‘There is a certain amount of empathic sensitivity involved’… An Interview with Translator Susan Bernofsky

SB 2aIn April 2015, Authors and the World research associate Emily Spiers conducted a digital interview with Susan Bernofsky, one of the preeminent translators of German-language literature. Bernofsky teaches literary translation in the MFA Writing Program of the Columbia University School of the Arts, where she serves as Director of Literary Translation at Columbia. She is a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow. Photo copyright Caroline White.

Her lifelong fascination with German literature began when she first read the Grimms’ fairy tales in the original as a high school student. She takes particular interest in the lines of influence linking eighteenth and nineteenth century German thought to modern and contemporary literature and theater in the German-speaking world and beyond. Her writings on literature and culture are informed by her experience of living between two continents and cultures.

She blogs about literary translation at translationista.net, and is currently at work on a biography of the great Swiss-German modernist author Robert Walser, whom she has been translating for over twenty-five years. In 2014, her new English-language translation of Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung [The Metamorphosis] was published to great acclaim.

You might want to read the interview with Bernofsky in conjunction with our interview featuring German literature scholar and literary translator Karen Leeder HERE.

The conversation between Spiers and Bernofsky went as follows….

favicon-3 ES: In your book Foreign Words, you discuss the phenomenon of ‘authorial translators’ at the turn of the nineteenth century. Even when a translator is not themselves an author of an original work, do you consider them to constitute a type of ‘author’ in their own right?

Susan-Bernofsky SB: Yes, I do feel that translation is a form of writing and that all translators are writers. The point of the concept “authorial translator” in my book is to clarify the roles of translators who, authors themselves, made substantial interventions in the works they translated, interventions that generally brought the translated work more in line with the translator’s own aesthetic and concerns.

favicon-3 ES: The scholar and translator Karen Leeder has talked about the translator being ‘the ghost in the machine’ (presumably from Goethe’s Diderot translations?), a kind of spirit haunting the fabric of the text. Does this metaphor work for you?

Susan-Bernofsky SB: Interesting idea – I haven’t seen this. As you clearly know, since you ask the question, I use the concept “ghost” in the Goethe/Diderot chapter of Foreign Words, though the ghost in my model isn’t the translator (I’m writing about highly visible translators, not transparent ones!), it’s the nonexistent, ideal text (the original in a different language) the translator is attempting to channel as she works. I think I’m remembering my own argument correctly – it’s been over a decade since I wrote that.

favicon-3 ES: When thinking about the translation process, the image that springs to mind is often one of a dialogue between the translator and the author’s text (or author if they are still alive). But what role do publishers play in this dialogue?

Susan-BernofskySB: I’d say editors more than publishers play a major role in the translation process. The editor often serves as an advocate for the translation’s future readers, and that means above all guarding against having too much difficulty introduced into the text in the translation process. An editor can really keep you honest as a translator; if you haven’t convinced your editor that a sentence works, chances are your reader won’t be convinced either.

favicon-3 ES: Have you noticed differences between publishers’ demands in German and Anglophone contexts when it comes to translation practices?

Susan-Bernofsky SB: Since I translate into English only, this doesn’t really come up, though I do know that translation fees in Germany are calculated by the “standard page” (1800 characters), while my English-language publishers calculate by the word. This arrangement actually works out better for translators in both directions, since the German version of a book tends to be longer by page count while also containing fewer words than the English equivalent. (German: lots of long words and compounds; English: shorter words, and more of them.)

favicon-3 ES: Can you reflect on the different challenges of and strategies for translating different genres? I’m thinking here of your translation of the libretto for The Magic Flute, in particular.

Susan-Bernofsky SB: If you’re translating something for singers, there are a huge number of constraints! There are all sorts of sound combinations (usually involving the placement of consonants) that are very difficult to sing. Certainly if you’re translating anything written in a meter, the constraints of form account for most of the difficulty of the task, far more so than in translations of most prose.

favicon-3 ES: The scholarly convention of placing translator’s notes at the beginning of a translated work is of course useful for readers, but they sometimes appear also to constitute a defensive move on the part of translators, a strategy for pre-empting potential critique from other translators that this or that decision was made.  Do you feel defensive when writing yours?

Susan-Bernofsky SB: I see the translator’s foreword or afterword as an opportunity to help the reader understand certain aspects of the original text or translation that might not be immediately evident, particularly if it’s an aspect of the text that doesn’t translate well. I suppose you could describe it as a defensive move – e.g. in my Metamorphosis afterword I talk about the ruhig/unruhig leitmotif that I didn’t translate – but I think of it more as a way to expand the reader’s understanding of the text across the two languages it lives in.

favicon-3 ES: What do you think about bilingual editions of works (most often used in poetry translation) which place the translation next to the original? What is gained and what may be lost? Could it ever work for prose translations?

Susan-Bernofsky SB: I like bilingual editions, though of course they can also be hair-raising for the translator, since they can basically be taken as an invitation to “check her work.” I think they’re best for poetry. I think you’d have trouble finding a publisher who wanted to print prose that way (unless it was for pedagogical purposes). Dover Editions in the U.S. does print a number of books that way, and they’re popular with students of foreign languages. But really what any accomplished translator is doing is writing a text worthy of standing on its own.

favicon-3 ES: Literary celebrity becomes attached to renowned translators as it does to authors. Are there any professional or ethical issues that arise when the translator is, perhaps, more famous than the author they happen to be translating?

Susan-Bernofsky SB: I could theoretically imagine such problems cropping up, though I think the issue would be more one of the age and relative experience of a well-established translator translating a young or first-time author. For a hilarious/depressing account of an author struggling with a translator trying (wrong-headedly) to improve her work, see Alice Kaplan’s essay “Translation: The Biography of an Artform” in the volume In Translation: Translators on Their Work And What It Means that I co-edited with Esther Allen. Kaplan, though already an established author at that point, was forced to fight a battle with a translator who had very different ideas about her book than she did and tried to impose them on her. From the translator’s point of view, on the other hand, it’s most satisfying to work with authors who are working at the highest level with regard to their craft. Stylistically sound work, whatever the style, is always enjoyable as a challenge. Weaker work offers challenges that are less fun. A sloppily written sentence can be the hardest thing to translate because the weaknesses tend to stick out more in translation, and then it can look as if the weakness of the writing is the translator’s fault.

favicon-3 ES: Do you consider yourself to be an advocate for certain authors (I’m thinking of your translations of Robert Walser, in particular)? And why?

Susan-Bernofsky SB: In Walser’s case most certainly. I began translating his work in the late 1980s and spent most of the 1990s unsuccessfully trying to find a publisher for his wonderful, strange novel The Robber, which I had translated with the support of an NEA fellowship I received for the project in 1991. Nebraska UP finally published it in 2000, for which I was grateful. After I had established a working relationship with New Directions Publishing in the early aughts, it eventually (2008) came to seem like a no-brainer for ND to have me translate more Walser – after all, this is a publishing house firmly rooted in literary modernism. My eighth Walser book (also with ND) has just gone to press: Looking at Pictures, a collection of stories about art and artists, forthcoming in late October. With Tawada, it was even more complicated. I started translating her in the mid-1990s and published several of her stories in magazines, but was unable to interest a publisher in a book until Jeffrey Yang at New Directions (at the time a young, first-time editor) noticed her Japanese writings after she won the Akutagawa Prize and got interested in doing a book. So in that case my advocacy didn’t lead directly to a publication, though it did mean the book could get done more quickly once a publisher had materialized, since I had already translated a number of her stories (including the novella The Guest) which appeared along with translations of her Japanese stories by Yumi Selden, in the ND volume Where Europe Begins.

favicon-3 ES: Apart from the matter of the centenary, why did you feel the time was right for another translation into English of Kafka’s Die Verwandlung?

Susan-Bernofsky SB: Norton approached me asking if I would be interested in doing the translation, and I decided to take the gig after spending some time looking through the existing translations of the novella. It’s not so much that I think of the older translations as “outdated,” per se; rather, I had my own ideas about what Kafka’s grim, sardonic sense of humor is all about – different from anything I saw expressed in the other translations – so I decided to give it a try. I found the assignment both harrowing (because the story is so canonical and I knew my work would be compared to all the other translations) and thrilling (because Kafka).

favicon-3 ES: You work a lot with PEN, whose ethos is to ‘promote literature and freedom of expression’. Can you reflect upon the global politics of translation when it comes to whose voices get to be translated into, say, a dominant language like English?

Susan-Bernofsky SB: My stint as Chair of the PEN Translation Committee ended a year ago, and as readers of my blog know, I don’t always agree with the way the PEN American Center has been pursuing these goals recently. In any case, there certainly are issues connected to the global dominance of English. For one thing, works that are selected for translation into English get a much wider global distribution than with any other language right now (including French and Spanish). So in effect the tastes of readers in the U.S. and the U.K. have broad international consequences. If we read more, and more widely, maybe the rest of the world would too. The countries that don’t wait for English to make their translation decisions (pretty much all of continental Europe, for example) have much more international literature available than we do.

favicon-3 ES: In 2011, you were blogging about the Occupy movement and producing translations of the Occupied Wall Street Journal. You have also blogged about similar collaborative efforts on the part of translators to translate the court room statements of the members of Pussy Riot put on trial in Russia in 2012. Do you or have you ever worried that your political engagement might have a detrimental effect on your translation or teaching careers?

Susan-Bernofsky SB: That’s a delightful question to ponder. I’d like to keep my teaching job (I love teaching in general and teaching in the Writing Program at Columbia in particular). But I also like to say what’s on my mind, and that sometimes includes political statements. I hope the two goals never prove to be mutually exclusive. I don’t have any reason to think they would be. For one thing, I was hired at Columbia after my Occupy Wall Street work, not before. As for my translation career, no, I don’t see any possibility of repercussions there. By the way, I never did any of the OWS Journal translations myself, I just coordinated the groups of native-speaker translators who worked on them. One of my proudest achievements is when we pulled together a complete edited translation of the first issue of the OWS Journal in under 72 hours, in time for a Spanish-language rally in Manhattan. All the work was coordinated remotely using translators who’d volunteered after hearing about the project and then cross-checked by native-speaker editors.


ES: In your article on Hölderlin’s translations of Pindar and Sophocles, you comment that, for Hölderlin, ‘translators are […] allied to the poet figures, agents of divine mediation’. Do you think that the translation process, if not one of ‘divine’ mediation, is at least a highly empathic process of mediation?

Susan-Bernofsky SB: Thank you for having read so much of my work to prepare for this interview! Translation is definitely an exceptionally empathic form of mediation. Dictionaries and research aside, you basically wind up creating in yourself a state that allows you to intuit something: a text that feels to you the same (tone, style, atmosphere) as the original. It’s highly subjective, which is why there’s no such thing as a neutral or “objective” translation. I’m always telling people that they are completely at the mercy of a translator and her interpretation of a book when they read in translation. There is a certain amount of empathic sensitivity involved, of being able to set one’s own ego aside. Not everyone who writes well and knows a foreign language is able to do it.

You can find out more about Susan Bernofsky’s work HERE.

Susan Bernofsky’s avatar by © Brittany Powell







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