Schleiermacher and Benjamin, in new translation

Friedrich Schleiermacher. “On the Different Methods of Translation.” Translated by Susan Bernofsky. Translation Studies Reader. 3rd ed. Ed. Lawrence Venuti. Routledge: 2012. Print.

Walter Benjamin. “The Translator’s Task.” Translated by Steven Rendall. Translation Studies Reader. 3rd. ed. Ed. Lawrence Venuti. Routledge: 2012. Print.

I first heard of Friedrich Schleiermacher only last year, from reading Susan Bernofsky’s blog. If what Bernofsky says is true: “Goethe ripped off his ideas (on the basis of which Walter Benjamin decided Goethe was the man when it came to early 19th century translation theory),” then the fact that the name of the person who revolutionalized the way we are thinking about translation is not well known is hardly surprising. The new translation by Bernofsky appears in Routledge Translation Studies Reader (2nd and 3rd editions) and I just finished reading the essay this morning. My sympathies to the translator — the sentences are longish, even by 19th century standards, which must have required extra mental gymnastics to get to that much awaited German verb at the end. However, despite this long-winded style, it is clear to me why Schleiermacher inspired so many later translation theorists and practitioners, and why his ideas are so relevant in the 21st century.

Schleiermacher’s opening with the ubiquity of various “translations” going on around us (not only interlingual, but even between our own thoughts and speech) reminds me of Steiner‘s famous dictum that “all communication is a form of translation.” He then proceeds to make a clear distinction between interpreters (experts who work in the field of business and commerce, where the author’s “presence in the original” is not so obvious) and translators “proper” (working the the spheres of arts and sciences). He clearly places the translator’s above the interpreters, since they are dealing with the works

in which the author’s free combinatory faculties, on the one hand and the spirit of the language along with the entire system of views and sentiments in all their shadings represented in it, on the other, count for everything. (45, emphasis mine)

I am not sure whether Bernofsky used the word “combinatory” on purpose or whether it was close translation of the original German, but for some reason it jumped out at me. Andrew Chesterman, in his Memes of Translation, draws our attention to Schleiermacher’s use of mathematical language of linguistic computing in order to overturn the very notion of exact equivalence. Writing rather dismissively about those translators who use paraphrase, Schleiermacher explains that the paraphrasing translator “treats the elements of the two languages as though they were mathematical signs that can be reduced to the same value by means of addition and subtraction” (48). The other alternative method of making the original more palatable to the target audience, imitation, is only marginally better in Schleiermacher’s books. Was the author a prophet who foresaw the birth of machine translation in the 1940s and its multi-headed progeny, the automated translation engines of the 21st century? Could it be said that such engines (Google, Babelfish, Altavista) are merely treating everything as if they were interpreters, rather than translators?

The rest of the essay sets up two alternative methods of translating: that of leaving the reader alone and bringing the author closer to the reader (i.e. domestication) and that of leading the author along and bringing the reader closer to the author (i.e. foreignizing). Schleiermacher clearly prefers the latter method, and builds his case gradually, switching between discussing the two strategies, showing the advantages and disadvantages of each. For me, the most lucid part of his argument (and most modern one) is the awareness that not all languages are at the same period of development. Those languages that are “bound,” or solidly grounded in themselves can afford to practice the former (appropriative, domesticating) mode. The languages that are “freer” (like German in the 19th century, for example), can benefit from the innovations and deviations that “may, in the end, combine to produce a new characteristic mode of expression” (54). Ultimately — and this is moving towards Benjamin’s and Steiner’s hermeneutic notion of language renewal, translation will become a “natural phenomenon that influences the entire intellectual development of a nation, and even as it is given a certain value, it will not fail to give pleasure as well” (55). Schleiermacher hints at the balance between the source and target texts that is so important in the final stages of the hermeneutic motion described by Steiner by saing that this undertaking “is founded on two basic conditions: that the understanding of foreign texts be acknowledged as a known and desirable state, and that a certain flexibility be granted to our native tongue” (55). 

Perhaps this is a good time to transition to Benjamin’s essay, translated for the first time since the canonical translation by Harry Zohn in 1968 by Steven Randall (who is pointing out in his notes a few serious misconceptions about the piece that have been proliferating over the last half century because no one else tackled it due to copyright restrictions). Benjamin is clearly Schleiermacher’s intellectual child, since the gist of the “task” is to recreate a “the totality of [languages’] mutually complementary intentions: pure language” (78), but his essay is directed more towards the postmodern concerns (post-humanism, untranslatability, reflection theory). No text or work of art is intended for a particular audience — that is Benjamin’s opening premise. Translation’s ultimate direction should be towards freedom, the “emancipation” of translation from “sense.” Where sense is communicated, it appears only fleetingly, at that point of contact where a tangent touches a circle, so that translation can continue “its own path in accord with the law of fidelity in the freedom of linguistic development” (82). This amount of “sense” to be translated determines whether the original is translatable or not (or worthy of being translated). The danger with translation where the sense comes across too fleetingly (or is non-existent) is that they become ultimately untranslatable, enveloping (like they did Holderlin) the translator “in silence” (83).

Benjamin is, of course, concerned only with translation of original literary works, and with translation philosophy rather than pragmatic applications of his own theory (he seemed to have failed on that count in his translations of Baudelaire). However, this new translation by Randall offers valuable contribution to the much discussed concept of “fidelity” in literary translation (for Benjamin, it seemed to mean the opposite from what is currently assumed to be a sort of slavish subservience to the original) and provides generative connections to all five of Chesterman’s translation supermemes. 

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