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Susan Bernofsky

Susan Bernofsky: A word from the translator - 'mischievous, compassionate, mysterious'

On Thursday 27 August, author Jenny Erpenbeck will appear at Edinburgh International Book Festival. Ahead of the event, English PEN talks to Susan Bernofsky, whose double PEN award-winning translation of Erpenbeck's The End of Days is a story of the twentieth century traced through the various possible lives of one woman.

For many years now she has known something that her daughter will soon be forced to learn: A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.

Extract from The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (Portobello Books, 2014), translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Interview by Rebekah Murrell.

You have frequently collaborated with Jenny Erpenbeck. Can you tell us a little about your relationship – how you work together, how you became aware of one another?

Jenny and I have become friends over the years after four books together. Now we work together closely, in the sense that when I'm working on the translation of one of her books I'll invariably have a lot of questions for her, and she's extremely gracious about engaging me in dialogue. She actually spends a lot of time interacting with all her translators, whether or not she knows them personally, and for each one of her books she assembles a list of 'translator questions' and her answers, which she sends to other translators of the same book who get in touch with her. She writes challenging novels and really understands how important it is to have them translated as well as possible.

I first discovered Jenny's work on a 'translator's tour' of Germany organized in the early oughts by the Goethe Institut. Ten translators (of whom I was the youngest) were invited to spend a week and a half traveling around the country, visiting publishing houses and cultural institutions. And each of the publishers plied us with books that we would then read on the train to our next destination. I picked up 'The Story of the Old Child' from Jenny's then publisher Eichborn in Frankfurt and read it on the way to Munich, and must have talked the other translators' ears off about how much I liked it, because I soon was offered a contract to translate it. And found out somewhat later that the wonderful Michael Henry Heim - who died in 2012 - had been offered the project and had told New Directions to give the book to me. I'll be forever grateful to him for this and the many other things he did to help literary translators.

The End of Days has received a spread of literary and translation prizes, including the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. Has winning such accolades made any particular impact on your work? Can you comment on what, if anything, you think prizes do for translators, and for the world of literary translation in general?

Literary prizes that highlight translation perform the important public service of making the reading public more conscious of what it is literary translators do. Many readers have no idea to what a huge extent the English-language work they hold in their hands is a collaborative effort between the author and translator. The author writes the book, and then the translator writes it again. The author's imaginative vision creates the fictional universe, and the translator's artistry makes it come alive in another language.

'Where was a poem while it was being translated from one language to another?' The End of Days draws comparisons between the act of translation and the homelessness, limbo and rootlessness the unnamed protagonist experiences throughout her lives. Did this thesis of translation resonate with you?

As a reader of the book, I was powerfully moved by all the difficult transitions Jenny's characters are forced to make. As a translator, I spend most of my working life thinking about transitions, so I suppose that aspect of the book has particular resonance for me, though I expect readers of all sorts to be moved by it as well.

Erpenbeck, born in Cold War East Berlin, has discussed the traumatic effect of the fall of the Berlin Wall for those who had lived with it and whose lives were changed irrevocably overnight. Is writing a way to bend, and thus partially regain control over, what is absolute – death, historical events?

Writing is certainly a way to come to terms with difficult events and circumstances, though I don't think anyone's succeeded yet in preventing his own death by writing. Some things remain out of our control. Jenny's new book Gehen, ging, gegangen - which is coming out next month in German - is her most powerful attempt to date to intervene in a current traumatic reality. Usually her books are set in the past, but this one takes on a real-life ongoing situation, the plight of the African refugees seeking asylum in Germany and attempting to fight their way through a bureaucratic maze in which most paths lead directly to deportation. The book's title is comprised of the principal parts of the verb 'to go', the way language learners might encounter it, but of course it is a word that lies at the heart of the trauma afflicting those who have lost their homes. All of Jenny's books are filled with characters literally or figuratively fleeing some danger or other; this new book continues her engagement with this theme.

Describe the book in three words.

Mischievous, compassionate, mysterious.

About the translator

Translator and author Susan Bernofsky, former Chair of the Translation Committee of the PEN American Center, teaches literary translation in the School of the Arts MFA Program in Writing at Columbia University.

She has translated over 20 books, including seven by the great Swiss-German modernist author Robert Walser, Kafka's The Metamorphosis and Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation.

Her prizes and awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014, the 2006 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize and the 2012 Herman Hesse Translation Prize. She has also received fellowships from the NEH, the NEA, the PEN Translation Fund, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and the Leon Levy Center for Biography.

She blogs about translation at:

Read more about The End of Days and vote for it to win on the World Bookshelf.

Find out more about the PEN-supported authors, including Jenny Erpenbeck, appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year.

Posted by Rebekah Murrell, Monday 24th August, 2015


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