If I'm honest, I had never read Walter Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator before coming to the UEA. Whilst I was an undergraduate student in Japan, I read several of Walter Benjamin’s essays such as The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Critique of Violence. During my undergraduate degree, I studied literature and creative writing, and, I think it would have been natural for a student of this subject to read a philosophical essay on translation such as The Task of the Translator; however, I didn’t. I don't know why.
After graduating from the university, I worked at an advertising firm as a copywriter. Also, I spent time translating the adverts and brochures of global companies from English to Japanese. I did this without translation theory but tried to keep the target text faithful to the source text, following requests from our clients, the guidelines of translation which the clients gave us and the advice given by my supervisors. The rules I followed could be ‘skopos’ for my translating, the ‘skopos’ depended on who the clients were. Although my background was literature, I enjoyed my responsibility for translating business material at the office. However, it was also true that I felt translating was a more or less rigid activity like those which machines do.
As a student of the MA in literary translation, I have been studying translation studies since September. For my course work, I read The Task of the translator, and I came across ‘pure language’, as termed by Benjamin. He said that the task of translator is ‘to release in his own language that pure language under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.’ Apart from his intention to describe what a translator should do, this quote inspired me to address one question – how a translator exists ontologically and phenomenologically. After reading the essay, I sometimes think about what exactly happens when ‘pure language’ is generated. I have to consider how the text will be modified (by the mind?) at the point where the texts come and go, as though they were water going through a filter. When I translate text from English into Japanese or from Japanese into English, I try to listen to the internal voice of my mind at the same time that I try to listen to an external voice – the voice of the source text. Presumably, a translator is one who can face the birth of a new text.
To be honest, I don't have the confidence to have completely construed the meaning of what Benjamin wanted to say. I may misunderstand Benjamin’s ‘pure language’; however, I can stay optimistic, because as one Japanese writer said, ‘understanding is but the sum of misunderstandings,’. I have got new insights into translation which break through the thoughts which I used to have and I find myself enjoying translation more and more.
Hiromitsu Koiso translates from Japanese into English, and from English into Japanese. He is currently studying towards the MA in Literary Translation. His literary interests include world literature, exophony and translation as a creative form of text making. Contact: email@example.com