Walter Benjamin’s Translation Machine


“The device itself looked for all the world like an Underwood typewriter, at once sleek and erect. In place of the roller carriage, however, rose a stately glass dome, like that on a ticker tape machine (when inverted, the dome stores cunningly in the cavity of the machine).

Peering inside the glass dome, one glimpsed a reservoir of steel ball bearings each of which proved, upon closer inspection, to carry a letter in raised, reverse relief.

The bearings appeared to travel through finely-milled grooves in a sleek steel cartridge, which slid out of the base of the machine; a bit of machine oil made the whole operation very smooth. There was one of these machined cartridges for each of the languages represented: German, English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.”

In a wonderful essay at a website called Hilobrow, Matthew Battles writes charmingly about a fictional translation machine, supposedly designed or owned by Walter Benjamin, as a way of interweaving Benjamin’s thoughts on translation with his thoughts on machine reproduction.

Along the way, he uses Babelfish (remember Babelfish?) to perform a 6-fold reiterative translation of a Goethe poem (German to English to German to English to et cetera) and gets what he describes as “a glossolalic howl, a gift of the tongue in a voice at once bacchic and prophetic.”

Couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →