You are the conduit to the book: An interview with translator Susan Bernofsky

By Clark Allen

Susan Bernofsky hails from Louisiana and is an alumna of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Now living in New York, she is a German language translator, a teacher at the Columbia University School of the Arts, and she holds a chair at the PEN American Center.

Room 220 caught up with her to chat about In Translation: Translators on their Work and What it Means, the recent compendium of essays on translation which she edited with Esther Allen. She also discussed her new translation of some grisly 19th century German horror, Robert Walser, Yoko Tawada, Donald Duck, and the rumor of a novel of her own in the works, said to be set here in New Orleans.

Room 220: I’d read a number of books of which you had been the translator, but it wasn’t until I picked up the third or fourth when I noticed I’d been consistently seeing your name on all of them. The first essay in your book In Translation talks about the translator’s attempt at invisibility and the ethical decisions that come along with that. I was wondering if you agreed that was a goal, and whether or not invisibility is a positive or negative thing.

Susan Bernofsky: I think there are a lot of different sides to this question. On the one hand, as a translator, you are the conduit to the book, and you don’t want to distract the reader from the book by your own intervention. People usually notice translations only if they’re bad, but then people who have their eyes on translations will notice good translation—if the prose is particularly elegant, they may note that certain turns of phrase may be the translator’s doing. Sometimes you want to be noticed, but not by everyone. Say I translated two different authors and it’s not immediately obvious that they’re both translated by me, then to me that’s good because it means that I’ve succeeded in creating a distinct voice for each one.

Usually referring to the translator as invisible in the context of discussion is a reference to the traditional under-appreciation of translators, and the lack of understanding about what we do. Most people seem to think that the translator’s work is something mechanical, like feeding a piece of writing into a machine and having it come out the other end in a different language. It’s only when you look at one book with more than one translation side by side that you are confronted with the fact that the same book translated by two different people can really be two quite different books.

Rm220: Is there a way to simply put your role? Something it’s comparable to, like an actor interpreting a script?

SB: I think that’s a good metaphor for it—an actor interpreting a script or a musician with a score. The notes are written but they can be played so many different ways. There really is no such thing as a neutral translation. Every translation is an intervention and an interpretation to some extent of the original. There really is no way for translators to keep themselves out of the process, so the goal is to be in the process in a way that’s productive and leads to the creation of a better work in English. You don’t want random intervention, but some intervention is inevitable. You’ve got to be really aware of what you are doing and what is showing up in the text as you work.

Gregor Samsa?

Rm220: Some time ago, I read your article on the translations of Donald Duck comics in Germany and some of the fairly drastic changes made possible by subtleties in translation. Have there ever been moments like that where you wanted to change something in a way where you thought you may have been stretching your bounds?

SB: Definitely. I did a translation of Hesse’s Siddhartha. There is a scene in which Siddhartha despairs and wants to drown himself where I worked in an Ophelia reference. It’s a really subtle thing though, so if you don’t spot it, it isn’t going to stick out at you.

In my new Kafka, which is coming out in January [The Metamorphosis, Norton], I built in some intertextualities with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman because I think that is a work which has very important resonance with the Kafka story in the English-speaking tradition. I wanted this work that I was reshaping to interact with the Arthur Miller work. For example, I used the word “drummer” to describe Gregor Samsa’s profession, which is the same profession as Willy Loman’s profession—they’re both travelling salesmen. The word drummer, which means travelling salesman, used to be quite commonly used even just a few years ago but has now been pretty much forgotten.

Rm220: In regards to labor-intensive translation work, I’m curious about your translation of the Yoko Tawada’s book—

SB: Oh, I love her work so much! She has a new novel about polar bears that I want to translate. Really! Baby polar bears! I hope I get to do it. It was inspired by the story of Knut, the baby polar bear who was everyone’s darling at the zoo in Berlin and then died tragically young. She wrote the story of his life and his mother’s life and his grandmother’s life, in which his grandmother is a novelist living in the Soviet Union where, as a polar bear, she’s an ethnic minority. It was written in Japanese and then she translated it into German herself. Now the question is: Which version should be translated into English, the Japanese version or the German?

But I digress. You were going to ask something.

Rm220: I was going to ask that you elaborate on the work you’ve done with her books. I saw that you’d written an essay on her writing, but I’ve only seen it in German, which I can’t read. I wanted to know what you might have to say about her, as she is kind of an anomaly—your thoughts on translating a multi-lingual author and any specific differences or difficulties that come with it.

SB: One tricky part is to avoid making the language too fancy in English. Tawada uses a very specific German style, and she actively plays on the fact that German is not her first language. She investigates language, and she uses words often in a slightly different way than a native speaker might, but not wrong. It’s a very specific voice and it’s very difficult to capture it in translation. I think hers is a case where the translations feel a little bit more comfortable and conversational in English than her voice does in German. The interesting feeling of her voice in German is so amazing, though, like if you put a pidgin slant on English. Not that she’s writing pidgin, but it’s difficult to translate directly without making it sound like pidgin, so I don’t do it that way. Usually, the drafts come out sounding much more literary and then I have to kind of reel it back in and figure out more straightforward vocabulary words, etc.

Rm220: How do you deal with specific explanations of cultural ideas or traditions that may not exist in the language you’re translating to? Not being a native New Orleanian, I sometimes find myself explaining different facets of living here to friends living back West as if it were another country. I can only imagine that is more complicated when the reader is expected to be totally foreign to the original author.

SB: I’m a big fan of the “stealth gloss,” which means you build a tiny little explanation into the translation and don’t have to use a footnote. I try to avoid footnotes—if at all possible, I’ll put a tiny little tweak into the text that makes it clear what things are. I’ve actually got an example right here from a book I translated, The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf, which just came out from New York Review Books Classics. It’s a horror story and in this scene people are preparing for a baptismal party prior to the horror. This is Switzerland in the 19th century, and the godmother is arriving, whom everyone has been waiting for. Here’s the sentence:

“She came covered in perspiration, and laden with gifts like the Neujahrkindlein, that child of Bernese legend said to bring treats to every boy and girl on New Year’s Day.  In one hand she gripped the black strings of a large bag with a decorative pattern of flowers containing a nice big Züpfe wrapped in a fine white cloth, a gift for the new mother.”

A “Züpfe” had been described a couple of pages before as a kind of local bread, but the explanation of the bread was in the original. When “Neujahrkindlein” is used, which literally means “New Years little child,” I just inserted that same sort of explanation and wrote in “that child of Bernese legend said to bring treats to every boy and girl on New Year’s Day.” I don’t think it sticks out too much, but this is an old text describing even older customs, so I try to smuggle in explanations for the readers whenever possible. I don’t really footnote, but I’ll put something in a translator’s note if the former isn’t an option.

Rm220: I’ve read an older translation of that same story from 1975 in a small compendium called Three Eerie Tales From 19th Century Germany. It was a really great story, but lousy with footnotes.  I can’t remember the translator or much other information about it now, but since that we’re talking about it I’m wondering if you’d heard if it or read it.

SB: I had read an older translation of the story, but I don’t think the one you’re speaking of.  I believe there are two earlier translations out there, and the one I read I remember being sort of stiff and formal. It’s a fairy tale, a folk legend, so I didn’t want it to be stiff or formal. I absolutely didn’t look at the other one when I worked on it because when you’re doing a retranslation you need to be finding a voice for yourself. Thinking about other people’s voices with regards to the text is just a distraction. The first time I did a retranslation was with Siddhartha, and I didn’t look at any others until I had finished revising my version. Then, when I was struggling with those last few really messy spots, I checked to see if any of the previous translators had better solutions for them. Invariably, the previous translators had also found those spots difficult.

He translated understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare translations with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.

Rm220: I recall reading in Haruki Murakami’s essay on translating The Great Gatsby into Japanese that translations require an updating on a semi-regular basis. I was curious to hear your thoughts on that.

SB: I disagree. I feel that there are some translations that are so beautiful and perfect that they don’t need to be touched, ever. Here’s a fun fact: You know how Siddhartha, in this country, is typically a book that teenagers read because it’s all about finding your place and so on? In Germany, teenagers do not read this book because it feels to them, stylistically, way too antiquated. It doesn’t appeal to them there, whereas in translation it appeals to English-speaking youth to this day. In a way, the translation, being more modern, has made it possible for the book to still be read by that age group.

Rm220: Could you explain a bit about your role with PEN?

SB: My official role is that I am the chair of the translation committee. There is more than one PEN, but this is the largest branch—The PEN American Center, which is based in New York. There’s also one in California and another in the Midwest, which I think is semi-active. The PEN Translation Committee is basically all volunteer labor, people who are members and translators who do advocacy work, trying to make people more aware of literary works in translation. We award prizes for literary translation. There’s a section on the website with information for translators. We have a model contract. We’re right now working on a FAQ to go along with the model contract on the website, as well. We put on panels at various conferences, and there is also something called the PEN Translation Fund, which was made possible by a very generous donation by one literary translator, Michael Henry Heim, who passed away a year ago. It’s been around for eleven years now. He had received a large inheritance that he didn’t need, and so he donated it to create a fund for translators that could be set up in such a way that you don’t need to be a well published or particularly established to get a grant. New people who may have never translated a book before but have an interesting project could have just as much chance of getting one. There’s about ten or eleven of them given out each year, at an average of about three thousand dollars. It’s a really wonderful way to support new translators who are trying to find publishers for their projects. We’ve been able to place quite a few new works with publishers this way.

Rm220: I’ve heard rumors that you’d been working on fiction of your own, possibly a novel set in New Orleans. Is there any truth to this?

SB: I do have a novel in progress, and it is partially set in New Orleans and partially in Poland, but right now it’s kind of on the back burner because I’m also working on a biography of Robert Walser. I’ve been between these books for a few years, back and forth, kind of working on one, kind of working on the other, also translating books and teaching, and nothing was getting done that way. I’ve decided to focus on the biography because it’s a more finite project, so the novel isn’t really actively in progress right now, but I hope it will be in a couple of years.