Part way through Walter Benjamin’s admittedly enigmatic essay on translation, a stunning metaphor arrives (the translation is from Steven Randall):
However, unlike literary work, a translation does not find itself, so to speak, in the middle of the high forest of the language itself; instead, from outside it, facing it, and without entering it, the translation calls to the original within, at that one point where the echo in its own language can produce a reverberation of the foreign language’s work. 
ISAAC ARIAIL REED
Anyone who has had the sublime misfortune of sitting in a social theory class has probably had some sense that one is therein being asked to learn a new language, metaphorically speaking. And this language is far from a clear and coherent whole, has many different, often conflicting, sources, has terms which take on different meanings (“labor” for Karl Marx not meaning quite the same thing as “labor” for Émile Durkheim, for example) and has always been subject to disruption, radical revision, and transformation. Perhaps American sociology’s struggles over the “canon” of “classical” social theory can themselves be thought—again, metaphorically—as struggles over the meaning, scope, and genealogy of the language of social theory.
We could ask, in Benjamin’s spirit, whether there is something special and purposeful about this language of “social theory.” For, if we take the metaphor a bit further, it would appear that sociological research has many adjoined and adjacent language-games, formats of expressing findings, and well-worn words and formulas in which truth claims about the world can be made. The very question of whether and how some of these language-games get labeled theory or interpreted as theory-adjacent is a fraught and political one. And, to add even more complexity, the very delivery of empirical claims about the world, in sociology, even in the most straightforward and supposedly un-theoretical way, via research report, is itself a kind of translation. For, that which we report about—the lives and times of humans—itself involves people who are perfectly capable of representing their own lives in language, often quite poetically.
All of this raises the issues of why, when, and how translation into the language of theory is to be imagined as desirable, valuable, etc. For theory can be quite abstract, and, even if it does not demand of every empirical study that it generalize its claims, the very translation of research proposals, research progress, and research findings into the abstract language of theory appears to be a demand for departure from the concrete particular of lives lived, facts gathered, and phenomena established. Why theorize? It strikes me that, in the light of Benjamin’s essay, this question comes to us in a usefully different, if also somewhat esoteric, way. For, Benjamin is deeply sensitive to the non-transparency of language on the page, and he challenges the expectation that there is a straightforward rulebook for translation from one language to another. Consider this an analogy for the difficulty of achieving insight in sociological research via the use of the abstract terms of theory, terms which—in addition to having their own opacities—struggle to re-represent various human phenomena and the languages used to report on them.
The difficulties are intense. While Benjamin had in mind the craft of translating 19th-century and early 20th-century poetry from French into German and vice-versa, imagine how much greater is the distance between different social worlds, facts, and phenomena presented at the annual meetings of sociologists. Benjamin’s problem begins to look small, and notoriously European, in comparison. But even when the Eurocentrism of certain discourses has been successfully challenged and unseated, even when the sources of social theory have reoriented themselves away from certain status-games, even when social theory has become dynamic, pluralistic in its sources, efflorescent in its imaginations, even when it has become truly global in its rendering of human experiences, the difficult matter of the translation of phenomena, and the communication of particular experience, will remain. Indeed, one might suggest that the provinciality of social theory up to this point has enabled it to disavow the full scope of this problem, the full weight of the difficulty of theorizing as a kind of secondary or even tertiary language, above and beyond the language of fact and experience. Whence abstraction, when sociological research becomes less narrowly circumscribed? How will we write about, call forth, abstract from, and create echoes of, the original in the middle of the high forest? And to what purpose?
There is, I think, something in Benjamin’s hesitations about, and meditations on, translation that can be valuable in thinking about problems like these. He saw that the translation of poems could never really be direct; that, in asking for a poem in one language to have a counterpoint poem, a parallel poem, a comparable poem, in another language, one was asking a question about the human experience of living in language itself. That is, the very possibility of a human being experiencing a work of art was thematized in any attempt at translation. In this regard, the translator was not a poet, but captured something essential about the project of poetry: “the poet’s intention is spontaneous, primary, concrete, whereas the translator’s is derivative, final, ideal.”  These “derivatives,” for Benjamin, raised the possibility that, in translation, the very structures of languages themselves could come in for examination and critique, and this could be linked to a philosophy of human liberation.
This grandiose-sounding goal of liberation, its simultaneous necessity and impossibility, arrives in Benjamin’s essay repeatedly, as he argues that translation raises the specter of an experience of pure language. He writes: “True translation is transparent, it does not obscure the original, does not stand in its light, but rather allows pure language, as if strengthened by its own medium, to shine even more fully on the original.”  Benjamin’s essay, in fact, is itself torn between the appeal of “pure language” and its utter unreachability; it is for this reason that he characterizes the search for such a language as itself “Messianic.” We know from Benjamin’s other writings that references to the Messianic were his way of thinking revolutionary transformation as human liberation from oppression. Terms such as “pure language” appear in his writing like lightning bolts, and are immediately confronted in their impossibility thereby, creating a rather large distance between his work and that of other Marxists of his generation. The task of translation, in other words, revealed to Benjamin both the impossibility of designing a pure language and the way in which the very project of understanding poetic expression in another language involved leaps of abstraction that moved towards this impossibility. He thereby found in the process of translation a philosophical possibility of representing—if only for a moment that flares up to illuminate briefly, that “flashes up at a moment of danger” —the reconfiguration of the relationship, in human life, to opacity, constraint, and the overwhelming forces of rule, conformity and violence.
This is a possibility that I find in many works of social theory that I admire, though I find myself wishing that, in the history of social theory, Benjamin’s humble recognition of the impossibility of actually achieving a pure language had been more consistently maintained by some of its more famous authors. Be that as it may, it appears to me quite necessary that we develop the language of social theory such that one case may be compared with another; one struggle for liberation can be translated into another; one explanation of a seemingly different phenomenon can be brought into surprising contact with a different subfield of scholarship. Is social theory, in all of its flawed, shaggy, and Talmudic self-examination, in all of its analytic ambition, carving of the world into moving pieces, and explanatory prowess, in fact the development of a series of transition languages, according to which different phenomena may be translated into each other? And, if this is the case, how might these transition languages themselves articulate the possibility of a reconfigured social life, made from the “pile of debris” left behind by the “storm called progress” ?
In my next letter, I will attempt to briefly explore some affordances granted by thinking about theory as translation.
 Walter Benjamin, “The Translator’s Task,” translated by Steven Rendall, TTR: traduction, terminologie, redaction 10 (2): 151-165, 1997, p. 159.
 Benjamin, “The Translator’s Task,” p. 159.
 Benjamin, “The Translator’s Task,” p. 162.
 Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” translated by Harry Zohn, pp.253-264 in Hannah Arendt, editor, Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p. 255.
 Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” p. 258.