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  • Dialectical and Comic Reflections:On Translating Benjamin’s Radio Work
  • Ira Allen (bio) and Anita Chari (bio)

Between the summary rejection of his habilitation in 1925 and the demise of Germany’s briefly leftist-friendly radio stations in 1933, Walter Benjamin sustained himself in part by writing and delivering nearly a hundred radio broadcasts. Of course, his scholarly production neither depended upon nor ended with his hopes for an academic career, but he turned now to popular media production for subsistence—and, in some measure, as an intellectual-political exercise. His radio pieces included lectures, children’s programs, radio-plays, didactic dramatizations, and interviews covering a wide range of topics—including pieces like “Witch Trials,” “The Mississippi Flood of 1927,” and “The Bootleggers” for Youth Radio-Hour programming offered by Frankfurt and Berlin radio stations. Benjamin delivered “True Stories about Dogs,” presented here in translation, around the mid-point of a period of almost feverish engagement. Between August 1929 and spring 1932, he wrote and read aloud over thirty children’s radio programs.1 Shortly before broadcasting “True Stories about Dogs” in Berlin, for instance, Benjamin was in Frankfurt delivering a piece for children on “Bands of Robbers in Old Germany”; over the next month, he did four more children’s shows in Berlin. And then he was back in Frankfurt, delivering a lecture for adults (now lost) on “Graphology, Old and New” and broadcasting a children’s program on “Kaspar Hauser, a Famous Prisoner” for the second time. So it went.

There is something strange and exciting in the idea of Walter Benjamin, one of modernity’s great thinkers of the media,2 as a radio presence—and all the more so in the idea of Benjamin as a children’s radio personality. And yet, Benjamin’s radio work remains in an important sense out of reach, even as this work receives new attention from translators and the public.3 The pieces comprising the work are lost objects, at least some of which demand translation not only of text, but also of medium. Inasmuch as Benjamin’s programs for children and his dialectically didactic radio work for adults (his Hörmodelle or “listening models”) were experiments with the medium of radio, where a medium is itself language of a sort, attunement to what is living in these lost originals calls for careful engagement with the medial force of radio. Translating these pieces today, in the era of Benjamin’s and of radio’s renown, requires a medium that would have now something of the cultural force that radio had when Benjamin was broadcasting. For the rendering to be, as Benjamin puts it in “The Task of the Translator,” “a transformation and a renewal of something living” such that “the original undergoes a change” (73), it is not only the words but also the medium that must be renewed and transformed. The children’s radio programs and the Hörmodelle must be created in a new medium. After all, for at least this portion of Benjamin’s radio work, the life of the original includes its having been work on the radio.4 Generally, per Benjamin, the change wrought in an original springs from the fact that translation brings to light language as such, casts into relief the sublime negotiation between fixity and fluidity that we are, thus altering what we must have been, the original.5 Here, that is so for text and medium both.

Radio broadcasts were delivered live in Weimar Germany and no recordings survive of what Gershom Scholem tells us was Benjamin’s compelling, melodious voice.6 This presents a further wrinkle. What we care about, what excites us to hear of, are the lost historical objects—Benjamin’s broadcasts as he actually delivered them—a promised cosmos of thought of which not so much as a trace remains. Left instead are promissory notes for those objects-to-come: the typescripts from which he read, typically after first altering them by hand. These typescripts survived the would-be destruction of Benjamin’s effects by the Gestapo in Paris, are today available in the Walter Benjamin Archive at the Academy of Arts, Berlin, and have been collected...