Discussion Group: Modernist Afterlives – Living Forth a Century Later

This year marks the centenary of Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay on ‘The Task of the Translator’, which introduced the influential concept of the ‘afterlife’ of a literary text in translation. Yet closer reading reveals ‘afterlife’ as a productive mistranslation of what Benjamin calls ‘Fortleben’ (literally ‘living forth’), a term lacking any sense of the mortality or decay suggested by the English ‘afterlife’. Returning to and departing from the original essay, Ian Ellison asks what the language of translation (and translation studies) can tell us about other things. In this talk, he examined this decade’s ongoing obsession with modernist centenaries to consider what forms of modernism precede a modernist ‘afterlife’, and what theories of ‘afterlife’ enable a finer description of the ongoing legacy of modernism in the twenty-first century. Carol Jacobs has rightly noted that ‘it is an error to search Benjamin’s work for stability in terminology’, but this is precisely why Benjamin’s consistent use of the term ‘Fortleben’ is so significant. This talk interrogated what implications it might have for thinking about the posterity of modernist authors, particularly those like Proust and Kafka whose later work is itself preoccupied with questions of posterity, in the present age of global literary circulation and translation.


Ian Ellison is a DAAD PRIME postdoctoral research fellow based across the University of Kent and the Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt am Main. His first book Late Europeans and Melancholy Fiction at the Turn of the Millennium appeared with Palgrave Macmillan in 2022. His research has been published in the Modern Language Review, Oxford German Studies, History of European Ideas, and The German Quarterly. Ian is the Book Reviews Editor of Comparative Critical Studies and writes for the Times Literary Supplement and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is also active as a literary translator and was shortlisted for the 2023 Peirene Stevns Translation Prize.