"And G-D Said": Language, Translation, and Scripture in Two Works by Walter Benjamin

By Smerick, Christina M. | Shofar, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

"And G-D Said": Language, Translation, and Scripture in Two Works by Walter Benjamin


Smerick, Christina M., Shofar


In the works "On Language as Such and on the Language of Man" and the better-known "The Task of the Translator," Benjamin explores the relationships between languages, and between language and human beings. In this essay, I work first to articulate Benjamins theory of language in a more coherent manner, and then to draw attention to the theological underpinnings of this theory. After exploring Benjamin's understanding of language as metaphysically formative for all creation, I turn to his work on translation in order to demonstrate how such a theologically driven understanding of language impacts how we are to speak and write now.

Man invokes G-d by His name; the world speaks to Him through His word.1

In his early essays, monographs, and letters, Walter Benjamin is preoccupied with infusing philosophical themes and questions with Judaic concepts. He does so, in short, because he finds philosophy to be most impoverished when it is concerned only with itself and its interior machinations. Without a "foil" or a reference point outside itself, philosophy as a discipline becomes solipsistic and granthose, or skeptical and unable to move. Therefore, Benjamin problematizes various philosophical themes or disciplines by approaching these themes or disciplines via theology. This is the case in his writings on language. In the works "On Language as Such and on the Language of Man"2 and the better-known "The Task of the Translator"3 (which served as a preface to his translation of Baudelaire), Benjamin explores the relationships between languages, and between language and human beings. These reflections on language refer explicitly to biblical stories and ideas in order to flesh out his linguistic theory as well as his theory of translation. His concern in each work is double-edged: he is concerned philosophically with language, its function and purpose in human life; but he is also interested in the theological concept that states that the origin of all created life is grounded in the Word of G-d. With this in mind, each of the sections below begins with a passage from the Torah that illustrates the particular idea or theory Benjamin is proposing. The first section is devoted to Benjamin's "On Language as Such and On the Language of Man" and discusses his linguistic theory in general; the second focuses specifically on translation and "The Task of the Translator."

Let me provide one more comment before we begin. The fundamental theme in Benjamin's linguistic theory is that language is broken, splintered into various human languages, and cut off from its origin in the word of G-d. However (as one sees later in the "Task of the Translator"), this is not an entirely hopeless situation, for human beings have the power to translate from one language to another and thus bridge the gap between our languages, albeit in a very limited way. Further, this act of translation that draws human languages closer together also serves to draw us closer to the original, "pure" language that lies at the heart of creation. Furthermore, from Benjamin's perspective, language in all of its forms and derivatives is fundamentally alive in that it is an element of Being in beings. While this imagery may be difficult to accept philosophically (and perhaps smacks of a certain onto-theology), I believe one must suspend one's own opinion regarding such matters in order fully to appreciate the quality and complexity of Benjamin's work in linguistic theory. With this caveat in place, we can turn to "On Language as Such and On the Language of Man."

1.

At the beginning ofG-d's creating of the heavens and the earth,

when the earth was wild and waste,

darkness over the face of Ocean,

rushing-spirit of G-d hovering over the face of the waters

G-d said: Let there be light! And there was light.

(Genesis 1:1-3)

So YHWH, G-d, formed from the soil every living-thing of the field and every fowl

of the heavens

and brought each to the human, to see what he would call it;

and whatever the human called it as a living being, that became its name. …

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