Academic journal article German Quarterly

In the Language of Walter Benjamin

Academic journal article German Quarterly

In the Language of Walter Benjamin

Article excerpt

Jacobs, Carol. In the Language of Walter Benjamin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. 136 pp. $32.50.

It has been fascinating to watch, during the past 30 years, the progression (or regression) of Walter Benjamin from a Weimar cultural critic accessible only to those able to read him in his notoriously difficult German to a cult figure that is encountered in a great variety of contexts. Despite Benjamin's intimate relationship with the German language, empathizing with Benjamin, sympathizing with his sad end, and communing with him seem to be more important to American critics than Benjamin's original language. What is one to make of two prominent American novelists, Larry McMurtry and Jay Parini, the former placing Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, and the latter using his own translations for the sake of uniformity? Some critics modify existing translations to fit their interpretation of Benjamin. Illuminations, the first major collection of Benjamin's essays in English, has been in print for three decades. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly (March 1969), the eminent Germanist Victor Lange called the work of its translator, who happens to be identical with this reviewer, "translucent" (and more recently Carol Jacobs characterized it as "lucid"). No one would use such adjectives to describe Benjamin's style, and so the question arises whether a writer is well served if a translator, possibly a terrible simplificateur, turns the opacity of the original into transparency in an English version. And does it make sense to "correct" the English title of one of Benjamin's most influential essays, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," to "The Work of Art in the Epoch of its Electronic Reproducibility," as was recently done by the editors/translators of the second of Harvard University's multi-volume edition of Benjamin's works? They may or may not have known that despite the German Reproduzierbarkeit, "reproduction" was chosen for the GerthMartindale translation of 1960 and for Illuminations, representing the combined judgment of four native German speakers. As for another widely quoted essay, "The Task of the Translator," the Harvard series reprints a heavily emended version of the one in Illuminations without submitting it to the original translator and asking him whether he still wanted his name associated with it-surely an instance of dubious ethics and collegiality. …

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