Sociologies of Translation

This week’s Penn Humanities seminar stepped away from the usual format (a presentation by a forum fellow followed by a response from another fellow) networkand paused for a bit to consider two important texts for translation theory: Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” and Bruno Latour’s “How to Resume the Task of Tracing Associations.”  Elsewhere, I’ve reflected on the ways the Global Chaucers project realizes some of the claims of Benjamin’s essay, the most important being the way a translation “must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s way of meaning, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.”[1]  Extending this concept (without necessarily buying into his transcendental inclinations), we can see how multiple translations might provide more fragments of the vessel, and we can expect that studying these multiple translations together will provide a more complex sense of the original than could the study of a single translation.

Latour, too, is interested in making connections among fragments. The associations he looks for would initially seem to be based on similarities; however, as his extensive citations of Gabriel Tarde suggest, the more significant associations are marked by differences.[2] From a sociological perspective, this difference means that in order to make those associations we must translate. Translation, in one form or another, therefore saturates our interactions and structures our relationships.  When we begin to examine multiple translations of The Canterbury Tales, a likely place to start will be at moments of difference, those places where translators found different solutions to a linguistic dilemma.  These points of apparent incommensurability guide us to places where meaning (in both Chaucer’s text and in the translation) threatens (or perhaps even does) fall apart; the translation, then shows us one possible way to re-associate the terms and thereby create meaning. When the translations are separated by significant temporal lengths or geographical spaces, the results can be an especially rich set of associations allowing us also to observe how meanings shift across time and space.

Latour also reassures that there is no urgency, no need to bring all the translations together in one grand Chaucerian vessel.  Instead, the sociologist’s networks of association allow us to consider the numerous combinations and unexpected hybrids, thereby allowing us to trace connections that make visible what is otherwise hidden to the monolingual reader.

My brief reflections touch only tangentially today’s fascinating conversation that explored the associations animating these two essays.


[1] Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Selected Writings, vol 1, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Harvard University Press, 1997), 260.

[2] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford University Press, 2005), 14-16.