Translation has frequently been linked to discourses in mysticism (the search for ultimate knowledge or gnosis) and esotericism (practices based on such knowledge). Translation itself has been viewed as something supernatural, for example, by commentators on the third-century BCE Septuagint rendering of the Jewish scriptures. Writers on translation have also drawn on the vocabulary of mysticism and esotericism in order to describe what goes on when one text is replaced with another in a different language. Benjamin’s 1923 essay ‘The Translator’s Task’, for example, uses concepts from the Kabbalah, and many other authors can be cited who investigate mystical and/or esoteric discourse both from translation studies and from philosophy, e.g. Berman, Derrida, Heidegger and Steiner; certain mystical/esoteric tropes reoccur within the literature, like the Tower of Babel. Investigating mysticism and esotericism also reveals aspects of language that are of interest to both philosophers and to translators and translation theorists and forces us to consider language in new ways.

The chapter surveys historical connections between translation, mysticism and esotericism, and examines how dialogue with philosophy can deepen our understanding: recent work in analytic philosophy and in neuroscience suggests new possibilities for theorising, in line with the need for translation studies to look outside itself in order to move forward. I conclude by looking at the implications of the debate in terms of both theory and practice – can philosophy help the translator of a mystical text? – and by asking how future research should proceed, which raises the question of whether it should proceed at all, or whether more scientific discourse is called for. Are we dealing with a mystery or a problem? The answer to that question will vary according to one’s philosophical views, so that the chapter as a whole establishes another link between philosophy and translation.