Uncharted Sentences: An Interview with Susan Bernofsky
Interviewed by Laura Brown
I first came to know and love Susan Bernofsky through her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, a breathtaking novel spanning across generations of characters from the Weimar Republic to the fall of the Berlin Wall, anchored together by a piece of land just outside of Berlin. I went on to read her translation of Robert Walser’s The Tanners, Berlin Stories, and Erpenbeck’s The Old Child and Other Stories. Tawada is next on my list.
It’s a bit of an understatement to say I was starstruck when I met Bernofsky in person at this year’s Festival Neue Literatur, which she organized. The festival invited six German-speaking authors to New York, providing a chance to showcase their writing—through readings and in-depth discussions—not yet published in the US. What came across most poignantly when speaking with Bernofsky, both then and now, is her earnestness, her enthusiasm for translation and world literature. Her love for and dedication to translation pulls readers in, holds them, makes them care for the work as deeply as Bernofsky.
In addition to her various translation projects, a biography of Walser she’s working on, and her own novel, Bernofsky teaches translation at Queens College CUNY. Perhaps, though, what is most striking is the amount of time she carves out to post on her own blog, Translationista. It’s a web portal of translation advocacy, a conduit for translators, writers, and readers to connect to the importance and beauty of world literature. Here, she shares with aspiring translators various grants available, translation programs to participate in, and gives glimpses into her own translating process. Lovers of world literature should certainly grab a Kaffee and set up shop outside Bernofsky’s virtual window.
She generously agreed to speak with me about her fascinating and meticulous translation process, how she became engaged with the German language in particular, and her predictions for who the next big translated authors could and should be.
You started practicing translation as early as high school. What particularly drew you to the German language, especially at such a young age?
Well, I originally started learning German in a really random way: my dad had to learn German because he was a biochemist, and in his generation all serious science students had to study German because, early in the twentieth century, that was the language of science. He had learned it for professional reasons, and he kind-of pushed me to take it. So that’s why I originally took it, but then I immediately loved it and kept taking it because I really enjoyed it. I had a great, great teacher name Julia Schuler in my public high school in New Orleans, Louisiana, and I studied four years of it because I liked it so much. But I never planned on doing anything with it, you know. It was just sort of recreational.
At fwriction : review, we value transparency in the writing process. That it isn’t just a magician’s work but is an exercise that requires time with actual pen to paper, followed by extensive revision. Can you speak to us a little about your own translation process and what that’s like?
I revise like crazy. I never stop revising. The first draft of everything, I do really quickly and terribly. My first draft is completely, outrageously horrible, and then I revise, I revise the thing into submission. Literally, if you saw my first draft, you’d be embarrassed for me.
It sounds like you’re taking on the role of editor.
Translating basically is editing. It’s the part of writing that is editing. The first draft is really easy; I mean—all right, if it’s hard to understand the original then it isn’t easy—doing the first draft of a translation is not such a big deal, which is what I’m trying constantly to convince my students of. Because I get my translation students to translate, and they do and think they’re done. And I say, “No, actually, you aren’t, you just got started.” And they’re like, “Wait, no. I’ve turned it in, I’m done, see, it’s finished.” Then me, “No, actually not, you just got started.”
My things tend to go through four drafts. Right now, I’m working on the nineteenth century horror story The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf, and it was written in the 1840’s; I’m looking up all the words in the Oxford English dictionary, all my English words, to see when they entered the English language. Because I don’t want to use words that were not yet part of the English vocabulary then. And I have Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein open on my computer, so if I’m trying to decide between words, I’ll search for that word in her story to see what kind of vocabulary she was using. She was writing a little earlier than that, but she feels pretty contemporary.
How acquainted do you typically become with an author before starting on a translation project, such as doing research about the author’s life, or do you let his/her voice percolate from the writing alone?
It really varies greatly depending on the context of the project. I do sample translations for publishers all the time, where I’m just doing fifteen page excerpts from the text, and I don’t take the time to do deep analysis then. But like with Jeremias Gotthelf, right now I’m having to research; I’m in the middle actually of researching his religious background because a lot of the story I’m translating is all built up around a frame tale involving a tulsa, which in English can either be a christening or baptism. And I need to find out for sure, very quickly, which it is, because the two words—christening and baptism—have been sort of used in alternation, interchangeably. In certain historical contexts, they can both mean the same thing or different things. So, I’m doing a lot of research to make the judgment call on which word appropriately represents this situation, in Switzerland, in the 1840’s. He also refers, in the 1840’s story, back to a seventeenth century practice, so right now it’s looking like it’s going to be baptism, but I’m not done researching. If the research isn’t done right, the translation may be wrong and then some religious scholar will say, “Oh you’ve got it wrong! It’s absurd to talk about a christening in 1840’s Switzerland.”
Has working on [Robert] Walser’s biography differed from working on his prose, and in what ways have there been overlaps?
I mean, in a sense, that answer is mainly no, because I’ve sort-of been working on his biography since I started translating him because when I started on his work, when I was really young, I read every single thing I could find about him. Now there is so much about him that you wouldn’t be able to read it all, but at the time there wasn’t that much about him and you could read it all, so every last thing about his life which you could read about, I was reading about; there was never a time when I wasn’t also trying to learn about his life. For most authors and most projects there would be different activities, but because of the way I came to him, it just happened there wasn’t that much difference. And he writes about his own life so much that all of these things are intertwined.
Do you have a particular favorite kind of writing genre to translate: novel, short story, essay or non-fiction? Or a particular genre you like to utilize as a writer?
Oh, that is interesting, to use in my own writing. I’m working on a novel and write short fiction. But not at all like [Walser’s]. I really love translating his little shorts—he calls them prose pieces—a cross between a story and an essay. That’s kind of my favorite of his to translate; although, if he had written another novel that we have, I would love to translate that too, but we are all out of novels for him. So, that’s out, but I love, love, love translating the shorts prose texts. They will have a specific tone, they will be a few pages long, you will start out with the tone that might stay the same or change. You can really watch him model in that shape. I really enjoy trying to follow how he models these short texts.
I’ve heard word that you are currently working on your own novel, set in New Orleans. Can you tell us a little about it?
It’s partly set in post-Katrina New Orleans, but it’s a multi-generational book about a woman who is displaced in Katrina and winds up going in search of her Grandma’s roots in Europe. Much of the book is set in Europe, but the frame story is set in New Orleans after Katrina.
Is there a German author that you’ve read that hasn’t been translated into English yet, that you think should?
I want someone to publish The Beautiful and the Necessary by Andrea Grill, who came over in the Festival Neue Literatur here. It’s a book about these two Austrian down-and-out losers. It’s kind of like the odd couple, they’re roommates. They don’t know what to do with themselves to make a buck, so they come up with this scheme to kidnap a civet cat because the most expensive coffee in the world is made from coffee beans that have been eaten by a civet cat and pooped out. Something about going through the digestive system—this is not a joke—of the cat does something magical to the coffee that makes it extra good. So, it’s a farce, but it’s a kind of a philosophical farce, and it’s extremely well written. Very wise and fun, but it’s much more than that. I’d like to see someone pick that book up.
Also, someone should pick up Larissa Boehning’s book Das Glück der Zikaden, or in English, The Song of the Cicadas. It’s a three generational novel about a grandmother, mother, and daughter. It starts out in Russia with a young family fleeing Stalin then wind up in Berlin and eventually in Spain; it’s incredibly, smartly written. She read from that book, but we let the authors choose their own excerpts, and I think the one she picked was not actually a good representative of her book. She picked one that is its own neat, little episode. But you can’t actually tell from the excerpt how powerful the book is. It’s a much better book than is obvious from that excerpt.
I remember her reading: it was the when the family was traveling and the little girl wants her frog.
Yeah, exactly, and they’re on a train. It’s not even a frog, it’s a tadpole.
Yeah, Larissa kept saying “little frog.” I was trying to teach her the word “tadpole” behind the scenes. I’m told her it’s different from little frog, tadpole is not the same as little frog, but she kept forgetting the word tadpole and saying little frog. Whatever. But, of course, the child in the story doesn’t know any better, she keeps saying my frog, my frog, I want my frog back. Yeah, yeah, it wasn’t a frog in the jar, it was a tadpole. But that scene, the great part of that scene is that the woman looks in the mirror and sees that her hair has turned white, just like that, on this trip. But I think [Larissa] somehow wound up not even reading that part. She didn’t represent her book that well, but it’s an utterly gorgeous, moving book. It’s very rich, just psychologically rich, and really goes into the mother-daughter bond, and they’re all very difficult bonds, difficult relationships, gorgeously described; the prose is beautiful. I would love to see someone pick up that book and publish it.
One of your “Rules for Translators” is to, “Read lots and lots of gorgeous books at all times so that your head will constantly be filled with the cadences of literary greatness.”
Yes, I must have been drunk.
But I think it’s true, I think it’s true for writers, too. With that in mind, what has been on your reading list lately?
Okay, then I was sober.
Right now, I’m reading Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun. I’m only like forty pages in, but it’s a gorgeous book so far. I try to read all the time. This is a step. I read literature in translation because I love world literature, and this is a really beautiful book translated [from the Arabic] by Humphrey Davies at Archipelago Books. But usually I’m trying to read people who write beautiful, beautiful English language prose because that’s how I learn to write and to translate: by reading. So, I’ll read contemporary pieces. I read Emily Barton, whom I love, in preparation for working on the Gotthelf to get some nineteenth century—pseudo-nineteenth century—style because that’s how her book, Brookland, is written, but that’s a made-up language in the way George Saunders, whom I also love to read, writes, a kind of a made-up language. I love reading Chris Adrian, I think he’s wonderful. I was so thrilled we were able to have him come to the festival. He just happened to be in New York and therefore affordable for us. We didn’t have the budget to fly in people, so we had to use local people. He’s usually not local, but this year he was local, hurray! He’s a stunningly beautiful prose writer. Shelly Hazard blows my mind. She the most amazing prose stylist I’ve ever read.
Before signing off, are there any other tips you would like to give to aspiring translators?
Question every sentence and read everything out loud. Give time such that you can set things aside and not read them or look at them for a couple of weeks, and then you can return to them and have a fresh eye. You can look at it as if it’s new to you, because the point in translating is to arrive where you forget what the original said so that you can just deal with the English language text in its own way. It doesn’t get to be: It’s not okay to accept something that sounds wrong in English just because it’s “what the German says” or “what the French says.” So it’s really, really difficult to be as hard on yourself as a translator versus on yourself as a writer, but that’s where really good translations come from, compared to a mediocre one. The writing has that same attention, same polish, same detail, and don’t be afraid to write while you’re translating because all interesting writing is a little quirky in its use of language. We forget that we can do that, too, when we’re translating, but you must. No dead language. It’s not a dictionary exercise. It’s a writing exercise. End of preaching.
Laura Brown is the Associate Editor of fwriction : review, focused primarily on poetry and translations. A graduate student in literature at NYU, Brown spends twenty-eight hours a day with Thomas Bernhard, Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Marcel Proust, and other brilliant writers. She often sings in German, and in addition to a keen editorial eye, Brown paints in her spare time. She currently serves as an intern for New Directions.
Author and acclaimed translator Susan Bernofsky, Chair of the PEN Translation Committee, has translated eighteen books, including six by the great Swiss-German modernist writer Robert Walser, as well as novels by Jenny Erpenbeck, Yoko Tawada, Hermann Hesse, Gregor von Rezzori and others. She received the 2006 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize and the 2012 Hermann Hesse Translation Prize as well as awards and fellowships from the NEH, the NEA, the PEN Translation Fund, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Lannan Foundation. She teaches in the MFA program at Queens College (CUNY) and blogs about translation at www.translationista.org.