This article was written on 19 May 2014, and is filled under Literature.

Pure Language 2.0: Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Language and Translation Technology

Walter Benjamin once proposed that the “history of every art form has critical periods in which the particular form strains after effects which can be easily achieved only with a changed technical standard–that is, a new art form.” (“The Work of Art” 118). Technological innovation does not simply improve on existing art forms, but is capable of generating new art forms by offering new media for artistic creation. But before he starting thinking about art forms and technology, Benjamin was thinking about art forms and language. His 1921 essay “The Task of the Translator” is an attempt to conceive of translation as a form of art; an art form, moreover, whose unique concern is what happens when one language passes into another. “Translation is a form” is the founding premise of Benjamin’s essay (254), by which he means to say that translation is form of artistic writing alongside poetry rather than a secondary derivative of literary art. If we merge Benjamin’s contention that translation is an art form with his later argument that the history of art forms cannot be separated from the technical standards of their time, the question arises whether the introduction of machine translation, a radically changed technical standard for the practice of translation, creates what is, in effect, a new linguistic art form.

“The Task of the Translator” opens with a discussion of “the appreciation of a work of art or an art form” (253). Benjamin’s main argument is that the appreciation of art does not rest on interpreting its content to derive a moral or lesson from it. Art is not primarily about communication: “No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the audience” (“The Task” 253). While art is clearly meaningful for the person enjoying it, its primary intention is not to inform, instruct, or even delight this person. Only after this overture into non-intentional aesthetics do we encounter translation proper: “If the original does not exist for the reader’s sake, how could the translation be understood on the basis of this premise?” (Benjamin, “The Task” 254). The counterintuitive argument that the translation does not exist for the sake of the reader who does not read the original language is Benjamin’s first step in establishing translation as an art in its own right. His second step is an exploration of the repercussions that viewing translation as an art has for our conception of the translator–whose task Benjamin is out to define: “Just as translation is a form of its own, so, too, may the task of the translator be regarded as distinct and clearly differentiated from the task of the poet” (“The Task” 258). More or less all previous theorization of this task has been directed towards establishing how the translator best communicates the original’s meaning in the receiving language, be it word-for-word or sense-for-sense; this is, in Benjamin’s eyes, a futile procedure whose best possible outcome is the “inaccurate transmission of an inessential content” (“The Task” 253). Translation should not seek to communicate the meaning of the original because the communication of its content is not in the least essential to our appreciation of it.

Therefore, no translator needs to concern himself very much with what the original means, or so Benjamin claims. Rather the translator’s work should “ultimately serve the purpose of expressing the innermost relationship of languages to one another” (Benjamin, “The Task” 255). Benjamin also terms this a “suprahistorial relationship between languages” that consists in the fact that “in every one of them as a whole, one and the same thing is meant. Yet this one thing is achievable not by any single language but only by the totality of their intentions supplementing one another: the pure language” (“The Task” 257). Benjamin’s famous concept of “pure language” invokes an amalgam of all the languages of the world, and it is precisely this aggregate language that is the medium in which the translator should work. The relationship between languages can naturally never be experienced in a single language, and it is precisely for this reason that translation, which passes “from one language into another through a continuum of transformations” (Benjamin, “On Language” 70), is uniquely situated to reveals this relationship. But, of course, no translator can possibly be expected to tackle all the languages of the world in a single work of translation and in practical terms the task of the translator is somewhat provisional: he or she only marks the intersection of two languages in the vast linguistic mass which is the sum total of all languages, the pure language.

It is here that modern computing enters the picture–the introduction of computer memory suddenly makes the grand goal of placing all the world’s languages in a single continuum much more practically viable. After all, computer memory can achieve that which no single human can, namely to store and retrieve previously unimaginable masses of linguistic information in multiple languages. Could we not see these linguistic databases as a technological approximation of pure language, made possible by the massive memory capacity of modern computing? And furthermore, since online translation tools use precisely these vast stores of linguistic material in order to produce translations–does this not imply that online translations are quite literally powered by pure language? Certainly the ideal that many translation programmers work towards is to make all the world’s languages mutually translatable at the click of a button, thereby technologically overcoming the curse of Babel that necessitates translation in the first place.

To clarify the relationship between languages encapsulated in pure language, Benjamin introduces a distinction between what is meant, das Gemeinte, and the manner of meaning it, Art des Meinens. In Benjamin’s own example the French word pain and the German word Brot are two manners of meaning bread: they are merely different ways to denote the same object–bread.


The three words pain, Brot, and bread are thus all related in the sphere of pure language because they all mean “one and the same thing,” even if they mean it in different manners. The various words of the world’s different languages show the myriad ways in which the same thing may be meant and the translator should seek to show in his own language the manner in which other languages mean (Benjamin, “The Task” 261). In other words, the translator should not simply translate the words pain or Brot as bread, but show that bread means differently in French and German. For instance, the German word Brot incorporates the shorter word rot–meaning the colour red. This is mirrored in the sound of the English bread that likewise rhymes with the colour red. Such a relationship between bread and redness is, however, wholly absent in the French equivalents pain and rouge. This may appear nonsensical, because we do not think of red as related to bread–except that sometimes we do, for instance when reading Charles Reznikoff’s poem “The bread has become moldy:”

The bread has become moldy
and the dates blown down by the wind;
the iron has slipped from the helve.
The wool was to be dyed red
but the dyer dyed it black.

The dead woman has forgotten her comb
and tube of eye-paint;
the dead cobbler has forgotten his knife,
the dead butcher his chopper,
and the dead carpenter his adze.

The “bread” of the first line echoes in the “red” of the fourth line, whereas the allusion to dyeing wool anticipates the dying, or indeed the four already dead who populate the second stanza: woman, cobbler, butcher, carpenter. Dyed red, died red, dead. But also dyed black, which is, of course, the colour of death, and perhaps also the colour (dye) of the eye-paint that the dead woman has forgotten. Perhaps Reznikoff is also alluding to the superstition that the person who places shoes on a table (as cobblers do) risks death to a family member, the butcher of course more explicitly deals with death in his vocation, whereas the carpenter may well use his adze to manufacture coffins. The sonic metamorphosis from moulding bread to red to dead is clearly central to the poem’s thematic development of death and decay: Reznikoff consciously employs the manner of meaning–the relations between bread and red, dyed and dead–in the English words that he selects for his poem. Benjamin sought to expand this characteristically poetic mode of attending to the manner of how words mean to encompass translation as well. It follows that for him the form, Art des Meinens, is more important in translation than the content, das Gemeinte, because it is the manner of meaning that is unique to that other language, whereas what is meant is ultimately the same in all languages. The translation, then, should reveal not what the original is about, but its manner of meaning.

“A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully” (Benjamin, “The Task” 260). This transparency not only reveals in the receiving language how the foreign language means, but also, conversely, underlines the unique manner of meaning found in the original. The only hands-on advice that Benjamin offers in the entire essay is that the desired transparency of translation “may be achieved, above all, by a literal rendering of the syntax which proves words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator. For if the sentence is the wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade” (“The Task” 260) .The sentence, with its linear progression of words that builds up into a meaningful utterance, is the non-essential and hence obstructing element in the work of a translator. In reading a sentence we are drawn to what it communicates at the expense of the manner in which it means, its construction as it were. To fulfil the task of translation, one must disregard what the foreign text is about, and instead decompose its sentences into their building blocks, words and grammatical relations, and then transfer these relations–these foreign manners of meaning–into one’s own language through a literal rendition of the syntax.

It is here that translation engines come into their own: they are as excellent at literalism as they are bad at communicative interpretation–in machine translation the meaning-laden significance of the literary text is lost and the text becomes nothing more than a task to resolve. In generating a translation, the online engine, unlike the human translator, approaches the original language merely as form, a code to be decoded and recoded (in fact, machine translation arose out of the code-cracking technology used during the Second World War). While the human translator has to struggle against the hermeneutic imperative to interpret what he reads, the machine goes straight for the syntactical relations between words, finds their dictionary equivalents and jumbles together a sentence that is, more often than not, heavily indebted to the word order of the original language. This approach prioritises the meanings of individual words over sentences or phrases–which also explains the clunky and unidiomatic nature of such translations. (However, in recent years, Google’s translation engineers have pioneered a wholly statistical approach to online translation that makes do without dictionary definitions and relies solely on the size of Google’s database of linguistic samples.) Incapable of operationalizing the reader’s understanding of what the original would communicate, machine translation truly lets meaning plunge “from abyss to abyss until it threatens to become lost in the bottomless depths of language” as Benjamin approvingly says of Hölderlin–the only translator whose work he unreservedly embraces in his translation essay (262).

Hölderlin’s translation practice–that perhaps not wholly fortuitously sought to counter enthusiasm in art with a strict concept of mechane–seems to anticipate “the world according to Babelfish, a place where meaning sometimes seems to show up only by coincidence, and information frequently declines to show its face at all.” The words are Julian Dibbell’s and come from his blog post “After Babelfish,” where Dibbell invokes the spirit of Benjamin’s theory of translation to assert that “we certainly can say that where, throughout its history, translation has veered between the two extremes of license and literalism, seeking at its best a middling compromise, Babelfish manages the unprecedented feat of attaining both extremes simultaneously. As an algorithmic process it is rigidly literal, with not a single degree of freedom in it, and yet in its effects it wanders wildly adrift of its original text.” In accordance with Benjamin’s dictum about the literal rendition of the syntax, it is precisely by staying senselessly faithful to the syntax and the individual words of the original that the translation engine plunges us into the depths of language where meaning is lost: “In this pure language–which no longer means or expresses anything but is, as expressionless and creative Word, that which is meant in all languages–all information, all sense, and all intention finally encounters a stratum in which they are destined to be extinguished” (Benjamin, “The Task” 261). Benjamin describes this extinction of meaning in celebratory terms as an “emancipation” from the communicative, non-essential aspects of language: only when language no longer communicates is it purely language.

Dibbell was one of the first people (if not the first) to recognise the elective affinity between Babelfish and Benjamin’s theory of translation. To illustrate his argument, Dibbell uses the Babelfish translation engine to translate a poem by William Butler Yeats back and forth into Portuguese until it stops altering. Having let the machine “settle into a final draft” he then compares it to the experimental writing of Mallarmé, Khlebnikov, the Dadaists, Surrealists and William Burroughs, with rather unfavourable results: “Babelfish makes even the hard core of the literary avant-garde look tepid and palely meaningful.” So Dibbell. Yet in “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” Benjamin also has something to say of the members of the “literary avant-garde” that Dibbell dismisses as tepid in comparison to Babelfish translations. In their works, Benjamin writes, “language seemed itself only where sound and image, image and sound, interpenetrated with automatic precision and such felicity that no chink was left for the penny-in-the-slot called ‘meaning’” (“Surrealism” 208). Of course, the poet’s task is different from the translator’s, yet both of them are obliged to use language so that it no longer communicates meaning. And if Benjamin commends Dadaist poetry for employing “automatic precision” to create a “‘word-salad’” containing … every imaginable kind of linguistic refuse” (“The Work of Art” 119), then why should a translation be condemned for doing the same?

Dibbell translates his poem back and forth until the translation stops altering. A comparable idea has been conceived by the creators of the webpage Its raison d’être is to translate English sentences back and forth into Japanese until “equilibrium” is reached. The concept of equilibrium is fairly unheard of in traditional translation theory, which conventionally agonises about various degrees of equivalence (a concept that Benjamin emphatically rejected). In fact, equilibrium only makes sense as a concept when one has access to the kind of instant, constantly altering, back-and-forth translation that only machines can provide. “Equilibrium,” in this sense, is digital to the core. As the translations between Japanese and English appear in front of the viewer’s eyes, meaning is visibly being extinguished with every back-translation until the engine hits upon a sentence that does not change in its back-translation. The process of the two languages being brought into equilibrium, made to touch and inflect one another, is made visually manifest and often with poetically evocative outcomes. For instance, the first three lines of Reznikoff’s poem, that already in the original effuse a haiku-like simplicity (“The bread has become moldy / and the dates blown down by the wind; / the iron has slipped from the helve”), is pared down to a sparse imperative: “Bread mouldy. Has become. Reduce the Helve iron wind.”

Matthew Battles has written a fictional report, “I After the Cloudy Doubly Beautifully,” on the discovery of an Übersetzungsmaschine in the heavy suitcase that Benjamin was carrying on his fateful attempt to cross the French-Spanish border. Inspired by Dibbell’s piece, Battles develops the idea that Benjamin’s translation theory lends itself to machine translation. However, not content with translating back and forth between a language pair, he takes a psalm by Milton on a tour through all the languages covered by the machine: “English to French to German to Portuguese to Spanish and back home to English.” The result is acutely unreadable: the psalms opening sentence “Bless’d is the man who hath not walk’d astray / In counsel of the wicked, and ith’ way / Of sinners hath not stood, and in the seat / Of scorners hath not sate” is transformed into “Bless ’ d é human beings, em avocats that moinhos you conseils misdirected ’ athd não vêem or bad and do ith ’ do innershath não caught and not scornershath do assento, em ordem for não to satisfer itself.” Nonetheless, the procedure is clearly ambitious: Battles does not rest satisfied with letting two languages pass through one another, but aims to encompass a greater chunk of the totality of languages that Benjamin termed “pure language” than any merely bi-lingual translation can ever hope to do.

This may be a somewhat flippant way of approaching Benjamin’s theory of translation and it would be easy to argue that the examples I have given you are mere surface similarities that have nothing substantial to say about Benjamin’s thought or about the art of translation. The first and foremost reason for this may be found already in the opening paragraph of Benjamin’s essay that dismisses the communicative element in art. Communication is, on the other hand, the primary (profit) motive behind machine translation. Prominent machine translation scientist Franz Josef Och, who is also the creator and head of Google translate, emphasises precisely the spread of information as the main goal of his research. In an interview from 2010 he says: “The language barrier is really a very big problem for communication. … The idea is, can we with the help of technology and machine translation–can we break down the language barrier?  So that anyone can access any information–any text out there–independent of the language” (Sarno). It is precisely the communication of information that Benjamin saw as the “inaccurate transmission of an inessential content” (“The Task” 253).

Och’s statement may well indicate the dividing line between the art of translation and machine translation, at least in terms of Benjamin’s theory. Of course, we may disregard the intentions of Google translate’s creator, just as we disregard those of the literary author in analysing his work. However, it is not wholly gratuitous that the figure of the creator appears here–even if we accept that Babelfish and Google translate may, against the intentions of their programmers, be capable of producing avant-garde translations, the reason why we do not consider these to be works of art may reside in the fact that they are not intentionally created. The crucial difference between Hölderlin’s Sophocles translation and a version by Babelfish is found in the abyss that separates one of the most skilled artists of the German language and a code-breaking machine, no matter how sophisticated. The fact that a poem is created, that every word is deliberately and carefully chosen, is perhaps the most decisive characteristic of poetry. On the other hand, recalling the 19th century arguments that photography could never become an art because a technological apparatus had replaced the hand holding the brush, may suggest that it is premature to dismiss the creative potential of translation machines just because no person does the actual translating. It may seem implausible to think of a poet who will write texts deliberately for processing on online translation engines or texts that employ such translation as part of their genesis–but this is in fact what Battles has done as “I After the Cloudy Doubly Beautifully” is now included in his published short story collection The Sovereignties of Invention. Just as today’s painters cannot ignore the existence of photography, so today’s literary translators may do well to keep online translation engines in mind when working at their task.

Works Cited

Battles, Matthew. The Sovereignties of Invention. Red Lemonade, 2012. Print.

—. “I After the Cloudy Doubly Beautifully.” Hilobrow. 2009 Web. 14 May, 2014 <>

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Selected Writings Volume 3. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W Jennings. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002. 101–33. Print.

—. “The Task of the Translator.” Selected Writings Volume 1 1913-1926. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996. 253-63. Print.

—. “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.” Selected Writings Volume 1 1913-1926. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996. 62-74. Print.

—. “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” Selected Writings Volume 2 1927-1934. Ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999. 207-218. Print.

Dibbell, Julian. “After Babelfish.” FEED Magazine. 2000. Web. 14 May, 2014. <>

Sarno, David. “Franz Josef Och, Google’s Translation Über-Scientist, Talks about Google Translate.” Los Angeles Times 10 Mar. 2010. Web. 14 May, 2014 <–licensing-3rd-party-machine-translation-technologies-tha.html#sthash.bE9BI23Z.dpuf>

Reznikoff, Charles. “The Bread Has Become Moldy.” The Poetry Foundation. n.d. Web. 14 May 2014. <>


Comments are closed.