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Reappraising Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities in Translation 

Hester van den Bold

Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) has become a fundamental text to architectural historical and urban discourses across the globe. In their essay ‘For a Critical Practice of Translation in Geography’ (2016) Shadia Husseini de Araújo and Mélina Germes note how translations cannot be seen as pure transferrals of meaning but result in an intermediate product which provides space for new representation and meaning, amplified by shifting frameworks. Translation as a practice is a powerful force, ‘a power that is manifested predominantly in the steps involved in translation, the source and target languages and how the translation is carried out.’[1] The following paragraphs give insight into the first chapter of my thesis, a critical reappraisal of Death and Life’s international dissemination in translated form. Studying the legacy and reception of this work as experienced in its translation provides opportunity to move beyond and destabilise dominant discourses. 


The plurality of Death and Life 

Over the past seventy years, a vast amount of literature has appeared on Jacobs. Her legacy has been the subject of conferences and organisations often surrounding milestones of both Death and Life and Jacobs’ life, celebrating her impact on various constituencies, from planners, architects, politicians, to community activists. Essay collections have appeared, interrogating and “reconsidering” Jacobs’ legacy and the continuing impact of her thought. Jacobs as a persona alongside her book have become lead evidence for a variety of opposing points of view: Jacobs as an activist, a journalist, fundamentally anti-planning. Death and Life as a manual for urban planning, as a critique of urban planning in general, or as a critique of blue-print master planning, emerging at a specific historical moment in an American context, particularly New York City. The documentary film Citizen Jane (2017) exemplifies the latter. It presents the common reference to Jacobs’ confrontation of New York’s city planner Robert Moses, thereby emphasising Jacobs’ role as an activist. 


Translation: signifying importance 

In ‘The Task of the Translator’ (1923), Walter Benjamin writes that a work’s translations mark a text’s ‘stage of continued life’ as translations are always issued from the text’s afterlife, reinstating its fame.[2] Similarly, within discourse on Death and Life, the extent of the book’s international and repeated translation into multiple other languages and its appearance in other countries signals its wide-reaching importance. This seems to be a reappearing phenomenon from the moment of the book’s publication up to present day and across different media. In a 1969 New York Times magazine article on Jacobs, Leticia Kent describes that Death and Life ‘became required reading in American colleges, and was followed by British, German, Spanish, Japanese and Czech editions’, further noting its status as a classic.[3] Reflecting on Death and Life’s legacy in the 21st century in 2015 in an academic paper, Dirk Schubert also turns to list various translations from across the globe, further adding the impressive number of ‘over a 100 editions’ as a credential for this ‘best seller’.[4] The fact of translation therefore imbues status to a piece of writing, implying its significance for an extended audience.  

Tracing translations as a method 

I argue that the plurality of Jacobs’ persona is directly reflected and augmented through the translations of Death and Life as they appear across the globe. But first, let me briefly reflect on how I established an overall impression over the extent of her dissemination in translation, paying particular attention to how they materialise. This goes hand in hand with the consideration of Jacobs as a voice worth translating and distributing, even if the outcomes to how she is understood and thus represented – her transformation within translation – might be vastly different. 

In Paratexts (1987), French literary theorist Gerard Genette outlines how paratextual elements don’t just inform how a reader encounters a text, but how they allow the text to come into existence, marking its physical presence. Paratextual productions 

surround [the text] and extend it, precisely in order to present it, in the usual sense of this verb but also in the strongest sense: to make present, to ensure the text’s presence in the world, its “reception” and consumption in the form […] of a book.[5]

Paratextual elements therefore serve as means of identification of a text, constructing its validity – they allow me to trace the presence of a text. Paratextual elements become indicators for the existence of translated editions of Death and Life

I started by reviewing literature written on Death and Life to establish a chronology and distribution. However, I quickly realised that this method resulted in a distorted overview of the translations. Schubert’s 2015 article mentions its German, Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Dutch, and Turkish language editions.[6] He leaves out an early translation (into Czech) and is also not aware of various other editions that appeared in the mid to late 2000s. Yet, Schubert’s article led me to discover a more fruitful way of working. He footnotes the website ‘LibraryThing’ an online service allowing individuals to store and share catalogues for books, films and music. The website imports data from Amazon as well as almost 5000 libraries across the world, including the Library of Congress and the British Library. The entry for Jacobs’ Death and Life provides an overview of its editions and lists their ISBN, which I reviewed by expanding to the domains of and, searching if they lead me to tangible objects or at least their traces.[7] These included book covers, identifiable publishers and translators and their websites, sales websites of the books (Amazon, AbeBooks, and local booksellers), mentions in blog posts, and reviews or articles on the editions published surrounding their appearance. 

To date, I identified translations into twenty-one languages, with the first appearing in 1963 (German) and the last in 2021 (Ukrainian), with at least 38 different editions. I observed how the last century has seen an increase in translations of Death and Life in new locations to coincide with the 50th and 60th anniversary of the book’s first edition. The constant growth of editions has shown me that it is likely not exhaustive, and as translations of Death and Life are still being issued, will continue to do so.  

Figure 1. A current overview over the translated editions of Death and Life. 

[1] Shadia Husseini de Araújo and Mélina Germes, ‘For A Critical Practice of Translation in Geography’, ACME an International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 15, no. 1 (2016): 5. 

[2] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator’, in Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, eds. John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte, trans. Harry Zohn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 73.  

[3] Leticia Kent, ‘The New York Times Magazine: “Jane Jacobs: Against Urban Renewal, For Urban Life”, 25 May 1969’, in Ideas That Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs, ed. Max Allen (Owen Sound, Ont; Washington, D.C.: Ginger Press; Island Press, 2011), 21.   


[4] Dirk Schubert, ‘Jane Jacobs’s Perception and Impact on City Planning and Urban Renewal in Germany’, in Contemporary Perspectives on Jane Jacobs: Reassessing the Impacts of an Urban Visionary, ed. Dirk Schubert (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015), 137.    

[5] 5 Gerard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 1, 

[6] Schubert, ‘Jane Jacobs’s Perception and Impact on City Planning and Urban Renewal in Germany’, 138. 

[7] ‘Workdetails: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs’, accessed 18 August 2022,      

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