Translation as Storytelling: A Lecture by Associate Professor Susan Bernofsky

December 18, 2020
Susan Bernofsky

Associate Professor Susan Bernofsky was among the featured speakers at The Universidad Diego Portales’ symposium on literary translation. Bernofsky joined several other speakers in conversation about the act of creating space for reflection in and around the art of literary translation.

Bernofsky is an award-winning literary translator, and she has translated the works of Robert Walser, Jenny Erpenbeck, Yoko Tawada, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Uljana Wolf, and others. She is also the Director of the Translation program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. 

The event was hosted by Professor Rodrigo Rojas, the Chair of the Creative Writing program at the Universidad Diego Portales (UDP) in Santiago, Chile. UDP is among the Writing Program’s current partner institutions in its Word for Word initiative. Word for Word, founded in 2011 by Professor Binnie Kirshenbaum and now overseen by Bernofsky, pairs School of the Arts students with emerging writers studying in partner writing programs to translate one another into and out of American Sign Language, Arabic, Catalan, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. The program’s purpose is not only to provide emerging translators with valuable experience and a global network, but also to encourage writers to engage with their own language in a new and deeper way through the medium of literary translation and the experience of cross-cultural collaboration.

Bernofsky delivered her lecture, entitled “Translation as Storytelling,” in English with Spanish subtitles accompanying her on screen. Sebastián Duarte, another featured speaker at the symposium, served as the translator of Bernofsky’s talk. "Translation is a form of storytelling,” Bernofsky said. “It is a way to give an account of something you’ve read in another language. Translating, you put into words—your own words—what you found in a foreign work, doing all the voices as if sitting with listeners around a campfire. Even though almost all translations are by definition based on texts written by someone else, the translator’s own subject position unavoidably enters into the translated text, adding an implicit second layer of narration. This complex structural relationship involving original, translator, and translation is most readily visible in the case of retranslations, especially of classic works that already exist in several different translations in a given language.”

Bernofsky tracked this complex relationship as it exists in her own work. Most recently, Bernofsky has undertaken a retranslation of Thomas Mann’s novel, The Magic Mountain. Originally published in 1924, the novel has been translated twice before. “When I was invited to prepare a new translation of the book for Norton, the first thing I asked myself was whether I had stories to tell about this book that I felt needed telling.” This was the same question Bernofsky asked herself before completing her translations of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. “In each case, I discovered a story I wanted to tell about the work that I felt would shed new light even after their earlier English translations.”

For Bernofsky, it is the interpretation of the text that becomes a new story in itself, “playing out in many small translation decisions on the sentence level.” As Bernofsky works on her retranslation of The Magic Mountain, the story she tells may evolve and shift. She also shared that she avoids spending too much time with earlier translations of the novel, which may otherwise disrupt her own approach and vision of the work. 

“My ideas about the book may change and develop as I work, but I thought it was worth sharing them in their provisional form as an example of how such a project can be approached. Thinking in terms of the stories we intend to tell about a work is a good way to focus our labors. It also helps ensure we call things by the names most appropriate in the space of our translations.”

Alumna Hannah Kauders ’20 and current student Eva Dunsky were also among the symposium’s speakers. Their talk, along with a complete recording of Bernofsky’s lecture, can be found here. An abbreviated version of Bernofsky’s talk will be published in an upcoming issue of Frieze