Susan Bernofsky is one of our best-known and best-loved translators out of German, a champion of great literature including the work of Robert Walser. I interviewed her by email about her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck's wonderful novel Heimsuchung, now out as Visitation. As Susan points out, this could well be the book to make Erpenbeck a household name in the English-speaking world. My fingers are certainly well and truly crossed.
Susan, tell us about the book:
I think of Jenny's book as a sort of family saga, except that instead of an actual family line you have a house that's holding together the different "generations." Because of where the house is located (in the countryside outside Berlin), every political upheaval that hits Germany causes the people living there to have to flee - and so the book tells the story of constant departure and loss. It nonetheless manages to be full of happy, humorous moments, but definitely the overall tenor is one of wistful nostalgia and melancholy - the house is constantly being remembered by those who have left it, and that's where the haunting of the title comes in.
The house is being visited by the ghosts of its former inhabitants - a feeling made even stronger by the fact that the story is based on that of an actual house in which Jenny spent the summers of her youth. By telling the stories of all these other families, she is channeling her own feelings of loss at having had to say goodbye to this place that witnessed so much of her own personal history.
There is indeed a strong sense in the novel that places bear witness to human lives. I think that's what the character of the gardener is all about. This gardener is superhuman - or rather: mythical. He witnesses the lives of many many generations. He is older than the house itself, and while we do see him growing old near the end of the book, we never see him young. He is like the human incarnation of the memory of the place - that's why he's so knowledgeable too - his is a collective knowledge. I love how he's used in the novel, and the ambiguity surrounding him.
I loved that gardener too. Erpenbeck also seemed to be making a point with him - a continuity not only of natural processes in the garden - changing seasons, repetitive tasks - but also of power relations. The political systems may change, but the gardener always remains an employee, his working conditions remain pretty much unchanged. I especially liked the way he's introduced, with a lot of very sensual language. Did you manage to retain that sensuality and continuity?
Katy, I think you're going to have to be the one to answer that question! I sure hope so. In any case, I tried very hard. The first sections were particularly challenging, because Jenny used language that gave the text a very faintly archaic flair. So I wound up, for example, doing quite a lot of research for those few sections about grafting fruit trees - you know? So apparently if you want your apple trees to produce apples in a nice luxuriant way, you have to do all sorts of things to them, generally involving splicing bits of other trees onto or into them. So I used the word "inoculate," which isn't used for grafting any longer, but was still commonly used for this in the early 20th century. I thought it went well with "propagate," which is also being used in an old gardening sense. The point isn't to make a "fake old" text but to have the text gesture at oldness.
Although there's a single omniscient narrator, the tone varies a great deal from chapter to chapter. At times I felt you could tell which characters the narrator approved of and which not. How did you deal with that in your translation?
I'm so happy this came through! Yes, there's a sense of greater and lesser distance there. I didn't do anything conscious to achieve this, though I did want to achieve it. You must know how this goes - a lot of translation is about hearing the voices and feeling where they're coming from, and if you feel the distance - which has to do with tone, tonality, intonation - it will just automatically come through. That's not what I can tell my students though. I guess I'd say if pressed: the tone gets established because there are a few words and phrases slipped in that signal a sort of cold or coolish formality, and it's important to recognize them and then try to match them tonally.
You mention the strong sense of place in the novel. If I can, I like to see at least pictures of the settings I'm translating. Did you do a research trip for the translation - or is the house really now lost?
In fact I had the great blessing to be able to participate in a field trip to visit the actual house the novel is based on, led by the author herself! The book is a novel, not non-fiction, but Jenny did carefully research the histories of the families who lived in this house, which was also in her own family during her childhood.
And then I found myself at the wonderful Literarisches Colloquium Berlin (where Susan and I met - kjd) for their Internationale Übersetzerwerkstatt (that's international translation workshop), and they'd asked me and Jenny to do a workshop on the novel, and Jenny wound up offering to take the entire group of translators (several of whom were translating the book into their respective languages) on a trip to see the house. So the LCB hired a bus for the day and sent house photographer Tobias Bohm along with us, and it was a fascinating visit. Freezing cold, mind you - you know what Berlin is like in March. Not all the descriptions of the house in the book look exactly like what the house looked like to me that day, but getting a feel for what the house and its surroundings looked like was definitely a great help when I was revising those passages.
This is the third of Jenny Erpenbeck's books you've translated, right? What's your working relationship like?
Jenny is wonderful to work with. She's very generous about answering questions and giving feedback when I'm not sure how to handle one of her many untranslatables - for example in The Book of Words I wound up having to make up a whole little passage about lilies and lilies-of-the-valley to replace her play on Näglein (little nails) in the dialect sense of Nelken (carnations), and it was very helpful to be able to talk it through with her.
Actually we had a little incident in that same book - she didn't think to tell me that she had cobbled together an entire word-collage page based on her own translations of lines from American pop songs circa 1978 - thank goodness I noticed one of them, and then my editor Declan Spring noticed a lot more, and then Jenny sent me a list of all the songs she'd used. It would have been nuts if all those titles had wound up as back-translations from her (sometimes rather idiosyncratic) German renderings. But now she's taken to compiling, for each book, a list of all the questions her translators ask her - then she sends the list around to the other translators, just as a FYI. Now that's an exemplary author.
She's also a very lovely person, it's always huge fun spending time with her. She'll be over in New York for a literature festival in November, which I'm really looking forward to.
Does it get easier to translate a writer when you're very familiar with their work, or do new challenges keep cropping up with every book?
Yes and no. It definitely helps to have gained experience capturing an author's voice, but I've never seen a book that wasn't a minefield in its own right.
The title is tricky, huh? In German, Heimsuchung bears a lot of weight - the word home is hidden inside it, and a search for that home, but it's also very ominous with ideas of haunting and disaster attached to it. It's heavy with superstition and Catholicism (although that Catholic element isn't in the book, the superstition comes in at the very beginning and the end in a couple of very beautiful passages). But of course, as so often, you can't get all that into a single English word. Tell us how you came to Visitation.
Actually someone from Portobello Books in London suggested this (the title was already in the contract they sent me), and this anonymous title-giver really hit on something ingenious, even though the process they went through might have been as simple as looking up "Heimsuchung" in an on-line dictionary - I was immediately in agreement with the choice. Yes, it's very tricky and lovely, that German title. Its two important aspects are the notion of haunting and the notion of home. But all the English variants that included "home" seemed so heavy-handed and disappointing.
The wonderful thing about Visitation as a title is that it not only includes the idea of haunting, but it also takes an interpretive step that actually works for the novel. You can certainly say that all the characters in the novel are at home in the house - this is thematized throughout. But there's also a sense in which all of them are just passing through. This isn't stated explicitly anywhere in the novel, but it's the sense you get from reading it, especially since the book begins in the Ice Age and ends with the demolition of the house. So the English title picks up this thematic thread in what seems to me a delicate and appropriate way. I'm very happy with it.
Some translators wait for books to come to them, and others actively promote books for translation to publishers. Which camp are you in? How did Visitation come about?
I've never had very much success promoting new authors to publishers; New Directions came to me with their first Erpenbeck book, The Old Child and Other Stories, which had been Jenny's first big hit in Germany. I think it's really wonderful when a publisher decides to stick with an author and publish multiple books, even if the earlier ones aren't such a commercial success. A lot of people really loved the other Erpenbeck books, but she hasn't been a big seller so far. I think Visitation might be her breakthrough book in English.
How did you come to translation in the first place?
I started translating as a teenager. At first it was just a creative writing exercise - I was setting out to be a fiction writer, and translating seemed to me an intriguing way to study the craft, and I had teachers who encouraged me to try it. It was really about a decade before it turned into something I was really focussed on.
Do you follow contemporary German writing? Is there a writer or a book you'd love to translate but haven't yet had the chance?
Yes, I do, in part by reading your blog! And there are a lot of really interesting writers who haven't been translated yet. Right now I'm rooting for Wolfgang Herrndorf (I love his stories in Jenseits des Van Allen-Gürtels). And I really wanted to translate Gerhard Falkner's short novel Bruno, but I couldn't find a publisher who wanted to commit to the project.
What are you working on right now?
I've been translating a beautiful book of poems by Uljana Wolf, Falsche Freunde/False Friends (they're prose poems that play with letters of the alphabet). We just found out that Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn is going to publish it, which is wonderful news. Next after that will be a 19th century horror story for New York Review Books: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf. I can't wait! It's one of the most frightening stories I've ever read, and also one of the most beautiful.
Many thanks again to Susan Bernofsky for finding the time for this fascinating interview - and for keeping on keeping on.