"The Task of the Translator" in Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Brossard's Mauve Desert

By Giacoppe, Monika | Bucknell Review, January 2003 | Go to article overview

"The Task of the Translator" in Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Brossard's Mauve Desert


Giacoppe, Monika, Bucknell Review


The title of Douglas Robinson's 2001 study asks the question: Who translates?" (1) This essay addresses that same question; however, whereas Robinson's work focuses on the translator's subjectivity (or subjectivities), my attention is turned more toward attitudes toward the translator and his or her work. Is the translator perceived as a self-absorbed, incestuous outsider, a menace to himself and others, as we see in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Cien anos de soledad [ One Hundred Years of Solitude] ? Or "une heroine postmoderne," (2) a necessary and salutary bridge between individuals and cultures, as Sherry Simon concludes in response to Nicole Brossard's Le desert mauve [Mauve Desert]? Furthermore, how can the same activity generate such radically different responses? This essay explores some of the cultural and philosophical influences that shape Brossard's essentially optimistic view of translators and translation as well as the more familiar one evoked by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Much of my thinking on this topic is inspired by Walter Benjamin's famous 1923 essay, "The Task of the Translator," an essay Rosanna Warren describes as "so hermetic that any number of translators (not to mention poets, novelists, philosophers, and critics) can extract almost any number of readings from it and come away satisfied and nourished (or in despair)." (3) This is because, rather than offering any practical pointers about the actual translation process, Benjamin's essay concentrates more on the "ends" of translation--what we should translate, and why, and what should be our goals in so doing. Benjamin's greatest contribution in this essay is perhaps his break with the traditional practice of evaluating translations in terms of their "fidelity" to the original. Benjamin can propose this radical break in thinking because he posits that neither the original nor the translation is truly "meant" for the reader; the "essential quality" of art is "not statement or the imparting of information." (4) Thus, we must see both the writer and the translator as working cooperatively to express something that exists outside of the realm of any one language.

For Benjamin, "it is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work" ("TT," 80-81). What exactly is this notion of pure language? In defining it, Benjamin posits a "kinship" of languages dependent on what he sees as their supplementary nature, because that kinship is found "not in the similarity between works of literature or words," but rather

   in the intention underlying each language as a whole--an intention,
   however, which no single language can attain by itself but which is
   realized only by the totality of their intentions supplementing each
   other: pure language. While all individual elements of foreign
   languages--words, sentences, structure--are mutually exclusive,
   these languages supplement one another in their intentions. ("TT,"
   75)

Some critics find Benjamin's concept of pure language odd, if not downright troubling. Its implication of the existence of a transcendent signified has annoyed some postmodern scholars, but the model at least has the virtue of liberating us from the traditional metaphorics of translation, which are striking in their recourse to the power dynamics of gendered and family relationships. This may be a matter of less pressing concern to those people who do not do translation than to those of us who do--although surely all literary scholars are impacted by the status and practice of translation. But for translators, those metaphors are the ways in which our work is measured and described, and they are an unfortunate gauge of how it is (or, perhaps, is not) valued. "Traduttore, traditore," and "les belles infideles"--these expressions retain their currency, despite considerable growth and increasing complexity in the field of translation studies. …

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