Esther Leslie

Esther Leslie © Esther Leslie Esther Leslie grew up in London much impressed by her anarchist German grandfather and, as a beneficiary of the Nuffield language programmes in the UK in 1970s, she was able to learn German from an early age, alongside French.  A fascination with how Germany had been part of the political formations she considered most cherished and most abhorrent (Marxism and Nazism) led to a gap year in Stuttgart and then study of German and European Studies at Sussex University in the 1980s.

Courtesy of the DAAD, two years were spent in Berlin while she undertook her degrees, which culminated in a PhD on technology in Walter Benjamin's writings. She has taught in art schools, various universities in the UK and is now Professor of Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck, University of London. She is the authors of several books and articles on Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer and Adorno, and on themes such as animation, comics and film, the avant garde, the industrial production of colour, clouds and liquid crystals.

Three questions to Esther Leslie

Why did you choose to become a translator? Is it the profession you always wanted?
I first became a translator for a little journal called Revolutionary History. My parents were editorial board members and the work interested me - reports from Trotskyists at the front in the Spanish Civil War or Willi Brandt's early political reports about Socialist Activism under the Nazis were some of my first translations, followed by the correspondence between Herbert Marcuse and T.W. Adorno on the student revolts of the 1960s for New Left Review. 
I translated a book by Georg Lukacs and realised that one of the best ways to get to know a body of thought is to wrest it into another language, thereby facing all of the impenetrability of translation, as well as the joy of recasting something into meaning in the present and here and now. As Walter Benjamin was an object of my fascination, I delighted in his own thoughts on translation and the efforts that certain modes of translation can make to access common ground between languages, while recognising, as does he, that 'all translation is only a somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of languages'.
I like the approximations of translation, which I worked with most recently when rendering yet another translation of Benjamin's essay on photography and noting how mine deviated from the others in existence and how these deviations were occasioned by all manner of things, personal taste, misunderstanding, shifting terminology amongst them.
I have translated several things by Benjamin now, and always feel excited at the task of turning his words into my words, while also terrified about the gaps that result.  I set myself challenges such as translating the highly punning nonsense words invented by his young son or his rhyming jokey calendar for Die literarische Welt.
My last major translation was of short stories and other small pieces by Benjamin and I did this together with Sam Dolbear and  Sebastian Truskolaski. Sebastian is a native German speaker and I must say that I enjoyed the process of having different native languages in the discussions and the result was a more worked over product. Correspondingly, it took far longer to achieve, but was a rewarding process, which also generated lots of new ideas for my own writing. What was also gratifying was the sense in which we were not only translators, but also editors and introducers of the work, put into the position of making arguments about Benjamin through our choices of writing, our orderings of the pieces thematically and our commentaries. In such a mode, translation becomes something powerful within the field of knowledge. Unfortunately such opportunities are rare and luckily I am able to gain money another way, so do not consider myself a professional translator!
Which German book do you like the best and why?
So hard to answer - obvious for me would be something by Benjamin, perhaps his writings about his childhood or his Arcades project, which is only partly in German. The Arcades project is a book of books, or at least fragments and can lead to endless ruminations. Equally though I might choose Goethe's Farbenlehre, because that is an extraordinary gambit.
Is there a particular book you would like to translate?
I think I would like to translate Hans Magnus Enzensberger's Der kurze Sommer der Anarchie: Buenaventura Durrutis Leben und Tod. Roman. I read it at university when I was 18 or 19 and never found anyone else who had read it, certainly not amongst my non-German speaking friends. It opened up the history of anarchism and the Spanish Civil War in new ways for me, and also rewrote my idea of what a 'novel' might be. I have not read it for decades, but would be interested to see how it stands up today, now questions of anarchism seem to be experiencing an upswing. 

Selection of translated titles

  • Georg Lukacs, A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic, Verso, 2002
  • Walter Benjamin's Archive, Verso, 2007
  • Walter Benjamin, On Photography, Reaktion, 2015
  • Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller: Takes out of Loneliness, Verso, 2016