Queen of Translation: The Susan Bernofsky Interview
If you’ve spent your entire life obsessed with Robert Walser and Jenny Erpenbeck, you might have always secretly wondered how those works made their way from German to English.
You might have also wondered how the sentences were made to sing, how the absurdity was made to glisten, how each book in translation has its own singular aesthetic.
You might also call Susan Bernofsky, the Queen of Translation, on your lunch break at work to ask her a million questions about German, surrealism, and stealth gloss.
SARAH ROSE ETTER: How did you get started with translation? How did you become so passionate about it? I’ve always wondered about your path.
SUSAN BERNOFSKY: I started out as a fiction writer. I have an MFA in Fiction. But it really began earlier. In high school, one of my creative writing teachers said, “You have another language, so why don’t you start translating? It’ll be a good exercise.” Then I’d find a short story I wanted to show my friends who couldn’t read German, and translate that. And it was really fun.
When I was sending my stories out for publication, I was also sending out my translations. I got way more of the translations published. Then people started asking me to do more and more. It morphed into the thing I do.
SRE: Sort of a happy accident, then?
SB: Yes, I think so. I still write myself. I’m writing a biography of Robert –
SRE: You’re jumping ahead in my questions.
SB: Ha! Yes, the book is under contract with Yale University Press. So I have a deadline, and I actually have to finish it. He lived to be 78. Right now he’s 20 years old in my book. So that might give you a sense of where I am with it.
SRE: What are you finding out about him as you work on it? Anything you weren’t expecting?
SB: He’s still a kid in my book right now, but I’m discovering things as I go. I think I’ll discover more when he’s an adult and running around. But the way he came to writing is just idiosyncratic. It was more via the people that he met.
Young Robert Walser initially wanted to be an actor. Both he and his brother were interested in theater. His brother, Karl, became the most famous and sought after stage set designer in Berlin. So in their lifetime, Karl was way more successful than Robert. Robert wanted to be an actor, and it turned out that he was completely devoid of acting talent. So that was that.
SRE: I always find that theater backstory interesting when reading that Walser piece “Response to a Request.” That’s one of my absolute favorites. You can really see the tension between him, his brother, and the theater.
SB: Yes, and he kept having a lot of contact with theater people through his brother. That was his brother’s social circle. So all the years that Robert Walser lived in Berlin, he was hanging out with his brother’s theater friends.
SRE: When does this come out?
SB: I spent about eight years writing the first sixth of it. Now I’ve written about a quarter of it. I have a deadline in about two years. So I think I’ll be done in about two years.
SRE: Ha! What does that require? Are you traveling a lot or…?
SB: I have a filing cabinet full of Walser. It’s not like I’m discovering new things about his life. The armies of German and Swiss researchers who have been swarming all over looking for clues have already uncovered most of it.
I’m using their research to write the story. But I’m also writing it for an American audience, so there’s a lot of background that a German reader would already have. But there’s one German expert in particular, Bernhard Echte, who was one of the two guys who spent twelve years translating the Microscripts.
Those books are just wacky because they are his unrevised drafts in a period when he was writing really experimental work. If he’d revised, he might have combed them a bit. Or maybe he wouldn’t have. We have some he revised, and he didn’t do too much editing.
SRE: That lends itself to a question about how you might become part of the aesthetic when you’re translating. When I look at The Book of Words by Jenny Erpenbeck, it has such an atmosphere. It feels so singular in its vision – so I’m curious how that aesthetic translates.
SB: That’s so hard to explain. It’s like asking a writer how do you explain your style and your voice. It’s really just like writing a sentence. When it feels wrong, you just keep messing with it until it feels the way that person speaks in German.
But there’s a sense in which you have to abstract your sense of style or your sense of the way a character sounds from any language. You read a German sentence and there’s a ton of voice there. And you think, “Ok, this is that character’s tone of voice.” And playing with English becomes a way of trying to find a tone of voice in English that feels like it’s the same person talking.
SRE: For Walser and Erpenbeck specifically, the sentences have a kind of rhythm to them. I know you’ve described his sentences as being long and massive, and hers as smooth on the surface but rocky underneath. I’m curious how you look at rhythm on the granular level – and how do you find those sentences rocky or gnarled?
SB: If you read a Walser sentence, it sounds really smooth. But if you sit down to do a grammatical analysis of it, there are lots of itty-bitty dependent clauses in it, little relative clauses. The sentences are grammatically very busy.
If you read Erpenbeck’s sentences without thinking about it too hard – they give a very smooth impression. But they are grammatically very complicated. And the way she does it is using rhythm. She’s very heavy on the assonance, so I’m very conscious of that when I’m writing the English of it.
The distinction people make is between paratactic and hypotactic sentences. Paratactic are the boxcar sentences – “blah blah blah AND blah blah blah BUT blah blah blah.” Hypotactic are more complicated – “The man I saw yesterday before I ran in there but after I had blah blah blah says to me just before blah blah blah.” They have lots of little extra phrases.
SRE: I’ve seen places before where you’ve talked about the concept of “stealth gloss,” which is one of my favorite phrases of all time. Can you talk a bit about that?
SB: Every single thing you translate requires stealth gloss. The concept of steal gloss refers to culturally specific nouns, or sometimes verbs, that are completely transparent and clear to the audience in the original language, but don’t mean anything to the audience who is reading your translation.
And you can do a footnote. But I hate reading a novel with footnotes all over it. I’ll explain things in the translator’s note in the beginning or the end. But if there’s something I can integrate, then I much prefer to smuggle a miniature explanation into the text.
But it has to be very small and it can’t break from the narrative voice. That’s the challenge.
SRE: With Erpenbeck, how is it translating her as a living writer? I know you’ve said you prefer it. You’ve been translating her for a while and watching her grow from book to book.
SB: When I started translating her, we were both thirtyish. We were pretty young, she as a writer and I as a translator. I read that first book of hers [The Old Child & Other Stories], and I just loved it. I was so thrilled when I was offered the contract to translate it.
It was already a really great book. It’s the book of a young writer. It doesn’t have quite the density and complexity of her later work. But the strong idiosyncratic voice, and that strong worldview of hers – it’s already there in that book. It’s been fantastic to be able to follow her on this journey. Every book she writes is always a little better than the one before it, and the first one was already so good.
SRE: It sounds like you work pretty closely. Do you guys talk pretty frequently?
SB: We’re the same age, so we’ve become friends. We hang out. We have a professional relationship and a friendship.
SRE: That warms my dead heart. It makes me happy to think of you two having coffee.
SB: It’s more likely a glass of wine.
SRE: When you think about The End of Days specifically, were there any big challenges translating that one?
SB: There were a lot of research challenges in that book, particularly in the Moscow chapter. It’s a chapter written in German, but set in a Russian-speaking area.
I studied up on the politics and the writers’ politics of that time. There were a lot of German Marxist writers who had to flee to Moscow in that period because it was illegal to be a Marxist in Germany and Austria at this time. Then it became very dangerous to be the “wrong” kind of Marxist. So there was a lot of very fraught political activity among these East German writers in exile in the Soviet Union.
And when I was reading the history books, I found Jenny Erpenbeck’s grandparents, who aren’t technically in the book but actually her grandparents were there, too. So she smuggled in some personal history.
SRE: That’s amazing. I like that angle, too, of it being a layered personal history rather than explicit. With this level of research, how long does it usually take to translate? How often do you find yourself doing those research sidebars?
SB: It depends on the length. A 300-page book is usually six months. You do the translation, you revise the translation, then the editor sends you back an edited one and you have to go through it all over again. You send it back and go back and forth with the edits, then it goes to copyediting and gets proofread. Every step, you’re going through the manuscript again and again. It can take a really long time.
Sometimes, you do days of research for something that turns into one sentence. In Visitation, on the first Gardener section of Visitation, the stuff about grafting apple trees – it’s done in 19th century language, so I had to learn about the language people used in the 19th century about grafting trees, which is different from how we use it now. That was a lot of research for one sentence.
SRE: You mention something in your book on translation I was curious about. You are noting how translations have changed over the course of the centuries and-
SB: I can’t believe you’ve read all this, by the way. That’s amazing.
SRE: I can’t help it. I mean, I remember the exact moment I read The Book of Words. I think I was about 20 years old. And it was the first time I’d read anything like that. It really made me want to write. It sounds corny, but I do mean it. You pick risky work to translate. It’s nothing against American writers, but there’s something happening structurally and with the sentences of these translations that I go nuts for. It’s this refined surrealism that I never got over.
SB: I know what you mean. And “Response To A Request” is one of the pieces that made me want to be a translator. That’s what I was reading in high school. It’s what got me so excited about Walser and translation.
SRE: I can’t help but think of you as this kind of witch that’s channeling these other people to us. You seem like a sort of portal to these authors that otherwise we’d never hear of.
SB: I always figure someone else would probably translate them if I weren’t around. But I do have a cat so I’m qualified for witch-dom.
SRE: I mean witch in the most positive way. In your book, you talk about these turning points in translation throughout time. And I wondered if you’re seeing any shifting points now?
SB: There are a lot of young writers that are interested in both translation and writing. That’s something that was the case for a long time in the earlier part of the 20th century and then stopped being the case in the mid-to-late part of the 20th century. Now it’s coming up again.
There are also lots of experimental approaches to translation that people are doing now, especially with poetry. You get places like Ugly Duckling Presse publishing all these weird translations. The work Sophie Seita is doing is fantastic. Her new translations of Uljana Wolf are just incredible. She’s playing with language a lot – so there’s a fresh excitement in translation as a way to access different modes of writing.
SRE: Can we talk about it on a larger scale? It seems like more work is being translated out of English into other languages. It’s much less often being translated out of other languages into English. Why is that?
SB: Oh yeah, that’s definitely the case.
SRE: Do you see that shifting at all?
SB: Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.
SRE: Why? That seems insane to me. What are we doing here if we’re only translating English writers into other languages?
SB: There’s this received wisdom – and it’s pretty widely accepted now in the mainstream publishing world – that work in translation does not sell as well as work written in English.
If you go into any bookstore in this country, the percentage that are works in translation are tiny compared to works in English. But if you go into any European bookstore, it’ll be really a mix. You won’t find more than 50% of the books written in that specific language. There are always tons of translations, especially in English, which is one of the poorest translation languages.
We translate many fewer books than get translated out of English. And that has to do with cultural hegemony I think – it’s just this whole sense that American culture has everything it needs, and doesn’t need to look at what other languages have to offer. It’s completely absurd.
SRE: That’s such a shame. There’s so much to be gained in that process.
SB: Every writer that’s being translated for the first time goes into shock because so much changes in translation, just through the different language. I think there’s an expectation during that first-time translation. It’s like, “It’s going to be the same book as it is in English right?” There’s this notion that what “same” means is very different.
I’ve had conversations with writers who say: “Why did you translate my use of the word ‘house’ into the word ‘building’? The English language contains this perfectly good word for ‘house’!” And my answer is always, “The house in your book is sixty stories tall and made of glass and steel – that’s not covered by the English word ‘house,’ but it is covered by the German word ‘house.’”
And they say, “That word has a different feeling!” And I say, “Well, you know, tough luck!”
SRE: Who do you read when you’re not translating? Who are your favorite authors?
SB: I loved Paul Beatty’s novel, The Sellout. Completely blew me away. Elissa Schappell’s book, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, that’s fantastic.
I read a lot in English. If I’m translating though, I’ll try to read something targeted to put my brain in the right place for whatever that is. When I was working on Kafka, I was reading Melville. I like to read things that will help put my brain in the right neighborhood for the project.
SRE: Why did you pick Melville for Kafka specifically? I’m curious.
SB: They are both interested in the indignities of office life. They’re both interested in language that has a bureaucratic rustiness about it that they then use for comic effect.
The first sentence of Kafka’s Metamorphosis always fascinates me. Everyone is obsessed with the word that means “insect,” but it’s a way more complicated word than insect.
But for me, the hardest part of that sentence was the fact that he has Gregor Samsa transformed “in his bed” into a monstrous insect. It’s the “in his bed,” that simple phrase, that doesn’t fit anywhere in the sentence especially because you’re transformed into – so you’re already using the preposition “in” to transform and you’re in the bed. No writer would use the same preposition twice in one sentence. It’s ugly.
SRE: So how did you solve that?
SB: Well, I had every possible rearrangement of that sentence with that phrase somewhere else. And finally, I was just like I can’t find a rug to sweep it under. So instead of sweeping it under a rug, I just sort of slammed it down on the table by making it not “in his bed,” but “Right there, in his bed.”
That was my thinking – he just woke up, why is Kafka telling us he’s in his bed? He’s pointing at something unnecessary to point out the fact that – but it makes the emphasis of it more surreal because he’s harping on the juxtaposition of bed sheets and what he becomes.
German is a language that’s more hospitable to lots of sentences and clauses and phrases, more so than English. You have more choices and ways to rearrange it – but then you have more phrases than you can fit nicely in an English sentence. So the question becomes: What do you do? They are comfortable with that in the German language– run-on sentences are a stylistic choice, not a grammatical error. So that adds a layer of complexity to the translation.
More about Susan Bernofsky: One of the preeminent translators of German-language literature, Susan Bernofsky directs the program Literary Translation at Columbia in the MFA Writing Progam at the Columbia University School of the Arts. She is a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow. She blogs at Translationista.
Her most recent translation, of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the 2015 Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize. Her translations include a number of books by Robert Walser, including The Walk, Microscripts, Berlin Stories, and Looking at Pictures. She has also retranslated Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.