Walter Benjamin’s “One Way Street” and Translation

“The power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one is flying over it by airplane. In the same way, the power of a text is different when it is read from when it is copied out. The airplane passenger sees only how the road pushes through the landscape, how it unfolds according to the same laws as the terrain surrounding it. Only he who walks down the road on foot learns of the power it commands, and of how, from the very scenery that for the flier is only the unfurled plain, it calls forth distances, belvederes, clearings, prospects at each of its turns like a commander deploying soldiers at the front.”

Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (1979)

Reading is flying over a country lane. It’s easier to see the text as something whole, and we tend to reflect on the text as a whole once we have read it. We get an overall feeling of the book, and could comment on the general use of prose, language and effects. It’s rare that, having read a book, we would be able to make incredibly specific comments on particular uses of words in particular sentences. We would say, ahh yes, this book had a very claustrophobic feel. The authors tended to use short sentences, or the author switched between several narrative perspectives. That much most readers could say. You can see the lane disappearing into the distance, you can see the rolling hills in the distance. You see the book’s context, how it relates to its field.

Translation, on the other hand, is walking down a country lane (or getting lost in the woods). It’s not just walking down a country lane absentmindedly. Imagine you’re walking down a country lane and it’s your first time ever in the countryside. Maybe you’ve lived in the centre of London all your life. It’s your first time ever in the countryside, and you’re paying attention to everything, every little detail. You’re looking at every tree, every branch, every twig underfoot, every rustle in the undergrowth, thinking, wow, this is incredible, magical. Translation is first and foremost an incredibly close reading. We have to pick up every word and turn them over like rocks, looking for surprises underneath. We can’t afford to miss or misunderstand a word, because it could change the meaning or feel of a whole sentence.

There’s a domino or butterfly effect in translation. If we make one discoloured word choice or miss a word, it could still be having an effect on our prose chapters later. Sometimes we can’t see the woods for the trees. It’s easy for us to get bogged down in the details and forget to zoom out and have a look at the bigger picture, the wider landscape. Sometimes we get too close to a text. But you can’t translate without walking down all a book’s lanes, and sometimes you may get lost.

By annaputsover

Translator and English tutor

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