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Room220: You are the conduit to the book

By Clark Allen

Susan Bernofsky hails from Louisiana and is an alumna of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Now living in New York, she is a German language translator, a teacher at the Colombia University School of the Arts, and she holds a chair at the PEN American Center.

Room 220 caught up with her to chat about In Translation: Translators on their Work and What it Means, the recent compendium of essays on translation which she edited with Esther Allen. She also discussed her new translation of some grisly 19th century German horror, Robert Walser, Yoko Tawada, Donald Duck, and the rumor of a novel of her own in the works, said to be set here in New Orleans.


Room 220: I’d read a number of books of which you had been the translator, but it wasn’t until I picked up the third or fourth when I noticed I’d been consistently seeing your name on all of them. The first essay in your book In Translation talks about the translator’s attempt at invisibility and the ethical decisions that come along with that. I was wondering if you agreed that was a goal, and whether or not invisibility is a positive or negative thing.

Susan Bernofsky: I think there are a lot of different sides to this question. On the one hand, as a translator, you are the conduit to the book, and you don’t want to distract the reader from the book by your own intervention. People usually notice the translator only if they’re bad, but then people who have their eyes on translations will notice good translation—if the prose is particularly elegant, they may note that certain turns of phrase may be the translator’s doing. Sometimes you want to be noticed, but not by everyone. Say I translated two different authors and it’s not immediately obvious that they’re both translated by me, then to me that’s good because it means that I’ve succeeded in creating a distinct voice for each one.

Usually referring to the translator as invisible in the context of discussion is a reference to the traditional under-appreciation of translators, and the lack of understanding about what we do. Most people seem to think that the translator’s work is something mechanical, like feeding a piece of writing into a machine and having it come out the other end in a different language. It’s only when you look at one book with more than one translation side by side with others that you are confronted with the fact that the same book translated by two different people can really be two quite different books.

Rm220: Is there a way to simply put your role? Something it’s comparable to, like an actor interpreting a script?

SB: I think that’s a good metaphor for it—an actor interpreting a script or a musician with a score. The notes are written but they can be played so many different ways. There really is no such thing as a neutral translation. Every translation is an intervention and an interpretation to some extent of the original. There really is no way for translators to keep themselves out of the process, so the goal is to be in the process in a way that’s productive and leads to the creation of a better work in English. You don’t want random intervention, but some intervention is inevitable. You’ve got to be really aware of what you are doing and what is showing up in the text as you work.


Gregor Samsa?

Rm220: Some time ago, I read your article on the translations of Donald Duck comics in Germany and some of the fairly drastic changes made possible by subtleties in translation. Have there ever been moments like that where you wanted to change something in a way where you thought you may have been stretching your bounds?

SB: Definitely. I did a translation of Hesse’s Siddhartha. There is a scene in which Siddhartha despairs and wants to drown himself where I worked in an Ophelia reference. It’s a really subtle thing though, so if you don’t know it it isn’t going to stick out at you.

In my new Kafka, which is coming out in January [The Metamorphosis, Norton], I built in some intertextualities with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman because I think that is a work which has very important resonance with the Kafka story in the English-speaking tradition. I wanted this work that I was reshaping to interact with the Arthur Miller work. For example, I used the word “drummer” to describe Gregor Samsa’s profession, which is the same profession as Willy Loman’s profession—they’re both travelling salesmen. The word drummer, which means travelling salesman, used to be quite commonly used even just a few years ago but has now been pretty much forgotten.

Rm220: In regards to labor-intensive translation work, I’m curious about your translation of the Yoko Tawada’s book—

SB: Oh, I love her work so much! She has a new novel about polar bears that I want to translate. Really! Baby polar bears! I hope I get to do it. It was inspired by the story of Knut, the baby polar bear who was everyone’s darling at the zoo in Berlin and then died tragically young. She wrote the story of his life and his mother’s life and his grandmother’s life, in which his grandmother is a novelist living in The Soviet Union where, as a polar bear, she’s an ethnic minority. It was written in Japanese and then she translated it to German herself. Now the question is: Which version should be translated into English, the Japanese version or the German?

Read Room 220's full interview with Susan Bernofsky here

This article has been reposted from Press Street : Room 220, a content partner with NolaVie.