Tasking the Translator: A Dialogue of King Alfred and Walter Benjamin
Griffith, John Lance,
Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, Volume 16 No. 1 (2008)
At the end of the ninth century King Alfred the Great charged the most learned scholars of his day with the task of translating Latin texts into the English vernacular, a project Alfred viewed as central to his ultimate goal of initiating a sweeping social and moral reformation of English life and learning. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Walter Benjamin challenged the modern translator to consider the purpose and the nature of his task, its philosophical and epistemological consequence. This essay examines the life and work of Alfred the Great — the interconnection of that life and that translation work — and considers how medieval translation practices help us to think about the problems posed by Walter Benjamin for the modern translator, about the medieval/modern divide. Alfred sought to unify England, to give Englishmen a sense of shared identity through shared culture and shared religious and political values, but he founded such unity on a collection of non-determinate, non-permanent texts. His cultural and religious absolutes were encoded in personal, indefinite, subjective expression. Questing for the universal, in almost modern (Benjamin) fashion, Alfred goes beyond what is “literal” and “objective” and “absolute” and “original” (with respect to the original author) and embraces what is “free” and “subjective” and “impermanent” and “original” (with respect to the translator). In the midst of the moral and cultural incoherence that defines our modern Babel, the dialogue between Alfred and Benjamin challenges us to consider how we should define the value (social and philosophical) of the translator’s task, to consider with what we should task the translator.