CJLC editors Molly Wagschal and Campbell Campbell interview Susan Bernofsky on her origins and philosophy in translating German-language literature into English. Their conversation, touching on Bernofsky’s past and forthcoming works of modernist and contemporary translation, expands upon what it means to inflate language, translate gender, and write radically.
Bernofsky’s translation of Memoirs of Polar Bear (New Directions, 2016) by Yoko Tawada received the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. Her other award-winning titles include Story of the Old Child (Portobello, 2006) and The End of Days (New Directions, 2016) by Jenny Erpenbeck, as well as Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (W.W. Norton, 2014). She is currently translating Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Molly Wagschal: I’ll start off by saying that I’ve read a lot of interviews that you’ve done on translation, but I’ve never heard the story of how you became a translator. What drew you to translation, and how is translation different from your writing practices and academic work?
Susan Bernofsky: Thank you for that question. My brain is now swirling trying to decide where to start. You know, this goes far back into my prehistory because as a high school student, I was studying at a school for the arts as well as taking German in my academic high school, which was half a day. These are both public schools in New Orleans, Louisiana, that by some miracle existed in the 1980s. They both still exist. I think at least one of them is now a charter… Other topic! Anyway — one of the creative writing teachers I had when I was a high school kid said, “Well, you know German, why don’t you try translating this?” I didn’t know German (I was learning German), but doing that translation was so fun.
So I kind of filed that away — that it was fun — and then I went on studying creative writing as one does. I was a creative writing major as an undergrad, although technically I was a German major because the chair of the German department called me in one day and said, “We noticed you have been taking a lot of German classes, but you’re not a German major. We’re really short on majors, could you become a German major? And if you do, we’ll send you to Germany for a semester for free.” And I was like, “OK, I’m a German major now.” So I was writing and thinking of myself as a writer all this time, and now and then translating stuff because I really enjoyed it.
I started working on Robert Walser pretty early, and right after graduating undergrad, I applied for a grant to spend a year in Switzerland, working and learning more about him and translating his work, and that turned into my first published book. So basically, I started out by being mostly a fiction writer who was translating on the side for fun. And maybe that’s because it felt like a lower investment space for me; I tricked myself psychologically into putting all my love and heart into it, and putting all this fear and anxiety into my fiction writing, with the result that translation came to feel really fun. So I wound up doing a lot of it, without even thinking about it — it was just something that I started doing for my own entertainment. But it turned out to be the thing I do, and I’m happy.
Campbell Campbell: How did you start learning German?
SB: This is another big story. My father, who died earlier this year and has been very much in my thoughts, had learned German because he was a biochemist. He was born in 1933, and in the early 20th century, German counted as the international language of science. Now it’s English, but back then, anyone who was studying chemistry or the science fields in a serious way had to learn German just to follow the research. Since he had to learn German, he thought I should learn German.
I remember as a little kid, him bringing home these Berlitz fairy tale books that were in English and German that had three lines: the line in English, the line in German, and then some sort of representation of how it should be pronounced for an English reader. And I remember him bringing home Goldilocks and the Three Bears, which of course in later life I learned was never a German fairy tale — it was not a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale — but was an English fairy tale. But for some reason, somebody at Berlitz had thought, “Fairy tale equals German,” so they grabbed a random fairy tale and made Die Drei Bären (The Three Bears).
I remember reading this as a little kid, and then I started taking German my first year of high school, and I loved the teacher. She was this crazy good teacher named Frau Schuler, so German, we made fun of her because she was so German. She wrote her memoir years later, and it turned out she was a Russian Jew whose family had fled the revolution, via Berlin and then Paris. So she spent some childhood time there, becoming fluent in German and French. And of course, she was fluent in Russian and must have been a Yiddish speaker too. Then she landed in the US, where she married the Midwestern farmer Fred Schuler (acquiring the Germanic surname), came to New Orleans, and began teaching German and French — not Russian! — in the high school. There was a French guy teaching Russian! Anyway, I started taking German because my dad pushed me and then I really liked it. I took all three years that were offered, and then I talked Frau Schuler into a fourth year of independent study. I think she was happy because like, who would’ve been crazy enough to want to do four years of German in high school? But I really liked it.
And once you start to get to read someone like Kafka… I don’t know if Kafka means a lot to you two now, but when I was a kid, Kafka was everything. His writing is such that you can study German for not that long and start being able to read some of the shorter things that he wrote, and they’re so good in a way that’s so specific to the German language. Frau Schuler kept showing us texts that made my little writer-German-baby-mind explode, and I was so into it. She kept feeding me the drug of these little texts that made me very excited, and also fairy tales from an actual Grimm’s Fairy Tales in German! I mean, there’s so much great stuff written in German, so I got very excited and kept studying on the side for fun.
CC: I actually just ordered Kafka’s Diaries! I don’t know if you’ve read them, but I’m excited to read them. I’m curious — do you think you’ve developed a translation philosophy over your career, or have you developed a distinct approach to translating the aesthetics of the original literary text you’re working with?
SB: You know, you’d think that I would be able to say, “This is my philosophy.” I do have some things, but the more I translate, the more I’m learning about translation. I still feel like I’m learning how to do it, which is kind of crazy because I’ve been translating for over 30 years and it still feels like a work in progress to me, which I guess is good because I’m not bored. But there are pieces of translation philosophy that I know are my philosophy because I find myself saying these things when I’m teaching translation workshops: for instance, remember while you are translating that you are a writer. The worst thing that can happen to a translation is somebody thinking, “OK, I have to represent exactly what is going on in the original, no matter what.” And “represent” can come to mean all kinds of things; it can mean things in English that don’t work and aren’t interesting.
I mean, there are ways to make English “not work” that are interesting and productive, where you’re pushing the language. Campbell, you referred to something like that in your introduction, talking about trying to push English. Pushing English has been a key theme, as you probably know, in translation theory for centuries, literally centuries. Part of my dissertation was on Friedrich Schleiermacher, and he is all about that. He’s all about translation as a space in which you make language do things it doesn’t want to do, for the sake of growth. And because it’s interesting.
I love Schleiermacher — I studied him forever, and then eventually I got the gig to translate his essay on translation. I was invited to do a Schleiermacherian translation of Schleiermacher’s essay on translation for The Translation Studies Reader that Lawrence Venuti edited. That was so hard, and so fun. I wound up looking for inspiration for that translation and reading a whole bunch of Coleridge’s prose to think about what English was doing two hundred years ago. It was really fun. I used words like “yea” for “indeed,” and I borrowed sentence structures to try and make it clear to the reader that what you’re reading is not a contemporary work of translation. Oh, I’m on such a tangent now. I’m so sorry. But if you read Schleiermarcher translated into turn of the twenty-first century terms, then you think, “Oh man, he sounds like someone who never read Saussure,” or, “He just seems so uninformed about what’s been going on,” because his ideas are kind of contemporary. Of course, he’s missing out on two hundred years of translation theory, but he was all about making strange whatever language you’re translating to show us something, to teach us something… but there’s interesting strange, and there’s kinds of strange that are random in a not interesting way.
So that’s my philosophy as a translator: be a writer and as a writer, use strangeness as a tool to serve your translations when you’re teaching us something about the writer, their background, their culture, the other language you’re translating from, in ways that inspire and excite English.
MW: Thank you so much for sharing that. I really appreciate your perspective on the translator being first and foremost a writer as well, and one that has their own creative instincts. That also made me think a lot about Walter Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator, and pushing the limits of language.
SB: I love that so much! It’s so radical, because everyone else talks about language as having once been one language that split off tragically, biblically, into all the tragic languages of the world that can’t talk to each other. And Benjamin is like, “No, language unity is our future. That’s our messianic future.” And that’s just such a radical way to think about it.
MW: I wonder what a translation following Benjamin’s theory would look like, where the meaning doesn’t necessarily matter, or the original… but I digress. Thinking a bit more about translation philosophy, I’m wondering how you feel about these different binaries that people associate with translation. For example, in her book This Little Art, Kate Briggs explains her translation practice for Roland Barthes’ The Preparation of the Novel and How to Live lectures. She really invites readers to view translation as an affirmation rather than a reduction of the original. Where would you describe yourself as falling in this binary? And what do you think the translation does in relation to the original work? This is also sort of going back to Benjamin as well.
SB: Kate Briggs is so interesting to me, I think she’s really an interesting thinker about translation. This is also kind of a trick question, because that is a binary, but I don’t exactly think of her as somebody who in general thinks in binaries. With affirmation versus reduction… Well, reduction, who likes that? Reduction’s bad, give us big, right? If I had to pick one of those, it would be — duh — affirmation because, you know, that’s a good thing and reduction is a bad thing. But I do feel like there is no such thing as a neutral translation and in translation, you do have to enter into choices.
As a translator, I’m all about inflating; the phrase that I use in my classes is, “Turn up the volume,” because things often get flat and quiet in translation. Whereas, if you look at writers who are writing in English or whatever language they tend to write in, they can push the language and do interesting things with it. Translations have traditionally tended to be well-combed because if the translation is linguistically weird, everyone’s going to say, “Oh, that’s another translationese awkwardness, gee, no.” It’s always looked at as a negative thing. There’s an exercise I often do when I’m meeting a group of people who are new to translation: I will show them a bunch of texts that I have removed the labels from and ask them to tell me which texts were written originally in English and which were translations into English. It’s usually very, very hard for people to tell, and often they get it exactly wrong because people are expecting the translation to seem weird. But the translations are the ones that don’t seem weird because the translators are kind of writing English “correctly,” whereas writers writing originally in English (or whatever language they usually write in) are really pushing the boundaries of the language and doing weird stuff.
So I think it’s important to remember to not be too well-behaved, because the writers who excite us are ones that surprise us and push our minds to new places. Why should a translation not also communicate with the reader in this way, and challenge, and delight? I’m all for being weird. So yes, for that Kate Briggs choice, I’m picking affirmation and joy and discovery and surprise. Because that’s what we love about literary texts! Why are people still reading literary texts? I mean, how many stories can there be? I don’t know, are we just recycling plots at this point in some way or another with slightly different content? But we like stories, and stories make us think about things differently.
CC: I love that you say that because I find the prose you translate to be so poetically inventive. I know that you said you’re more interested in form over content, but I think the translations that you work on are politically very driven and smart. Memoirs of a Polar Bear examines the capitalistic pressures on marginalized writers; Go, Went, Gone talks about the refugee crisis in Europe; Visitation reflects on transitions for East and West Berlin after the Berlin Wall falls down. I’m curious, what do you think is the political role of translations, and literature in general? Is there any picture of German or of Germany that you’re trying to paint with your translations?
SB: Thank you for reading all those books! I’ve gotten lucky that I’ve been able to translate writers who have been doing really interesting work. Memoirs of a Polar Bear is maybe my favorite book that I ever translated in the history of my entire career as a translator, because that book is so quietly explosive. It just comes at you in this really “not much to see here” way, and then the next thing you know, it’s like completely exploding everything. Yoko Tawada is just brilliant at putting out a story that starts like it’s going to be very tame, and then you realize you’ve actually been reading the wrong point of view for the last 50 pages. She has this way of pulling the rug out from under you narratively, and I do think that’s political because she’s challenging what we think we’re doing when we use language to communicate. There are all these amazing interview quotes from her — or maybe it’s her character speaking, I don’t even know anymore, and she wants you to not know anymore — saying things like, “I don’t trust anyone who speaks their native language fluently.” Because if you speak a language fluently, it means that you don’t question all the assumptions that are built into it. This is radical!
And then there’s Jenny Erpenbeck’s idea of history. My favorite books of hers are Visitation and The End of Days, but I’ve translated five of them over the years. She has this way of thinking about history and making you think about history as just a bunch of things that individual people did. There’s a way of breaking down what we see as this inevitable course of events into individual choices of individual people, and representing that literarily. That also seems quietly radical to me. And Robert Walser, who I’ve been working on for more than 30 years, is somebody who was writing about gender fluidity more than 100 years ago, at which time it was not a very common thing to write about and think about. So he’s pretty radical, and what he was doing with language is radical, too. I think it’s important for translators, insofar as they’re able, to do the work of curation and to select what they translate, because there’s so much out there that hasn’t been translated. If you are putting your labor into the work of translation, what are you going to use your platform to share?
CC: I finished Memoirs of a Polar Bear over Thanksgiving, and I’ve never read something so serious yet so funny. I thought it was hilarious.
SB: I’m so glad. I think it’s funny, too. You know, I just finished translating a new short book by Yoko Tawada. She has written a pandemic book. In fact, she wrote it in the summer of 2020, and it’s called Paul Celan and the Chinese Angel. It’s set during the pandemic, but never mentions the pandemic. Instead it’s just sentences like, “Before all the opera houses closed…” [laughs]. And the plot of it is that this dude in Berlin is trying to make up his mind whether or not to attend a Paul Celan conference in Paris. That’s the entire plot of the book, except there’s a lot more going on and there’s a lot of conversations with this other character, the Chinese angel of the title, who in the novel itself is only ever referred to as the trans-Tibetan man. And this man and the narrator have a lot of conversations about Paul Celan’s poetry.
The thing tying it all together is the concept of the meridian, which is a key concept in Paul Celan’s poetry and theory of poetry. It’s also a key concept in acupuncture, and in Chinese medicine in general. This is a character whose grandfather came from China to Paris in the 1960s to be a Chinese medicine practitioner. He was a physician doing acupuncture and did not meet Celan, but fell in love with his work and annotated his complete works with medical terminology in the margins. This is supposedly his grandson who’s been talking to our main character, so there are all these tie-ins between medicine and the body and poetry and imagination and possibility and impossibility — ahem, unmentioned pandemic, which is everywhere. It’s an incredibly radical book, and it seems New Directions is going to publish it maybe next winter because they’re publishing other works by Yoko Tawada, since she’s also writing books in Japanese all the time. She’s got a book forthcoming that was translated from Japanese that I believe is called Scattered All Over the Earth.
MW: You were talking about the importance of curation for the translator, and I wanted to ask, for you as a translator and curator, what was your process of choosing these authors and works to translate? Or how many works of each author?
SB: Well, it’s not like one has that much control. Jenny Erpenbeck was a writer who I first got attached to because there was an older witness when I first read her work. The German government periodically spends money on sort of promoting German culture by inviting translators and editors to Germany and showing them around, and I was invited on a translators’ tour when I was in my twenties in a group that included some senior translators. I thought of them as old but they were probably, you know, my age now. We spent 10 days in Germany, going by train from town to town, and we would meet with publishers and they would talk to us about their new books, and the young authors they were publishing, and literature houses, which are these institutions that promote literature.
Anyway, in every publishing house, they would have a table with books and say, “Take any book that interests you.” And I picked up a book in one publishing house that turned out to be Jenny Erpenbeck’s first publication. It was a short novel, or long novella, called Story of the Old Child. I read it when I was on the train with these older translators and I was like, “Oh my God, I love this book, it’s so good!” Then one of the older translators was offered the contract to translate that book, and he said, “Oh, you know, Susan really likes that book. Why don’t you ask her to do it?” That was Michael Henry Heim, who’s also donated the money for the PEN/Heim Translation Fund grants, and he is no longer with us. I will be eternally grateful to him for this. So I translated the first book, and later did more.
But Yoko Tawada, I did curate that. When I was in my 20s, I happened to buy a copy of a literary magazine that happened to contain the first thing she had ever published in German. I thought, “Oh my God, what is this? I love it,” and I translated it and I sent in my translation. They forwarded it to her with this note, which was basically like, “Hi, I’m Susan, I like your work. I translated it — may I have your permission to send it to an American magazine?” And she wrote back by return mail, saying, “Thank you so much for translating my work. I don’t read English well, but I showed my friends who do, and we like your translation. Here’s another one, would you translate this one too?” So I started translating Yoko Tawada just for fun. I translated maybe 100 pages of her work and was sending it to magazines. I tried, but did not succeed, to get a book publisher interested. Then she won the biggest literary prize in Japan, the Akutagawa Prize, for one of her books she wrote in Japanese. After that, there were American publishers interested in her, and one of them wrote to me saying that they’d gotten my address from her. That was New Directions. So I sent them everything I had ever done, and that was the first book I ever did for them. Things happen in all kinds of ways.
But I have to say, the fact that I’m translating this huge 100 year old book [The Magic Mountain by Robert Walser] right now… I hadn’t realized when I said yes to it how frustrating I would find it not to be able to translate other things this whole time. Because, you know, I want to translate more work by women. I want to promote voices that I think of as needing promoting in the German speaking world. And instead, I signed on to spend three or four years of my life doing nothing but Thomas Mann. So that’s what I’m doing. But I think it’s great to think about what voices you want to uplift in English.
CC: What research was required to translate these works? I’m imagining it’s different for each book.
SB: Yeah, it’s different for each book. I’m always researching crazy amounts of stuff. I remember having to learn about tree grafting for a line in, I think it was Visitation, because there’s a section about that. For The Magic Mountain, I studied up on the early 20th century history of the pessary, which is an unfortunate forerunner of the IUD, because characters in The Magic Mountain make a joke about it. I was trying to trace back what they’re even talking about, so I wound up reading Margaret Sanger pamphlets about birth control in the early 20th century, which will make you glad that you’re living now and not then. You think you’re just going to have to research language and words, but in fact, you wind up having to learn about things and practices, especially if you’re translating older books, or books that refer to older things. I was trying to look up what nurses wore a hundred years ago because the head nurse in The Magic Mountain, her clothing is described with a word that isn’t really a word these days. So I was trying to figure out what it was she was wearing and what the English words would be to describe that. What exactly is a pinafore, anyhow?
MW: With translating you end up learning so many new things and different disciplines that you never would’ve thought about; you really have to envision the specifics of the work. I was really interested in what you said about how you wanted to uplift different voices, such as women’s voices. I’ve been really interested in gender in translation as this growing subfield—
SB: And a super important subfield. It’s not even a subfield: it’s the field.
MW: Yes! I know I’ve been really influenced by Lori Chamberlain’s “Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation,” and I’m thinking about not only women authors in translation, but also the work of women translators and how it’s self-described compared to the work of male translators. I’m wondering if you could share your thoughts on the field of gender in translation. Do you feel like the translations that you do are inherently gendered? Do you view translations of literature written by women as a form of activism?
SB: It is. In the US, there’s been so much backlash about women being excluded from publishing and prizes and all that, but there has also been some movement in the other direction. Maybe still not as much as I want to see. But there has been movement, and I feel like in a lot of other countries, the movement is lagging behind where it is in the US in this sense. So the writers you pick to uplift aren’t necessarily going to be the writers that have gotten uplifted the most in their original context. English has been sort of leading the way in describing gender, when you think about nonbinary pronouns, although there are a lot of languages that have a better gender pronoun setup — in Korean it’s just “person,” it’s not as gender-obsessed as English.
German and French gender all the nouns, which makes it really difficult to pull apart how we’re going to remove grammatical gender from the picture. We’re talking about trying to remove talking in the old ways about people’s genders, because the binary pronoun setup is not enough. In German, every two years there’s a different way to do plurals, because German plurals are based on masculine noun constructions. So people are trying out different models, and it keeps changing because there hasn’t been one that has stuck yet. You see the various languages trying to incorporate an inclusive gendered language within older grammatical structures that resist it, and this means when you’re translating, you have the opportunity to help your writers use correct gender pronouns. With they/them pronouns in German, I think there are now a couple different versions of them, but not everyone’s using them, and not everyone’s using the same ones, so there’s not as much of a consensus. Whereas in English, I think we’ve landed on they/them as a pretty widely accepted pronoun set. I don’t use they/them pronouns in Thomas Mann because he was writing 100 years ago, and I believe that his worldview was such that he would not be using they/them pronouns. He would have been terrified by they/them pronouns. Although maybe I’ll wind up using some at some point, I don’t know.
But for Yoko Tawada, I do use them. She uses the default pronoun for when you don’t know who you’re talking about, which is the masculine pronoun in German. So I’m turning her masculine pronouns into they/them, because I think that’s how she would be writing if she were writing in English. But it’s always something that you have to be thinking about: how to navigate this across languages and across who the writer is and what the book is and what’s going on in it.
I don’t know if you’ve heard about Colm Tóibín’s new book, The Magician, but he’s written an entire sort of biographical novel based on research about Thomas Mann. And it’s about gay Thomas Mann because in his diaries, Thomas Mann writes a great deal about queer desire and it’s clear that whatever exactly he was, he was not straight. So Tóibín has just said, “OK, I’m going to put this front and center in my novel.” I really like the book. It’s really interesting, and it’s a take on Thomas Mann that reveals a desire and a sexuality that Mann himself never lived but wrote about all the time. Once you start thinking in those terms, you’re like, “Oh yeah, there’s queer desire all over his books.” In The Magic Mountain, the character in the present tense of the novel is obsessed with this young Russian woman, and then it turns out he’s obsessed with this young Russian woman because she reminds him of a boy that he was obsessed with in school. So there’s this thread of romantic and sexual desire in the novel, and it’s also itself moving around between genders.
CC: I want to pivot a little and talk about your revision process because I’m really intrigued by how it would be incredibly different working on this Thomas Mann book and working with Yoko Tawada, or Jenny Erpenbeck, or even on the biography you’re doing of Robert Walser. Could you describe your revision process for your translations and how it is different for these different projects?
SB: I’m laughing because for the Walser biography, which is out now, the revision process was just grotesque. I was literally cutting my manuscript into pieces and throwing the pieces on the floor and putting them in different places because, you know, I was a new biographer. I wrote that book in such a chaotic way, and putting all the pieces of each chapter together to have it make some rhetorical sense was just, wow… I found it challenging.
I used to revise exactly the way that I described in that essay, “Translation and the Art of Revision,” and now that I’m working on Thomas Mann I have discovered that that only really works for shorter works. Maybe, you know, maximum 400 pages? There’s just no way that I could do that many drafts with a thousand pages. The point of the multiple drafts is to get all the parts of the book sort of uploaded in your brain at the same time, but with 1100 pages, which is what The Magic Mountain is, I don’t think it’s physically possible. So I developed this new habit for working on this book, and it’s this recursive model where I translate a few pages forward and then I revise what I just did, and then I go a little further forward and then I go back and revise what I just did. Meanwhile, I’m keeping a running log of words that are recurring so that I will be able to translate them the same way when they show up again.
I don’t know how people translated big books before there were computers and internet, because I’m using a using a hardcover book to translate from, but I also have a searchable copy of The Magic Mountain; if I’m asking myself where I saw a word before, I can search for it to find out. That’s a different sort of revision — it’s not like I’m going to be able to do a rough draft of the entire book before I start revising, so I’m revising when I finish drafting each chapter. One of the cruel things about this book is every chapter is longer than the chapter before, so the first chapter is nice and short, and the last chapter is like, as long as a whole other book.
CC: Did you keep a running log for Jenny Erpenbeck’s books that you translated? Because I love how she uses refrain often in passages.
SB: I think she got that from Thomas Mann, you know, I really do. I think that’s an influence of Mann in her work. I didn’t keep a log, but I could keep those in my head because the books weren’t too long for that. I think that I marked them in the book itself, but I’m doing it in a more organized way for The Magic Mountain to help keep it from getting out of hand. Also, there are all these German explainer books that explain all the “hard stuff,” but all the “hard stuff” that they explain is stuff that seems obvious to me, and they don’t explain the stuff that I find is hard.
MW: That also reminds me of what you said at the beginning of the interview about feeling like you’re still learning translation. I think that’s such a beautiful mentality, and it also makes me feel better as someone who recently started translating. The idea of keeping things moving, that you don’t always have to have the same strategy, of constantly adapting, is really impressive.
SB: And you know, the field keeps changing. The field of translation keeps changing. Right now, I’m really good at the kind of translation I do, but the kind of translation I do is no longer at the cutting edge of the field. The cutting edge of the field now, I think, is based on multilingual-ness: why do we have to think about a text that’s just in one language, and why do we have to think about a translation that’s just in one language? I mean, I think it’s happening more in poetry, but not only in poetry. The new generation of translators that’s coming up is more interested in blending the boundaries between different languages. I’m encouraging my students to experiment with this because I feel like this is where the field is going, even though my work may never quite go in that direction.
More information about Susan Bernofsky and her work can be found at www.susanbernofsky.com.
Portrait by Richard Gehr.