Foreign Wallpaper

A conversation with translator Susan Bernofsky

by Greg Nissan

Illustration by Aaron Harris

published February 28, 2014

Translators do many things. Sometimes they search their own language for a choice phrase in an attempt to capture the beauty of the original so that it reads as novel in English, and other times they undertake a forensic mission to discern foreign experiences so elemental and every-day that an author might not even think to name them. This balance between literality and experimentation, between faithfulness to the original and infidelity, is always at the core of the translator’s work. Susan Bernofsky is one of the preeminent contemporary translators of German literature, as well as the chair of PEN American’s Translation Committee and Director of Literary Translation at Columbia University. She spends much of her time investigating the cultural secrets hidden within words. Bernofsky’s work blurs the borders between national literary cultures, and not just in her vast array of translations—from mammoths such as Franz Kafka and Herman Hesse to contemporary writers like Yoko Tawada, Jenny Erpenbeck, and Uljana Wolf. Many of the works she’s translated feature a distant, foreign approach to one’s native language, whether it’s the Swiss modernist Robert Walser who, writing in High German (a language much different from his native Swiss German), is always marked as a distant observer; Yoko Tawada, whose native language is Japanese and whose books investigate the way a foreigner’s language constructs her role in a new society; or Uljana Wolf, whose prose-poetry collection False Friends is a bilingual tour de force that dances around false friends—words that look like cognates but are not. In her reinventions of the last, Bernofsky proved herself not only a deft translator but also a stunning poet in her own right.

     I spoke with Bernofsky over the phone about her exposure to translation, her process, the difficulty of maintaining an author’s distant relationship to language in translation, and her new translation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, forthcoming from Norton.

The College Hill Independent: I’ve found that translation is often a discovered passion, as its focus in education is rather small. Was there a moment when you got interested in translation?

Susan Bernofsky: I got into translation sort of accidentally, as someone who was planning to grow up to be a novelist and was studying creative writing kind of seriously, but I also just happened to be learning German. One of my writing teachers at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a public high school for the arts, said, “you know German, why don’t you try translating this?” It was fun.

     I went to college to study creative writing and kept studying German and wound up living in Germany for a little while. And I just kept translating things on and off for fun on the side. I never had a plan to make it what I do. I started translating things and sending them out to magazines, and sooner or later I had a little portfolio of things that I had published. I just kind of backed into it. I think in my generation and older that’s very common. I think it’s only in the younger generations that people actually think about becoming translators and studying it. It never occurred to me to get a degree in that.

The Indy: I’m interested in what you mention about the generational gap between aspirations to translation. You’re quite involved in the translation community at large. Are there any other progressions or trends you’ve seen in the translation community that feel different from the way things were when you started?

SB: ALTA, the American Literary Translators Association, was already pretty active when I was coming up. I attended my first meeting when I was in my mid-20s. Going to ALTA as a 25-year-old, I had a sense that there were translator networks, that translators helped each other and workshopped each other’s work.

     I think in that sense there’s been an established network, but I think now around the small presses that specialize in translation, which is kind of a new thing, it’s all become younger. There are a lot of networks. I know networks in New York and Berlin and all that. Translators getting together to share work, and get better together, and find career options. There never was much money in translation and there still really isn’t, which does make me worry for the ones who study translation planning to go into it.

The Indy: I’d love to ask a question about some of your work. Your translations have an incredible range, from Uljana Wolf’s False Friends, which really sits at the border between German and English, to Robert Walser, who reads much more traditionally. I wonder how your approach differs in encountering works with such different levels of foreignness within the text.

SB: In a sense the part of the Uljana Wolf project that does not come through in my translation is the between-languageness, but there’s an imbalance. Your average German reader of her book knows enough English to read both sides, but your average English reader probably doesn’t know much or any German, which is why I decided to take a more monolingual route. There’s a couple places where it gets a little polyglot, whereas the original is heavily, heavily polyglot. And that changes the project. It’s something I discussed with Uljana as well.

     I think all these projects cross-pollinate each other. Dealing with issues of bilingualness in her work is helpful for me in thinking about Robert Walser, who is also sort of bilingual in a different sense, the Swiss writer writing High German. His work actually plays with typically Swiss German expressions, and the difference between those expressions and High German become invisible in translation. I’ll try and mark them as quirky or sticking out as strange or playful, but there’s no good equivalence to the relationship between the Swiss German and High German.

The Indy: I was first introduced to Yoko Tawada, whom I’ve read in German now, by your translation of The Naked Eye. I remember reading in an interview with you that you found it difficult to translate Tawada’s distance from the German language without lyricizing it a bit. In the case of Tawada—a writer who’s always witnessing this foreign language within her own writing—how do you maintain her foreign relation to German in the translation? [Tawada is a Japanese immigrant to Germany who often highlights the strange texture of German as opposed to her native Japanese.]

SB: In a way that’s very similar to the Robert Walser question of the Swiss German. It’s very hard to translate or communicate peculiar relationships to the norm of the language that the original writer is writing in. When you read Yoko Tawada in German, she uses German in a very specific way that has a lot to do with the fact that she learned it as not even her second but her third language, after Japanese and after Russian.

     She plays a lot with the kind of language the people begin to write as learners of foreign languages, and that texture of beginner-mind language use is all over her work. And that’s something very specific that’s very difficult to imitate in English. The moment you start writing some sort of pidgin English to represent it, it immediately will be wrong, because she’s writing not in any way incorrectly. She gravitates toward grammatically simpler sentence structures sometimes, not all the way, but compared to your average born-speaking-German German writer. It’s a little pared down in terms of syntactical complexity and grammatical complexity. She’s not throwing the genitive construction all over the place, for example, which your average German enjoys playing with, unless she brings them in to thematize them and to talk about them.

     I hate the idea of turning her into something that sounds pidgin because she’s finding ways of writing very poetically within these sort of guidelines. You could tell that the speaker is not a native speaker, but it’s not about grammatical errors—there aren’t any—it’s about the avoidance of overly complex syntax, the specifically German syntactical complexity.

     It puts the translator in a somewhat odd position. If you translate it into nice neutral English, it gets a little boring, because part of the charm is the characteristic way the person is talking. So I think of the tone—and to my mind this way she has of writing winds up being very lyrical. You can hear in my translation that I find her writing and constraints lyrical. The lyricism makes it over but the sort of slight limping doesn’t. She knows what’s she’s doing, it’s not like she doesn’t know how to write German. She’s very intentionally creating this sort of immigrant German that sounds spectacularly beautiful. I love translating her. Maybe somebody else will translate her and find out a way to really communicate that.

The Indy: How often do you correspond about a translation? You mentioned that you corresponded with Uljana.

SB: I always correspond with the living writers I’m working with at some point, because inevitably you have the kind of questions about the text that only the author could answer. But I try and keep it to a minimum, like with Jenny Erpenbeck. This is our fourth book we’ve done together and she’s my age—we’re friends, we’ve visited each other—so I’ve been corresponding with her, but I’ve saved up all my questions when I was translating the book until like a week before I was going to turn it in and then sent her all the questions of the things I hadn’t been able to figure out by myself. Then she sits down and answers all the questions systematically, and it’s all clear.

     You want answers to the questions you really need the author for. There are things that it really makes a difference to get the author’s opinion on. In the Erpenbeck novel there’s a clock, and in order to figure out how to translate it, I needed to know the size of the clock. But it turned out she was talking about an actual clock that was in her family’s possession, so she could send me a picture and show me how tall it was. It’s a thing that in my translation is going to be called a “miniature grandfather clock,” which if you Google is actually a thing, a genre of clock. But in German it’s a standing clock, you know, Standuhr, and that doesn’t mean anything in English.

The Indy: Are there any books that you’ve dreamed of translating for which you feel a translation wouldn’t be successful—or that the challenge isn’t necessarily something you’ve figured out how to solve yet?

SB: Hölderlin would go on that list. He’s somebody that I would love to be able to translate well enough, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get there.

The Indy: For reasons inherent to his work?

SB: What makes his work so difficult is that it’s poetry in which the thing that makes it beautiful is syntax. You know, if you put words in the wrong order in an interesting way. Syntax turns out to be not all that translatable.

The Indy: I wonder how your experience living between two cultures has shaped your approach as a translator, or possibly how your work as a translator has influenced that experience.

SB: It was the living first, because I wound up living in Germany for at least five years, but not all in one piece. Just spending that much time in Germany, living among Germans, gave me a very good cultural toolkit. I understand what it’s like to stand in line in a bakery in Germany. Just the wallpaper and furniture of everyday life. Knowing these things actually can be important for translating because writers will refer in passing to things that everybody understands, but if it’s something you the translator don’t understand, well, too bad for your readers and for you. The actual cultural knowledge of a country whose literature you’re translating is kind of crucial.

     I mean, I had to translate an old man in the early 20th century and he’s talking about needing to get to the toilet. I know what a toilet looks like in that kind of building. I know that it is a separate little room that’s off the stairwell between floors, that you may or not have a key to, that doesn’t have water in it, that you would have to get a bucket of water from a tap somewhere else, because this is how it works. And all this knowledge about the structure of how the toilet would’ve been in that kind of building, that doesn’t go into the translation, but if I didn’t know that I probably would have mistranslated that passage. You certainly wouldn’t say “the bathroom.” Because it’s not a bathroom. So I read up in the OED: okay, when did the word “lavatory” start being used?

     I wound up using the word “privy.” I did research on bathroom, toilet development, in English and in German. Keep in mind that the word “toilet” is also fairly entrenched. Toilet comes from toile, which is a cloth. It means to wash yourself. Basically, a toilet comes from the word “towel.” If you’re saying going to the toilet, etymologically you’re basically saying go to the towel. We have all these levels of euphemism around urinating and defecating and other languages have them too, but how do they line up chronologically with ours? You’re always doing forensics on the history of the development of language.

The Indy: I have a question about your new translation of Metamorphosis. I guess this is a bigger question about your approach as a translator. What is your relationship to the cultural legacy of a book, especially one like this with an ever-shifting afterlife in the eyes of scholars and readers? Essentially, how does translating a classic differ from translating something that you’re bringing into English for the first time?

SB: Higher anxiety. Otherwise quite similar. This is only my second time translating something that already had multiple translations. I did it with Siddhartha and it was the same thing; there were already a bunch of translations, and in both cases I sort of looked at all the others before starting the job just to get a sense of whether there’s something I can do that hasn’t been done, or whether any of these translations feel so right to me that there’s no point in my doing something.

     I looked at them to figure out if I wanted to try, and after that I sort of did not look at them. With Siddhartha I did look at them right before I turned it in, when I was doing the final edit, to see how they handled the passages that I was having the most trouble with. But invariably, I didn’t find solutions that made me think, “Oh, well there’s the solution.” I found evidence of other struggles. And the Kafka, I thought before I’d turn it in that I would look it over, but I was really busy and the deadline was tight and I didn’t have time so I didn’t. I just turned the thing in. And then I was glad I didn’t.

     The thing is, if you start looking at all the translations, it will kind of confuse you. This is really crucial in a translation, especially one that is a retranslation: you have to find a voice for the thing that is your voice, and if you’re constantly triangulating between other people’s translation, that can very quickly get bewildering, in my case anyways, and that would interfere with my ability to hear a voice for the thing.