When it comes to the method of conveying something, how can one apply the ideas in Walter Benjamin's essay "The Task of the Translator" to Shakespeare's Hamlet?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In his essay "The Task of the Translator," Walter Benjamin's main argument is that the purpose of translation is not to relay a lesson or moral, because translation is a means of interpreting art. The purpose of art itself is not primarily to communicate any moral or lesson, because art itself is not created just for the viewer, as we see when he argues, "No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the for the beholder, no symphony for the audience" (p. 253). Instead, the true purpose of art is simply to be enjoyable. If the purpose of translation is not to reveal any moral or lesson, then the purpose is simply to convey the meaning of the original text, to connect two languages by transforming one language into another.

However, the trick in translation is making sure the translation "produces in that language the echo of the original" (p. 258). In quoting Rudolf Pannwitz, Benjamin points out a common problem with translation: translators "want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German [or any other target language] instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English" (p. 262). In other words, in trying to be true to their own target language, translators lose meaning in the original language. Hence, on the surface, if we are to apply Benjamin's principals to interpreting Shakespeare's Hamlet, we would simply transform Shakespeare's language into our own modern-day language while still keeping in mind the author's true intention, which will help us "echo" the original meaning.

However, his argument does go a bit deeper than that. If the purpose of translation is not to extrapolate a moral or lesson because such things can't truly be found in art, then what is the true purpose beyond transforming one language into another? On page 255, Benjamin makes the following argument: "Translations that are more than transmissions of subject matter come into being when a work, in the course of its survival, has reached the age of its fame." Hence, translation is more than just transforming subject matter from one language into another. Prior to this claim, he also argues that it is the philosopher's job to understand "all of natural life through the more encompassing life of history" (p. 255). In other words, life and history cannot be separated, and we can neither understand history nor life without looking at them in relation to each other. Works of art and literature have their own separate places in history; therefore, interpreting either art or literature as art also requires looking at life within the greater context of history. Hence, translation is not merely just a form of changing one language into another but of interpreting the subject by looking at life in the greater context of history.

As an example, we might translate Hamlet's famous "To be, or not to be" soliloquy in act 3, scene 1. By looking at the words, we can easily understand Shakespeare's intention of having his character contemplate the value of suicide--if there is any value in suicide at all. However, in translating the passage, we must also think of Hamlet as a person in a known period of history. We know that Hamlet was actually a Protestant due to the reference in act 1, scene 2 that Hamlet was a student in Wittenberg, the same location where Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation by nailing his 95 theses to a church door. Hence, one way to truly maintain Shakespeare's original meaning is by making this a personal reflection of religious beliefs and not just suicide. Hamlet's soliloquy reads as follows:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. (63-67)

We might translate it to the following:

To exist or stop existing, that's the question:
Is it more moral, more religious to suffer intolerable adversities, or more moral to fight against suffering by putting an end to them through suicide?

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