“a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original's mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language.” —W.B.

    “Things don’t connect; they correspond.” —J.S.

Dear Mark,

I’m glad for your quote of Benjamin’s passage about the language forest, and for the Blanchot, too, which echoes so suggestively with WB’s remarks. And your comparison of Spicer’s “Outside” and Benjamin’s “Pure Language” is a fine insight. But when you quote Benjamin on the differing qualities of “intention” at work for the poet on the one hand and those at work for the translator on the other (with a view, I take it, to drawing a basic difference of disposition between WB and JS) I can’t quite agree. I’m going to argue with you a bit, then. I look forward, of course, to whatever further qualifications you may have for me, in turn. But let’s see if I can express my demurral.

You see, I think the kind of intention Benjamin points to when he draws that distinction between poet and translator is intention descending from phenomenal affect, that which informs the contingencies of creative will and act, and which is thus of a lesser order than something that “intends” on a higher and metaphysical plane. In this regard, I wouldn’t see his “differentiation” of the poet and translator as at odds, or “not adhering,” as you say, to Spicer’s oscillating, centaur text—and I raise the disagreement because the matter seems crucial for both Benjamin and Spicer, and therefore to what I sense as their reverberating correspondence: Artistic or poetic “intention” for both is a decidedly minor matter from the get-go, a psychological inflection that is of secondary consequence to an anonymous force or aim that enters the poem and which is by that virtue, as you incisively suggest, outside the poet—a force by which both poet and translator are claimed, regardless of will.  Benjamin’s essay, in fact, famously proposes in its opening that, “No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.” We are outside the forest, all of us.  The alien language against which we echo our “translation” is something much more than linguistic.

The most meaningful aspect of the translator’s task, it would thus seem, is to bring out and communicate, through some kind of radical indirection, this deeper, non-authorial force inside the original text—something that goes, again, beyond the poem’s “inessential content.”  What is this anonymous force? Benjamin calls it “Pure (or as you synonymously have it, “True”) language.”  Now, what this “Pure language” is, exactly, I have no certain idea (nor do Paul De Man or Jacques Derrida for that matter, whose opaque and vacillating essays are the best-known treatments of “The Task of the Translator”). On a very general level, though, we might posit Pure Language as an Ideal, messianic state of reconciliation or harmony between languages riven, in their separateness and imperfectness of form, by difference and incomplete communicability.

In After Lorca, Spicer seems very much to yearn for something like this, something akin to a Pure or Platonic ideal, what he calls the “Perfect poem,” a wordless realm of subjective and objective conjoining, even as he ironizes its impossibility: “A really perfect poem (no one yet has written one) could be perfectly translated by a person who did not know one word of the language it was written in. A really perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.”  The confluence of intuition between Spicer and Benjamin here is quite remarkable, and of greater import, it seems to me, than the dissimilarity between the two you earlier drew. For Spicer’s “porous text,” as you felicitously put it—the flowing in and out of Lorca that is Spicer’s translation—is nothing less than an effort to commune with (referring back to the WB epigraph above) a mode of signification that transcends the husk of content of the original. As Ed Foster puts it, writing about After Lorca in his fine but little known study of Spicer, the poet “in effect wanted poetry that existed outside words, and he felt that, in the space intermediate between original and translated versions, poems approached that condition: The poem was not in the words, but Lorca’s Spanish pointed out where he should look.” [Foster, 20]

Moreover, the porous nature of Spicer’s writing, his simultaneous merging with and distancing from his correspondent, bears strong pertinence to Benjamin’s kabbalistic meditations about the translator’s dilemma and her ultimate, inevitable limits:

    The transfer can never be total, but what reaches this region is that element in a translation which goes beyond transmittal of subject matter. This nucleus is best defined as the element that does not lend itself to translation.  Even when all the surface content has been extracted and transmitted, the primary concern of the genuine translator remains elusive. Unlike the words of the original, it is not translatable, because the relationship between content and language is quite different in the original and the translation. While content and language form a certain unity in the original, like a fruit and its skin, the language of the translation envelops its content like a royal robe with ample folds. For it signifies a more exalted language than its own and thus remains unsuited to its content, overpowering and alien. This disjunction prevents translation and at the same time makes it superfluous.

    [WB, p. 75]

For Spicer, as he writes in After Lorca, “Things do not connect, they correspond.”  And Spicer, aware that Lorca’s poetic body faces him as wholly other, as something that must be corresponded to in the realm of afterlife, can only hope to array its spirit (its “nucleus,” as WB has it, its “mode of signification,” or—as JS intuits—that which has “an infinitely small vocabulary”) into the folds of a present language that while “unsuited... overpowering and alien to it,” nevertheless honors and brings forth, in ghostly fashion, the absence of the original. To the extent that this absence marks the heart of all translation, so Spicer’s extravagant departures, the theatrically ample folds he creases into the robes of his “translations,” stand as the traces, finally, of a luxuriant ritual, one that announces with significant pomp, drama, and paradox, the presence of the nucleus’s absence. Around this absence, the translation answers as an echo, and it renders, through its imperfect correspondence, the original and the translation “recognizable as fragments of a greater language.” Poems should not hide their imperfections, Spicer will later write. And neither, it seems he early sensed, should translations. “Imperfection,” in this sense—or as Benjamin puts it, language that is “unsuited to its content”—is not a lack or failing, but the very way poetry has of gesturing toward that “Pure” force that clearly is, for both Spicer and Benjamin, its source and end.

Hosea Hirata, in The Poetry and Poetics of Nishiwaki Junzaburo: Modernism in Translation, a fascinating book in which the great Japanese poet is read in the light of Benjamin, terms this aforementioned nucleus the “Sovereign.”  The poem of the translation corresponds to the nucleus’s ghost, comes after it, clothes and completes it in its afterlife. It is this Sovereign—the Sovereign that is the “untranslatable,” the Perfect poem, Pure or True language—that the poem and its translation serve. The poem is not intended, ultimately, for any reader. (And it occurs to me just now that WB’s famous maxim eerily corresponds to Spicer’s later cold admonition, “No one listens to poetry.”)  Nor, Benjamin and Spicer seem to be saying, is a poem’s real essence connected to any author.

If this is so, the translator’s true task is not to connect with something textual and “there,” but to honor something ghostly and always gone. Perhaps in After Lorca this ghostliness, this something that is not there but which calls forth nonetheless, is the force that renders Spicer’s misprision, unfaithfulness, defacement, forgery (whatever words we might try make stick to it) into the form of a poetic truth trying, against all odds, to show its form through the shrouds of translation.