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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter November 30, 2020

“Es gibt nur eine Sprache”: The ‘Task of the Translator’ in Rosenzweig’s Idea of Language and Redemption. Its Conceptual Homologies and Expansions

  • Massimiliano De Villa EMAIL logo
From the journal Naharaim


The concurrence of different languages is one of the tenets of Rosenzweig Sprachdenken and of his translation activity which finds its main theoretical explication in the afterword to his ‘Zweiundneunzig Hymnen und Gedichte des Yehuda Halevi’ (Konstanz, Wöhrle, 1924). In the afterword to the translation of ha-Levi’s lyrical corpus, Rosenzweig outlines a translation model which, trying to convey all the morphological, syntactic and lexical traits of the source language into the target language, gives way to a real linguistic fusion which defies the limits and boundaries of expression and opens onto a redemptive perspective. On the basis of this concluding note and of some passages from ‘The Star of Redemption’, the article tries to analyse Rosenzweig’s idea of language and of its nexus with the idea of redemption with reference to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay ‘The Task of the Translator’ and, as a point of convergence, with Paul Celan’s conception of poetic language.

The afterword to Rosenzweig’s 1924 translation of Judah Halevi’s poems and hymns is a foundational text for understanding his approach to translation.[1] Rosenzweig maintains that the constitutive possibility of translation is guaranteed by the fact that every language contains the same germ or embryo, shared by all languages that have ever been, and will ever be, spoken. This means that each language has the potential to express everything that might be expressed in any other language.

The concept of a primordial language is key here; the idea that before human language fragmented there was a common universal tongue, an Adamic, pre-Babel language (perhaps the language of God) from which all languages stem. Therefore, for Rosenzweig, despite linguistic differences, all languages share a common root and a common structure. According to this theory, any linguistic feature of any natural language can be recognized, either overtly or latently, in any other language.[2] The idea underlying this primordial affinity, Urverwandtschaft, between all languages is not Rosenzweig’s. Rather, it dates to the Biblical story about linguistic unity preceding the construction of the Tower of Babel, to the idea of the Earth being ‘of one lip, and of the same words’ (Genesis 11,1).[3] This idea was later developed by Kabbalistic thought, which was preoccupied with unravelling the concept of Ursprache, the original, super-individual and meta-historical language.[4]

Thanks to translation, the conjoining act par excellence, the various world languages may therefore be traced back to a single original unified language. It is precisely this ancient, undifferentiated unity of all languages that establishes the possibility and need for translation, through which the famed hierogamy[5] between source language and target language is celebrated. “Es gibt nur eine Sprache”:[6] Rosenzweig thus declares explaining:

Es gibt keine Spracheigentümlichkeit der einen, die sich nicht, und sei es in Mundarten, Kinderstuben, Standeseigenheiten, in jeder andern mindestens keimhaft nachweisen ließe. Auf dieser wesenhaften Einheit aller Sprache und dem darauf beruhenden Gebot der allmenschlichen Verständigung ist die Möglichkeit wie die Aufgabe des Übersetzens, ihr Kann, Darf und Soll, begründet. Man kann übersetzen, weil in jeder Sprache jede andre der Möglichkeit nach enthalten ist; man darf übersetzen, wenn man diese Möglichkeit durch Urbarmachung solchen sprachlichen Brachlands verwirklichen kann; und man soll übersetzen, damit der Tag jener Eintracht der Sprachen, die nur in jeder einzelnen, nicht in dem leeren Raum “zwischen” ihnen erwachsen kann, komme.[7]

It follows that all world languages may be brought together through translation. Ultimately, in a messianic moment, languages will harmonize and then the idea of redemption through language may be distinctly glimpsed as a point of convergence. The adverb ‘keimhaft’ (‘embryo’ or ‘sprouting’) is used by Rosenzweig to highlight the messianic component of original linguistic correspondence and the simultaneous presence of all languages in each. The germ, a metaphor for the kernel of future generations, the epitome of utmost concentration, absolute density and future possibility, has been perhaps the most powerful image in messianic discourse since prophecies about the Messiah stemming from the Davidic line.[8] This redemption too takes place through linguistic coalescence and through the gravitation of all languages towards the synthetic unity of the one Ursprache.[9]

Inherent in the ultimate messianic unity of all languages is the disruption of order and ensuing chaos. So, before turning to the eventual messianic reunification of language, it is helpful to ask: what are the consequences of the fundamental linguistic correspondence between all languages? What are the features that the target language takes on after the constant transferring from one language to another, which is inherent in the translation process?

Since the beginning of his work on Yehuda Halevi’s poetic corpus in 1922, if not before, Rosenzweig considered translation to be an extreme process, where the result must preserve the sense and meaning of the source language as much as possible, even at the expense of intelligibility and transparency in the target language. This requires leaving the translated text unpolished and often inaccessible, even foreign to the reader’s ear.

In Rosenzweig’s translations the Hebrew of Halevi’s poems (and later on the Hebrew of the Bible, whose translation into German he begins with Martin Buber in 1925) is transferred into the receptacle provided by the German language. In doing so, German is stretched out of shape to adapt to a foreign linguistic form, being so twisted as to become a new and almost foreign language in and of itself. There is a ‘fallow land’ of the component parts of the target language that translation can plough in an attempt to create a possibility. The possibility that the meeting, or conjunction, of the two languages may bring about transformation by way of metamorphic synthesis, whereby language in the translation process undergoes mutation, renewal and transformation. As is well known, messianic dynamic entails some similar features: the unravelling of pre-existing configurations, the sudden invasion of the new and the unconditional, categorical overturning, the coexistence of contraries,[10] the palingenetic moment, the isotopy of the root stock and the germ, as well as harmony.[11] Hence, the union of languages does not result in order, linearity or clear linguistic structures. Rather, it results in productive disorder where an asyntactic chaos prevails. This picture is programmatically evident in the afterword to Jehuda Halevi, in the language used in translating his poems and hymns as well as in the translation of the Bible.

It may seem strange that the conjunction of languages, understood as an act of reconstitution of linguistic unity and hence redemptive, takes place through chaos. For Rosenzweig, the outcome of the translation process is that the target language, in an attempt to approximate the source language and to reproduce its structures as closely as possible, tends to upset the syntax (and ‘syntax’, as we know, means ‘order’) so as to result in a new language, in an attempt to plough a new linguistic ground, to break the discursive linearity, to dissolve logical links. However, this process of dissolution and corrugation, triggers metamorphic processes of new synthesis and linguistic clotting, on the way to a new language that synthetically holds together source and target language, in a redemptive attempt to heal the fracture originating with the Tower of Babel. Only after it has been disintegrated, only by passing through chaos, can the mutated language, once again articulate a discursive movement. So, what Rosenzweig formulated in his afterword to his translations of Judah Halevi’s poems is an idea of language close to the chaotic matter that already contains the traces of creation. Rosenzweig hints at an indistinct and integrally potential fullness where opposites meet in a disharmonious consonance because it is precisely in this harmony of dissonance, defined and constituted by oxymoron, that the seed of renewal and redemption is inherent. Eliding the syntactic links, overturning common sense categories, freeing words from their relationships of logical dependence, dissolving the nodes of causality in the target language thus paves the way for new configurations and frees chaotic potentialities, thereby fertilizing creation through destruction. Preaching the solution of ‘redemptive chaos’ means embracing destruction and creation simultaneously. This productive disorder is an approximation of the idea of Ursprache, which clears the ground for its messianic reinstatement by approximation and anticipation through translation. Each translation is thus an act of redemptive preparation, of messianic anticipation.[12]

As is well known, the category of ‘anticipation’ (Vorwegnahme) is central to Rosenzweig’s formulation of the link between time and eternity.[13] While waiting for the end of time, humankind can expect tomorrow in today, eternity in the now. In his afterword to Jehuda Halevi, Rosenzweig suggests that the “task of translating” can be found in the absolute and extreme conjunction between languages achieved through translation.[14] This is the “task of the translator.”[15] This idea evokes Benjamin’s identically titled 1921 essay Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers.[16] It is likely that Rosenzweig read this essay as it was published in 1923 (as an introduction to the German edition of Tableaux Parisiens in the second edition of Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire), one year before the publication of the first edition of Jehuda Halevi.[17] Benjamin’s essay elaborated on a translation model that was contiguous, or even overlapping, with Rosenzweig’s. Moreover, the fact that Benjamin’s title featured prominently throughout Rosenzweig’s afterword may indicate Rosenzweig’s first-hand knowledge of Benjamin’s essay. In any case, there is no doubt that a certain like-mindedness between the two thinkers’ approach to translation is present, as they share urgent preoccupations and the essays have analogous conceptual terrain.

Though Benjamin’s thought on translation, and its effect on Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers, have been extensively documented, what it shares with Rosenzweig’s translation model is worth highlighting. The similarity was first pointed out by George Steiner in After Babel, who casts the similarity in messianic terms: “‘Every translation’, urged Franz Rosenzweig when announcing his projected German version of the Old Testament, is a messianic act, which brings redemption nearer.”[18]

Given the research completed on Benjamin’s essays on language and translation, it would probably be more useful to outline the conceptual thread upon which both Benjamin and Rosenzweig draw. Like Rosenzweig, and on the basis of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s writings, Benjamin develops the Kabbalistic and Romantic notion of Ursprache, the pure and ancestral language,[19] on which every meta-historical linguistic affinity is based and which translation can attempt to approximate. Also like Rosenzweig, Benjamin thought the original unity of all languages is visible when touched by translation’s connective power. Furthermore, the contact between Rosenzweig and Benjamin’s thinking becomes apparent when one considers Benjamin’s previous essay Über Sprache überhaupt und über die Sprache des Menschen (1916)[20] which, however, due to its publication in 1955, Rosenzweig cannot have read.[21]

In detailing the various types of translation in his afterword to Jehuda Halevi, Rosenzweig deals with the use of translation for practical purposes, where the content and intelligibility of the message constitute the primary aim. For example, he explains, “wenn ich als Kaufmann eine Bestellung aus der Türkei erhalte und sie auf das Übersetzungsbüro schicke.”[22] This is neither true language nor true translation because, Rosenzweig goes on to explain, “Die Sprache, der ihr Sprecher nichts abverlangt, erstarrt zum Mittel der Verständigung.”[23] Language is therefore denied its communicative power. Real translators are Sprachschöpfer, creative, unbiased demiurges who must gravitate, together with their language, towards the other language. The translator must contemplate any sort of risk or distortion, even a complete overhaul of linguistic form, forfeiting any aspect of comprehensibility, if necessary.[24] Creativity and innovation in translation involve potentiality and linguistic alterity. By making room for change and renewal, the creative and innovative power of translation is often opposed to comprehensibility. In Über Sprache überhaupt Benjamin, too, denies the legitimacy of communicating through, of the transmissive model of communication, what he calls “die bürgerliche Auffassung der Sprache.”[25]

After the Fall of Adam and the Tower of Babel (two moments Benjamin ties together metonymically) original, pure language becomes fragmented before branching out into a chaotic dispersion of multiple languages. From then on, language was communication, mediation and intentionality. In contrast, pure language is hindered by mediation and impedes the transmission of information, with the direct consequence that communication itself is sidestepped and thus denied. As pure language is absolute and unconditional, a word must instead declare itself immediately, without conveying a particular sense or mediate meanings. Pure language, Adam’s name-language, is unintentional (without intention, consequences or implication) and inexpressive, foreshadowing two ideas that will surface repeatedly around the time of Über Sprache überhaupt and in the following years.[26] It is in original language that word and thing co-belong. With this understanding of original language, Benjamin does away with logical and rational discursiveness, with instrumental rationality and, even more radically, with meaning. Indeed, pure language does not partake of the mediation of meaning and communicative intention that characterizes language. In original pure language, meaning is not achieved because pure language, in its perfect consubstantiality with the thing, quite literally, no longer means.

Like Rosenzweig, who claimed that the metamorphosis of language was the necessary result of every act of translation,[27] Benjamin maintained that translation is not a surface movement or a fleeting passage from one language to another. For Benjamin, Adam’s nominatio rerum is the carrier of a mute entity towards its configuration in sound, a transfer, a geometric translation. A translation from the voiceless to the voiced, from the nameless to the named. Humankind thus receives the voiceless and nameless language of things and then translates it into sound through the act of translation.[28] This transformation, a changing of forms, is a metamorphosis. As for Rosenzweig, for Benjamin, translation opens up “ein Kontinuum von Verwandlungen.”[29] In his 1916 essay, translation functions merely as an allusion to the transmutation that language in its highest state, Adam’s bestowing pure name, contains as a promise or seed.[30]

Benjamin considers the transformative power that correctly carried out translation can wield in Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers (1921), which explores the metamorphic value of translation as approximating and anticipating redemption. For Benjamin, translation is an attempt to come closer to the Ursprache, the pure language, by juxtaposing languages in the knowledge that they are irreparably separate. Translation is an attempt at harmony and messianic reintegration, in which only a literal translation can succeed.[31]

Benjamin also puts forth a form of literalism which, not unlike Rosenzweig’s, can measure the effectiveness of translation in its ability to explode the target language in the name of pure language by removing its constraints and expanding its boundaries. The alteration of and dissonance within the target language are necessary because they are meant to ripen the seed of pure language in translation.[32] Through this process, translation achieves harmony and linguistic integration, “Die große Sehnsucht nach Sprachergänzung”,[33] extremely close in meaning to that “Eintracht der Sprachen”[34], which Rosenzweig had mentioned in his concluding note to Jehuda Halevi.

In Benjamin’s opinion, translation ultimately tends towards the revelation of the most intimate unity between languages. It achieves this by redeeming the remnant of pure language, found in the source language, in the target language.[35] Translation cannot reveal this secret relationship,[36] but can represent it in embryonic or intensive form.[37] The adjective keimhaft (incipient or embryonic) is used by Rosenzweig in his afterword to Jehuda Halevi[38] to indicate the sprouting, the budding into the ultimate stage of perfection, – harmony in statu nascendi.[39]

For both Rosenzweig and Benjamin, in translation the messianic dynamic that repairs the fracture and reinstates paradisiacal harmony takes center stage. Thus conceived, translation unfolds in an intensive, allusive and anticipatory manner.[40] In Rosenzweig’s thought, the concept of anticipation is in turn a figure in the messianic discourse, and translation can help to heal linguistic division while retracing the path towards the lost unity of language.[41]

Benjamin’s concept of translation merges into Rosenzweig’s, though he takes the outcome to extremes: by clinging to pure language, which no longer means or expresses anything,[42] ideal translation, namely literal translation, gets rid of clarity of content while eliminating any expressive intentionality. Hence, the value and dignity of translation increase as its ability to communicate decreases. In fact, if it is to be a redemptive tool and a means to universal understanding, translation must be, quite paradoxically, contrary to communication, and must rid itself of the weight of meaning.[43] The ideal translation therefore features no communication and a very high degree of harmony and messianic redemption. In Benjamin’s extreme conclusion, stripped of any meaning language moves towards annihilation, towards silence, gathering the scattered shards of differentiated language left behind after the Tower of Babel, while encouraging a unified, pure language through the extreme act of linguistic conjunction that translation represents.[44] As there is an inherent connection between languages, based on the original unity of language, the translation that anticipates redemption and draws it nearer necessarily passes through a shutdown of the causal and logical relationships within language and, as part of a redemptive dynamic, literal translation triggers metamorphic and transformative processes in the target language.

Until the ‘messianic end’[45] is reached, the redemption of meaning through the harmony of languages – which corresponds to the conjunction of signifiers – will remain hidden. However, in the present, the redemption of meaning may be revealed in translation.[46] Through linguistic movement, translation reflects the reine Sprache: “In dieser reinen Sprache, die nichts mehr meint und nichts mehr ausdrückt, sondern als ausdrucksloses und schöpferisches Wort das in allen Sprachen Gemeinte ist, trifft endlich alle Mitteilung, aller Sinn und alle Intention auf eine Schicht, in der sie zu erlöschen bestimmt sind”.[47] Both Rosenzweig and Benjamin emphasized the creativity of the act of translation, the synthetic creation of something completely new and apparently extraneous, which overturns categories by preparing or messianically anticipating new categories of meaning.[48]

Rosenzweig’s vision of translation proceeds by addition – in his absolute and boundless faithfulness to the original language and by way of proliferation, extension and enhancement of the target language. With Benjamin, the extreme theoretical outcome is achieved, and the Rosenzweigian demand for a new language is met to its fullest extent. This results in an unusual language which, through authentic conjunction, overturns word order and syntax. For Benjamin, translated language asserts itself at the edges of silence, the word extinguished. In this sense, the most faithful translation is the one that subverts meaning, that draws nearer to pure language and that expedites redemption, even though this leads straight to unintelligibility[49] and its own annihilation.[50]

Thus, redemption presupposes the extinction of meaning. Or, in other words, the Erlösung (redemption) implies an Erlöschung (extinction).[51] According to this Benjaminian stance, in which Adorno would see an absolutely anti-communicative moment,[52] the linguistic conjunction is bolstered to such an extent that it disjoins any logical relationship, reaching the edges of the realm of silence or even trespassing it.

This journey, if followed, leads to Paul Celan, a reader and an admirer of both Rosenzweig[53] and Benjamin.[54] In his Darmstadt speech, which Celan gives on the occasion of the awarding of the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize in 1960, the poet hints at a rapid decline of syntax.[55] In the Büchner-Rede preparatory notes, Celan draws on Benjamin’s concepts again, and he makes annotations about the tendency to silence inherent in language that has become rough and fractured.[56] Further on in the same preparatory notes, and even more radically, messianic syntax is still recognizable, although in reverse perspective, where the ‘embryonality’ in statu nascendi is replaced by a new status creaturalis, a new creatureliness which is in statu moriendi, where the purer language has turned into a death rattle:[57]

Sprache als Involution, Sinnentfaltung in der einen, wortfremden Silbe: es ist die im durchröchelnStammeln[58] erkennbare ‘Stammsilbe’, Sprache als das in den Keim Zurückgekehrte – der Bedeutungsträger ist der sterbliche Mund, dessen Lippen sich nicht mehr ründen. Muta cum liquida – vokalisch gestützt, der Reimlaut als Selbstlaut.[59]

So, Rozenzweig’s request for a translation that is faithfully close to the original text (breaking the constraints and widening the boundaries of the target language often by way of violation of its morphological, syntactic and lexical norms) is taken by Celan to its extreme repercussions. Celan also embraces Benjamin’s radicality, and his depriving the translation (and language in general) of communicative intention as an alternative to linear discursivity and to logical coherence, so as to reach the domain of the inexpressive and the edge of silence.[60] Celan recognizes Benjamin’s assumption that translation must move contra sensum by triggering transformative-metamorphic processes in the target language. However, unlike Benjamin, Celan does not warn against the danger of silence. As stated in his Darmstadt speech, Celan instead embraces the need for a retroversion of language, an erosion of syntax, the necessity of subverting meanings and leading language ad absurdum.[61] The ‘death of meaning’ and the extinction of syntax are thus the prerequisites for creating a new language and a ‘new breath’.

Here Celan finds a connection with Rosenzweig, working out the implications not only of Rosenzweig’s translations of Judah Halevi but also of Rosenzweig and Buber’s translation of the Bible (which was begun in 1925, interrupted by Rosenzweig’s death in 1929, and concluded by Buber in Israel in 1961). In its attempt to create a new Hebraized German, their extremely literal Bible translation can be seen as a culmination of German-Hebrew relations and, in retrospect, as a last attempt to bridge these two languages in Scripture. This translation, as well as the philosophy of language underpinning it, were influential factors in Celan’s poetry, particularly the attention Rosenzweig and Buber paid to breath. To give visibility, and audibility, to the oral dimension of Scripture and to reproduce the orality of the Hebrew Bible within German, Buber and Rosenzweig freed the text from its traditional subdivisions into chapters and verses, basing their translation on a minimum unit of sound production. The units into which Rosenzweig and Buber segment biblical verses are cola: rhythmic breath units (Atemzug-Einheiten) that are also units of meaning. They are the intervals between one intake of air and the next, prolonged until the renewal of breath,[62] until the bursting of what Rosenzweig calls ‘breath-turn’ (Atemkehre).[63]

Celan made use of the same concept, slightly altered, speaking in turn of a ‘breath-turn’ a ‘turning point of the breath’ (Atemwende). Celan mentions this concept for the first time in Darmstadt,[64] and the term itself becomes then the title of a poetry collection published in 1967.[65] Only by intervening in the language, freeing words from logical dependencies and encrypting their images, only by disrupting meaning and comprehensibility, breaking the language, bringing poems to the verge of unintelligibility it is possible to achieve that inversion of breath. The air taken in at the moment of inhalation changes direction, undergoes a ‘turning point’ and is returned, at the moment of exhalation, as a new poetic word to which Celan entrusts the task of portraying what, for the ordinary means of figuration and discursivity, would be irrepresentable. In a longer draft written in preparation for the Darmstadt speech, dated May 30th 1960, Celan uses more or less the same term previously attributed to Rosenzweig and Buber, “Atemeinheit”:

“Was auf der Lunge, das auf der Zunge,” pflegte meine Mutter zu sagen. Das hat mit dem Atem zu tun. Man sollte es endlich lernen, im Gedicht diesen Atem, diese Atemeinheit mitzulesen; in den Kolen ist der Sinn oft wahrer gefügt und gefugt als im Reim; Gestalt des Gedichts: das ist Gegenwart des Einzelnen, Atmenden.[66]

In another undated note, Celan returns to Buber’s and Rosenzweig’s Kolen (though this time with explicit reference to the mass death in the concentration camps) to deal with a new language that is needed, a language made of new words, silences, breath stoppages (Stauungen des Atems) and inversions of breath:

Deine Umkehr – was ist das? Ist es das Wort von der Mandeläugig-Schönen, das ich dich, auf das opportunste variiert, wiederholen höre? Erst wenn du mit deinem allereigensten Schmerz bei den krummnasigen und mauschelnden und kielkröpfigen Toten von Auschwitz und Treblinka und anderswo gewesen bist, dann begegnest du auch dem Aug und seiner Mandel. Und dann stehst du mit deinem verstummenden Denken in der Pause, die dich an dein Herz erinnert, und sprichst nicht davon. Und sprichst, später von dir. In diesem “Später” in dort erinnerten Pausen, in den Kolen und Moren gipfelt dein Wort; das Gedicht heute – es ist eine Atemwende[67] Kammzeiten und Seelenwende, daran erkennst du’s. – nimm es wahr.[68]

In this paragraph, Celan returns to a lexicon with messianic connotations, using the term Umkehr, which is linked to the concepts of ‘palingenesis’, ‘metamorphosis’, ‘categorical inversion’, entering fully into the semantic field of redemption, as seen above.[69] Thus, redemption can, perhaps, take place through a new language, devoid of logic, referentiality and profoundly paradoxical.

These are extreme outcomes and revealing them is not meant as a violation of the Rosenzweigian Sprachdenken, in its utopia of reunification and restoration of the one language through ‘absolute translation’. My intention is to show what the ultimate horizon of this total openness is, along a line of direct consequentiality. The trajectory that tends towards the contraction and the retraction of language into itself, towards the ‘decline of syntax’ and the death of the word, precisely because, e negativo, the seed of the new and a chance at redemption are perhaps hidden within silence.

Corresponding author: Massimiliano De Villa, Lettere e Filosofia, University of Trento, Via Tommaso Gar, 14, Trento, 38122, Italy, E-mail:

Published Online: 2020-11-30
Published in Print: 2020-12-16

© 2021 Massimiliano De Villa, published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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