Revisiting the re-translation hypothesis. Translation defaults, textual time and kairos

Chantal Wright (University of Warwick, UK)

“A translation has three (or even four) fathers.”

Hans J. Vermeer. Die Welt in der wir übersetzen. Heidelberg: TEXTconTEXT Wissenschaft, 1996, p. 247.

The re-translation hypothesis – the idea that there is teleological improvement from one translation of a source text to the next – has been largely discredited since it was first put forward by Antoine Berman and Paul Bensimon in 1990. But Berman’s own translational practice and reflection in L’Âge de la Traduction, his 180-page commentary on Walter Benjamin’s “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers”, may allow the hypothesis to be recast. Berman’s commentary reflects upon Benjamin’s German text and on Maurice de Gandillac’s French translation thereof. Berman thinks and re-translates Benjamin, to a significant degree, through Gandillac. He acknowledges longstanding criticisms of Gandillac’s translation (then the only existing translation) but argues that French readers should nonetheless acknowledge the ‘gift’ that Gandillac made them in the sixties when he introduced Benjamin’s texts into France. The many revisions to Gandillac’s translation that were made both by the translator himself and by subsequent editors point to the complexity of Benjamin’s text and the humility of the translator in the face of this complexity. It is against this background that Berman’s introduction of the concept of the translational défaillance should be understood, his rendering of the term Versagung, borrowed from Freud, a term that I will render as ‘default’. Defaults are not errors or failings but point to nodes of textual resistance; they are an inevitable part of the translation process. I will show, via my own English translation of L’Âge de la Traduction, how the concept of the ‘default’, coupled with Berman’s reflections on textual time and kairos, may help us re-think the re-translation hypothesis, situating re-translation as a dialogic, collaborative process of mothering – in the sense of birthing – a text, ganz im Sinne von Vermeer.


Benjamin, Walter (1991 [1923]): „Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers“, in: R. Tiedemann and H. Schweppenhäuser, (eds.): Gesammelte Schriften. IV.I. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 9-21.
Berman, Antoine (2008) L’Âge de la traduction. Paris: Presses Universitaires de Vincennes.
Gandillac, Maurice de, trans. (1971): "La tâche du traducteur" in: Œuvres I, Mythe et violence. Paris: Denoël/Les Lettres Nouvelles, 261-275.