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  • "On the Outside Facing the Wooded Ridge"Close Reading Translations and Interpretive Diversity
  • Laura Schechter (bio)

Close Reading and Translations

In his essay "The Task of the Translator," Walter Benjamin ([1923] 2000: 20) argues that "translation finds itself not in the center of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering, aiming at the single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one." For Benjamin, a certain distance between the original and the translation is both expected and necessary; as Paul de Man (1986: 88) has suggested in his essay on Benjamin's work, "the moment that a translation is really literal, … word by word, the meaning completely disappears." Benjamin ([1923] 2000: 18) points out, however, that a translation can show its relationship to the original text without being overly similar, since "kinship does not necessarily involve likeness"; he later describes translation as giving "voice to the intentio of the original not as reproduction but as harmony, as a supplement …, as its own kind of intentio" (21). In this article I examine the relationship between close reading and translation, and I suggest that bridging the two can allow students access to the sort of interpretive "wooded ridge" described by Benjamin. Indeed, when students are asked to examine multiple English translations of the same text, they must evaluate various efforts to retain the spirit of the original through distortion, "echo[,] … reverberation" (20), and "harmony" (21). [End Page 51]

As students examine various translations of the same text, they learn that translation is rarely an uncomplicated process, a "linear operation that consists [of] taking messages emitted in one language and reproducing them in another" (Porter 2010: 6), just as they come to understand that few texts possess simple character arcs or singular interpretations of key symbols. Rather, students begin to see that works have a multiplicity of vectors available for analysis: they learn to move beyond assumptions about fundamental meanings embedded intentionally by authors, just as they develop a sense of the number of participants in a textual production—authors, translators, editors, printers, publishers, and readers. Students are encouraged to view themselves as active readers and critics, even as they come to see that lacking complete knowledge can often be a productive point of departure. The translations can function as individual works with voices that are unique, and they can be read as a noisy collection of "reverberation[s]" (Benjamin [1923] 2000: 20), of companion pieces or "kinship[s]" (18) to source texts. Close reading allows students to identify and interpret the many ways that texts can respond to and develop from one another; the reading strategy simultaneously suggests to students that the reverberations and "harmon[ies]" (21) are not limited to the pages of the texts in question. Rather, the overlaps, disagreements, inflections, kinships, and estrangements all continue (often productively) in the critical and interpretive world of scholarly discourse. It is in this world that students begin to play a crucial role as close readers.

Jane Gallop (2007: 182) has expressed a fear that close reading has been abandoned as a pedagogical strategy, too closely associated with the now old-fashioned New Criticism. This move away from teaching the reading practice to our students is strange, for close reading most certainly continues in English departments, even as various philosophies and theories have gained and lost favor for literary analysis (see, e.g., DuBois 2003; Love 2010; Culler 2011). Indeed, in this journal Theresa Tinkle et al. (2013) have demonstrated with admirable clarity a pedagogical approach that effectively brings close reading into the large lecture format, and elsewhere Peter Brooks (2008: B5) notes an ongoing use of the reading practice by literary critics, arguing that "the best, most responsible 'close readings,' whether by New Critics or structuralists or poststructuralists, were essentially ethical in their wish to understand how texts mean and how language works." He argues that the reading strategy encourages students "to read literature carefully, seriously, reflectively" (B5), to move away from easy answers, to focus on the multiple implications for specific textual characteristics, and to see that both...


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