unchanging, the confusion in this; the energy used and produced in the attitude of courageous curiosity necessary to engage with reality in such a way as to hold the tension between the constant and the transitory, to realise the existence of both in reality, and ultimately to realise the existence of and relationship between both in ourselves: our own nature.

I am eternally grateful to Walter Benjamin for the purity of his curiosity and his courage in resisting projecting, by whatever means, into the realm of knowledge, allowing truth to body forth in the dance of represented ideas, providing a means for these momentary realisations to take form, momentarily every time, yet carried along in a swell. In addition, this project could not have taken form without the supervision and support, and ultimately friendship, of Professor Felix O’Murchadha. The nature of this support was patient, gentle, and trusting, ultimately following my lead without abandoning.

Finally, I wish to acknowledge my children: their genuine interest, and their warm and enthusiastic support and encouragement. Thank you!

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Language is in every case not only communication of the communicable but also, at the same time, a symbol of the non-communicable. (Benjamin 1986: 331)1

When considering ‘meaning’ in translation, there is a tendency to a singular focus on the text: both the meaning of the original text and its ‘translated meaning’ as it appears in the translated text. Any meaning that inheres in the process of translation in itself is only considered in as much as it facilitates the transferral of textual meaning between languages. Walter Benjamin’s theory of translation (Benjamin 1999)2 retains a focus on the process of translation and so considers the meaning of translation in itself that comes into play in the attempt to engage with the meaning of the original text through the translating language. It does this through shifting the focus from ‘translated’ meaning to ‘translating’ meaning, thus allowing for the simultaneous consideration of both the meaning of the text as well as the meaning of the process it is undergoing in translation.

Language is more than communication, and translation is more than the transferral of what is communicated between different languages. This ‘what is more’ to both language and translation, while potentially discernible in the process of translation, is typically overlooked due to a ‘natural attitude’ that considers translation to be essentially a tool in overcoming linguistic diversity for reasons of communication. This is largely due to two preconceptions that lie at the root of translation theory: the first is the consideration of language as purely communicative and translation as purely transferral of what is communicated between different languages; the second is the consideration of linguistic diversity as purely problematic. The second proceeds naturally from the first: if the only reason for translation is to transfer what is communicated between languages, then the only aim is to overcome difference; difference is seen as problematic pure and simple. The aim then, in being to obliterate difference, is ultimately to do away with the need for translation at all. The aim of translation theory so understood is in fact the end of translation.

Benjamin’s theory is concerned with the consideration of what is more to language and translation than communication, and this requires a suspension of these preconceptions. In exploring Benjamin’s pure language of translation, while the context of translation theory with the conflictual debate between literal ← 19 | 20 → and free approaches to the process of translation is essential, it is necessary to also find a way to identify underlying reasons for preconceptions that see this ‘conflict’ as purely problematic. In this way we can question them, and if they prove to be inappropriate, set them aside to see “more to translation than transferral of meaning” (TT: 72).

The literal vs. free debate in translation theory emanates in a ripple effect to encompass all aspects in conflictual interrelation, a fact that suggests it is less due to a particular content that the polarity arises (‘literal’ and ‘free’, for example), and instead due to something underlying an approach to this discipline in general. As this is not overtly apparent, there must be unexamined preconceptions at the root of both translation theory itself and the literal vs. free debate that arose at its inception. When we look more closely at this, back to the point at which this debate originated, we see that it originated in a particular cultural context, one in which it could be justified as ‘natural’.3 Although this particular cultural context has changed, the debate continues to be considered as ‘natural’; and with this ‘naturalness’ accepted as primary, different cultural contexts come to be understood in terms of this ‘naturalness’, which can no longer be justified outside of its original cultural context. With this realisation the rug is pulled out from under the age-old literal vs. free debate with its emanating ripple effect.

Why is this important? It reveals a deeper underlying preconception at the root of translation, one that is masked by the constant sterile debate. The literal vs. free debate and its emanating facets are concerned with the how of translation, and when we pull the rug out from under this debate by illuminating unexamined and inappropriate (to current cultural contexts) preconceptions, we see the deeper preconception relating to both language and translation, one that is instead concerned with the why of translation. We see that underlying the history of translation theory is the assumption of a singular role of and reason to translate. This is a key point that relates to both language and translation; language is conceived of as purely communicative, while translation is conceived of as purely transferral of what is communicated in language. It is in highlighting this preconception in the context of translation theory in general, and translations in particular, that we create the context to point to what language and translation considered in such fixed definition omit, the fact that there is more to ← 20 | 21 → language than what can be defined in a fixed and permanent way, and similarly that there is more to translation.

This ‘moreness’, or what is more, is the focus here, and, as it is itself that which is more than what can be defined in a fixed way, it is challenging to illustrate. It is not enough to say that pure language is this moreness in the context of language and translation. It is not. It is more than this moreness, and also less than that. The task of the translator as outlined by Benjamin is “a feature of translation which basically differentiates it from the poet’s work because the effort of the latter is never directed at the language as such, at its totality, but solely and immediately at specific linguistic cultural aspects” (TT: 77). Translation is aimed at language in more than its overlying role.4 It offers a unique perspective, one that is typically overlooked when the focus remains with the ‘specific cultural aspects’, in such a way as to block out the fact of translation’s effort being ‘directed at the language as such’. It is in translation that the original text takes on its own underlying role as signpost to language as such, a role that remains hidden, obscured, veiled without linguistic diversity to motivate a process that unveils it.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
Ontology of Translation Pure Language Kinship Translation Theory Duality Heidegger/Benjamin
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018, 189 pp.

Biographical notes

Veronica O'Neill (Author)

Veronica O’Neill is an independent researcher and translator based in Galway, Ireland. She is particularly concerned with bringing Walter Benjamin’s concepts of kinship and pure language of translation to life through the practice of translation of philosophical and cultural texts.


Title: Translating Translation
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192 pages