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II. Traduire le(s) sens : exacerber le silence et les sons

Translating intensiveness: the translation of life-in-language experiences

Inacio Abdulkader
p. 117-135


Cet article s’intéresse au travail de traduction du philosophe juif-allemand Franz Rosenzweig. L’un de ses objectifs principaux était de maintenir, dans le texte cible, le potentiel de révélation du texte source. L’article essaye de clarifier ce point et de comprendre comment des techniques de traduction aussi « physiologiques » que celles auxquelles Rosenzweig a recours ont permis de construire une pratique traductive qui a, en fait, atteint les objectifs d’une philosophie dont le concept central est la Révélation. Le concept d’intensivité du langage est ici développé à partir de notions qui viennent de Rosenzweig, Bakhtine et Benjamin. L’attention à cette intensivité est capitale dans ce travail de traduction. L’article s’intéresse donc à la manière dont ces expériences du « vécu-en-langue » source peuvent être traduites et restituées dans la langue cible.

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Texte intégral

1. Problematics: what is to be kept in translation?

  • 1 . In the article, The Star of Redemption will also be referred to as The Star.

1The ideas in this article were prompted by the work of Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), a German-Jewish philosopher and translator, best known as the author of The Star of Redemption1 (1921), one of the greatest masterpieces of philosophy in the 20th century.

2Rosenzweig also produced a very important translation work which includes, prominently, a German translation—with Martin Buber—of the Hebrew Bible, considered one of the best since Luther’s; and a translation of 92 Hebrew hymns and poems by Yehuda Halevi, a XIIth century Jewish poet from Arab Spain. Rosenzweig’s translation practice has been said to challenge the usual translational ideas (Rosenwald, 1994: xxix) and he produced one of the most original reflections on translation.

3Revelation is the main concept in Rosenzweig’s philosophical system which is built mostly on concepts from religion. For him, his translation work was one of the “best practical applications” of this revelation-centered philosophy (Rosenzweig, 2000 [1925]: 128). We should then proceed to one of the only two points in The Star in which translation is explicitly mentioned. It occurs in the context of a discussion on the significance of Pentecost for Christianity:

It is the first effect of the spirit to translate […] to erect a bridge between man and man, between tongue and tongue. The Bible must be surely the first book to be translated and then held equal to the original text. God speaks everywhere with the words of men. And spirit means precisely that the translator, the one who hears and transmits, knows himself equal to the one that first spoke and received the word. (Rosenzweig, 1970: 366)

4In this excerpt, the remark on translation, and on the translator’s task and import, is clearly tied to revelation. The translator is on a par with the prophet who first uttered the revealed word. Most importantly, sonority and orality are here pivotal to revelation, and to this translation practice: the translator hears what was spoken and speaks equal to the one who first spoke; and translation erects bridges, primordially, between “tongues”, people’s organs of speech, rather than between their languages.

5Some years later, in 1926, in his reflections on the Bible translation that he was carrying out with Martin Buber, Rosenzweig made this point more clearly, even if in a paradoxical manner. He recognized that “our time has lost the notion of revelation” (Rosenzweig, 1994 [1926]: 50), and that this meant for a translator like him—who against the times believed that, not only in the main passages of the Bible, but also that in “any human utterance [therein] there may [be] conceal[ed] the possibility that one day, in [my reader’s] time or in my time, God’s word may be revealed in it”—, that he, that such translator, “should strive to follow the peculiar turns of that potentially revelation-bearing utterance, whether by direct reconstruction or implication” (ibid.: 64).

6In other words, for the translator to achieve his/her aim, the revelation potential of the original text must be kept in translation. Rosenzweig further says that this must be done so that the translated text may become revelation in the life of its reader. And this in a time that had lost the notion of revelation. Rosenzweig’s translation is clearly an application of his philosophy.

7On the other hand, the translation techniques that Buber and Rosenzweig developed to reach an aim of such grandeur are, perhaps unexpectedly, quite basic and physiological: they, fundamentally, take into account the sight, hearing and breath of the reader of the target text. The two main techniques, in this physiological sense, are:

8The Leitwörters, i.e., leading-words, of which Buber says that they build “arcs of significant repetition” for the reader of the translated text (Buber, 1994 [1926]: 14). Basically, this is a technique of univocality in translation: to translate a term from the original that repeats itself throughout the text, always with the same term in translation, without, as much as possible, resorting to synonyms or polysemy. In this way, special attention is given to the reader’s visual perception, so that the reader sees that a given term or lexical unit is repeated, and extracts meaning out of such repetition. The other important technique is colometry, which Buber-Rosenzweig pioneered. It provides a lineation of the translated text, which is divided into cola, leaving blanks between the sentences in the page thus indicating the parts of the text that should be read one at a time, after each take of breath. It works as a kind of musical score for reading, aimed at the one who will hear the reading. In that way, one tends to read not only with the eye, but also with the ear, and to take the act of breathing into account. This allowed Buber-Rosenzweig to recover the orality of the biblical text and thus “to go behind the writtenness of the text and return to its [original] spokenness” (Buber, 1994 [1930]: 179), which is “determined by the laws of human breathing and human speech” (Buber, 1994 [1927]: 170), and not by the logic of punctuation.

9All this raises questions for those who are more concerned with language and translation than with concepts from religion. Questions such as: What exactly is this revelation potential of the text that should be kept in translation? What is revelation if it indeed intrudes in, or exudes from, the linguistic? The answer to such questions will require a look into Rosenzweig’s philosophy.

2. Rosenzweig’s Philosophical System (with a little help from Bakhtin and Benjamin)

10The Star of Redemption is a massive, deep work. It builds from religious concepts such as Creation, Revelation and Redemption, which are difficult for the typical 21st century western mind to grasp, but it has, nevertheless, been recognized as the first step, prior even to Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), in the deconstruction of metaphysics during the last century (Nef, 2004: 166).

11Prompted by the feeling of one’s finitude (in the front of World War I), written in a “virtual idiolect shared with his circle of relatives and friends” (Gibbs, 2000: 25), and conceived as a challenge to the whole of mainstream philosophy “from Ionia to Jena” (Rosenzweig, 1970 [1921]: 12), the following characteristics may be pointed out as the hallmarks of The Star of Redemption and of this—as Rosenzweig puts it —“new thinking” (Rosenzweig, 2000 [1925]: 109-139):

  1. a new ontology of three irreducible elements, God, Man and World, and the relations held between them: Creation, Revelation and Redemption;

  2. a new organon, in which speech and its grammatical categories substitute for reason and logic as tools for thought;

  3. a new dialogic epistemology, in which primacy is given to the other, the Thou, rather than to the perceiving I: “Not amo, amas, amat, but rather amas, amo, amat is the correct order of our proper grammatical posture” (Stahmer, 1968: 137-138).

12Concerning this last dialogical aspect, which is certainly the less unusual of the three characteristics of Rosenzweig’s philosophy listed above, we should briefly note the reach of its influence. As pointed out by Rivka Horwitz, it was thanks to Rosenzweig’s decisive influence on the final stages of the writing of I and Thou—the acclaimed masterpiece by Martin Buber—that Buber’s work acquired its more mature dialogism, migrating from “confrontation” (reminiscent of biblical theophanies) to “dialogue” (in answer to a call, to a spoken request) (Horwitz, 1988: 194). This more mature Buber is one of the three major acknowledged philosophical sources of Mikhail Bakhtin (Emerson, 2003: 265), a fact that makes of Rosenzweig an indirect influence of Bakhtin, at least, a point that will be analyzed further on.

  • 2 . Modified from Hallo, Rosenzweig’s translator who uses “center piece”.

13As to the other two, more cryptic, main aspects of Rosenzweig’s philosophy, there are two moments when the author makes explicit what he considers to be, on the one hand the “central point”2 (Rosenzweig, 1970 [1921]: 174), and on the other the “kernel” of his The Star of Redemption (Rosenzweig quoted in Galli, 1995: 497).

14Although intended as a rebuke to Hegel and to philosophy ever since Parmenides, The Star of Redemption was, nevertheless, conceived by Rosenzweig as a system quite in the Hegelian manner, consisting of three parts: each part with three books, with the very central second book of the second part dedicated to revelation, the main concept in his system. It is in this central book, that both the central point and the kernel—the one a synthesizing phrase, the other a synthesizing sentence—occur.

2.1. The central point and Bakhtin

15With reference to the central point, and without delving into the intricacies of Rosenzweig’s derivations based on grammatical categories, let us just note that after having previously (in Book 1 of Part 2, on Creation) derived the evaluative adjective “good!”—of God’s evaluation of creation in Genesis—as the root-word of Creation, and having done this based on “mere” considerations on which grammatical category would be the most applicable to the specific (creational) circumstance (Rosenzweig, 2000 [1925]: 126-127), Rosenzweig now derives the “I” of God’s “I command [you, love me!]” as the root-word of revelation.

16The point, however, is not the root-word itself, but its derivation, that now, in the book on revelation, is obtained “not [just] as a word within its species of words [i.e., no longer just by monological grammatical deduction], but rather as individual response to individual question” (i.e., via a dialogue in which someone poses a question and someone else answers to it. The specifics of this question will not concern us here) (Rosenzweig, 1970 [1921]: 174). From this, Rosenzweig concludes his central, dialogical, point:

This [derivation within the realm of revelation] accords with the wholly real employment of language, the center-piece as it were of this entire book, at which we have here arrived, […] as word and response. (Ibid.)

17The real employment of language is language as word and response. In other words, there is no speech if there is no response to it. Word and response (Wort und Antwort) is thus the central point of The Star of Redemption. Further, it points to a dialogical, linguistic dimension of Rosenzweig’s philosophy.

18How much Bakhtinian is not all this? In their discussion about possible translations of the Russian word otvetstvennost in Bakhtin’s texts, Morson and Emerson point out that it contains, as does its English equivalent, both answer and response. The translator’s decision should, however, rest:

on one’s perception of Bakhtin’s intellectual evolution […] Responsibility, which has a manifestly ethical resonance, is what is most likely intended in the 1919 piece, “Art and Responsibility”. By the mid-1920’s however, […] addressive answerability (that is, the presence of response) [should apply]. […] One’s obligation in answerability is to rescue the other from pure potential; reaching out to another consciousness makes the other coalesce, and turns the other’s ‘mere potential’ into space that is open to the living event. (Morson and Emerson, 1990: 76)

19Indeed, much later, in 1951-1952, in what may be considered a fulcrum of one of his masterpieces, Speech Genres, Bakhtin will, still unknowingly, be echoing Rosenzweig’s central point:

  • 3 . Translation and italics mine.

In essence language needs only the speaker—a speaker and the object of his utterance. […] However when it comes to the real aim of communication in discourse […] the hearer […] takes […] an active responsive position: agrees or disagrees [with what was uttered] completes it, applies it, gets to use it. […] All comprehension is pregnant with response. (Bakhtin, 2003: 270-271)3

20This excerpt from Bakhtin should be compared to the Rosenzweig excerpt that mentions a potentially revelation-bearing utterance whose peculiar turns the translator should strive to follow, […] whether by direct reconstruction or implication (Rosenzweig, 1994 [1926]: 64). Both excerpts use pregnancy as an image. But the comparison also allows us to recognize that, indeed, as suggested by Bakhtin, something more than the “object of the [speaker’s] utterance” is at play here, i.e., something other than the utterance’s mere intentional content; and this something can be equated with what is being “borne”—as revelation still to be experienced—by the Rosenzweigean potentially revelation-bearing utterance; third, that this same something is what impregnates the bosom of the comprehension that is pregnant with response in Bakhtin. It is the nature of this (linguistic) something that lies dormant in the peculiar turns of the utterance that needs to be elucidated, so that the translator may keep it in translation, as he strives to follow such turns.

2.2. The kernel and Benjamin

21Another moment when Rosenzweig is explicit and mentions a second point he considers to be crucial in The Star, a point he says is the kernel of his philosophy, occurs in a letter of February 1922 to Margarete Susman. In this letter, he is reacting to Susman’s review of The Star in the journal Der Jude, “whole-heartedly approving” of every sentence of it.

  • 4 . The word kernel is itself a quote coming from a letter Rosenzweig sent to Margarete Susman

22What pleased Rosenzweig most was the fact that Susman headed her review with a quote: “A name is not sound and smoke, it is word and fire. The name must be named and professed: I believe in it.” He “writes to Susman stating how deeply she had understood the book and how much he appreciated her picking out its kernel4” to head her review (Galli, 1995: 497).

23And indeed, this quote is the final sentence in the “Logic of Revelation”, a section in The Star that strikes the reader with its beauty and poetic character. It is also the point in The Star in which the application of grammatical thinking reaches the height of its power of expressiveness. Rosenzweig sweeps through a wide range of grammatical categories (classes, modes, tenses, number, verb, noun, proper name) to finally get to the Divine Name “the ground of revelation [which] is midpoint and beginning in one” (Rosenzweig, 1970 [1921]: 188).

  • 5 . Italics mine.

24What will concern us, though, are not such theological matters—however important they may be in Rosenzweig’s philosophy—but a hint coming from a phrase that Susman left out in her quote. The complete sentence, here in Hallo’s more convoluted translation (not in Galli’s, as above) reads: “For the name is in truth word and fire, and not sound and fury [sic] as unbelief would have it again and again in obstinate vacuity. It is incumbent to name the name and to acknowledge: I believe it.” (ibid.: 188)5 The point to be noted is that the vacuous, obstinate unbeliever to whom Rosenzweig is alluding in the phrase Susman did not quote, is Goethe’s Faust, who, when asked by Margarete, in her garden, whether he believed in God, gave the following answer:

  • 6 . Italics mine.

Call it then what thou wilt!
Call it Bliss! Heart! Love! God!
I have no name for it!
Feeling is all in all!
Name is but sound and reek,
A mist round the glow of Heaven!
(Goethe quoted in Galli, 1995: 497-498)

25This is indeed an important point, for it indicates to us the nature of what Rosenzweig is dealing with, when he takes language as a ground of revelation thus pointing to the nature of the revelation potential that should be kept in translation. He is alluding to something other than mere reference, something that reaches beyond what a contingently referring “sound” would attain. Again, as when we discussed Bakhtin vs Rosenzweig, what exactly is this something? Enters Walter Benjamin.

2.3. Benjamin’s “Sur le langage en général et le langage humain”7

  • 7 . Throughout the article, I will refer to this essay as “Le langage”.

26In 1916, the young 24-year-old Walter Benjamin wrote, in the form of a letter sent to his 16-year-old friend Gershom Scholem, an essay on the religious basis of language, “Sur le langage en général et le langage humain”, which remained unpublished well after his death. Nevertheless, Rainer Rochlitz, who revised its French translation by Maurice de Gandillac, registered that:

Le texte restera une source d’inspiration et une référence de la réflexion de Benjamin jusque dans les années trente [i.e., 1933, seven years before his death in 1940], époque à laquelle il révisera sa théorie du langage dans un sens matérialiste avec « Sur le pouvoir d’imitation ». (Rochlitz in Benjamin, 2000: 142)

27As in The Star of Redemption (where revelation is the key concept, and the name is a peak moment), in this essay by Benjamin, the name and Adamic naming are the central concept, and the discussion of revelation, a high point and illuminating moment.

28Benjamin starts “Le langage” by equating the spiritual with the linguistic, at first look oddly as he himself admits. But this strange move, says Benjamin, “à l’instar de toute vraie méthode, a pour effet de poser partout les problèmes d’une façon nouvelle” (Benjamin, 2000: 142). Let us briefly consider this “novelty” in Benjamin’s text and examine its relevance in elucidating Rosenzweig.

29In language, he says, or rather in the languages—and not simply by means of them (and this is a fundamental distinction for Benjamin)—the spiritual essence of everything existing is expressed; and thus not only man’s (i.e., human) spiritual essence is expressed in language: everything that exists has a specific language of its own.

  • 8 . Italics mine.

30Among these spiritual/linguistic essences, the most elevated is expressed in (non-decayed) man’s language which is capable of naming: “dans l’essence spirituelle de l’homme se communiqué à Dieu” (ibid.: 147). This “human word” that names, gets to immediately know, to fully experience, to live in abundance that which God creates. And all this in the name. “Le nom résume en lui cette totalité intensive du langage comme essence spirituelle de l’homme.” (ibid.)8

31Le nom […] en lui: as Benjamin offers us his reading of the Creation episode in Genesis, he cannot overstate just how much in this—strange and fundamental—en lui, i.e., this in the name, this in language, is. How much that is to say, what really counts here is something that is not the referential function of language:

Croire que l’homme communique son essence spirituelle par le nom [et pas dans le nom] […] c’est la conception bourgeoise du langage, dont la suite va montrer de plus en plus clairement le caractère intenable et vide. (Ibid.)

32And, indeed, in this picture, the original sin is denotation and reference:

En abandonnant le pur langage du nom, l’homme fait du langage un moyen, […] un simple signe. […] À partir du péché originel s’élève comme la restitution de l’immédiateté du nom, en lui lésée, une nouvelle immédiateté, la magie du jugement, qui ne bénéficie plus du repos bienheureux en lui-même. […] L’homme par le péché originel, abandonna l’immédiateté dans la communication du concret, c’est-à-dire le nom, et tomba dans l’abîme que représente le caractère médiat de toute communication, du mot comme moyen, du mot vide. (Ibid.: 161).

33From the above, one point is made clear: whatever it is that should be kept in Rosenzweig’s translation with its aim of keeping the revelation potential of the original text, it is something quite opposed to denotation and reference―translation’s usual targets. It is, further, something in language that reached its plenitude in non-decayed human naming: “Le nom résume en lui cette totalité intensive du langage.” (ibid.: 148)

34Our reality, though, is that of a decayed world with a multitude of languages that require translation… And within this reality we must now deal with whatever remains of the pristine plenitude of this—for us, still conceptually unclear—intensiveness in language. This consideration brings us to the final point: Benjamin’s discussion of revelation in “Le langage” will finally allow us to elucidate what exactly is this intensiveness of language, and to duly de-theologize it, down to our purposes of decayed translators.

3. Intensiveness

35In one of his brightest moments in “Le langage”, Benjamin draws the consequences of his equating the spiritual with the linguistic. Says Benjamin:

L’identification de l’essence spirituelle avec l’essence linguistique […] conduit à ce concept qui n’a jamais cessé de se hausser de lui-même au centre de la philosophie du langage et qui a constitué le lien plus intime de cette philosophie avec celle de la religion, je veux dire le concept de révélation. À l’intérieur de toute création linguistique règne le conflit entre l’exprimé et l’exprimable d’une part, l’inexprimable et l’inexprimé de l’autre. Lorsqu’on envisage ce conflit, c’est dans la perspective de l’inexprimable que l’on voit aussitôt l’ultime essence spirituelle. Or il est clair qu’identifier l’essence spirituelle avec l’essence linguistique, c’est de contester ce rapport de proportionnalité inverse entre l’une et l’autre. Car ici la thèse déclare que plus l’esprit est profond, […] plus il est exprimable et exprimé. […] Mais c’est précisément ce que signifie le concept de révélation, lorsqu’il tient le caractère intangible du verbe pour l’unique et suffisante condition […] de l’essence spirituelle qui s’exprime en lui. Le plus haut domaine spirituel de la religion est (dans le concept de révélation) en même temps le seul domaine qui ignore l’inexprimable. (Ibid.: 151)

36Revelation, then, does happen within language. It takes le caractère intangible du verbe as the unique et suffisante condition for it to happen. It is, thus, some intangible linguistic thing, in the text we are to translate. But, again, it is important to underline that this is going on in language (and not happening by means of language). Something, therefore, that has nothing to do with reference or intentionality in language.

37What, a contrario, comes to mind, are the so called intensional contexts in the semantics of predicate logic: if John says “How pretty the Morning Star is!”, we do not know whether he is aware of the fact that the Morning Star, the Evening Star and Venus are the same celestial body; how can we then decide whether the statement “John finds the Evening Star very pretty” is true or false? Predicate logic’s “solution” to this is to simply dismiss this kind of question—true or false— as non-applicable to such intensional contexts in which, let us say, the mental content and the in-life experience of an-other’s perception interferes with reference (see, for instance, Rundle, 1995: 411).

38These clarifications that we obtain from Benjamin allow us then to finally recognize what exactly this intensiveness in language is, to recognize its frankly subjective, existential rather than objective character, and to define it as opposed to reference, duly stripped from whatever religious connotations or concepts:

39Intensiveness covers everything that in language and in the languages one senses, experiences, connotes, expresses and lives, and to which one should oppose, or compare, reference, by means of which these same language and languages inform about the referent. (Abdulkader Filho, 2009: 143)

40Furthermore, intensiveness is responsible for the very many life-in-language experiences and sensations each of us lives as speakers of a language.

41Life-in-language experiences and sensations such as—and this is a wide range but, of course, non-exhaustive list—the sensation of the production of a sound by one’s vocal system; of hearing such a sound being produced; the experience of being aware of a certain metric; of homophony; of the orality of a text; of the sonority of an alliteration, an assonance or a paronym; of a register in speech; of a connotation; of a plurality of connotations; of a polysemic effect; of the perception of an intertextual reference; of a rhythm; of a historical condition lived in language; of a declamation; a proclamation; a repetition; of the perception of the place of a term within the “geography” of a language; the perception of the presentation of the text itself on the page; the perception of a sense of unity and/or coordination within the text, or lack thereof (ibid.: 203).

42In his task of translating intensiveness (and not reference), the translator that senses, experiences and lives all this in the source language, has to somehow manage to build similar life-in-language experiences in the target language, so that his reader may sense and experience them, live them in the target language— he thus becomes pivotal and non-effaced.

4. Translating intensiveness

43Let us now take a look into some situations in which the translator is confronted with, or lives-in-language this intensiveness. They are presented in an order in which the translator’s role builds to a crescendo:

4.1 No translation

44The first example will seem paradoxical, as it results in no translation. In a letter of 1921, Rosenzweig explains:

If I happen to have a Jewish guest [for a meal at home] who can just read [phonetically the] Hebrew—without understanding [the meaning of] what he reads—I conceal the existence of [my] translation [of the After Meals Prayer]. The uncomprehended Hebrew gives him more than the finest translation (quoted in Glatzer, 1998: 102)

45One of the very best translators would, in this case, rather not translate. Meaning, sense, reference and intentionality lose here to intensiveness, and are set aside: the sensation of the production of a sound by one’s glottis, of hearing such a sound through one’s ears, gives the reader more than the finest translation.

4.2 Translation as a given

46In the second example, the translation solution imposes itself. It is given beforehand to the translator, who then needs to deal with it. The lyrics of Aquidauana a song by the Brazilian folk singer Chico César (César, 1999) is sonority all over, sonority over semantics all over. A consideration of only its refrain will suffice for the intended point to be made, but the reader will have to bear with some Portuguese:

O quehá
e o que não há
em Okayama e Okinawá?
Pro povo de Aquidauana
eu vou ter de perguntar.

Literally:    What there is
and what there isn’t
in Okayama and Okinawa?
To the people in Aquidauana
I’ll have to ask them.

47(The various strophes that are intercalated with this refrain go on asking through a profusion of play on sounds whether the most awkward things may exist in Okayama and Okinawá: things such as “a goat, so the she-goat may go goatish” or “si s’embrasser c’est défendu, ou qu’on s’embrasse c’est du déjà-vu”—this last composite word is in French in the original).

48At a perceptual level, what is evident—yet amusingly surprising to any speaker of Brazilian Portuguese—is that o quenãohá, what there is not sounds almost exactly like Okinawá. Never mind that o quenãohá means literally what there is not, we are faced here with the need to translate the life-in-language experience of homophony with the following sound: Okinawá. Whatever the target language may be, the translation must be anchored in a sound given beforehand: it must match the sonority of Okinawá. “Aucune oie” in French, and “walking now are” in English are two options; let the translator deal thereon, with whatever necessarily secondary aspects of meaning and reference may be thereby involved. Two possible solutions, one for French, one for English, are shown hereunder:

To those who     O quehá     Est-ce qu’il n’y a pas
Walking now are     e o que não há     Aucune oie
in Okayama, Okinawa:     em Okayama e Okinawá?     À Okayama et Okinawa ?
From afar, Aquidauana,     Pro povo de Aquidauana     Aux gens à Aquidauana
how I wonder what you are.     eu vou ter de perguntar.     tout le temps il demanda.

4.3 Taking breath into account: proclamation overrules declamation

49The third example highlights the “intensive” reach of Buber/Rosenzweig’s physiological translation techniques. In order to keep the revelation potential in translation, the translator works out the text’s intensiveness, via colometry, so that the reader will sense as prose what was originally written as poetry. Let us follow Rosenzweig’s argument, in an article of 1925, “Scripture and Word: on the new Bible translation”:

Breath is the stuff of speech; the drawing of breath is accordingly the natural segmenting of speech. […] For us [Buber/Rosenzweig] the respiratory movement of natural speech must sometimes break the metrical dance-step of poetry. So, for example, in the dying Jacob’s proclamations to his twelve tribal sons (Genesis 49). In each case there, the first two cola of the translation correspond only to a single verse of the meter, most strikingly in the prophecy to Judah. The inwardly rhythmic speech of the word wins out over the discrete pulses of the song; prose wins out over poetry. (Rosenzweig, 1994 [1925]: 43,45)

50And indeed, in Everett Fox’s translation into the English of the prophecy to Judah in the Hebrew Pentateuch—a translation which was carried out as “an offshoot to Buber-Rosenzweig translation”, following their directives (Fox, 1995: x)—the first decasyllable verse is broken into two cola, but not so the two following verses that keep their meter (Gen. 49, 8):

you—your brothers will praise you,
your hand in the neck of your enemies!
Your father’s sons will bow down to you.
Ibid.: 231)

51The same verse-breaking is applied to the first verses of the other eleven tribal sons of Jacob throughout Fox’s translation of Gen 49. Most strikingly, to quote Rosenzweig, in the prophecy to Judah, the first verse, besides being divided into two cola, also includes a dash. What is also important in this example is the way the application of such a basic, physiological technique is effectively grounded in Rosenzweig theology-laden, revelation-centered philosophy. Thus, Rosenzweig’s translation work turns out, indeed, to be a practical application of the theory he develops (Rosenzweig, 2000 [1925]: 128). According to Rosenzweig:

The language of the child is originally lyrical and magic. […] But the child only becomes an adult when through his Ursprache, there breaks the unlyrical and unmagical fullness of the word. […] The Bible is the hoard of this language of the human being, [the language of the word] because it is prose, prose in the enraptured song of the prophecy and in the powerful declaration of the law. […] The word that cannot tolerate meter because in it the soul breaks free of measure, is spoken into it, and speaks out from it. (Rosenzweig, 1994 [1925]: 43-45)

52In other words, there is no revelation if not uttered in the prose of human speech, in the dialogue of word and response. It is impossible to declaim a prophecy. It needs to be proclaimed so to be sensed as revelation by the hearer.

4.4 Intensiveness in my language

53The fourth example of a situation in which intensiveness in language is of foremost importance comes from an excursus within the notes of Rosenzweig’s translation of 92 Poems and Hymns by Yehuda Halevi. In this excursus, he offers his translation of one poem by Halevi that he considered unworthy of being part of the main body of his selection of elevated poems, many of which were part of the liturgy. Yet this one poem deserved translation, and a fascinating commentary, by Rosenzweig.

  • 9 . Thus, the first two strophes of Rosenzweig’s translation: “Flehen ihr ausHerzen heiß / Sollt, da (...)

54The problem he sees, is, in his words, that “that which breaks out in many of these [magnificent 92] poems rules this [one] piece absolutely: the joy in wordplay, the similar sounds in words with different meanings9. It is surprising that such an artistry has not proven more offensive”; Rosenzweig adds, while uneasily conceding that, nevertheless, “one cannot deny this poem a certain charm, even beauty in several places” (Rosenzweig, 1995 [1923]: 244). Intensiveness and homophony all over produce an artistry that sounds offensive in a poem addressing such a serious theme as the return to Jerusalem. Then however, Rosenzweig puts—and answers—a question that will allow us to recognize an unsuspected reach of intensiveness in language: “on which relation with the language”, he asks, “does this poet base what is for us such unpoetic conduct?” (ibid.). Let us recall that Halevi and other Jewish poets of 12th century Spain lived in a special condition of diglossia: their native language was Arabic. Hebrew was the sacred language, but not a living, developing, language of everyday affairs, restricted as it was to prayer and liturgy, always within the lexical borders of Scripture.

55However, it also happens that Halevi lived in the historical moment when “the young science of grammar” (ibid.: 245) started to develop. In the cradle of this Spanish-Jewish poetry, says Rosenzweig, lies grammar. Grammar allows the poet to “plough inside the borders of the bounded sphere [of the lexicon of Scripture] which he calls his own, until no speck of unfruitful ground is left” (ibid.) for the first time. Thus,

the astonishing phenomenon that like-sounding words can have the most highly awkward different meanings, […] is cleared through grammar […] the whole fortune of this treasure of language has become for the first time an entirely conscious possession for the people. […] (ibid.)

56“This is the national-historical meaning”, adds Rosenzweig, “of the assuredly childish play as this poem practices it” (ibid.). In other words, if one can live the life-in-language experience of playing with the words and the sounds of a language, then this language, native or not, becomes one’s language―one’s own language, be it one’s first, or second, or third language.

57And most importantly: it is within intensiveness—within sonority, in this specific case—that a whole people own their language.

4.5 Historical condition

58The fifth example comes from Henri Meschonnic and his translation of the second verse in Psalm 22, which became, in the New Testament (Mat. 27, 46), one of the last words of the crucified Christ.

59The verse in Aramean Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani, already a translation from the Hebrew Eli, Eli, lama azavtani, and already part of traditional Christian Passion narratives in the second half of the Ist century, is brought to the Gospel text by the redactor of Mathew, who then translates it into the Greek he is writing in: “that is, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”.

60As Meschonnic points out, ever since Mathew—and, surprisingly, even a bit before him, in the Septuagint—this why has been kept in translations of Psalm 22 for over two millennia. He mentions some ten such translations, including Buber-Rosenzweig’s (Meschonnic, 1999: 132-134). All of them, however, says Meschonnic, have wrongly kept this why as in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew:

[L]a place de l’accent en hébreu […] porte sur la seconde syllabe. S’il portait sur la première: ’lama, le mot signifierait « pourquoi ». Accentué la’ma, il ne demande plus « pour quelle raison » […], mais « pour quel résultat » ou intention. […] C’est pourquoi j’ai traduit : « Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, à quoi m’as tu abandonné ? » (ibid.: 134)

61Meschonnic’s point is his usual one, here, once more, brilliantly put:

L’historicité c’est le rythme. […] [Cette] traduction ancienne, traduction-tradition. […] Cette chorale a une voix si unie, elle est si occupée à s’écouter et s’imiter elle-même, qu’elle n’a entendu ni permis d’entendre le rythme. Le sens est ici le silence du rythme. (Ibid.: 131-134)

62Yet the point to be made, prompted by this superb observation by Meschonnic that “L’historicité c’est le rythme” is that, as a matter of fact, two historicities are involved here. Most importantly, they are lived-in-language, in the intensiveness of language. And they indeed hinge on a tiny difference in rhythm―on whether lama is oxytone or paroxytone.

63There were no accentuation marks in the written Hebrew of the Ist century, therefore, one should decide on the run where to place the tonic. On the run, but carrying within oneself the whole history of one’s tradition, and thus living, almost unconsciously perhaps, the life-in-language experience of placing the tonic accent on the “correct” syllable. In one case, the Christian reader was (and is still today) redeemed by the central event of the cross. In the other, the Jew reader was (and is still today) departing to an exile in Babylon.

64In a letter from 1924, Rosenzweig makes a seemingly paradoxical statement, when referring to his Halevi translation: “I myself understand a poem only after I have translated it; a compromising confession, but […] I can safely make it” (quoted in Glatzer, 1998: 134). And indeed when we look into intensiveness in language, when we translate life-in-language experiences from one language into another, understanding―existential understanding―is enhanced. So, what to translate if one wants to keep in translation strange things, akin to revelation, such as these?

65Intensiveness, life-in-language—besides, or rather than, mere reference—is to be translated.

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1 . In the article, The Star of Redemption will also be referred to as The Star.

2 . Modified from Hallo, Rosenzweig’s translator who uses “center piece”.

3 . Translation and italics mine.

4 . The word kernel is itself a quote coming from a letter Rosenzweig sent to Margarete Susman

5 . Italics mine.

6 . Italics mine.

7 . Throughout the article, I will refer to this essay as “Le langage”.

8 . Italics mine.

9 . Thus, the first two strophes of Rosenzweig’s translation: “Flehen ihr ausHerzen heiß / Sollt, dass Salem selig heiß’. // Jahre schrie und Leiden trug / Zwischen Schlangengift und –trug. / Weide fand nicht, Langer schlug / Nie ich. Mir deinMitleid leih’s, / Weh mein Weh weg traumgleich leis” (Rosenzweig, 1995 [1923]: 243).

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Inacio Abdulkader, « Translating intensiveness: the translation of life-in-language experiences », Palimpsestes, 28 | 2015, 117-135.

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Inacio Abdulkader, « Translating intensiveness: the translation of life-in-language experiences », Palimpsestes [En ligne], 28 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2015, consulté le 19 février 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Inacio Abdulkader

Inacio Abdulkader est ingénieur électricien, diplômé en 1974 de l’École polytechnique, université de São Paulo (USP). Il a travaillé dans l’industrie brésilienne de télécommunications pendant presque trente ans. En 2004, il a achevé sa spécialisation en traduction au Centre interdépartemental de traduction et de terminologie (CITRAT) de la faculté de philosophie, lettres et sciences humaines de l’université de São Paulo (FFLCH – USP), et en 2009 il a obtenu son titre de docteur ès lettres à la FFLCH-USP, avec une thèse dont le thème était la traduction dialogique de Franz Rosenzweig. Il est membre du EDIM – Groupe de recherche sur l’éducation, le discours, l’identité et les médias. Il a écrit des articles sur la traduction de Rosenzweig, sur l’application des corpora électroniques à la traduction et sur la traduction de Bernard Shaw.

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