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Interview with Susan Bernofsky

Very interesting interview with Susan Bernofsky (“widely considered to be one of the best English translators of German literature today,” who has translated Robert Walser, Jenny Erpenbeck, and Yoko Tawada, among others) in The Brooklyn Rail.

Theoretically, this interview is supposed to be about her forthcoming translation of The Tanners (releasing from New Directions this fall, and yes, another BTB2010 nominee), but it gets really interesting (it’s always interesting, but you know) when she starts talking more generally about translation, language, and culture:

Rail: In an introductory note to Yoko Tawada’s The Naked Eye, you say that as she wrote the book certain sentences occurred to her in German and others in Japanese, so that she eventually wound up writing two versions of the same book. Do you have a sense of why this happened?

Bernofsky: Yoko Tawada’s very interested in the way our lives look the moment you start talking about them in a foreign language. And she’s right—words and experiences in different cultural contexts tend to have a different weight, different implications, and so walking on the border between two cultures as she does means constantly being confronted with one’s own experience as the experience of an other. I think that’s fascinating, and it’s very true to my own experience of living in Germany and traveling to yet other countries. I wish I could read The Naked Eye in Japanese to see how it differs from the German version I read, but I don’t speak a word of Japanese. I hope someone translates it into English someday.

Rail: You’ve written a lot about translation, often drawing connections between current translation theory and ideas in Romantic philosophy. How are the two related?

Bernofsky: The German Romantic translation theorists—above all Friedrich Schleiermacher, but also Wilhelm von Humboldt and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—were deeply concerned with the connection between a language and a nation or people, and so to them translating in such a way as to respect and preserve the cultural characteristics of the language you’re translating from is an important first step in getting to know another culture and its people in a respectful way. A lot of translation theorists and cultural critics today are interested in the dichotomy between translation as assimilation and as an avenue for approaching the foreign with genuine openness and curiosity.

And for all Walser fans out there who are waiting for a solid biography:

Rail: How difficult has it been to write a biography of Walser, considering not very much is known about his life?

Bernofsky: My book about Walser is a book of gaps, and not only because I still have quite a way to go before arriving at a finished draft. I’ve been thinking about and planning this book for several years now, and it’s getting written in little thematic chunks. The fact remains that there are vast stretches of Walser’s life about which very little is known, periods when we don’t have much of his correspondence and no one else is talking much about what he was up to—particularly in the nineteen-teens. But I’m fascinated by the overlaps between his fiction and his life, the way he actually lived out some of the themes that interested him. He really did attend a training school for servants, for example, though it bears very little resemblance to the school depicted in Jakob von Gunten. And then he went to work as an assistant butler in a castle in Silesia, which he didn’t write about until many years later, in the story “Tobold (II),” which I translated for Masquerade. I don’t think he was doing research for his writing when he took that job. I think he really was interested in the possibility of supporting himself with such a position. He didn’t want anyone at the castle to know he was a published author, either. He had his publisher write to him only using plain envelopes without the firm’s insignia, which would have blown his cover. I’m not sure he was such a good servant either, if the account of this episode he wrote in fictional form years later is any indication.



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