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The Auratic Translator: A Somatic Approach to Translation Inspired by Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Translation

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posted on 2024-05-14, 03:31 authored by Mauricio Lopez LangenbachMauricio Lopez Langenbach

My dissertation proposes a somatic approach to translation inspired by Walter Benjamin’s extensive writings. Somatic translation, an approach based on feelings and bodily sensations that are revealed in contemplation of nature and in the experience of the intramundane, emerges as a powerful approach for literary translators to include their unique voices in the work they translate. Somatic translation encourages a more personal and embodied engagement with their texts. It acknowledges that the act of translation is not a detached, mechanical process but a dynamic, creative endeavour that involves the translator's expression as an embodiment of their entire being and life-long journey of experiences.

A Jewish-German philosopher, poet, writer, literary critic, and translator, Benjamin outlined his translation theory in a 1923 essay called “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers” (“Die Aufgabe”). Despite being generally regarded as abstract, esoteric, and having little insight to offer the actual task of a translator, or perhaps because of it, the essay has inspired a vast amount of scholarly research. My dissertation begins with a prelude that frames my exploration in the intrinsic somatic characteristic of gaining knowledge through the contemplation and experience of everyday moments that is behind Benjamin’s philosophical method.

Following the prelude, Chapter 1 explores the conceptual and stylistic origins of “Die Aufgabe” in the German Romantic and pre-Romantic movement and discusses other works by Benjamin, written both before and after “Die Aufgabe” to offer insight on Benjamin’s writing style and on how to understand some of the more challenging fragmentary ideas he expresses as somatic revelations in the essay. The analysis of “Die Aufgabe” reveals that Benjamin did not see translation as a linguistic exercise. Benjamin’s translation theory –famously epitomised in his idea of translation as a means to reconstruct the “pure language”– sees in translation rather a theologically based act, a messianic approximation towards a higher realm, a transcendental exercise of metaphysical, theological, and historical underpinnings and ramifications.

In Chapter 2, my discussion covers the theoretical origins of the concept of “pure language,” which Benjamin first articulated in his essay “Über Sprache überhaupt und über die Sprache des Menschen” (translated as “On Language as such and on the Language of Man”). “Pure language” is the language that, as Benjamin puts it, expresses nothing, yet it is what is meant in all languages. The strong theological underpinnings of Benjamin’s theory of language are discussed. The analysis provides insight into the historical and philosophical roots of Benjamin's conception of pure language. By tracing the evolution of Benjamin's ideas and 3 exploring the diverse intellectual influences that informed his thinking, this chapter sheds light on one of the most significant and enigmatic concepts in Benjamin's works.

In Chapter 3, my study delves into the relational characteristic intrinsic in languages, an element that is present in every instance we use language, including translation. This relational characteristic is applied to translation and used to draw upon dialogue theories, as proposed by Derrida, Ricœur, Levinas, among others, to explain the translation process. This relational and dialogical framework is employed to advance an approach to translation inspired by Walter Benjamin’s work. Although this interpretation can be evinced in Benjamin’s “Aufgabe,” Benjamin did not explore it. The approach I propose involves a somatic approach to translation that is similar to the one proposed by Douglas Robinson in his 1991 book The Translator’s Turn. Robinson’s ideas are the departure point I use to rethink translational practice.

My somatic interpretation of Benjamin’s translation theory is further validated by Benjamin’s writings on the concept of history. This is at the core of Chapter 4, which is structured using a creative, innovative, somatic approach. It is an embodiment of Benjamin’s method of presenting fragmented, seemingly unrelated ideas as constellations. In the last years of his lifelong endeavour to rescue, understand, explain, and preserve the indescribable of humankind’s experience, its ‘aura’, to use Benjamin’s term, his fragmentary writings saw the convergence of his two main paths of thought: language, and history. A redeemed humankind, Benjamin argued, should be able to cite all the moments of its history. These moments shall become available to all humankind when language and history converge in a redemptive universal language.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Literary Translation Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Socio-Economic Outcome code

130202 Languages and linguistics

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

1 Pure basic research

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Alternative Language


Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Languages and Cultures


Sonzogni, Marco; Shep, Sydney