PEN 2013: Susan Bernofsky and Franz Kafka

Interview Literature


In advance of PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, I sat down with the scholar and translator Susan Bernofsky to discuss the art and technique of translating literature. PEN's Translation Committee, which Bernofsky chairs, has arranged for three translation related events at this year's festival.


Our conversation touched on a wide range of subjects, including reviewing translated literature, translators as editors, translation techniques, the publishing world, and whether translating makes one a better writer, among other topics. You can read what Bernofsky had to say about these subjects in Words Without Borders.


Bernofsky recently translated Franz Kafka's canonical The Metamorphosis (Norton, forthcoming). The author, top of mind, was referred to now and again throughout the interview. Below are highlights from our conversation which touched on Kafka specifically (not included in the WWB piece). All quotes are from Ms. Bernofsky, unless otherwise noted:


On English taking over as a global lingua franca:


We don’t want to discourage people from learning languages. I think translation mostly makes people curious about literature in foreign languages. I was inspired to keep learning German because of the German language literature that I read in translation in high school. Reading Kafka was so exciting to me that I wanted to continue reading him in German. That was one of the things in my mind when I started to learn German.



On translation being transformation:


There is no such thing as a neutral translation. People always talk about that: did you do a faithful, unfaithful, or artistic translation? People assume there is such a thing as a neutral or literal or faithful translation, but there isn’t. There really is no one-to-one correspondence between any two languages. Even words that have cognates, the words always tend to have a different range of meaning between the two languages, so you’re always making choices.


There are kinds of translations that are intentionally interventionist. You can say, “I’m going to try and give this translation such and such slant.” I just did a new translation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis where I wanted to show the humor of the story, so I was conscious of trying to elevate the drama queen-ness of Gregor Samsa. He’s constantly saying things that are mildly hysterical and I wanted to make them hysterical enough that the reader actually thinks, “Oh, he sounds hysterical right now.” I was intentionally turning up the volume on that and skewing the translation.


Any translator’s text is going to show the translator’s vision in that text. It’s impossible to give it as it was in the original. The translator’s stamp is going to be on every translation.



On the translator as editor:


To edit a translation has to be something that context requires. I don’t think translators ought to be, by default, editors. For example: Kafka’s Metamorphosis—he forgets about one of his characters when he’s writing. So on one page he has the maid quit, and then three pages later the maid is still working there because the cook quit. He forgets which character quit her job and he doesn’t care! I could have “fixed” that for him, but I decided not to, because he doesn’t care. Why should I care? It shows what was important to him about that story. He is very, very obsessed with the psychological detail, but the secondary characters are just furniture.



On which is more difficult, translating nonfiction or fiction:


It depends on the language. German is a language that has comfortable space in its sentences for more clauses than English does. Nonfiction is the kind of writing that is going to chunk in those extra little clauses into the sentence, and the argument in the sentence depends on all these nicely put together clauses. In English you’re constantly in this position of juggling three balls and there is a fourth in there somewhere that has to be juggled and you can’t find a place for it.


I am now remembering Kafka’s first sentence of The Metamorphosis, which is really hard and everyone is obsessed with how to translate the word Ungeziefer, which is the noun that states what he’s turned into. The ball I was left juggling after I figured out what I was going to do with all the other parts of the sentence was just the little phrase “in his bed.” Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams. He found himself transformed “in his bed” into some sort of monstrous insect.


Now, the “in his bed” didn’t fit in the English sentence. I kept putting it in different places and it just couldn’t fit. Because—of course he’s in his bed! He just woke up! Why even mention where he is? By default he is in his bed. I kept looking for places to hide that little phrase to make it go away. Finally I had the brainstorm that I could fix the problem by not hiding it, but instead making it bigger and putting it in your face. So I turned the “in his bed” into “right there in his bed.” I made it bigger.


Kafka mentions this obvious thing, so we’re going to mention it loud. So Samsa found himself transformed “right there in his bed” into some monstrous insect. All of a sudden it’s not a problem anymore. The spotlight is shown on the bed instead of the bed being an afterthought.


Here, a snippet of conversation that is worth keeping intact:


Shaun Randol: Do you feel the pressure of creating what may be the only or definitive translation of a text?


Susan Bernofsky: Yes, but it’s just as bad for something for which there are multiples. Something like Kafka—it’s a canonical text and there’s a bunch of translations out there, so you know your translation will be compared to others. That’s pressure, too. I translated Siddhartha, same thing. I knew it was going to be compared to other translations.


Yet there is a certain responsibility, like with Robert Walser [whom Bernofsky translates]. What are the chances of these texts being re-translated? Not any time soon. You are the English language reader’s best shot at that text, but it doesn’t keep me up at night.


Maybe now it will. Thanks. I can add that to my list of anxieties: “Falsifying Walser for the Ages.”


But, I falsify everything. Translation is falsification, what else is it? It’s not the original, it’s a fake.



SR: Is it mimicry?


SB: That’s a metaphor that gets used a bit.



SR: Because you’re not lying.


SB: Sure I am. I’m pretending to be the author. I am ventriloquizing him, but it’s not like him talking. It’s me. I am saying what he said; you have to take my word for it. If you don’t take my word for it, go read it yourself.



SR: The difference is that you are being honest about lying. You are lying for good intentions; you are not being nefarious.


SB: Yes. Non-nefarious lying. But fiction writers lie. That’s what fiction is: you tell lies. Actors lie. There are lots of people who tell lies for a living.



SR: Some would consider that fiction is more truthful. For example, if Kafka writes about Samsa waking up in his bed, that’s it; there is no other truth about that. He was in his bed when he woke up; you can’t fudge that. You can’t lie about that.


SB: What about the part about waking up as a giant bug, is that your kind of truth?



SR: It’s hard to refute that.


SB:It’s like the Bible.



SR: Kind of. You’re taking a faith in the fiction writer, because if this were a memoir, we could question whether he actually woke up in bed or somewhere else.


SB: All this time you thought he was a bug? All this time you believed that people in Prague turned into bugs?



SR: No, just Gregor Samsa, on that day.


SB: I see. It’s the funniest story ever. My favorite funny moment in that story is: he’s become a bug. And why has he become a bug? He’s working too hard for this boss because his parents have debts to the boss. Later, after he’s turned into the bug and the family is sitting around the table sorting things out, the father pulls out his wall safe and they figure out the finances. It turns out they had plenty of money all along. And you just know that Kafka was rolling on the floor laughing as he wrote that. This boy has chosen abject misery and slavery more or less voluntarily—that is funny.



SR: Funny-sad.


SB: One could also think of it as sad. I see room for that. 



Along with Esther Allen, Bernofsky recently co-edited In Translation: Translators on their Work and What it Means (Columbia Univ. Press, 2013). To learn more about her work, including her numerous translations, visit her website here. You can keep tabs on Bernofsky's travels through the world of translation by reading her popular blog, Translationista.



Franz Kafka, PEN 2013, Susan Bernofsky, Translation