As early as the start of the 1920s, in his essay The Task of the Translator,  Walter Benjamin was already objecting to the binary nature of traditional translation methods and was promoting the idea of the transparency between an original and its translation. With the rejection of the idea of an original, Walter Benjamin anticipated something that some 60 years later had developed into a metaphor of translation of and between the cultures. By reconnecting culturally specific forms of behaviour with the literary and linguistic category text the field of translation was finally opened up for discursive and socio-politically motivated (artistic) practices. The following interview with the translator and philosopher Stefan Nowotny was done within the framework of the exhibition Übersetzung ist eine Form. | Translation is a mode. taking place at Kunstraum Niederoesterreich Vienna:
You work, inter alia, as a translator in French and English. How do you start work on a new job?
That’s a question I find difficult to answer in generalised terms. After all, a whole series of factors impact on a translator’s work: factors connected to the relevant text and the translation at hand, but also factors linked to the form and context of the job. Expectations like those expressed by Walter Benjamin, for instance, in connection with the translator’s task under particular given circumstances can hardly be seriously fulfilled. Despite the theoretical interest that the phenomenon of translation has attracted in recent times, when it’s seen as a concrete job translating is still regarded as a simple task of reproduction and the transference of a given meaning from A to B — expressed within an allotted timeframe, economic framework etc.
I am not only mentioning this because it is all too often ignored. It does, after all, have a lot to do with my approach to issues related to translation in theoretical and practical terms. This approach can probably best be summarised with a question formulated by the translation theorist Naoki Sakai: “what sort of social relation is translation in the first place”. So the most generally applicable answer to your question about starting off would perhaps be: I start by asking myself what the social relations are that I am dealing with each time afresh in the specific case concerned. The points mentioned above are elements of this. But so too are, of course, a whole series of subsequent questions: From where and to whom is the text speaking? What is its tone? What are the things and worlds it is talking about, some of which I sometimes have to explore (and not only in the text itself, as I might miss what it puts at stake)? How do I make myself the addressee of the text in order to then, for my part as the translator, engage with new addressees? From where and to whom am I speaking? Etc. etc. — so it is about developing the most varied of sensitivities, without this process’ adhering to any specific scheme that would enable me to begin in the same way each time.
What does the notion of translation promise and how can it keep this promise without deteriorating into a kind of conceptual superglue, as you phrase it in the preface to your book written with Boris Buden Übersetzung: Das Versprechen eines Begriffs? Is a different term for theorising in this area of cultural studies conceivable?
We weren’t interested in suggesting a need for a different term in our book. On the contrary, we take the theoretical application of the notion of translating very seriously, and the promise bound to it — which consists, among other things, in showing a way out of identity-based patterns of thinking and politics. When we referred to the danger that translation is becoming a conceptual ‘universal fix-it’ then because it is frequently applied today as a vague metaphor: from political and social processes of transformation to what used to be called ‘applied science’, everything possible is called ‘translation’ — frequently without the approach to things’ having changed much. The danger is, then, that cracks in thinking are simply filled over, that open questions are covered more by this translation metaphor instead of being confronted in a new fashion.
An example: when there is a great deal of talk today about ‘cultural translation’ then there is a great danger that an association — established in the era of German Romanticism — of culture and language where the former is measured on the basis of the latter, is simply continued unchallenged, even if it appears in a ‘post-essentialist’ variation. One can, however, also think about how it came about that everything is translated today into issues of ‘culture’ — from the most wide-ranging kinds of social and political conditions and conflicts to translational phenomena themselves. What is it about this translation itself that Boris Burden and I term ‘culturalisation’? What are the consequences for the concrete shaping of our coexistence, for instance in current processes of migration, in a context of global power structures, with the application of certain concepts of translation in naturalisation proceedings? Here we encounter constructs of hard ‘cultural differences’ that conceal how translation is denied — and that furthermore conceal the fact that migrants, in particular, are frequently among those translators with the most experience today. Such conditions cannot simply be responded to with the newest ‘turn’ in cultural studies, which spells everything out as a ‘cultural’ issue.
To remain in the field of literary translation, for Roman Jakobson the “poetic function” of language is core, i.e. language no longer relates to objects in an extralinguistic reality in this understanding of it, but to itself. Can freedom from purpose and autonomy as claimed here tally with the currently much discussed notion of translation in the field of cultural studies?
The thought that the way language functions has to be understood in terms of its internal relationships was core to the structuralist linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, which Jakobson pursued. The issue was not so much freedom from purpose and autonomy as to mark out a ‘purely linguistic’ objective field capable of scientific analysis. Yet this idea has another side to it, namely that of the additional hypothesis that every language forms a homogenous sign system as a whole, even though it is deeply and intrinsically permeated with differentiation. Significantly, this has led to translation in the structuralist language thinking’s often having been handled like a poor relative, because what happens ‘in-between’ such apparently homogenous sign systems was hardly linguistically comprehensible under this premise.
The point of Jakobson’s thinking about translation lay, then, in that he (eventually by referring to meta-linguistic cognitive acts) pointed out that acts of translation always occur even within a given sign system as meanings can only be constituted, in that something can always be said in a different way. And this ability to paraphrase can also be related to processes between different languages — or even between heterogeneous sign systems like, for example, linguistic or pictorial systems. Jakobson held onto the construct of the homogeneity of semiotic systems, though. For him they are relevant in translation processes between languages, to the extent that, even though in principle everything can be conveyed in any language, each language must convey particular things because it is a code with rules. Linguistic acts, or acts of translation, clash in this sense with a nomos, i.e. that of the language concerned as a sign system. And I would tie-in my answer to your question precisely here: if one presumes that existing linguistic codes represent the result of historical processes and that their relative stability is based on the social reproduction of their validity, then every act of translation touches on this fact of the reproduction of a given nomos without having to comply with it. It is not an autonomous act but can become a challenge to an existing nomos.
Is it conceivable for you to apply the concept of translation — seen from the perspective of cultural theory — to the field of contemporary art and, for example, to project it onto the task of the curator?
I have never worked as a curator myself, so I want to exercise caution in answering this question. I would, however, presume that modern and contemporary art have often worked with the potential of translation, and in some instances produced very complex translational arrangements: by, for instance, shifting the boundaries between art and non-art or the boundary between linguistic and pictorial systems, by mobilising and interweaving new procedures and media, by leaving the established spaces for art production and interrogating them from a critical standpoint, i.e. by actually challenging the nomos of artistic production and articulation in different ways. As I tried to suggest in my first answer, translation does not begin where one attempts to transfer something from A to B. It begins where spaces, times and sensitivities are created that enable heterogeneous elements to be related to one another — which can, incidentally, open up a new comprehension as well as new misunderstandings.
A similar thing can be said of the curator’s range of tasks, especially before a background of the critical analyses of the historical and current functions of exhibitions, where there is every reason to raise new questions regarding the public, for example, or who is being addressed in exhibitions, and to respond with new practices. Here again one can raise the question: what sort of social relation is (curatorial) translation in the first place?
In his book Experiences in Translation, Umberto Eco establishes that in changing the ‘raw material’ in the sense of a translation into different semiotic systems, one not only risks saying more than the original but one also risks saying less than it. Where are the limits of translation to be found?
With Jakobson one could initially conjecture that at least the danger of saying less does not necessarily exist because in principle everything can be said, or paraphrased, in every semiotic system. The translatability is limited, for him, only at the point where the linguistic form is entirely inseparable from the full constitution of signification, as it is in lyric poetry or in puns. In practise the problem is certainly more far-reaching, when one is dealing with the different and simultaneously complex historical charges of individual terms, for example. But why shouldn’t one also, for instance, accept the time factor behind certain translations as a limitation? Just think of the task of simultaneous translators, who have an extremely limited amount of time available for their paraphrases.
Eco is cautious for good reasons when he precedes saying “the same thing with other words” by saying “quasi”, as every translation is a transmutation. But I should like to draw attention to another limit to translating: there is a note by Walter Benjamin where he speaks of the lack of any need to translate music, and opposes this directly to the difficulty of translating lyric poetry. What interests me about this is once more a political issue. A particular mode of the culturalisation mentioned above favours availing itself — in a world-open pose — of everything that it regards as not in need of translation (from music and dance to fashion or cooking), but declines exactly there where a translation would actually be needed and where aspects of the pose mentioned would be profoundly shaken. To me this also seems to be one of the limits to translation.
Walter Benjamin describes translation with the metaphor of a tangent that touches the circle, i.e. the original, “and at but one point, with this touch rather than with the point setting the law according to which it is to continue on its straight path”. What position does the original occupy in the reception of the new work — in other words: Isn’t the process of translation rather than the result of a translation in the foreground?
Yes, the process is in the foreground. Incidentally, Benjamin did not only restrict this thought to the task of translating but also to the critic’s task. And furthermore — of special relevance to the art context — even to those ‘originals’ that are viewed as such with additional emphasis as they’re considered ‘classics’, for instance. Strictly seen, though, nobody has ever written a ‘classic’ — or produced one in whatever form. Works can only become ‘classics’ as the result of a process that lends them this status, and translations can play a key role in this process. Which doesn’t exclude but rather includes the fact that the sense of the ‘original’ concerned is subjected to significant transformations in the process.
This is not meant as a depreciation of the dimensions of production of the ‘original’. On the contrary, Benjamin was particularly interested in this dimension. He considered works to be powerful magnetic centres, conquering contents, and from his engagement with Goethe until his later works on Brecht or Tretyakov the issue was also always the question of concrete techniques of production. The problem is more that a particular fetishising fixation on the ‘original’ and its per se defence neither does justice to the dimension of production nor to what Benjamin calls the Nachleben (afterlife) and Fortleben (survival) of a work in his essay on translation. One of the points made by the tangent simile that you referred to is, in my view, only to be understood in this context, i.e. fidelity and freedom in translation do not conflict but are components of one and the same process. Yes, it should be faithful, one should come close to the original, touching it at one point, and this contact represents an obligation; but at the same time it needs the freedom “to continue on its straight path”, as the circle of the ‘original’ is not only a concrete form that could be doubled as a whole but the result of a (completed) movement — and touching it means pursuing a movement on one’s own, one towards open horizons.
When do you regard your job as a translator to be completed?
This is a question that often preoccupies me, just as it probably preoccupies many other translators. And it has long made me think of Freud’s essay on ‘Analysis Terminable and Interminable’. I don’t want to belabour a particular analogy between translation and psychoanalysis with this reference, but linking my answer to Freud’s essay allows me to respond to the question relatively succinctly. The one answer, which presumes a terminable translation, is then: when the translation has achieved a passable and, so-to-speak, sociable form, i.e. when it doesn’t pose any more pressing problems and I have the feeling that it is capable of addressing something and somebody and is robust enough to endure. However these remain very unstable criteria. The other answer, to the extent that translations are interminable, is though: Never. There is no avoiding having both answers.
Thank you for the interview!
 Cf. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Charles Baudelaire’s “Tableaux Parisiens”‘, in Popular Culture — Production and Consumption, Blackwell, Oxford 2001
 ibid., Pp 210–218
 Naoki Sakai, Translation and Subjectivity. On ‘Japan’ and Cultural Nationalism, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis-London 1997, p.3
 Boris Buden, Stefan Nowotny, Übersetzung: Das Versprechen eines Begriffs, Verlag Turia+Kant, Vienna 2008
 Cf. Roman Jakobson, Selected Writings, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin-New York 1972
 Cf. Umberto Eco, Experiences in Translation, University of Toronto Press Inc., Toronto-Buffalo-London 2001
 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Charles Baudelaire’s “Tableaux Parisiens”‘, in: C. Lee Harrington, Denise D. Bielby (Eds.), Popular Culture — Production and Consumption, Blackwell, Oxford 2001, p.217
 Walter Benjamin: ‘Einbahnstrasse’, in: Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. IV/1, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main: 1991, Pp 83–148.
 Cf. Sigmund Freud: ‘Analysis Terminable and Interminable’, in: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXIII (Eds. James Strachey, Anna Freud) 1953–1974