Susan Bernofsky, widely considered to be one of the best English translators of German literature today, has translated the work of Robert Walser, Hermann Hesse, and Yoko Tawada. In August, New Directions will publish her translation of Walser’s The Tanners, the last of his novels to appear in English.
Jed Lipinski (Rail): How did you first get into translation? I know that you read Grimms’ fairy tales in the original German during high school, but when and how did you begin translating books?
Susan Bernofsky: I started translating in high school as a creative writing exercise, and I immediately liked the way navigating between English and a foreign language forces your brain to work when you’re filling up the page with text. It’s a writing exercise with maximal constraints. There are so many different ways to communicate the information contained in a foreign-language sentence, and the challenge of matching what you write to the tone, voice, style and structure of the original all at the same time is so intriguing. It’s like you’re a painter communicating the impression of something you see. There are so many ways for it not to work out, so when a passage does wind up working well in English, it feels as if the gods are smiling.
Rail: Do you have an affinity with the prose of the people you translate, like that of the German-speaking Swiss writer Robert Walser?
Bernofsky: Most of the authors I’ve spent the most time working on, Robert Walser in particular, are concerned with the plasticity of language: they use idiosyncratic ways of talking about things to create a fictional universe. I’m just working on a Walser story, “A Sort of Cleopatra,” which begins with a sentence half a page long that contains more relative clauses than could possibly fit in a single thought. The main thing he’s saying—that a young woman dissatisfied with her lot is imagining herself as Cleopatra with a viper at her breast—gets so thoroughly modified and relativized that by the time the sentence is finished, Walser has created an elaborate metaphor-packed tableau to represent the woman’s ennui. When a teacher first showed me some Walser texts, I immediately fell in love with them, and even 25 years later I still find his way of creating fictional worlds utterly delightful.
Rail: I’m curious as to whether sharing a sensibility with an author makes it easier to translate their work. Salman Rushdie, for example, compliments Tobias Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote by saying their rambunctious personalities were ideally matched. Meaning, I guess, that being like Cervantes helped Smollett convey his style.
Bernofsky: I’ve wondered about this too. All my authors are very different from me and write differently than I do, but with certain authors I do have the feeling that I can summon up “their” voices fairly readily in English—and this certainly applies to the writers I’ve translated repeatedly: Jenny Erpenbeck and Yoko Tawada as well as Walser. I like trying to hear other authors’ voices as well, which is why I like it when publishers ask me for sample translations from different books—it’s like an invitation to dress up as a stranger and try to pull off the disguise.
Rail: As a fiction writer, have your translations had any effect on your writing style?
Bernofsky: Walser has such a strong, idiosyncratic style that I actually think he’s somewhat dangerous as an influence. If you wind up imitating—rather than just being inspired by—him, it’s pretty easy to start writing pastiches of his work. And pastiches of Walser tend not to be so good. His work is a balancing act, and it’s only because of his constantly startling imagination that he avoids toppling over into cliché and bad taste. He so often writes about things like being charmed by a landscape—now, that’s quite difficult to pull off. Fortunately, I stopped being tempted to try to write like him in my early twenties. For better or for worse, my own fiction is much more straight-faced and plainspoken than his. The only one of my authors with whom there’s any stylistic resemblance to speak of is Jenny Erpenbeck, but I came to her fairly recently as a translator, so I wouldn’t say she was a formative influence on me—I’d started writing the way I write years before. I do pay close attention to how she puts a story together though, because I think she achieves a great deal in her fiction with minimal means. There’s a certain restraint to her fiction—a sense that there are ten unsaid things for every one thing getting said—that I admire a great deal.
Rail: In an introductory note to Yoko Tawada’s The Naked Eye, you say that as she wrote the book certain sentences occurred to her in German and others in Japanese, so that she eventually wound up writing two versions of the same book. Do you have a sense of why this happened?
Bernofsky: Yoko Tawada’s very interested in the way our lives look the moment you start talking about them in a foreign language. And she’s right—words and experiences in different cultural contexts tend to have a different weight, different implications, and so walking on the border between two cultures as she does means constantly being confronted with one’s own experience as the experience of an other. I think that’s fascinating, and it’s very true to my own experience of living in Germany and traveling to yet other countries. I wish I could read The Naked Eye in Japanese to see how it differs from the German version I read, but I don’t speak a word of Japanese. I hope someone translates it into English someday.
Rail: You’ve written a lot about translation, often drawing connections between current translation theory and ideas in Romantic philosophy. How are the two related?
Bernofsky: The German Romantic translation theorists—above all Friedrich Schleiermacher, but also Wilhelm von Humboldt and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—were deeply concerned with the connection between a language and a nation or people, and so to them translating in such a way as to respect and preserve the cultural characteristics of the language you’re translating from is an important first step in getting to know another culture and its people in a respectful way. A lot of translation theorists and cultural critics today are interested in the dichotomy between translation as assimilation and as an avenue for approaching the foreign with genuine openness and curiosity.
Rail: How difficult has it been to write a biography of Walser, considering not very much is known about his life?
Bernofsky: My book about Walser is a book of gaps, and not only because I still have quite a way to go before arriving at a finished draft. I’ve been thinking about and planning this book for several years now, and it’s getting written in little thematic chunks. The fact remains that there are vast stretches of Walser’s life about which very little is known, periods when we don’t have much of his correspondence and no one else is talking much about what he was up to—particularly in the nineteen-teens. But I’m fascinated by the overlaps between his fiction and his life, the way he actually lived out some of the themes that interested him. He really did attend a training school for servants, for example, though it bears very little resemblance to the school depicted in Jakob von Gunten. And then he went to work as an assistant butler in a castle in Silesia, which he didn’t write about until many years later, in the story “Tobold (II),” which I translated for Masquerade. I don’t think he was doing research for his writing when he took that job. I think he really was interested in the possibility of supporting himself with such a position. He didn’t want anyone at the castle to know he was a published author, either. He had his publisher write to him only using plain envelopes without the firm’s insignia, which would have blown his cover. I’m not sure he was such a good servant either, if the account of this episode he wrote in fictional form years later is any indication.
Rail: It can be difficult to reconcile the relative darkness of Walser’s upbringing and life with the relentlessly lighthearted and funny tone of books like The Tanners and The Assistant. Through your research and translations, have you reached any conclusions about his work?
Bernofsky: What makes Walser’s texts so powerful, I think, is the way they scintillate with a wide variety of emotional and literary registers at one and the same time. Often there’s a sense of a deep sadness lying beneath a surface that might be filled up with chirps and twitters, but that doesn’t mean that this sadness is the true meaning of the texts—the whole point of Walser is the coexistence of all these opposites in a single moment—in every single moment.
JED LIPINSKI used to play tambourine in the band Hexa.