By Rainer Maria Rilke
Klang, nichtmehr mit Gehör
meßbar. Als wäre der Ton,
der uns rings übertrifft,
eine Reife des Raums.
By Rainer Maria Rilke and translated by Jack Verschoyle
The overcoming comes now
– it is of one historic bound –
alongside dulcet dimensions.
Go forth! Abandon!
The loving tumour grows
when the body’s in the ground.
The Task of the Translator
‘The Task of the Translator’ by Walter Benjamin is a classic of the theory of translation and represents a view of translation that might be seen to be at odds with today’s political expectations of translation. A popular account of translation might be that to translate is to partake in a programme of bias free retention of the “meaning” (content/subject matter) of the original, above all. No doubt this has some understandable political motives. But sometimes simplicity, can be more harmful and oppressive than struggling through mistakes. I see Benjamin as providing us with an account of what this struggle could be; of a much more liberated account of translation; why the idea of ‘retention of meaning’ should be abandoned.
The translation has a place in history different from the original and any good translation confronts and digests this. We say the translation should become the latest unfolding of the world that the original started. The good translation realises again (but for a new world) the relation that the original suggested between our lives and our purpose; its “answer”. But this confrontation and digestion should not be subtext; not referred to. The original is a precondition, but it should not be a constraint. There should be no anxiety of influence, neither from the original nor from the present; the translation is not written for the audience. All things pass and the translation should admit that it will itself be overcome one day.
One of the most interesting concerns that this raises is ‘what happens when the language of the original is more exalted than that of the translation?’. In my mind, the significant point of exaltation would be liberation (not greater musical or literary-historical resource). What if we have regressed? This can be the challenge of translation, but also its opportunity.
“Gong (I)” is about a moment of our being left behind by representation and reality. That is not to say that we stop representing the world in a certain way. Moreso that we continue to do these things only in a dead form. Sound passes us by just like, Benjamin might say, the future passes us by as we fail to understand our past in its relation to the present, as we fail to understand our history and our purpose.
In my translation of Rilke, I have attempted to do as Benjamin asks of the translator. I hope it is its own poem, but it could not exist without the original. 1) Sound and space are moving beyond us. It is a future that misses nothing, in the sense that we will still have our sense of hearing and space as we know it, but only as such. We will not be progressing, only representation and reality; “Abandon!” as I say, or Rilke’s “übertrifft” which I still use, translated as “overcoming”. 2) But the abandoned and overcome are none the worse in themselves; it is their relation to others that has changed. We feel the butt of something else’s nature; “eine Reife des Raums” as Rilke says. I hoped I get to this with a comparison to death by a tumour, a self-contained and natural (which is why I refer to it as a ‘Beloved’, borrowing from Rilke’s formal opening; ‘Klang,’) but deadly growth. The tumour observes our death indifferently and, from our perspective, continues to develop in our flesh after the fact. The tumour is no more responsible for death than life. 3) All the forces acting on us are, in Rilke’s poem, not of any identity. The ability to talk so easily about events or process without naming subjects or objects is something that is much easier to do in German than in English. Sound and space do not see us as the objects of their moving on, and they themselves are not comfortable subjects. We only perceive the events as done to us. I have tried to Germanise the English in this way at a few points; “the overcoming”, “one historic bound”, and the undirected calls of “Go forth!” and “Abandon!”. I hope german speakers might now go back to my translation with greater charity. Jack Verschoyle studies Logic and Philosophy of Science at LMU in Munich. He is from Oxford in the UK. He speaks English, some French and even less German.