The Question of Translation among 20th Century German-Speaking Thinkers (Dr. Cedric Cohen Skalli)

20th century philosophy is often understood as deeply shaped by the linguistic turn. Yet generally, translation has been overlooked. In an age marked by world wars, cold war, imperialism, and globalization, translation played a key role both as a unification factor and a way to resist and affirm cultural difference. Translation is a fascinating locus to check the different ways in which contemporary philosophy can engage with globalization and technologized uniformization.

This research is grounded in a long practice of translation. Indeed, since the beginning of my studies in the early 90’s at the Sorbonne, I have learned and worked in many academic institutions in different countries. Thanks to this rich experience, I speak many languages and I was involved since then in many works of translations, mainly from German texts. I translated several books and essays of Freud, Benjamin, and Scholem and was also involved in editing translations and advising Israeli and French publishing houses in their choice of translation.

My research focuses on a special moment in the history of philosophy and thought in the German-speaking world (1900-1960) and on a special aspect of this: the question of translation. Walter Benjamin’s essay The Task of the Translator (1923) is famous, but the broader context into which this theoretical endeavor was embedded (especially in the works of Sigmund Freud, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Martin Heidegger) is less well-known, much less earlier conceptual elaborations of translation (Luther and German Classicism and Romanticism) on which the above mentioned twentieth-century thinkers relied.

The fixation of Hochdeutsch was considered from the time of Herder and Goethe to be the result of Luther’s Bible translation. This translation was made in spite of and in opposition to the authority of the Vulgate, and in that sense, was a strong affirmation of the German language and of the Reformation. This original and foundational link between translation and German language was further developed and theorized in the seminal period of German literature and thought, the second half of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries, a period in which German Classicism, Romanticism and Idealism produced their masterworks – but also a period in which many translations were made. Within a century, perceptions of the German language evolved from a “poor” language to the medium of Weltliteratur and of Bildung. Relying on these two former historical stages in the conceptual elaboration of translation, my research will focus on a third conceptual elaboration of translation among certain German-speaking philosophers and thinkers in the first half of the twentieth century. It will focus especially on the works of Freud, Rosenzweig, Buber, Benjamin, Wittgenstein, Gadamer and Heidegger. My first objective in this study is to characterize the different conceptions of translation in the works of the aforementioned twentieth century German-speaking thinkers while relating them to the former mentioned phases of development of the German concept of translation (Luther and the German Classics and Romantics). Second, I intend to define the shared preoccupations of these conceptions of translation. Indeed, Freud, Rosenzweig, Buber, Benjamin and Heidegger seek to articulate, through translation, a renewed relationship to a remote, primordial and sacred past.