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Interview with Susan Bernofsky

By Shaun Randol

Prize winning translator Susan Bernofsky’s literary translations include the works of Robert Walser, Jenny Erpenbeck, Yoko Tawada, Gregor von Rezzori, Uljana Wolf, and Franz Kafka. Her latest project, In Translation: Translators on their Work and What it Means (Columbia University, 2013), which she co-edited with Esther Allen, is a collection of essays by translators on the arts and techniques of translating literature and poetry. Bernofsky teaches at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, writes the popular translation blog, and is chair of PEN American Center’s Translation Committee.

I spoke with Ms. Bernofsky at her home in Manhattan, ahead of PEN’s World Voices Festival of International Literature, happening April 29 – May 05 in New York City. Among the three translation-related events at this year’s festival, Bernofsky is holding a translation workshop.

Shaun Randol: What does PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature do for translators and translating?

Susan Bernofsky: There are translator events every year. The Translation Slam allows you to see what translators go through, which is very interesting and fun, even if you don’t speak other languages. Two foreign language writers are attached to two translators, and they do competing translations of the same text into English. The results are projected on the wall side by side, so you can compare them. People praise this, and complain about that, and the author is there to weigh in on things. The translators have to explain their choices to the audience.

The PEN Translation Committee also sponsors an annual panel which is of interest to translators. This year we’re doing one called Translation and Money. We will talk about the relationship between the money trail and which literature is translated into English, where translators can find money for projects, and stuff like that.

SR: Is there an ethical issue in translation?

SB: There are a lot of discussions of “foreignizing” or “domesticating” translations. These are catchphrases in translation theory. They are the sorts of translation that erase foreign cultures and turn everything into local references. For example, instead of having people eating what they were eating in a foreign country and explaining the customs around the food, you Americanize the food or tradition.

There are kinds of translation that preserve all of the ethnographic details and explain them or footnote them or “stealth gloss” them, which is my favorite way to handle unfamiliar things in translation. That sort of translation is respectful of the foreign culture and is beneficial toward combating global English.

SR: Tell me about your strategy of stealth gloss.

SB: Stealth gloss is useful when a writer refers to something that makes no sense in English without explanation. For example, I just translated, from German, a 19th Century horror story called The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf (forthcoming, NYRB). In it, a woman bustles up somewhere and she is “loaded with presents like the New Year’s child.” That may not mean much to you, right?

SR: Not much at all.

SB: It doesn’t even mean much to German speakers; it was footnoted in the original edition. I wound up stealth glossing that. It refers to a rural, local custom from Bern, Switzerland about a baby going around giving presents on New Year’s Day to good girls and boys. It was one of the hardest sentences to translate.

The idea of the stealth gloss is that you weave an explanation into the text so that it is part of the story, as opposed to reading a footnote. I think that is a good way to handle cultural information that arrives in passing in stories. If you use a footnote, you’re taking the reader out of the reading experience. That’s good in a scholarly context, but if you’re reading a horror story, I don’t want you to start reading footnotes about quaint, archaic Swiss customs—I want you to concentrate on being scared.

SR: Do you prefer to work with living or dead writers?

SB: Living. You get to play more and be freer because you can check in with them. With a dead writer, if something is not working right you’re making judgment calls. You can do this more freely with the author’s permission.

SR: Do you consider yourself a medium for the original writer, the original text, or your ideal of what you think this book should be? When you’re writing, there is something in the back of your mind. I wonder who or what it is.

SB: One chapter of my book, Foreign Words: Translator-authors In The Age Of Goethe, talks about Goethe’s translations of Diderot, who has all these ideas of the ghost in the dramatist’s performance, so I think that’s a really good metaphor for translation. You’re writing down the imaginary text, which is the text the author wrote in the original, but written in English. It’s not the text he would have written, had he been able to write in English, but that text is a non-existent text that you are pulling down out of nowhere. So, yes, I like that metaphor. It’s beautiful. I would sign off on that. I wouldn’t have thought of it, but I like it.

SR: When is it appropriate for a reviewer, who cannot read the original language, to comment on or criticize the translator?

SB: You wouldn’t hesitate in reviewing an English language book to talk about the style of the book, the author’s choice of how to put together sentences. So it is perfectly legitimate to talk that way about translated books. In some cases you might not be able to pick apart which is the author and which is the translator. If the book is composed of excruciatingly long sentences that seem strange in English, you can assume it was the author’s style in the original, so you should feel free to have an opinion on whether the translator has successfully communicated the long sentences.

I don’t think you have to know the language to review the work. You can derive things to talk about just from the text you have.

SR: So, if a novel fails the reader, does the reader know if the original writer is at fault, or the translator?

SB: It can be hard to tell. If it is plot boredom, it’s the writer. If the book is poorly written on the sentence level, chances are it’s the translator. Usually things that are poorly written don’t get translated that much. There are exceptions, but we tend to pick from books that were well written in the original. If the writing is poor, chances are you can blame it on the translator.

SR: Ultimately do you think translating makes one a better writer?

Yes I do, because it makes you think consciously about how sentences are put together, about the actual techniques the writer used to make this sentence have this effect. Translating makes you really conscious of the richness of synonyms out there as well as sentence structure. I constantly hear from students about how translating has changed how they approach their own fiction.

Translation is, in a sense, the slowest possible reading. You’re watching the great writer build a story arc, and you’re watching sentence by sentence how that arc is being shaped. In that sense it slows down your reading and studying of an author.

SR: Would you prefer it if we all spoke one language?

SB: No, because we think differently in different languages. To take away the multiplicity of languages is to take away difference, and difference is interesting. It would be bland and boring if everyone spoke the same language. The literary output that we produce would also be much more monotonous.

SR: Does translation into English enhance English language supremacy or does it preserve language plurality by allowing writers to use their own languages?

SB: The latter. You already have the phenomenon of writers trying to write straight in English so as to have direct access to that global market, but I think that when we translate foreign literature we are creating interest in the foreign culture, thereby also the foreign language.  

SR: For you is there a Holy Grail book to translate?

SB: Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries. His prose is extraordinarily difficult, but some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read in my life. On the sentence level it’s phenomenal and the story is great.

Anniversaries is a four volume novel about an East German woman who has escaped from the East and is living in New York as a translator. She has an eleven year-old daughter Marie, and she’s afraid the girl is going to grow up and just be an American girl, so she is constantly telling her stories about her own childhood in East Germany and about her father’s childhood in Nazi Germany. And every day she reads The New York Times and there is something plucked from there that she spins off on. There are three levels of storytelling happening. I love Johnson’s power of observation and the intelligence of his writing. 

Published Apr 30, 2013   Copyright 2013 Shaun Randol

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