Bookforum talks to Susan Bernofsky

Susan Bernofsky

Chances are you’ve read Susan Bernofsky. If, like John Ashbery, Benjamin Kunkel, J.M. Coetzee, or a number of other writers and readers, you’ve been delighted by the renaissance of Robert Walser’s writing in English, then you’ve most certainly read Susan Bernofsky. Bernofsky's celebrated translations of the elusive Swiss writer have, like Peter Constantine’s comprehensive translations of Isaac Babel, revived and boosted the reputation of one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant and original writers. Bernofsky has brought The Robber (2000), The Assistant (2007), The Tanners (2009) and Microscripts (2010) to English-speaking audiences, as well as novels by Herman Hesse, Jenny Erpenbeck and Yoko Towada. In addition to this, she also maintains a blog, Translationista, about the art and practice of translation. A few weeks ago I spoke with Susan over the phone about her forthcoming translation of Walser’s Berlin Stories, and her involvement with Occupy Wall Street.

Bookforum: You’ve been instrumental in the resurgence of Robert Walser’s work in English; you’ve translated many titles of his by now. How do you think his reputation has changed and to what extent has his growing popularity in English changed his standing elsewhere?

SB: Christopher Middleton deserves a huge amount of credit; he was Walser’s first translator ever. He was involved as early as 1955. I’m actually in the process of editing the first translation he ever did. There was a big wave of excitement in the early 1980s; 1982 was when Selected Stories by Robert Walser was published in the United States, though some of that book had already been published in the 50s as The Walk and Other Stories by John Calder in England. But Farrar, Straus and Giroux picked it up and expanded it and Susan Sontag wrote the introduction. There was all this stuff in Vogue magazine about it. But after that initial flurry of excitement it petered out a little bit, so I caught the second wave. The first Walser book that I ever translated was published immediately by a university press, which was amazing good luck to me; I was twenty-three years old. It was crazy. But then I got a grant and translated a novel of his, The Robber, which is a very difficult late work. That was in 1991, and the book was finally published in 2000—I could not find a publisher to print it. Nobody wanted to print it. Of course that’s now changed, now I have publishers writing to me saying, “Could you do Walser for us?” Which is amazing and great to hear. New Directions and New York Review Books have really been carrying the banner, but so has the University of Nebraska Press, which originally published my Robber, an also recently published a collection of Microscript stories that Christopher Middleton translated called Speaking to the Rose [Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912-1932], so kudos also to the University of Nebraska Press; they have two late Walsers, two of the most difficult, weirdest Walsers.

Bookforum: The story behind Microscripts is very interesting. I was wondering what it must have been like to translate that book, or rather the excerpts from it.

SB: It was kind of wild. Microscripts was never a book in German—it’s a six-volume edition of Walser’s uncollected, posthumous stories that survived in this very difficult to decipher manuscript form. I can’t read it, almost nobody in the world can read it; I just translate the transcriptions. A tiny handful of people have trained themselves to read this tiny writing, but it takes a lot of years just to learn how to read it. The transcriptions are difficult to work with because there are certain words the readers were guessing at, so you have this double strangeness in the text. Walser’s being strange on purpose; his works consist of the most obscure, dense high-modernist techniques known to man; long, really thorny, knotty sentences. I don’t know how he kept it all in his head while he was writing. But there’s also an unbelievable beauty to the texts—they’re strange and just remarkably beautiful, so it was also very rewarding to work with them.

Bookforum: You have a translation of stories forthcoming by Walser that are set in Berlin, a city you consider your second home. Do you find there are any traces of Walser’s Berlin in the city you know today?

SB: Oh yeah, absolutely. There are parts of the city that have been completely rebuilt and made all shiny and new but there’s lots and lots of areas of the city that still show that historical face. Even though they’ve been renovated, there are lots of streets that look updated, sure, but with the same kind of architecture they had in his time. The parts of the city he described has this sort of old world elegance, around the Kurfürstendamm and Friedrichstrasse—he writes a lot about that; they’re still very elegant streets.

Bookforum: And what was Walser’s own relationship to Berlin?

SB: Oh, he loved that city. I think it must have broken his heart to leave it. For him Berlin was the place where you went to have a career, it was where his big brother had gone to have his art career and was very successful. He retired to paint frescos in the houses of all kinds of important politicians and young leaders of industry. Berlin still is the place for German-language writers to go to have their success. If you come from Switzerland you’re automatically marginalized within German literature, but if you hang out in Berlin you’re in the heart of the publishing industry—much like New York City is today. Because of the dividing of the city a lot of publishers wound up in Frankfurt but a lot of that is now moving to Berlin, which really is the capital of writing and was in the beginning of the twentieth century when Walser was there. He went there when he was very young, in his late twenties, and really wanted to make a literary splash there. He published some novels that were very well received by other literary people and critics but not by the general readership. He never had a popular success. After a while he felt like something of a failure and I think that when he returned to Switzerland it was because he couldn’t support himself as a writer so he might as well go home. And that’s what he did.

Bookforum: And I understand that you’re still working on a biography of Walser?

SB: It’s a little bit on hold right now. I’m in the process of submitting grant applications for it. If I could get a grant to take a year off and work on it that would be so wonderful. I’m doing all of these other things and haven’t really had time to work on it, so I haven’t made much progress. But it’s still in progress; I still very much want to write it. The introduction to Berlin Stories is an excerpt from a chapter about Walser’s time in Berlin. I excerpted some of the material from that chapter to make an introduction for the book, so you can read a little bit of it in the intro.

Bookforum: On top of everything else you still find the time to write a blog regularly—Translationista. How long have you been writing that for?

SB: It’s an addiction. I started it last November; I had reserved the domain about half a year before that. I looked around and thought that there was no translation blog. There are blogs like the wonderful Three Percent, which talks about translation in publishing, but very much from the publisher’s point of view. Words Without Borders also publishes “Dispatches,” which is excellent, but it’s more about literature than the actual work of translation. I couldn’t find any that talked about translation from the translator’s point of view. I’m all for trying to create more public visibility for translation, so I thought I should write one but felt that I didn’t have the time for it. And then I woke up one day in November and just sat down at my computer and started writing it. I had been using Facebook as a blog, but things just disappear on Facebook. Blogs stick around, you can search and scroll back and find things easily. It was very attractive to me as a media; I like writing little essays, I like the little personal essay form. You know, I think of Walser – he loved to go and experience something and write about it in an interesting way. I think that what you do on a blog is very similar to a lot of the writing that he was attracted to. Reading him has made me very receptive to it.

I’m getting over four thousand hits a month now—so people are reading my blog. It makes me happy that people are interested in translation issues. People send me books to review on the blog and I would love do more of that; to have a review where the reviewer is required to talk at length about the translation as part of the review. Not enough book reviews do that in significant way because there’s limited space and it’s not a priority to discuss the translation. But from my point of view it is a priority, so I’m going to create a space where that priority can be honored.

Bookforum: Do you think there’s been a shift in recent years with regards to translation? I’m thinking of the publication of books by Edith Grossman and David Bellos dealing with translation, and all these websites you mentioned, including your own. It seems that there is a greater visibility now.

SB: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. There is above all else a generation of English readers and English-language writers who are really interested in translation. I know all these thirty-year old writers who are really, seriously interested in literature in translation and translating, so they’re learning how to do it. I think there’s a lot of energy around translation now, and it’s a good moment for it if you think about what’s happening in the world, too. We’ve got the internet, we’ve got access to the rest of the world. We’re not dependent on what NBC news tells us are the important parts of the world. People have access to material from all over the planet. It’s a global society and translation is part of that.

Bookforum: You mentioned in an email recently that you were busy getting involved with the Occupy Wall Street Movement—

SB: It’s the only thing I’ve been doing all week! I’ve spent my last two days rounding up a team of Spanish translators to make a Spanish-language edition of the Occupy Wall Street Journal.

Bookforum: A translation of the entire journal and not just of the Declaration of Occupation?

SB: That’s correct; we’ve got the Declaration already translated into half a dozen languages with more coming. There will be a Spanish Occupy Wall Street Journal! I’m so excited about it. I’m hoping they’ll figure out a way to make the Occupy Wall Street Journal available on the website. Since I put out a call for translators, I’ve been getting queries from translators all over the world who want to be involved with this. So theoretically I’ve got a slab of translators—Norwegian translators, Japanese translators, all writing to me. All kinds of people wanted to translate this stuff. And since the internet has a lot of real estate available for publishing things, we could get multiple language copies of the journal published online, which I think would be amazing. I’ve been really excited about it, I think the movement is really important, an important contribution to our political culture right now. I think it’s very inspiring, it makes me happy and hopeful to be involved—I’ve been neglecting my own translation work, which is very bad because I have one Walser book that was due on Monday and I have another in page proof on my desk that I’m supposed to be turning around this week also. I need an intern very, very badly. Clearly.