Translating Walter Benjamin on Berlin, a German-Arabic Journey

15 September, 2022


Ahmed Farouk


Twen­ty years ago, I would have nev­er come up with the idea to trans­late a text by Wal­ter Ben­jamin, for I would  have doubt­ed my abil­i­ty to repro­duce the inten­si­ty of his lan­guage in Ara­bic. At the time, I had already read, in Ger­man, both Benjamin’s famous essay, “The Art­work in the Age of Its Tech­ni­cal Repro­ducibil­i­ty,” and his study of Goethe’s Elec­tive Affini­ties in Ger­man. How­ev­er, no direct Ara­bic trans­la­tions of Wal­ter Ben­jamin had yet been pub­lished. The Egypt­ian trans­la­tor Ahmed Has­san had under­tak­en this dif­fi­cult task and trans­lat­ed the main essays of Ben­jamin in two vol­umes (2004/2007) — not from Ger­man, how­ev­er, but from Eng­lish and French. Even­tu­al­ly, he approached me for a col­lab­o­ra­tive trans­la­tion of Einbahnstraße (One Way Street, 1928) and Berlin­er Kind­heit um 1900 (Berlin Child­hood Around 1900, pub­lished posthu­mous­ly in 1950). These two vol­umes are con­sid­ered to be Ben­jam­in’s main prose works. Both are frag­men­tary in nature. They con­tain quite dif­fer­ent reflec­tions about Berlin and mod­ern life.

I admit that at first, it was hard to fig­ure out what Ben­jamin was up to with Berlin Child­hood Around 1900*. When Has­san was still in the process of trans­lat­ing One Way Street, I was tempt­ed to trans­late small frag­ments of Berlin Child­hood, but I remained unde­cid­ed. Hassan‘s trans­la­tion final­ly appeared in 2008 in Amman. I mean­while worked on the Berlin Child­hood chap­ter “The Socks” as a sam­ple. It was not the most beau­ti­ful text in the book, but I was delight­ed with the les­son it gave me in form and con­tent. Then, in 2010, I received an offer to pub­lish the trans­la­tion of the book as part of the “Kali­ma” trans­la­tion project in Abu Dhabi.

In terms of size, Berlin Child­hood was the short­est book I had ever trans­lat­ed. But the process took over a year. After the first six months, there was a draft trans­la­tion with which I was not sat­is­fied, a skele­ton, with­out flesh and soul. Addi­tion­al­ly, I was not sure that I had under­stood cer­tain parts cor­rect­ly. Then a long process of reshap­ing began, which took anoth­er six months.

It was clear to me that Berlin Child­hood was nei­ther an auto­bi­og­ra­phy nor a turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry Berlin book, but rather a kind of doc­u­men­ta­tion of a child­hood in a city aban­doned once and for all by the writer. It took the form of stand-alone essays born of dif­fer­ent stages of Benjamin’s flight from Nazi Ger­many, when he first went to Paris in 1933 and lat­er attempt­ed an escape over the Pyre­nees into Spain in 1940, the fail­ure of which caused him to com­mit suicide.

Praterki­no “Kaiser­panora­ma” cir­ca 1880.

At first, I tried to breathe the air of the orig­i­nal text, which is com­posed of thir­ty short chap­ters total­ly inde­pen­dent of any time­line, each focus­ing on one or two items or events from the author’s child­hood in the city. Some chap­ters clear­ly reflect the spir­it of the time, such as “Kaiser­panora­ma,” “The Tele­phone,” “Pfauenin­sel” and “Glienicke.” In this last one, you can see how sport became impor­tant to the Berlin bour­geoisie at the turn of the cen­tu­ry and how peo­ple tend­ed to make a spec­ta­cle with their sport uni­forms. Anoth­er glimpse of a par­tic­u­lar time and place comes through in “The Tele­phone,” which shows how the intro­duc­tion of the device to pri­vate homes changed the life rhythm of the peo­ple in Berlin, and how unfa­mil­iar its ring­ing sound­ed. In the begin­ning, it was left total­ly neglect­ed in the cor­ri­dor, but then it took its roy­al place in the cen­ter of the liv­ing room and became an essen­tial object in life.

As it hap­pens, the Kaiser­panora­ma can now be seen in the Hum­boldt Forum, a huge round con­struc­tion that includ­ed seats and a mechan­i­cal­ly oper­at­ed cam­era-obscu­ra slide show. It was pop­u­lar at the turn of the cen­tu­ry, before the advent of cin­e­ma, as it allowed you to look through two lens­es and watch a vari­ety of spec­tac­u­lar, exot­ic or touris­tic images from far­away countries.

Most of the chap­ters are emblem­at­ic in nature; even though they do not deal with peo­ple, but rather with objects, they cre­ate a sort of mem­o­ry room, such as “Being Too Late,” “Lads’ Books,” “Two Rid­dle Images” and so on. The ensu­ing frag­men­tary char­ac­ter is even more rein­forced by the asso­cia­tive and essay­is­tic char­ac­ter of the prose itself. Some chap­ters reflect pecu­liar fan­tasies, like “Crooked Street” or “Com­pa­ny and Cup­boards.” In fact, the images of a hap­py mid­dle-class child­hood, which Ben­jamin missed in his adult life, a time when he was actu­al­ly unable to ful­fill his basic eco­nom­ic needs, shine through in “The Fever,” “But­ter­fly Hunt” and “Christ­mas Angels.” All in all, we have a diverse range of mem­o­ries explor­ing the city, where the child encoun­ters pover­ty, sex and secrets the city keeps from him, among oth­er things.


Trans­la­tion Issues

Cer­tain­ly, the text, through the inten­si­ty of its lan­guage and its high abil­i­ty to rep­re­sent mem­o­ries that mix real­i­ty, dream, and chil­dren’s fan­ta­sy, is very well suit­ed for “sur­vival” (Über­leben) in a trans­la­tion. But because of the pecu­liar­i­ty of Benjamin’s sen­tence struc­tures, which often demand to be reread, their repro­duc­tion in Ara­bic need­ed a long process of refine­ment. It was inter­est­ing, though, that para­phras­ing or pro­vid­ing addi­tion­al expla­na­tions in the trans­la­tion was not nec­es­sary. Nev­er­the­less, I had to use foot­notes to explain names and his­tor­i­cal back­grounds and so on. Foot­notes also helped me to elu­ci­date names of spe­cif­ic loca­tions asso­ci­at­ed with allu­sions, such as the Mark­thalle (lit. mar­ket hall), or Hallesches Tor, which I had to trans­late literally.

Even­tu­al­ly, I found a key to incor­po­rat­ing the orig­i­nal offered to me by Ben­jamin him­self, in a small text “Dig­ging and Remem­ber­ing” (Aus­graben und Erin­nern) from the “Wal­ter Ben­jamin Archive. Bilder, Texte (2006)”:

Any­one who seeks to approach his own spilled past must behave like a man dig­ging. Above all, he must not be afraid to come back to the one and the same thing over and over again — to scat­ter him as one scat­ters earth, to reroute it, how to rake soil … and cer­tain­ly it is use­ful to pro­ceed accord­ing to plans when dig­ging. But just as indis­pens­able is the cau­tious, ten­ta­tive ground-break­ing in the dark soil. And he deceives him­self for the best, who only makes inven­to­ry of the finds and can­not des­ig­nate the place where he keeps the old in today’s soil. 

Wal­ter Ben­jamin in 1926 (pho­to cour­tesy Suhrkamp Verlag).

It seemed to me that this was the delib­er­ate tech­nique that Ben­jamin used in com­pil­ing the book when he had already turned his back on his home­town. And so I real­ized why the book begins with the unin­hab­it­able “log­gias” and ends with the “Lit­tle Hunch­back.” The ten­sion between remem­ber­ing and for­get­ting lends the work its poet­ic quality. 

And so I must con­fess that in trans­lat­ing I had the increas­ing feel­ing that I was clos­est to Paul de Man’s term, “the intan­gi­ble rest.” Although I believe that my trans­la­tion of some pieces, such as “The Tele­phone,” “Win­ter Morn­ings,” “Two Enig­mas,” “Mis­for­tunes and Crimes” at least “do not hide the light from the orig­i­nal“ (dem Orig­i­nal nicht im Licht ste­ht), there are pas­sages that con­tain an undi­min­ish­able ambi­gu­i­ty, as in “But­ter­fly Hunt”:

“It (The Word) has pre­served the unfath­omable, with which the names of child­hood face the adult.”

Es (Das Wort) hat das uner­gründliche bewahrt, wom­it die Namen der Kind­heit dem Erwach­se­nen entgegentreten

“لقد حفظت هذه الكلمة ما لا يمكن سبر غوره، وما تواجه به أسماء الطفولة الشخص البالغ.” 

Or with a poet­ic note in depar­ture and return:

 Manch­er Blick hat sie vielle­icht gestreift, wie in den Höfen. Fen­ster, die in schad­haften Mauern steck­en und hin­ter denen eine Lampe brennt.

“Many a gaze per­haps touched on them, as if those win­dows which look out of dilap­i­dat­ed walls in court­yards and in which a lamp is burning.”

“رب نظرة قد تجوب هذه الجدران مثلما تجوب الأفنية. نوافذ محشورة في جدران مهدمة يشتعل مصباح خلفها.”

Even in “Beg­gars and Whores” I am fas­ci­nat­ed by the final sentence:

Wenn ich dann manch­es­mal schon gegen Mor­gen in ein­er Tor­fahrt inne hielt, hat­te ich mich in die asphal­te­nen Bänder der Straße hoff­nungs­los ver­strickt, und die sauber­sten Hände waren es nicht, die mich freimachten.

“When I final­ly came to a halt beneath an entrance way, some­times prac­ti­cal­ly at, I was hope­less­ly snared in the asphalt mesh­es of the street, and it was not the clean­est hands that dis­en­tan­gled me.”

“وعندما كنت أحيانا أتوقف قرب الصبح عند مدخل أحد البيوت، أكون قد وقعت بلا أمل في حبائل أربطة الشارع الإسفلتية، ولم تكن أنظف الأيادي هي التي حررتني منها.”

The idea of asphalt mesh­es seemed vague but beau­ti­ful to me. This ambi­gu­i­ty also has anoth­er form, and this fan­ta­sy, which brings details and objects to life as in society:

In Wahrheit hat­te sie (die Gesellschaft) sich nur in die ent­fer­n­ten Räume zurückge­zo­gen, um dort im Brodeln und  Boden­satz der vie­len Schritte und Gespräche zu ver­schwinden, wie ein Unge­heuer, das, kaum hat es die Bran­dung ange­spült, im feucht­en Schlamm der Küste Zuflucht sucht.

“In real­i­ty, it (the soci­ety) had mere­ly with­drawn into the dis­tant rooms, in order there, in the bub­bling and sed­i­men­ta­tion of many foot­steps and con­ver­sa­tion, like a mon­ster which has just washed up on the tide and seek­ing refuge in the damp mud of the shore.”

“وفي الحقيقة فإنهم قد انسحبوا للغرف البعيدة لكي يختفوا هناك وسط الغطغطة ورواسب الخطى الكثيرة والأحاديث، مثل وحش لم تكد الأمواج تقذفه إلى الشاطئ حتى هرع ليجد ملجئا في طينه الرطب.”

When I final­ly fin­ished the trans­la­tion, I hoped that it came close to Benjamin’s own ideas, as he con­sid­ered that trans­la­tion “touch­es the orig­i­nal light­ly and only at the infi­nite­ly small point of the sense, there­upon pur­su­ing its own course accord­ing to the laws of fideli­ty in the free­dom of lin­guis­tic flux” (Wal­ter Ben­jamin, from “Task of the Trans­la­tor,” trans­lat­ed by Har­ry Zohn). How­ev­er, today, when I reread the orig­i­nal text, I can’t help but won­der how I man­aged to trans­late Wal­ter Ben­jamin at all, and if there has not remained a hint of the untranslatable.


*The Eng­lish quo­ta­tions of Berlin Child­hood around 1900 are trans­lat­ed by Howard Eiland.

ArabicBerlinTranslationWalter Benjamin

Ahmed Farouk (b. Egypt 1971), studied Mass Communications at Cairo University and Translation Studies at the J. Gutenberg University in Mainz (Germersheim). He's been an editor at Deutsche Welle in Bonn and Berlin since 2003, and a freelance literary translator since 2001. He lives in Berlin. Farouk has translated the works of Günter Grass, W. G. Sebald, Peter Handke and Rosa Luxemburg, among others, into Arabic.


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