Translatability, Performability, Adaptability
Triptych inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981)
by Francis Bacon. Source: francis-bacon.com
Walter Benjamin’s famous essay ‘The Task of the Translator’ (1923) is helpful in trying to analyze the modernist view of translation and especially in the ways it reconfigures classical texts. In many ways, translation can be seen to form part of modernism’s linguistic turn, focusing on the power of linguistic experiment (especially in modernist poetry) to help us unhinge the seemingly ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ relationship between language and the world. After Wittgenstein, Saussure and mainly the Russian Formalists, modernist poetics strives to create that sense of estrangement and ‘alienation’ (ostranienie) that may help us realign our sense of ourselves and the world. The ‘unhomeliness’ that Heidegger derives from Hölderlin’s translation of the famous ‘Ode to Man’ in Antigone (deinon), is seen to potentially lie within linguistic experimentation itself. It is this idea that made modernist poetry so attractive for Structuralism and Poststructuralism alike. Benjamin’s essay appears at this moment in modernism where linguistic experimentation is theorized and accorded a philological/literary, but also an ethico-political (even metaphysical) dimension. This is an aspect of linguistic experiment that all the modernist translators grapple with. When Benjamin, in the quotation that follows, states that translation is a form, the term ‘form’ is here articulated in the wake of the Russian Formalists (and his own visit to Moscow). Form is to be differentiated from content, it bears its own autonomy, and this is primarily linguistic:
Translation is a form. To comprehend it as a form, one must go back to the original, for the laws governing the translation lie within the original, contained in the issue of its translatability. The question of whether a work is translatable has a dual meaning. Either: Will an adequate translator ever be found among the totality of its readers? Or, more pertinently: Does its nature lend itself to translation and, therefore, in view of the significance of this call for it? (Benjamin 1923)
Translatability is an important term in this context, both in terms of reception, but also in terms of the linguistic makeup of the original itself. So, according to this view, translation unearths something in the original itself, and that something is what makes it immanently translatable. This is the formulation perhaps, that Roland Barthes would later re-work as a writerly vs a readerly text, or texts that invite the reader (here possibly the translator) to act as co-creator. And of course, for Barthes and later Julia Kristeva, this is where the radical potential of the modernist text lies. This ‘ability’ that Samuel Weber analyses as central to all Benjaminian thinking about language points to the fact that beyond the axes of fidelity and license, a translatable text helps us to revise both the target and the source language. In these translations Benjamin claims that ‘the life of the originals attains its latest, continually renewed, and most complete unfolding’. He calls this their ‘afterlife’ in a term that may also be read as one of the first modernist formulations of reception theory. The evocative term ‘unfolding’ is helpful here, as it marks not only a linguistic relationship between the original and the translation but also an haptic, performative one. And this is how Benjamin views translation, using imagery of birth/death/resurrection:
Translation is so far removed from being the sterile equation of two dead languages that of all literary forms it is the one charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own. (Benjamin 1923)
In the process of this rebirth, Benjamin claims that what becomes transparent and what translation helps us to come to terms with is the apparent ‘foreignness of [all] languages’. So this process of making strange that Benjamin adopts from the Russian Formalists, that he will also mobilize later in his life in his Understanding Brecht, is reciprocal. This quintessentially modernist reformulation of translation not only helps to birth a new work; it also radically revisions the original. Both works are seen under the prism of ‘strangeness’. He claims that part of ‘the task’ of the translator is to allow ‘his [own] language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue’. He also believes that this process is more effective when dealing with old and what we would today perhaps term as ‘dead’ (i.e. not spoken) languages. More often than not, these are also the languages that in philological terms are deemed to be ‘classical’.
We can view this theory of translation as emblematically modernist, but we can also discern a romantic and idealist lineage. Benjamin references Hölderlin, and we can claim that it is his translations that might be read as examples of what Benjamin claims here. And, of course, they are translations of classical Greek plays, mainly Sophocles. The term ‘translatability’ foreshadows another term that would prove central for Benjamin’s thinking about the relationships between tradition and modernist innovation, authenticity and reproduction, classical ‘auratic’ works of art and modernist radical ones. Inspired by the sometimes uncritical and somewhat romantic faith in the emancipatory potential of modern developments in technology, Benjamin’s famous essay of 1939, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility’, can be read as in some ways re-iterating the arguments initially articulated in ‘The Task of the Translator’. The terms ‘translatability’ and ‘reproducibility’ can be read as mirroring each other. For Benjamin it is not a simple case of ‘technical’ reproduction, as he claims, this has always been possible regarding works of art. The particular modernist take on ideas of reproduction is to bring out, to help surface, an ‘ability’ inherent in great works themselves, and that is their ‘ability’ to be reproduced, re-written and re-thought. Far from expressing a simple and unmediated ‘technical’ trope, this suffix, ‘-ability’ (-barkeit in German) becomes the hallmark of the modernist, and for Benjamin the avant-garde work of art, a work that is open to reiteration, rewriting and reproduction. For Samuel Weber, in his analysis of Benjamin’s abilities, this adds a sense of potentiality to the work of art, a potentiality that also entails a utopian strand.
In this context we can perhaps also read another –ability that is ignited by these modernist translations of classical plays, and that is performability. To the notions of Benjamin’s translatability and reproducibility, I would add performability and as an adjunct, adaptability. All the translations by these modernist poets throughout the received critical tradition, whether in strictly literary contexts, or in performance theory, have raised the specter of performability. Like their poetic counterparts, these plays are difficult. This principle of difficulty so desirable for modernist poetics more generally, complicates the act of performance as much as it complicates the act of reading (or one could also state that it re-writes the act of reading itself as performance). The specific difficulty of finding an English poetic idiom to carry / translate Greek prosody; the general difficulty of the poetic word on the stage; the difficult relationships between poetry, recitation, and acting; the difficulty of reconciling the Greek concept of ‘character’ / persona with the modern idea of psychology; the tension between stylization and expressiveness; and the list could go on. Rather than view this as a shortcoming, it might be more helpful to view this challenging relationship that all these translations pose for performance as part of their –ability, as expressing a possibility or a potentiality, a capacity rather than a defined existing reality.
I would like to highlight this somewhat expanded and strong sense of performability where the demands that these plays place on performance are read not as a failure or an inability to engage with the workings of the stage, but in a sense as inhabiting a classic modernist trope where the form, in this instance, the stage and theatricality itself are radically re-worked and experimented with. This experimentation does not necessarily throw up and offer closed and specific modes of theatricality that are to be emulated by each concrete performance; rather it invites the reader, actor, director, to also experiment with theatrical form. In ways that parallel the demands that modernist poetry places on the act of reading itself, this principle of performability we might claim asks us to engage with these plays as a reader, but also as an actor, as a director and theatre-maker in general.
In this way, the notions of translatability, adaptability, performability, and the notorious reproducibility might be read as forming a constellation of ideas that have a distinct modernist prominence, but also enact a modernist neo-classicism, or Hellenism. Tragedy with its reliance on myth we may claim is already premised on adaptability, and this central principle is constitutive of its very physiognomy (Benjamin). Eliot’s Mythical Method, Pound’s Mythopeia, Phanopoieia and Logopoeia. H. D.’s ‘clatter montage’, are all modernist techniques that highlight a formal imperative, but also mobilize what we may call modernism’s obsession with the ‘ideology of form’, which occupies all these poets in terms of their ethico-political projects. So when Benjamin calls translation a ‘form’, far from being ‘formalist’ in the strict or negative sense, he is opening up the mechanics, the process of translation to all the vicissitudes of the relationships between form and meaning, past and present, and in this context poetry and theatricality. And it is in this sense that translatability and performability may be viewed as sister terms, as doubles in the way that theatre in particular from Plato to Antonin Artaud conceptualizes and embodies the idea of the double. A ‘doubleness’ that at once allows these play-texts / translations to pay homage to the past, to embody their modernist present and gesture towards the possibility of all future performances.
Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator’, in Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, eds., Selected Writings Vol. 1, Harvard University Press, 2002, pp. 260-72.
(This Fieldnote contains extracts compiled by Olga Taxidou from her forthcoming book Greek Tragedy and Modernist Performance: Hellenism as Theatricality, Edinburgh University Press, 2021, pp. 70-74.)