Lost and found in translation.

My habit has been to organize the writings of the critic, translator, and intellectual Walter Benjamin between two late works, On the Concept of History and Berlin Childhood Circa 1900. Not only do these pieces present Benjamin's two defining modes, the literary and the philosophical, but they also provide an excellent introduction for those who are unfamiliar with him and his world (a German Jew, he was born in Berlin in 1892, was educated at various European universities, and committed suicide in 1940 after failing to flee the Nazification of Europe—an excellent account of his last days is in Harvard University Press's The Arcades Project). On the Concept of History is Benjamin in the Hegelian mode—historical, theoretical, and political. Berlin Childhood Circa 1900 is Benjamin in a Proustian mode—autobiographical, poetic, and personal. Portland's Publication Studio is selling a new translation of the latter.

The translation is by Carl Skoggard, a writer who once worked with Matthew Stadler, the brains behind Publication Studio, at Nest magazine. The publisher's website describes Skoggard as a "self-taught scholar" and lover of German literature. Just over half of his book is commentary, an afterword, and acknowledgments. These sections contain most of the book's gold and are the main reason it's worth purchasing. The actual translation of Childhood, however, is not the best one on the market.

Skoggard is a very good writer, and his translation would be fine if it weren't for the fact that Howard Eiland's translation in Harvard University Press's Selected Writings, Volume 3 is incomparable. Now, I do not know German, and so it is possible that the translation by Skoggard is more faithful to Benjamin than the one by Eiland, who might very well be to Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert what C. K. Scott Moncrieff is to À la recherche du temps perdu (Lydia Davis'sIn Search of Lost Time is more faithful but considerably less beautiful than Moncrieff's Remembrance of Things Past).

With Skoggard's translation, the plainer the passage, the more he matches with Eiland's translation (this is to be expected). But during the magical passages, the passages that reveal a dazzling image or an enchanted world, Skoggard and Eiland definitely part ways. And always, the direction the former takes is not as strong and steady as that taken by the latter. A good example of this can be found in one of my favorite passages of Childhood. Skoggard's version: "Like fairies who hold sway over an entire vale and never alight in it, they commanded whole streets and their house rows without ever appearing in them. Among such beings was Aunt Lehmann." This is Eiland's: "Like fairies who cast their spell over an entire valley without once descending into it, they ruled over whole rows of streets without ever setting foot in them. Among these beings was Auntie Lehmann." As you can see, Eiland's translation is just stronger and even steadier than Skoggard's, which gets a little confusing after the odd turn of "house rows."

But as I said, the notes for Skoggard's translation are simply superb. He did his footwork and manages to extract loads of reality from a work that's misty and mystical. The comments section offers pictures, facts, explanations to unfamiliar expressions, and descriptions of the segments. In fact, the ideal Childhood would have both Skoggard's comments and Eiland's translation. (The notes in Selected Writings have the stuffiness of a library and not the lively air of a city street.)

"A persistent theme in Berlin Childhood," writes Skoggard in the comments for "The Otter," "is the child's discovery of his identity of the non-human order, represented here by a deeply mysterious otter." You could not improve on that description, and Skoggard offers hard information about the otter: "This is the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), native to almost all of Europe as well as a large portion of Asia and northern Africa, a powerful swimmer found mainly in unpolluted freshwater (lakes, ponds, rivers) but tolerant to salt water." It was Yuri Lotman who once said information is beautiful. Proof of this statement can be found in Skoggard's commentary and also the afterword.

Near the end of the afterword, Skoggard writes something that links the Proustian Benjamin with the Hegelian Benjamin. "Famously, Benjamin would end his career with the image of an Angel of History being blown incessantly forward into the future. The winds that drive him ahead originate in Paradise, which lies far behind him..." Childhood is not only a moment of enchantment, it's also paradisiacal. A childhood is always a paradise, an island, a first world within an aging person (even the racially brutal childhood that Richard Wright describes in Black Boy is not lacking paradisiacal breezes). The Angel of History (Hegel), which is in the most celebrated segment of On the Concept of History, can see this paradise (Proust), but the breezes have become a storm, and the winds of this storm have gotten caught in its wings. History is blown back into a dark and unknowable future. recommended