Tuesday, May 16, 2006

On reading Walter Benjamin and Anxiety

Implicit in the name I've chosen for this blog is an ongoing anxiety--anxiety about the inexorableness of life, about time, the availability of time, time to read, time to reflect, to listen, to discuss... Time is on the move; invariably I will look up and find that it's late and I must stop what I'm doing and sleep; inevitably the next day comes and the next, and there's apparently little avoiding going to work. At times I yearn for a quieter existence in which I need not always be so busy or beset upon by noisy stimuli. I am annoyed when the little blocks of time I have available to read are infringed upon. I want quiet, and I want to slow down my reading. And yet I am impatient. And yet? No. I am impatient as a result. I know I will never get to much of what I want to get to, and this causes me undue distress. I am too easily distracted. There is a tendency to skip ahead, to skim, to read superficially, that must be resisted. In Walter Benjamin's essay about Nikolai Leskov, "The Storyteller", he is discussing the "atmosphere of craftsmanship" which produced the storyteller; in doing so he quotes Paul Valéry:
[The] patient process of Nature was once imitated by men. Miniatures, ivory carvings, elaborated to the point of greatest perfection, stones that are perfect in polish and engraving, lacquer work or paintings in which a series of thin, transparent layers are placed one on top of the other--all these products of sustained, sacrificing effort are vanishing, and the time is past in which time did not matter. Modern man no longer works at what cannot be abbreviated.
(Or what cannot be blogged?)

One related anxiety of mine is a translation anxiety--I fret about translations. For example, when something has been translated several times, which version should I read? I suppose we can only rely on what a trusted critic has told us about its approximation to the original and a cursory look at how the translation in question reads in our native language. But still I fret. I worry that I'm not actually reading the real text, that the connotations apparent to the native reader are lost on me, that what I'm getting is a weak facsimile of the work. But we have no choice; we have to read translations. Certainly if we hope to be acquainted with significant works of literature, translation is unavoidable. Even the reader who is fluent in several languages cannot know them all. (This hypothetical reader, fluent in many languages, is apparently all too rare anyway, especially, it seems, in the US.)

There is an almost vertiginous feeling I get when I read Walter Benjamin, as in his essay "The Task of the Translator" (which of necessity I am reading in translation). I wade through the sentences in this essay, reading them two, three, four times each, trying to discern what they mean, to translate them into a language I can understand, but the sense is elusive. I wonder, has the sense of the original been preserved in the translation, in this essay about translation? Then I come upon a passage of striking clarity, striking because of what came before, that is like wandering into an open field after much struggle:
If there is such a thing as a language of truth, the tensionless and silent depository of the ultimate truth which all thought strives for, then this language of truth is--the true language. And this very language, whose divination and description is the only perfection a philosopher can hope for, is concealed in concentrated fashion in translations.
This helps me understand what he is talking about, though I doubt my ability to reformulate it. Perhaps that is part of the point. Then, somehow, he helps me see a way out of this particular anxiety, in part by re-stating it:
What can fidelity really do for the rendering of meaning? Fidelity in the translation of individual words can almost never fully reproduce the meaning they have in the original. For sense in its poetic significance is not limited to meaning, but derives from the connotations conveyed by the word chosen to express it. We say of words that they have emotional connotations. A literal rendering of the syntax completely demolishes the theory of reproduction of meaning and is a direct threat to comprehensibility.[...] Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another. In the same way a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original's mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.

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