“The Task of the Translator” and the afterlife of Dogen

It’s taken me quite a bit longer than I hoped to find the time to sit and write up the next installment of the thoughts that are continuing to swirl around for me as I read Dogen on my commute.  One of the threads I find myself returning to is the question of translation and how translation operates from language to language, culture to culture, generation to generation, and this meandering mind-detour takes me straight to Walter Benjamin, about whom I know very little, actually, expect for his 1923 essay, “The Task of the Translator,” about exactly this issue.

Benjamin expresses a whole number of very brilliant and confusing things in the essay (which you can find various versions of around the Internet.)  For me, one of the most important is his discussion of the life and afterlife of a work of art.  Here’s a bit of it, in Harry Zohn’s translation:

Just as the manifestations of life are intimately connected with the phenomenon of life without being of importance to it, a translation issues from the original—not so much from its life as from its afterlife.  For a translation comes later than the original, and since the important works of world literature never find their chosen translators at the time of their origin, their translation marks their stage of continued life.

This is, I think, enormously relevant to the Shobo Genzo, since it’s a text with a very dynamic life and afterlife, a writing that has meant wildly different things at different times and in different contexts.  A lot of my Dharma books are in a storage container up in Hayward, I’m afraid, so I haven’t been able to really look at the details, but my memory of the history of the Shobo Genzo is that it was not an important text for Japanese Buddhists in the centuries after its writing, that it was eventually rediscovered by Soto school reformers, and that it was only in the nationalistic context of the early 20th century that it was brought out of its sectarian context by a generation of Japanese intellectuals anxious to find an indigenous philosophical tradition with which to engage the West.  That’s probably an oversimplification, and anyone who wants to complicate it in the comments, please do.  The point, though, and what Benjamin helps me to see and articulate, is that a text (like anything else!) exits in history, in time, in conditions, and that the Shobo Genzo of 1253, 1553, and 1953 are very different beasts.

Benjamin again:

And indeed, is not the continued life of works of art far easier to recognize than the continual life of animal species?  The history of the great works of art tells us about their antecedents, their realization in the age of the artist, their potentially eternal afterlife in succeeding generations.  Where this last manifests itself, it is called fame.  Translations that are more than transmissions of subject matter come into being when in the course of its survival a work has reached the age of its fame.  Contrary, therefore, to the claims of bad translators, such translations do not so much serve the work as owe their existence to it.  The life of the originals attains in them to its ever-renewed latest and most abundant flowering.

Translations, then, do not point us back towards an original;  they are the original flowering forward into its new life.  Here’s even more:

. . . it can be demonstrated that no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original.

(Take a minute to absorb what a weird statement that is!)

For in its afterlife—which could not be called that if it were not a transformation and renewal of something living—the original undergoes a change.  Even words with fixed meaning can undergo a maturing process.  The obvious tendency of a writer’s literary style may in time wither away, only to give rise to immanent tendencies in the literary creation.  What sounded fresh once may sound hackneyed later;  what was once current may someday sound quaint.

And a little later:

For just as the tenor and the significance of the great works of literature undergo a complete transformation over the centuries, the mother tongue of the translator is transformed as well.

Here is, for me, where we get to maybe the wildest and most fascinating insight that Benjamin brings to Dogen.  It seems clear enough to take up the question of how Dogen’s ideas are transformed when they’re written down in English;  here Benjamin asks us to consider the ways that English is transformed by being used to state Dogen’s ideas.  Not so much how I change Dogen, but more how Dogen changes me—and doesn’t that very question—that abrupt reversal and turn—itself feel like something Dogen might ask?



2 thoughts on ““The Task of the Translator” and the afterlife of Dogen

  1. Interesting how Benjamin’s argument in this essay contrasts/reinforces what he wrote in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Like mechanical reproduction is when the artwork (specifically it’s “aura”) is absent from its seemingly identical copies, but in translation the artwork transforms in order to stay what it truly is.

    This also reminds me of Koun Yamada’s teisho on Kyakujo and the Fox in his translation of The Gateless Gate, which I just started reading. He distinguishes between the phenomenal and essential aspects of all things. So in the case of the Shobo Genzo, each translation and reappropriation, and even the original text in it’s original manuscript form, are phenomenal aspects of some essential ghost text that possesses and animates them all.

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