J. Hillis Miller on Benjamin on Translation (cont’d)

Last week I posted an announcement of a presentation on Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator” by star deconstructionist critic J. Hillis Miller, and since I loved hearing him talk, I’m posting a brief report. Miller is a remarkably lucid speaker, capable of expressing even the most complex concepts with clarity and communicable understanding. Unfortunately, he spent most of this presentation speaking not about his own views on Benjamin but those of his late colleague Paul de Man. De Man famously lectured on Benjamin at Cornell in 1983, and a transcript of this lecture appears in the posthumous collection of de Man’s writings The Resistance to Theory. This lecture contains de Man’s famous suggestion that we read the “Aufgabe” (task) of the title in the sense of “aufgeben” (to give up) – an idea de Man borrowed from Benjamin scholar Carol Jacobs’s 1975 essay “The Monstrosity of Tranlsation.”
De Man lectured on Benjamin at Yale the same year as his Cornell talk, and the two presentations apparently differ significantly enough that Miller is now planning to publish de Man’s notes for the Yale lecture. Miller had been so taken with this lecture when he first heard it that he asked de Man for a copy he could read, whereupon de Man handed him the spiral notebook containing his notes for the talk – which is still in Miller’s possession. These lecture notes will obviously be a must-read for de Man fans everywhere when they come out next year. I personally, though, would rather listen to J. Hillis Miller’s ideas about Walter Benjamin than Paul de Man’s; in fact, a few pages of my book Foreign Words are devoted to debunking him. Miller, too, pointed out various weaknesses in de Man’s argument – for instance, he sets up the ideas of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Geoffrey Hartman in such a way that he can easily tear them down in the course of his lecture, making them “fall guys” (Miller’s term) for all humanistic/messianic/phenomenological readings of Benjamin. Well, sorry, deconstructionists, but these are exactly the sorts of terms in which Benjamin himself was thinking, so why not read his work that way?
I did ask Miller in the Q&A what he himself would focus on if he were teaching Benjamin’s essay, and he replied that for him the most interesting part is Benjamin’s discussion of “pure language” (die reine Sprache). I couldn’t agree more. This is a huge topic, since there’s so much confusion as to what Benjamin actually means by the term. Miller’s understanding of it is based on thinking about Benjamin’s use of the word “meinen” in the essay to mean “mean” in the sense of “point to.” Miller didn’t call this “intentionality,” but that’s the term I’d use for it (borrowing from G.E.M. Anscombe’s writings on Wittgenstein, whom she translated). In fact, in the universe of Benjamin’s essay, the mode of intentionality is what defines and differentiates languages from one another. Each language has its own individual characteristics, but all languages point to the world of things and ideas, which lies outside them. This mediation (it’s still me talking, not Miller) takes the form of pointing. Pure language, on the other hand, no longer entails mediation of any sort. What is said is what is.
So you might think this pure language sounds pretty handy. I bet you’d like to have some of it around the house for your own use. Well, you’re out of luck, because at this point it exists only as potentiality. For Benjamin, pure language is a form, not an actual active language: it is the intersection of all the world’s individual, human languages – making it, in a sense, post-human. It doesn’t exist yet in actuality, but it will some day, eventually, in the messianically distant future (pace de Man) when the borders separating all the languages of the world from one another have become so blurry that they all merge into one. Translators are the ones doing the blurring, in case you were wondering.
Critical theorist Emily Apter, who was sitting in the audience at Miller’s talk, asked a question about translations from this pure language, but I think the very question misses the point: pure language exists in a post-translation sphere; once it exists, translation will no longer be either necessary or possible. Gayatri Spivak was in the audience as well, but unfortunately she didn’t participate in the discussion, though I’d have loved to know what she was thinking. Apparently a podcast of the talk itself will be made available in the coming days, and I promise to post a link here. Don’t expect to be able to hear the Q&A though: Miller rambled around the auditorium while answering questions, so much of what he said may well not have found its way into the microphone.

Translator for a Day: A Workshop for Beginners

Have you always wanted to try your hand at literary translation but didn’t know where to start? Here’s your chance. Next month I’ll be offering a one-session introductory workshop intended for absolute beginners, to be held at McNally Jackson Books at 52 Prince Street in SoHo. Prerequisites are a love of literature and at least a slight knowledge of one of the following languages: French, German, Spanish, Italian. (Definition of “slight knowledge”: you are able to decipher a literary text with the help of a dictionary and patience.) This workshop, which is designed for native speakers of English, is free of charge, and is limited to 25 participants, each of whom will be sent a short text to prepare the week before the workshop. Preregistration is required.

To register, send a brief e-mail stating which language(s) you wish to work in to rsvp {at} susanbernofsky {dot} com with “McNally Jackson” in the subject line. Registration closes at 5:00 p.m. on April 20, or when capacity is reached. The workshop will be held at 7:00 p.m. on April 26.

This workshop is sponsored by the American Literary Translators Association with the generous support of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Lecture: On the Translations of Lorca

There’s something about the work of certain poets that makes later generations of writers want to translate them again and again. Think Rimbaud, think Rilke, think Neruda and Lorca. Often enough it is these most iconic poets whose work is most radically transformed in translation, as generation after generation weighs in on the question of who these poets really were. In 2009, Jonathan Mayhew of the University of Kansas published a book entitled Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch, examining the ways in which the English-language translations of Lorca’s poetry turned him into a specifically American poet, adapted to American cultural and ideological concerns. Next week, Mayhew will come to the CUNY Graduate Center to speak about his book with poet David Shapiro and translator-poet Mark Statman. This event will be held at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 23 in the Martin E. Segal Theatre and is open to the public.

J. Hillis Miller on Benjamin on Translation

Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers” (The Task of the Translator) is no doubt the most widely read theoretical essay on literary translation of all time. Benjamin published it in 1921 as the foreword to a collection of his own translations of Baudelaire’s Tableaux parisiens (part of Les fleurs du mal), a circumstance all the odder for the apparent disconnect between the theoretical views on translation expressed in the essay and the way he went about translating the poems. I should write a blog post about Benjamin’s intriguing and often obscure essay one of these days, since I do have some thoughts on it and its usefulness to translators even today, but I am supposed to be on vacation right now, so I will confine myself to announcing that the august literary critic and scholar J. Hillis Miller will be speaking about Benjamin’s essay in conversation with Kyoo Lee next week. The event is entitled “What’s Left to Translate? Re-reading Benjamin’s ‘The Task of the Translator'” and will be held on Monday, March 21 at 6:30 p.m. in Room 9204 at the Center for the Humanities at the The CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue.

P.S. I’ve been getting queries as to whether there’ll be an audio recording of this event for those who are unable to attend, and it seems there will be. I’ll post a link when it’s available.

Translators Love Libraries

Think about it: You can always drop by a friend’s house to borrow something to read, but what if your friend’s collection of great books in translation is no match for your current cravings? You’ve got a much better chance of getting your itch scratched at your local public library. And did you know that New York’s public library system is so well networked that you can request to have any book from any of its branches shipped, free of charge, to the branch nearest you, where you can pick it up at your convenience? Really, what’s not to love? Oh yes, the fact that the budget of the NYPL keeps getting slashed as the city’s finances go from bad to worse. The library’s book-buying budget was reduced by a staggering 26% this year. That cuts down significantly on the number of new books the library can purchase. But right now there’s a way you can help out a great deal with even the most modest contribution. One of the library’s trustees, Timothy Barakett, along with his wife Michele, has just announced that they will triple every dollar donated to the Friends of the New York Public Library’s book fund this week. That makes it possible for a relatively small donation to have a major impact. Please consider contributing now, even if you can’t afford to give much. And please remember that the library is here for you. For those of us who can’t afford to buy every book we want to read, having a well-stocked library is a true blessing.

Lush Breezes

The incomparable John Ashbery read last night at Dia Beacon along with Queens poet laureate Paolo Javier, of whom I am also a big fan. Paolo, who writes really interesting work, is one of the initiators of the exciting new QUILL Translation Prize. And John Ashbery, besides being one of the foremost poets of the English language, also translates from the French. His latest translation project, the entirety of Rimbaud’s cycle of prose poems Illuminations, is forthcoming later this spring from Norton. If you have a New Yorker subscription, you can see one of the poems entitled “Cities” on their website, a reverie apparently based loosely on London, though one of the students in my translation workshop remarked yesterday that the fanciful descriptions (“copper footbridges, […] stairways that wind around covered markets and pillars”) reminded him of Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The translation is elegant and also marked by effective shifts in tone (one sentence begins, journalistically, “For today’s tourist”) that remind me of Ashbery’s own poems. At its most lyrical, the writing here is breathtaking. Listen to this: “The upper zone has inexplicable parts: an arm of the sea, with no boats, unrolls its layer of blue sleet between quays weighted with giant candelabra.” I love the rhythms of the phrases, the opulently interwoven assonance of parts/arm, sea/sleet/between, zone/no/boats/unrolls and layer/quays/weighted, as well as the handling of the image “unrolls its layer of blue sleet,” inviting us to think of the sleet as somehow resembling a bolt of cloth. Can’t wait to see the book itself when it comes out. Meanwhile I was struck by the phrase “lush breezes” in one of the other Rimbaud poems Ashbery read. I myself would have written “luxurious breezes,” feeling that “lush” and “breeze” don’t quite go together. But Ashbery has built an entire oeuvre around putting together words that don’t quite seem to fit … until that moment when he juxtaposes them in such a way that the combination is instantly convincing. Come to think of it, I really do like my breezes lush.

Do You Speak Tranglish?

David Bellos spoke at NYU’s Maison Française last night, presenting his new translation of Georges Perec’s The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. This book is a variation on what Bellos explained is now generally called matrix literature, stories based on allowing readers to select certain plot strands and ignore others à la choose your own adventure books. But in this case, rather than excluding the rejected possibilities, Perec includes all of them, detailing the various choices the book’s protagonist (addressed in the second person passim) might make and then describing what will happen in each case. Where Raymond Queneau’s approach to the matrix story in “Conte a votre façon” (A Story As You Like It) might be described as “intellectual” (says Bellos, and I agree), Perec’s is “obsessive” and “exhaustive.”

In the course of discussing Perec, Bellos said some interesting things about language in translation, quipping that “English isn’t a language, it’s a big mess” – because there are so many versions of the English language spoken all over the globe. So in what language does he, a U.K. native living in the U.S., write his translations? Well, he writes them in British English, and then an American editor “de-Brits” them, removing all the expressions that are likely to be either misunderstood or flat-out incomprehensible to an American reader. The result is what Bellos has dubbed “Tranglish” – an “almost invisible” language that “offends nobody.” There are certain pairs of words that simply are what they are, either American or British (e.g. elevator/lift, sidewalk/pavement, trunk/boot), but in many cases, Bellos says, it is possible to avoid using the actual vocabulary items that attach the work to a particular continent. I too try to achieve something like this in my translations, which are often co-published in London at the same time as they appear in New York: I look up the words I use in the Oxford English Dictionary and eliminate any that are marked “U.S. usage only.” Many words that first appeared in the U.S. do eventually come into regular use in the U.K., though, and words of this sort are fine for translation purposes, in my opinion. Bellos does use one word not found in any dictionary, however, though he is convinced it does exist, since his Latin teacher liked to use it: “circumperambulate,” appearing here as a translation of “faire la tour de.” I like it.

Bellos also passed on an interesting bit of insider gossip for readers of Perec’s masterpiece La vie: mode d’emploi, which appears in his translation as Life: A User’s Manual: the answers to many of the mysteries in this book are contained only in the index, and the index of the English-language book contains several more answers than the French original. Bellos felt that certain of the clues Perec included elsewhere in the book became so much more obscure in English translation that the reader deserved a second chance to find them.

Would you like to play the Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise game? If the answer is yes, click here.


Follow this blog

Get a weekly email of all new posts.

Email address