This Is Who We Are: Susan Bernofsky

Amanda Breen
December 14, 2020

This Is Who We Are is a series featuring Columbia School of the Arts’ professors, covering careers, pedagogy, and art-making during a pandemic. Here, we talk with Associate Professor of Writing and Director of Literary Translation at Columbia (LTAC) Susan Bernofsky about her translation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, how a single word can illuminate important artistic tendencies, and her approaches to teaching translation. 

Associate Professor Susan Bernofsky sits in her yellow, brightly lit kitchen when we begin our Zoom conversation. Kale chips are baking in the oven. Later, when we discuss COVID-19’s significant impact on the world and on everyday life, she points out the complexity of our current virtual climate: though sometimes unexpectedly convenient, it’s resulted in a “strange, different mode of being.” 

It’s in this new mode of being that Bernofsky works as she completes her latest project, a translation of Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel The Magic Mountain for W.W. Norton & Company. “Between coronavirus and politics, so much is frightening about the world right now that it almost feels like escapism to lose myself in the pages of a 100-year-old novel,” she says. 

Bernofsky headshot

The Magic Mountain begins in the decade before World War I. It follows Hans Castorp, who, in his early 20s, leaves his hometown to pursue a shipbuilding career in Hamburg. On his way, he stops to visit his tubercular cousin in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. There, Castorp is diagnosed with tuberculosis himself, and he stays on to recover, ultimately residing at the sanatorium for seven years. 

“He cuts off the action of the book in 1914,” Bernofsky says. “So the last pages of the book are the beginning of World War I, and he on purpose brackets the pandemic out, but he certainly experienced the pandemic. One of his children got the flu, and so he had somebody very ill with it in his house."

Mann’s daughter recovered, but an estimated 50 million people did not. It’s impossible to ignore the similarities among the tuberculosis pandemic, the 1918 influenza pandemic, and COVID-19, which has resulted in over 1.5 million confirmed deaths worldwide and causes symptoms including fever, cough, congestion, and fatigue. While The Magic Mountain only explicitly grapples with tuberculosis, Mann’s experience with the 1918 flu undoubtedly colors the novel. 

“I think his experience of the pandemic is very much written into the way he writes about tuberculosis,” Bernofsky says. “Even though it's a different disease, it's also a severe disease that attacks the lungs, and you know, he's writing about tuberculosis, but I think he's really writing about both the pandemic and the experience of the pandemic. Really, it's a part of the backstory of the novel."

“And the descriptions of the people coughing are really, really gory,” she adds. 

Bernofsky adopts a different working method to translate Mann’s 1,000 page novel than she’s used in the past. “My usual translation practice that I've developed over the years is usually more like varnishing a table, where you want to do a lot of thin layers, quick draft and not too much…[then] second draft, third draft, just multiple drafts, and you can't do that with a thousand page book,” she says. “And so I really, you know, every day I go two steps backwards and one step forward. I will revise what I had done the day before and even earlier. I keep starting behind where I left off, just this circular way, revising things that I've done at the same time as I'm working, because when I finish a chapter that has to be a solid draft of a chapter. I'm not going to be able to sit down and start revising a thousand pages of rough, rough draft."

Norton approached Bernofsky about the project after the publication of her translation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Bernofsky considered whether to take on the translation. She’d read The Magic Mountain twice before—once in English, once in the original German. Though she admired it, it wasn’t her favorite book; she’d never “deeply loved” it. But she was still interested in exploring its merits. 

“I thought okay, you know, it's a really important book, it's some of my dearest friends' favorite book, let me figure out why they love it so much,” Bernofsky says. “And now that I'm working on it, my admiration for the book has only grown. He's such a master craftsman down into the little details. It's a major work of art."

As she works on her translation, Bernofsky hones in on these details, identifying significant threads and pulling them to the fore. In one description of the harbor, Mann uses a ubiquitous German noun meaning ‘colonial products,’ which refers to dried fruits, nuts, and spices. When Bernofsky studied in Zurich as a child, storefronts with plate glass windows displayed such products under that title. In this particular word, Bernofsky saw an opportunity to highlight the novel’s colonialist motifs. 

"In my translation right now, because I'm plucking out that thread, it's 'products from colonial plantations,’” Bernofsky says. “So I put the word 'plantation' in there so that the 21st century US reader will understand what he's talking about because I think 'colonial products' doesn't mean anything... And then, like three sentences later, he's saying that the big loading cranes that are used on the ships for loading cargo, he says they look like elephants. And I'm thinking, he might not even know that he's made that association, but obviously the idea of the elephants comes from this colonialism vision, so by putting the word 'plantations' in there, I want to make that association that he had, whether consciously or not, visible for the reader."

Bernofsky’s reading practice often influences her translation work. “Anything I read politically is also feeding this. I read about Black Lives Matter, and it makes me want to show where the word 'elephant' comes from because, you know, there's this whole cultural signifier around Thomas Mann, who famously said 'Where I am, Germany is.' When he had to go into exile, he had to flee Germany, and he's like 'Ok, now I'm in California, but I'm so German that Germany's now out in California,’ and the ease with which he's claiming this cultural signifier, I want to show the backdrop, it's like the cheap theatre sets, really."

Bernofsky asks to pause while she runs to pull something out of the oven. "Have I burnt the kale chips yet? No." There’s the shuffle of a pan, the beep of the oven, the squeak of a door as it’s closed. The light in the kitchen shifts, slanting white against yellow. In New York, evening approaches; in California, where I am, it’s still-bright noon. It’s another reminder of the conflation of convenience and inconvenience, of connection and disconnection. Of the pandemic. 

But juggling time zones is something Bernofsky is especially familiar with as a virtual Berlin Prize fellow. Participants usually reside at the American Academy in Berlin, but the pandemic necessitates a hybrid program. Some artists with dual citizenship were able to make the trip to Berlin and complete their residencies in person. A half a dozen American citizens, Bernofsky included, didn’t have that option. Still, she attends the colloquium online and even gave a virtual lecture titled Translation as Storytelling, which discusses her approach to the translation of several noteworthy works from the German canon. 

In the spring, Bernofsky will teach two courses at the School of the Arts, the seminar Women of the World and the translation workshop Word for Word. She’s been thinking about ways to maximize student engagement online. "In a real seminar, you can always have side conversations, and asides, and interventions, and more than one person talking at the same time in a way that's productive,” she says. “You know, somebody says something, and somebody else shouts out an idea, and then works it in, and that can't really happen on Zoom because any interruption, the screen immediately jumps to the other person. So, yes, I am looking for ways to experiment with format, just as a relief from the eternal sameness of it." 

Currently, Bernofsky is in “gathering mode” for the Women of the World seminar, which means reading a variety of books translated by women writers to see if she’d like to include them on the syllabus. She just finished Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, who is also the author of Convenience Store Woman. The latter was a big hit the last time Bernofsky taught it, but she was interested in introducing Murata’s new text. After reading Earthlings, though, Bernofsky decided our current moment isn’t the right time to teach it. “The new one is fantastic, but it is crazy violent, it's like any possible trigger warning you could possibly think of applies to this book, and I'm just like, 'Some other semester, sure, but everybody's level of trauma is already so high’... I'm not going to make everybody read this really violent book right now."

Bernofsky is committed to “making sure everyone in the room remembers that teaching is not a one-way street—we're all constantly learning from and teaching each other!”

Over the course of her illustrious career, Bernofsky has established herself as a preeminent American translator of modernist and contemporary German-language literature. She is the author of Foreign Words: Translator Authors in the Age of GoetheIn Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, and Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser, forthcoming in 2021. She is credited with bringing the Swiss writer Robert Walser to the attention of the English speaking world and has translated several books by Jenny Erpenbeck. Some of her other translations include Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. 

To aspiring artists, Bernofsky says, “Don't wait for inspiration to seek you out; arrange your life in such a way that you can sit down at your desk every day, dial in your focus, and make space for whatever comes.” And, to aspiring translators, "Remember that when you are translating you are also writing." 

Read more from the "This is Who We Are" series