For those of us who can only read him in English translation, it has become impossible to speak of Robert Walser without also speaking of his main translator, Susan Bernofsky. She has wonderfully picked up where Christoper Middleton left off years ago, presenting us with one brilliant translation after another of Robert Walser’s novels (The Robber, The Assistant, The Tanners) and shorter works (Masquerade and Other Stories, The Microscripts and the forthcoming Berlin Stories). For her work on Walser and others, Bernofsky has been the recipient of a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, and multiple awards from the PEN Translation Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her list of translated writers is diverse and far ranging as Yoko Tawada, Hermann Hesse, and Jenny Erpenbeck.
I recently was fortunate enough to meet with Bernofsky on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and we had the chance to discuss her own fiction writing, that of Walser’s, and her upcoming translation work. In her patient and generous responses, Bernofsky echoes the fundamentally compassionate aspects of the process of translation itself, for what does a translator do but listen and respond to the claims and demands made by one language on another? We are all lucky to have someone such as Bernofsky translating Walser for us.
— George Fragopoulos
George Fragopoulos: How long have you been working on the novel about New Orleans?
Susan Bernofsky: For a year and a half. I have about two hundred pages but they are not pages that fit together. I started writing in the middle, I don’t know why. I wrote a beginning, and then I wrote a middle and by the time I started the middle it was different from the beginning. In a way I don’t really feel comfortable talking about it because it is so far from being done. The main character has in common with me having a grandmother that she never really got to know much about, so it is a grandmother-granddaughter story. Most of what I have written so far is told from the grandmother’s point of view, telling her own stories, but written in such a way that it is ambiguous as to is this the grandmother telling her own story or is it the granddaughter’s reconstruction of it. I haven’t lived in New Orleans for a long time now, but I go back a lot and it’s really hard to see the extent of the destruction that still remains after Katrina.
GF: Can you say a little about your experiences at the last MLA (Modern Language Association) conference since it centered on the theme of translation? And what do you think about translation theory’s place in the academy today?
SB: I think it is gradually moving into the mainstream and has been outside the mainstream. When I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation at Princeton on translation studies I had one professor take himself off my defense at the last minute! I had a lot of trouble time finding someone to work with, and I wrote on Schleiermacher, Hölderlin, Kleist and the Schlegel-Shakespeare translations, traditional German literature. But that was in the mid-to-late 90s, and now Princeton has a translation studies program. David Bellos [Oulipo scholar and translator of Georges Perec] arrived at Princeton the year I left so it was really too late to work with him. But this MLA conference was really heartwarming and exciting because translation was the master topic. And all these amazing people like Marjorie Perloff and Jonathan Culler are now interested in translation and are using it in their classrooms. Perloff was speaking on translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky and Culler spoke about translations of Baudelaire and how dealing with translations of his work helps him talk about the poetry with his students, for example.
GF: So often you hear horror stories about translators having a hard time finding work in academia because the work is considered secondary to more traditional scholarly work . . .
SB: Or, if you do both, the fact that you do translations is traditionally counted against you; it makes you seem intellectually suspect, in the sense, “If you are so smart why are you doing this mechanical work?” People often see it as mechanical work, which I guess you would if you just use Google translator as The new York Times recommends!
GF: There was an article about this in the Times?
SB: Yeah. Esther Allen, who is one of the great translation advocates, wrote a great letter in response to the Times in response that was not published. This article says that if you use Google translator you can do just as good job and uses the first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude and almost translates it verbatim as Gregory Rabassa did, overlooking the fact that Google translator did as such because Google contains that sentence translated by Rabassa! People don’t really understand what you do when you translate, at least those who have not thought about it. Academically it has been appreciated to translate from an ancient language where you would have to do work to find out what the original said but translating modern languages where you know what the sentence says is totally different. There was also a panel, actually, on the MLA about including translation work when it comes to deciding tenure-track positions. The idea being that the MLA was putting together guidelines together. In the traditional academic world, translation is just something done by the professor’s wife to keep herself busy.
GF: That is very interesting. I never thought about it in a gendered way.
SB: Think about Constance Garnett, for example, the early Russians, the early Germans. It was considered lower valued work.
GF: How is the Walser biography going?
SB: I really don’t have time to work on it right now. I’m working 24/7 on things to make a living and that is not one of them, but it is on the list. I’ve got two chapters and have had some grant support for it, which is how I got them done. There is a long way to go because I envision 15 chapters. There are so many gaps in Walser’s life where we know nothing at all, because he lived this urban nomadic life. He carried around a little suitcase with the minimum, had no possessions to speak of, he didn’t keep books, didn’t keep letters, and he was a loner, so there were all these periods where we know nothing about his life, his manuscripts, the way he moved around, his career as a servant. So I’m researching and writing on all these individual topics but there is not enough to do a straight biographical study of him, so all these dual topics will overlap. There was a German biography by Robert Mächler done years ago and the way the biographer worked around the gaps in Walser’s life was to take on faith that all of Walser’s seemingly autobiographical work is autobiographical.
GF: It seems a very problematic leap to make, taking the fiction as autobiography.
SB: Well, we do know he wrote from experience, but that is not the way to do a legit biography. And to give him credit it was written in the ’70s and in English we have different ideas of what the critical biography should be now.
GF: Do we know anything about Walser’s lost novels? We have a title, no?
SB: Yeah, Theodor. He gave a reading from Theodor. It is thought that the manuscript ended up in the Rowohlt publishing house where there was a huge fire and it burnt with everything else in the archives.
GF: Any theories on any of the other novels?
SB: Well, he said he wrote them, But who knows! To be a novelist is to be a respectable figure. He was specializing in this feuilleton and he was often made to feel like he was not a serious novelist, you know? I mean, Buddenbrooks, now there is a serious novel. He wrote his three novels but the reception was not there. We know something about The Assistant, which is a novel he wrote before the Assistant we have now. It sounds like it was a surrealist romp, he mentions it in a letter, we don’t know much about it, and there is no report from anyone who read it.
GF: And by the time you get to something like The Robber we get something so wonderfully anti-novelistic.
SB: Yes, but that was handed down to us in microscript. He knew it was not going to get published, so he didn’t prepare a clean draft.
GF: Can you say a little about the division between late Walser and early Walser in terms of style and tone? The Robber, for example, is so absurd and you also find a lot of that absurdity in the early Walser, but by the time you get to the later work, such as those of The Microscripts, it is at a new level.
SB: Yes, there is quite a division. I’ve taken, when doing readings, to read from The Tanners and from The Microscripts and it is odd that the same themes are there, certain familiar strategies are there but the manner in which it plays out is so different even though it is clear that it is the same writer.
The early work is still coming out of the 19th-century realist mode. The Robber is just this stylistic explosion, the sentences have so much crammed into them, whereas the earlier sentences have this leisurely pace to them, the later work has this break-neck speed to it. But in a sense the speed reads to me as distress with the busyness and fullness and loudness of the 20th century. One of my favorite stories about this is in The Microscripts is called “A Sort of Cleopatra.”
GF: Yes! What shocked me about that story the second time I read it is how few sentences there actually are.
SB: Yeah, I know, it’s insane! The first sentence is half-a-page long. The first sentence is somewhat more comprehensible in English than it is in German. Germans can’t read that sentence!
GF: Is Walser as “awkward” to read in German as he can be in English?
SB: Absolutely. He is pushing thorny syntax to an extreme, and playing with it, trying to pack in as many phrases in a sentence as he can. You can do more stacking of things in grammatical structure in German than you can in English. You know, in English a certain amount of explanatory unpacking has to happen; I try to unpack as little as possible but in English you can’t do that. His sentences are very difficult to follow; you have to read them more than once, especially in the German. There is a certain amount of das Mitgebrachte in his language. There is that Walter Benjamin story in the “Berlin Childhood” about the thing inside the sock. There is this thing present in the interior of the sock that the child tries to bring out in the unfolding of the sock . . . what’s it called in English? In English it would literally be translated as “that which has been brought along.” That is a normal word in German; it is a very powerful language in that way. It’s crappy in English! We don’t have language to describe what is going on here . . .
GF: No, we don’t. I have images of Heidegger in mind, you know, “The sock becomes a sock in the manner of its opening up to sock-hood,” or something like that . . .
SB: Oy! But there is a sense in which Walser is playing with this density of this syntax to suggest there is hidden meaning in all this, he is winking at you. But “Cleopatra” is a story about this woman who is convinced that modern life can’t take place, that things with emotion and feeling can take place in the distant past only. So this craziness of the prose to me exemplifies this distress of modernity.
GF: And this idea of speed is also an interesting aspect of Modernism, if one considers the Futurists, for example.
SB: Yes, but it is double-edged because Walser also writes about technology and how he enjoys technology.
GF: Yes, there is that scene in Jakob von Gunten, for example, where he rides in an elevator and is overjoyed by the idea that he now knows what it is like to be a modern man. I love those moments where it is all about the clamor of modern life. But also how reticent about how he seems to be to write about it. I’m thinking, for example, of something that W.G. Sebald said [in an essay introducing Bernofsky's translation of The Tanners] in regards to the fact that here was have writer who lived through two World Wars and yet never seemed to write directly about it.
SB: Yes, but he didn’t live in Berlin for either of those wars. He spent World War I in Biel, a small, small town in Switzerland, and the war may have seemed very far away as opposed to if he lived in Berlin or even in Zurich. And for World War II he was an inmate in a mental institution. But I think it cuts both ways, in that he is very interested in the loss of authenticity because of modernity, modernization, and technology. But he is also fascinated about them. There is that story in The Microscripts, for example, about the radio. In these Berlin stories that I’m translating now he writes about the electric street-car. You know, it’s electric! It runs on electricity!
George Fragopoulos lives in New York. He is currently writing his dissertation on modern American poetics.
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