In my previous post, I pointed out the untranslatable ambiguity of Agamben’s notion of il potere (power as the ability to introduce the state of exception). The power understood in such a way leads to the emergence of the bare life (la nuda vita). The notion of bare life, crucial for his conception, contains another untranslatable ambiguity since it is Agamben’s translation of Walter Benjamin’s concept, das bloße Leben.
The problem arises when he introduces this notion for the first time, adding the German original in brackets that unambiguously suggests its borrowed character. However, if one tries to compare Agamben’s notion of the bare life with that of Benjamin, one would be surprised to find out that they attribute to it quite different meanings. According to Benjamin, the bare life is the life of a man as a natural creature, which is bare of all political and social characteristics. It is life as it is. Agamben, on the contrary, clearly understands the bare life as an artificial product of political exclusion. Such exclusion is the prerogative of the sovereign who suspends the law by banishing (excluding) a person transforming its political life into a bare one. From then, the “juridical” status of such a person may be described as follows: the law applies to it in no longer applying.
Thus we see that Agamben changes the meaning of Benjamin’s das bloße Leben altogether. It means that we cannot translate from the original German Agamben refers to, but we should follow his very understanding and, accordingly, translation of Benjamin’s notion. This transformation cannot be adequately translated. It can be only explained in the translator’s footnote.
That is why it is not striking that Hubert Thüring, German translator of Agamben’s book, did not translate la nuda vita as das bloße Leben. He translated it as das nackte Leben, which corresponds to Agamben’s meaning of this concept but contradicts Benjamin’s.
For such a situation, WORDLIX can be helpful since a translator can create comments that can be used for footnotes.
In my next post, I will approach another untranslatability of Agamben’s borrowed terminology, his notion of the state of exception.