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This report is taken from PN Review 137, Volume 27 Number 3, January - February 2001.

Don't Burn the Translator - Yet John Hartley Williams

'Die Interlinearversion des heiligen Testes ist das Urbild crier Ideal aller Ubersetz ung'
Walter Benjamin, Iluminationen

It isn't possible to write about the practice of translation without referring to Walter Benjamin's essay: 'The Task of the Translator'. This peculiar work, only seven or eight pages long, is both extremely obscure and illuminating at the same time. Benjamin's thesis is that the act of translation calls into memory a pure language (die reine Sprache) which was the original Adamic mode of address to Eve. This is the language the builders of the city of Babel spoke before the Lord hastily substituted a plurality of tongues for the one: 'And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do...' God's purpose, obviously, in scattering the generations of Shem abroad and multiplying their languages, was to curb men's imaginations, enforce an appropriate humility towards the meaning of meaning, and leave mankind with a memory of a universal language, towards which poetry - in whatever language it is practised - is a gesture.

In Benjamin's somewhat messianic view, the translator's function, therefore, is to demonstrate the fundamental kinship of languages. Certainly there seems to be in this idea a precognitive hint of the work of such linguists as Noam Chomsky, whose theories (developed from de Saussure) postulate a universal grammar underlying all ...

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