An A to Z of Theory | Walter Benjamin: Language and Translation

Walter Benjamin claims that mainstream, common-sense views of language are ideological – but what does he put in their place? What kind of writing practices does he encourage? In the second part of his series on Benjamin, Andrew Robinson discusses various texts on language, translation and mimesis.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, May 10, 2013 14:13 - 2 Comments



Walter Banjamin - part 2 - ceasefire magazine

The Vocation of Language

In the work ‘On Language as Such and on the Language of Man’, Benjamin presents an unusual, theologically inflected theory of language. According to Benjamin, every expression of life is a kind of language. Language is a way of communicating ‘mental life’ or ‘meanings’. Every natural thing partakes of language, because it communicates mental meanings of a sort. Language is basically expressive, and all expression is a type of language. This is counterposed to the ‘bourgeois’ or instrumental view of language, in which language simply communicates facts.

A particular language, such as German, is not simply a means to communicate another content. It itself expresses something. The frontier of language is expressed by its linguistic being, not the meanings it can communicate. Benjamin seems to be saying that each language conveys a particular zone of meaning, a form of life, or a particular social unconscious.

This expressionist approach is connected to a particular theory of the relationship between language and thought. The study of linguistics should start from the difference between mental and linguistic entities. Mental entities are only linguistic if they can be communicated. Language is the subset of mental entities which can be communicated. Mental life expresses itself ‘magically’ through mediation, in which it is, paradoxically, immediately present. 

For Benjamin, everything has language. Things communicate mainly through a ‘material community’, or practical connections. These connections grasp the world as an undivided whole. Poetry arises from the relationship of human expressiveness to things. There are also human practices which may be founded on ‘thing-languages’, such as sculpture and painting. However, human language has a special place in the relationship to the world of things. Words bind humans to the world of things. The concept of translation must be seen as central to language, because language translates the world of things into the human world. Translation ‘passes through continua of transformation’ rather than separate identities or similarities. 

Human language is unusual in that humans communicate their own mental life by naming other kinds of things. This act of naming is the ‘linguistic being’ of humanity. As far as we know, human language is the only ‘naming’ language. Humanity is also unique in that the whole of human mental life is in principle communicable without residue. This makes human language uniquely complete. 

But this naming language can only operate because other kinds of beings communicate or express themselves to humans. Nature thus communicates only through humanity. Humanity can thus create a ‘magical community’ in which things are immaterially connected, using sound to communicate this connection. This raises the language of things to a higher, more perfect level, translating a nameless language into names. Humans name nature in line with the communication received from it. Naming is the ‘last utterance’ and ‘true call’ of language.  It is fundamentally expressive and creative. 

Benjamin does not, however, believe that everything can be contained in language, or ‘named’. In practice, there is always a conflict within language between the expressible and inexpressible. Language is always a symbol of the uncommunicable as well as a transmission of the communicable. What is incommunicable would seem here to be the materiality of things. Benjamin seems to treat the unconscious or inexpressible as ‘revealed’ in language, rather than unsaid. Both naming and judgement have a symbolic as well as a communicative function. 

This theory of language links to Benjamin’s critique of judgement. Naming is a relationship between humans and God. Fully expressible language is seen in religion as revelation. Human languages seem limited in relation to the idea of the unlimited creativity of divine language. They necessarily fall short of the divine ideal. The need for translation is connected to the narrative of the Fall. In particular, the idea of a word communicating something other than itself is the Fall of language.

Benjamin sees this linguistic fall as rooted in judgement, and the categories of good and evil. These concepts, which are ‘prattle’, involve magic of a different kind to naming. Benjamin sees humanity as awakening the judging word and its power, and thereby causing the fall of language. It is judgement which converts language into a means (i.e. makes it instrumental instead of expressive).  Benjamin here provides an allegorical account of alienation.

Abstraction also has its origins in this process. The Fall, or alienation, involves abandoning the immediacy of the concrete, instead establishing an immediacy of judgemental abstractions through which real phenomena are mediated. It involves a movement from contemplation to judgement. (This account echoes Marx’s critique of the German Idealists). Once language was mediated, it also necessarily became multiple, with different zones separated from one another. It is also subject to a tragic phenomenon of ‘over-naming’ and ‘overprecision’ which cause things to become mute. The language of things is no longer mediated by the language of humans. 

Benjamin suggests that divine language is identical with the entire process of language-construction as a whole. Humanity comes closest to the field of divine language in the use of proper names. He implies that the two practices of translation and naming restore the initial immanence and univocity of being, which he conceives in divine terms. Benjamin implies that we should seek to restore a disalienated language which operates entirely through the concrete, and refuses judgements and (certain kinds of) abstractions. Such a language allows us to reach or approximate the divine. 

This text of Benjamin’s is at once profound and obscure. In a way, it seems worryingly essentialist. Since perceptions and experiences are different, how could language form a single field of immanent communication? In what sense do things have a ‘true’ name, separate from the different relations into which they enter?  Is the entire narrative of a linguistic Fall simply a way of constructing an unattainable ideal, which should inspire attempts to create a more inclusive language? Or is Benjamin simply talking about a need to move towards expressive, rather than instrumental, uses of language? 

One way to read this paper which would avoid the implication that there is a single ‘correct’ order of nature is to suggest that the real nature of things is a kind of ‘whatever-singularity’. The nominal act – naming – could then be separated from specifications of functions, perceptions, ‘behaviours’ and so on. A complete language, it might be suggested, would involve awareness of all the aspects and relations of each entity. Whether this is viable or not, it is at least an aspiration which can produce open-mindedness in language-use.

One could, perhaps, link Benjamin to issues of local knowledge in terms of the ‘magical community’ of things, and to nonviolent communication in terms of the ‘fallen’ nature of language and the rejection of judgement. Benjamin implies that language is abused when it is used normatively, to judge, or to establish sovereignty. He suggests that there is some kind of expressive or modal difference between claims used to judge and claims used to ‘name’. 

This parallels the division between the order of judgement (elsewhere termed guilt, fate, and law) and the divine or messianic order. It implies that there is a specifically messianic style of language-use which is different from the judgemental style typical of capitalism – perhaps characterised by features such as montage, allegory and so on. 

Benjamin sometimes suggests that language expresses a kind of inner logic. In the Epistemo-Critical Prologue, Benjamin argues that, the more maths eliminates the issue of representation, the more it renounces the peculiar area of truth which language aims for. Architects’ blueprints, and art which imitates these, is according to Benjamin (in Rigorous Study of Art) close to being non-representational. This is paradoxical, since Benjamin is here referring to a formal structure separated from the world, whereas elsewhere he seems to be referring to naming, dialogue and so on. The similarity might perhaps be that the inner functioning of a logical construct is itself expressive, rather than representational.

Imitation is central to Benjamin’s view of language. In ‘The Doctrine of the Similar’, and the shorter, similar “On the Mimetic Faculty”, Benjamin argues that humans are uniquely specialised in the ‘mimetic faculty’ – the ability to imitate.  This ability underpins all the ‘higher’ human capabilities. It has its origins in imitative play, which Benjamin notes, imitates objects as well as people.

Today, similarity is usually seen in a restricted sense. It is applied to social phenomena. Historically, Benjamin believes it was applied much more broadly. For instance, natural, social and supernatural phenomena were seen as analogous. This echoes discussions of indigenous cosmology. The boundary between nature, culture and the supernatural is weak or absent for many indigenous groups. As a result, social connections can be analogous to those in nature (e.g. humans can take on attributes of spirit-animals) or the supernatural (e.g. a hero might be an avatar of a god). Benjamin refers to this as ‘magical correspondence’. An example Benjamin gives is constellations. Groups of stars were seen to resemble earthly or supernatural beings. People could read similarities from the stars (astrology), entrails or coincidences. 

Historically, the mimetic faculty has evolved in a particular direction. ‘Magical correspondences’ have tended to decline. Previously, people could see correspondences in things that they can no longer see. However, modern humans have developed ways to create correspondences too. This happens through language. For Benjamin, language (spoken and written) has a magical force to create correspondences. Mimesis has a mystical dimension, because the future can be read from correspondences – as in astrology. 

Benjamin sees language as the highest form of the mimetic faculty. Language is now the concentrated site of the activities which once went on through magic, mysticism and superstition. Instead of connecting objects directly, it connects them through their essences. Language has similarly inherited the power of clairvoyance, or seeing the future. It lets the mind participate in a flow of time in which things flash up momentarily and then disappear again. 

Benjamin’s view is here somewhat counterposed to authors who criticise representation and essentialism, such as Deleuze and Derrida (although Benjamin does not identify mimesis with representation). The problem with conventional ‘mimesis’ is that it uses essentialist or mythical frames to create similarities. Language selects certain characteristics as relevant to perception and classification. Why are these characteristics more ‘essential’ than any other? Often, they reflect the meaning or use of another object or person to an observer.

For instance, the similarities between different ‘crimes’, involving very different acts for very different motives, are entirely in the eyes of the observer – the statist, authoritarian or conformist who sees in all crimes a measure of difference from them or of breakdown of order. However, Benjamin does not seem to have in mind this kind of conventional use of language.  He is thinking of a looser, more expressive use of language which is more typical of poetry, psychoanalysis and surrealism. 

There is also an appearance of teleology in Benjamin’s account of the one-way evolution of mimesis. Like many Marxists, he exaggerates the extent to which non-capitalist modes of seeing are confined to the past. He also wrongly imagines a one-way process of change. How would Benjamin account for the modern popularity of astrology, the rise of New Age spirituality, or the reduction of culture to nature in sociobiology? It seems transformations of mimesis work both ways. 

In ‘Doctrine of the Similar’, Benjamin argues that language was not originally an arbitrary or conventional system of signs, as argued by Saussure and maintained by structuralists. It was originally onomatopoeic. (An onomatopoeia is a word which sounds like what it describes – such as “quack”, “bang” or “woof”). Benjamin argues that language remains at root onomatopoeic. By this he means that all language is based on a posited similarity between a word and something else – in Benjamin’s words, a ‘non-sensuous similarity’.

This kind of similarity creates a non-arbitrary connection between what is said or written, and what is meant. Early writing, for instance, was pictographic – it involved pictures used as writing. According to Benjamin, handwriting often conceals images from the unconscious of the writer, serving as drawing as well as writing. We might also compare here Amazonian writings which intertwine words and images. Language is then seen as a kind of expressive connection through which a certain set of posited similarities are articulated. This implies that language is not radically different from what it represents. Instead, it forms a connection with what it represents. (Arguably, pictography is re-emerging today, in forms such as smileys or emoticons.) 

In The Task of the Translator, an essay written to accompany one of the many translations Benjamin wrote, Benjamin presents his theory of translation. A translation should not simply aim to convey information. In fact, translations often convey information best if they are inaccurate. Nor should it seek to read as if the work were originally written in the new language. It shouldn’t seek to be to the new language what the original is to the original language. In One-Way Street, Benjamin states that commentary and translation are to the text as style and mimesis are to nature. 

Translation should aim to continue the creativity and originality of the work. Its role is to express the reciprocal relationship or kinship between different languages, and to come to terms with the foreignness of languages. It thus brings them towards an original or future condition of a single, unified language with all modes of intention harmonised.

Translation aspires to a ‘realm of reconciliation and fulfilment of languages’. It is thus an activity directed at language in general, whereas poetry is simply directed at regions of language. It serves to bring together, or harmonise, the various languages by broadening them to include one another’s intentions, so they complement or supplement one another. This, in turn, expresses the yearning for a language which immediately expresses truth. Translation can thus release in a work the ‘pure language’ which is trapped in a text, releasing it into a different language. 

The goal is not to turn the original language into the new language – e.g. to turn a French text into an English text. Instead, it is to turn the new language into the original language – e.g. to turn English into French. The translator should not preserve the current state of the new language. S/he should allow the new language to be strongly affected, expanded and deepened by the original language of the text. This might require going back to the basic elements of language and reconstructing how the language is spoken. It should create a hybrid language which touches the senses. Benjamin praises interlinear translations, which provide a commentary explaining the translation alongside the original and new versions, as an example of this process. The danger this approach poses is that the language may ‘slam shut’ on the good translation, refusing its own expansion. 

We can also see this kind of translation in the field of critical theory. For instance, a good translation of a poststructuralist author might succeed in speaking English as if it were French. A grammatical arrangement which might seem ordinary in French but unusual in English (such as “the becoming-other of the subject”) might be imported; so might certain untranslatable terms (such as méconnaisance). The English language comes to contain certain nuances of French through the process of translation. 

He claims that works of art, poetry and so on are never intended for the listener or viewer. They are directed to something beyond. Some works are essentially translatable. These are works which contain a lot of ‘intention’, rather than simply information. The more a text is purely information, the less a translation can convey the mode of intention. 

A work does not simply express an ‘intended object’ but also a ‘mode of intention’, a way of seeing. Presentation in a different language usually involves a different mode of intention. A good translation will convey the author’s mode of intention. It should seek to convey in the new language an echo of the intended effect of the original. It works best if it harmonises with the individual, rather than reproduces it. Benjamin believes this is best achieved if the syntax of the original is rendered literally. 

The more the untranslatable core of a work is conveyed in the translation, the better the translation is. Benjamin seems to be suggesting that a translation should show the unconscious or the habitual assumptions of the original, along with its substantive content. For Benjamin, all linguistic creations and all language contains a residue which cannot be communicated, a residue which is symbolic. This is the residue in language of the active force of material reality. It is also the core of what a ‘pure’, redeemed language would express. 

Benjamin here strongly sides with expressive rather than instrumental views of language, and implicitly critiques moves towards linguistic homogenisation. He would doubtless be concerned by language-death. But he would also be excited by the extent to which the English language is transformed by its reinscription in different spaces – for instance, the importation of different grammatical structures in Jamaican and Indian English. He also suggests that meaning is in a constant state of flux. Translations and rewritings are not inferior to originals for this reason.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.



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