Journey of the Sentence: A Conversation with Susan Bernofsky
BETSY RIBBLE: What have you been working on?
SUSAN BERNOFSKY: I’m translating something that’s more than one hundred fifty years old. The author, Jeremias Gotthelf, is long-gone, and he has an amazing vision of the world. It’s a kind of astonishing, frightening book about how a community in 17th-century Switzerland and then in 19th-century Switzerland does something wrong, those “oops” kind of things where you wind up inadvertently promising the devil an unbaptized child …
RIBBLE: One of those …
BERNOFSKY: That’s a big oops, right? And then if you don’t pay up, the devil isn’t happy, and it’s a good opportunity for a moral lesson about keeping the faith. Gotthelf himself was a minister, and you get the sense that he wrote this to encourage his community to keep the faith, because it’s only by keeping the faith, and having the community as a whole keep the faith, that catastrophe can be deterred. On an ongoing level, sustained faith is necessary to keep the community from being destroyed. So it’s metaphorical. He’s written a very, very frightening story. When the evil comes, it’s in the shape of this spider which is sort of omnipotent; it’s everywhere at once, it’s huge, it’s fast, there’s no protecting yourself from it. It has big goggly eyes and it’s described with all the little hairs on it. It’s rather frightful!
I’ve just re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and I read just before that, another classic Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, because I wanted to fill my head with that language. I’m keeping on my computer a running log of words and phrases: “It requires all my fortitude to recall the memory …” The word “fortitude”! “Shuddering in agony,” “agony and terror,” “afright,” “miserable ravings,” “replete with wretchedness.” I’m collecting words that say: “19th-century Gothic.” I want to give it a touch of that flavor.
RIBBLE: How do you choose your translation projects?
BERNOFSKY: Usually the translation projects come to me from publishers, but in this case, I just happened to be talking to an editor at the New York Review of Books, for whom I was translating Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories, an editor I was already working with. I happened to be standing around with him at some reception with a glass of wine, and we were talking horror stories for some reason.
I just started telling him, “Oh yeah, the scariest story I ever read…” because I remember reading this story my sophomore year in college, sitting in the basement apartment in Baltimore where I lived all by myself. It was very dark and creepy down there. Just sitting there by yourself, some Saturday night, reading this horror story—it was just one of the most frightening experiences I ever had in my life, which I guess goes to show you that I’ve led a happily sheltered existence. I remembered this story, and I was telling him about it, and he said, “Yeah, I’ve heard about this story. Let me have a look at it,” and the next thing I knew, there was a contract in my mailbox. It doesn’t often happen like that. Most of the time a publisher will buy a book and then look around for translators.
RIBBLE: Are you aware beforehand of the challenges in a particular translation? Or is it a sort of leap of faith?
BERNOFSKY: I always think I know what it’s going to be, and I’m always wrong. First of all, it’s always harder than I thought it was going to be, and it’s always harder in some way I never thought about. Translating Jenny Erpenbeck, who writes these nice smooth sentences, you think, “Okay, that’s not going to be such a big deal.” Then you sit down and try and translate them, and you realize that this sense of smoothness, like peacefully flowing stream, is nothing but rocks and lumps and really gnarly stuff. She manages to arrange the sentences in such a way that she creates the illusion of smoothness, but in fact the sentences are so complicated.
RIBBLE: Are there translation challenges that are basically unsolvable?
BERNOFSKY: Sure. You do the closest thing you can. There are all kinds of things that work so specifically in one language. A very famous example in German is the opening of the story, “The Transformation,” aka “The Metamorphosis.” What does Gregor Samsa wake up and find himself transformed into? Look at the new Michael Hoffman translation—“cockroach”—people fall back on that because the actual thing that stands there is so thorny and difficult. It’s an adjective and a noun, and the adjective is “ungeheuer,” which is a word that means “monstrous,” but it’s used to mean “large.” So you have a choice translating it: Do you want to translate it as “monstrous” or “large,” or both, or some other word, because both those concepts are in the word. And then the noun is “Ungeziefer,” which is like our word “vermin,” a collective noun, except it’s being used here in the singular. In German it’s a very old, ancient-feeling word which means an animal that is unclean, unfit for sacrifice. So cockroach is a kind of shorthand. On the other hand, it’s easy to say that that’s copout, but harder to then provide a better solution.
In this Black Spider book, there’s lots and lots of terminology specific to Switzerland. The first ten pages of the book are a description of a baptism scene, or rather the feasting that happens beforehand. All the players in the story—there’s a special name for the father of the child to be baptized, there’s a plurality of godfathers (there’s only one godmother it turns out), there’s a special bread, there’s a special soup—all these customs are getting their quaint Swiss names that are ancient, that probably already seemed quaint in the 19th century. In my German edition these things are footnoted for the German reader, and I’m going to have to figure out what to do with this. I can translate “godfather,” “godmother,” “winesoup” … but none of these translations scream “quaint Swiss custom.” Maybe I’ll write a little afterword about this.
In a way the scene exists to show you that lifestyle; if you translate it into something more neutral, then the scene loses a lot of its function and point and just seems long and boring. So I’m going to wrestle with this. It’s just one of those big, hairy, messy problems. I wish I could just trim the scene, but you’re not really allowed to just do that as a translator. You can’t just say, “Wouldn’t it be better if it were five pages instead of ten?” There has to be a better way to handle it. I just have to figure out what it is.
RIBBLE: Do you have a certain routine when you’re translating, a method, or does it vary depending on the project?
BERNOFSKY: It depends how close I am to or behind deadline, how much in a panic I am. Usually my routine involves procrastinating for a long time and then getting panicked and working around the clock for days, which I do not recommend.
I do try to have a routine that involves sitting down in the morning and actually translating. I’m a terrible procrastinator. But “procrastination” is such an ugly word. It’s much better to put a nice word on it, like “multitasker.” Today I prepared and taught my graduate seminar at Queens College, did some reading for the literature festival I’ll be presenting next week, consulted on the structure of the session for the associated symposium that will be held at Columbia University, did some revising on the introduction for a book that will be coming out later this spring, and finalized the plan for my book launch event tomorrow. I always wind up working on four or five things at once.
RIBBLE: You’re very productive.
BERNOFSKY: I don’t know. Having a lot of things in progress at once—I’m not saying I’m finishing them all! But I do like to multitask. I think it’s the only sane thing for a procrastinator to do. If you only have one thing to work on and you procrastinate, you’re not doing anything. But if you’re doing five things at once and you’re procrastinating on one of them, you can still be productive, in a sense.
RIBBLE: In your rules for translators, you talk about making sure you remain a writer and not a translator foremost. Do you think about that in a very specific way, or do you do something to keep the writer side of you present?
BERNOFSKY: What I mean mostly when I say, “Be a writer when you’re translating,” or “remember you’re a writer when you’re translating,” is that I see so many translators holding onto the original sentence so closely and relying on a sort of word-for-word rendering, at least in the first draft. It’s really hard to get from that place to a place that has some sort of literary freedom. Of course, too much freedom is also bad. There’s a golden mean.
The more years that I’ve put in as a translator, the less wedded I am to following what’s going on word-by-word. What I do follow, though, and I mention that in the rules also, is the order of information. To me, that’s the journey of the sentence: Every sentence takes you on a little journey somewhere, and the question is where that journey is going and in what order are we hitting the landmarks. I think that really does shape what the text feels like to a huge extent, so I’m slavishly faithful to the text in that sense, whenever syntactically possible.
And I try to make sure even in a rough draft that every sentence I write has a beginning and an ending, especially an ending. For any good writer, you know when you come to the end of a sentence, and there’s a certain finality. It’s not random that the sentence just has a period and stops. That’s a weakness that you’ll often see in translations, that the sentences just kind of peter off somewhere. That’s not how people write. Especially in the Internet age where we’re all Twitter-fied and everything is pithy.
RIBBLE: I don’t know if this is something you spend a lot of time thinking about, but what’s the future of translation like? Do you think in a globalized world it will be more important? Or will it be less important because people will be forced to write in English?
BERNOFSKY: That’s a gigantic, hard question. For now, it’s becoming more important, because people are more curious about the rest of the world. I fear, as you suggest, that there is going to be more and more international writing in English. But who knows? China is winning out in terms of the economic growth battle, so maybe somehow English won’t remain that language that everybody has to speak.
Because I translate into English, I see that it’s still very much the lingua franca. I’ll do translations for German publishers who are going to use my English translation to sell the books to the rest of the world. With electronic books, too, I think all of publishing is headed Internet-wards, for better or for worse. I think for worse; I’m going to be one of these people kicking and screaming as the last books are removed from production.
I do think the way that we exchange stories is already in flux, so it’s really hard to say what’s going to happen with translation. I don’t believe that there are going to be computer translators that can do what humans do, for what it’s worth. I don’t see how they can ever do that. I know that the brightest minds are working on this day and night, but I just don’t think there’s any way that a computer is ever going to learn to have a style. I hope I’m not wrong about that. I don’t even want to think about the idea that I might be obsolete.
RIBBLE: What are some of the differences in how translation is regarded in, say, Germany versus here in America?
BERNOFSKY: I think in Europe in general there’s still more of a sense of reading what we think of as high literature for entertainment than here. Sure, there’s popular literature in Europe, too, which is like our popular literature here, but the number of people that you see actually buying and reading books that are challenging and literary is quite high.
Literature in translation in all these countries is much, much more popular than in the United States. I think we translate less than a tenth of the amount of literature that’s written in any European language, which is shocking. The famous figure here is that an average of three percent of books are translations, and that includes not just literary translations, but all translations. Whereas in Europe the number ranges from thirty to sixty percent depending on what country you’re in. That’s a different attitude. Here in New York it’s a bit artificial; New York is full of readers and you have more of a European readership quotient in the city. But in the country as a whole, not so much.
RIBBLE: Why do you think there are so few translations?
BERNOFSKY: I think our publishing industry has discovered that you can make more money with books written in English and has kind of given up on trying to create a readership. I do believe that if you publish something and market it properly, you can bring it to a large readership. There are always exceptions in translation. The Name of the Rose: that was certainly an international, translated best-seller. The Reader, most recently—a book I don’t like very much—got on Oprah and then was a huge best-seller, and that’s a translation from the German. Dictionary of the Khazars was one too. There are always these blockbusters that are translated, so it’s certainly possible to market a book like that, but the publisher has to decide to make a book a bestseller. And you can’t always force it.
Of course if you don’t market a book at all, it’s predictable what’s going to become of it. A lot of the smaller publishers that are specializing in translation now don’t really have much of a marketing budget. They do a lot with social media, which is price-effective, and they do a lot with word-of-mouth, and they do a lot with hip events, appealing to younger readers. That gets you one city at a time, and you do that on a national level. But still, in large part, grant funding from the various countries the books are being translated from is sustaining all of that. But I’m still very happy that there’s a crop of half a dozen smaller publishers that are diligently turning out translation after translation.
RIBBLE: Do you read differently as just a reader than you do as a translator?
BERNOFSKY: When you sit down to translate and you start taking the sentences apart at the seams, looking at how they’re put together, and then make English sentences and try to cobble it all back together again, it becomes apparent what the author was really doing. As a reader, the spell is cast on you. But as the translator, you’re actually having to look at how exactly the spell is cast. It’s invariably more complicated than it seemed like it was going to be.
Every time I sit down to translate a book, I immediately realize that I haven’t given myself enough time, that I needed a longer deadline, that I’m not getting paid enough, and that it’s too hard for me!
RIBBLE: But it works out.
BERNOFSKY: Someone else has to be the judge of that.