Brooklyn Rail has posted a fantastic interview with Susan Bernofsky, translator from German (oh, yeah, and she writes fiction, too). It’s a very thoughtful discussion of translation and of Robert Walser in particular. New Directions will publish Bernofsky’s translation of The Tanners next month.

Rail: I’m curious as to whether sharing a sensibility with an author makes it easier to translate their work. Salman Rushdie, for example, compliments Tobias Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote by saying their rambunctious personalities were ideally matched. Meaning, I guess, that being like Cervantes helped Smollett convey his style.

Bernofsky: I’ve wondered about this too. All my authors are very different from me and write differently than I do, but with certain authors I do have the feeling that I can summon up “their” voices fairly readily in English—and this certainly applies to the writers I’ve translated repeatedly: Jenny Erpenbeck and Yoko Tawada as well as Walser. I like trying to hear other authors’ voices as well, which is why I like it when publishers ask me for sample translations from different books—it’s like an invitation to dress up as a stranger and try to pull off the disguise.

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It took me a while to find time to read the whole thing, but the roundtable discussion that went up a week ago over at the Observer Translation Project is really excellent. Susan Harris (of Words Without Borders), Chad Post (of Open Letter and Three Percent), novelist Norman Manea, and translator Susan Bernofsky offer thoughtful exchanges on topics such as marketing and editing translated literature, team translations, issues of domestication in translation, and the appeal and value of international literature. For example, here’s Susan Bernofsky on editing translations:

The same editing skills that apply to the best editors of English apply to the best editors of literature translated into English as well. Great editors have a sixth sense that tells them exactly what a book’s style wants to be and shows them the spots where it diverges from this ideal. If there’s an outright mistake in the translation, an editor may or may not be able to spot it (depending on whether it breaks the skin of the book’s mood) – but that’s not the editor’s job, that’s the job of the translator.

The whole thing is highly recommended.

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Susan Bernofsky has a wonderful article in the Wall Street Journal in which she describes Donald Duck’s runaway popularity in Germany (including a group called the German Organization for Non-Commercial Followers of Pure Donaldism, or D.O.N.A.L.D.), and attributes it largely to the translator, Erika Fuchs, and her reworking — some might even say shameless improving — of the comic books. Whereas in English the language is straightforward and even plain, Fuchs made Donald a literary, philosophical duck, “a bird of art and letters,” as Bernofsky puts it, who quotes Schiller, Goethe, and Hölderlin.

Dr. Fuchs raised the diction level of Donald and his wealthy Uncle Scrooge (alias Dagobert Duck), who in German tend to speak in lofty tones using complex grammatical structures with a faintly archaic air, while Huey, Louie and Dewey (now called Tick, Trick and Track), sound slangier and much more youthful.

Fuchs applied alliteration liberally, as, for example, in Donald’s bored lament on the beach in “Lifeguard Daze.” In the English comic, he says: “I’d do anything to break this monotony!” The über-gloomy German version: “How dull, dismal and deathly sad! I’d do anything to make something happen.”

Fuchs also inserted political and ethical issues into the comics that were mostly absent in the original. Bernofsky describes, for example, what happened to The Golden Helmet, a childhood favorite of mine, which is about a treasure hunt for a legendary Viking helmet that conveys possession of the United States upon its owner. While the human (or duckly) lust for wealth and power certainly drive the plot of the English original — I recall Donald fantasizing about charging for breathing (“a sigh, a nickel; a gasp, a dime!”) — Fuchs makes the tale a metaphor for German nationalism:

In Dr. Fuchs’s rendition, Donald, his nephews and a museum curator race against a sinister figure who claims the helmet as his birthright without any proof—but each person who comes into contact with the helmet gets a “cold glitter” in his eyes, infected by the “bacteria of power,” and soon declares his intention to “seize power” and exert his “claim to rule.” Dr. Fuchs uses language that in German (“die Macht ergreifen”; “Herrscheranspruch”) strongly recalls standard phrases used to describe Hitler’s ascent to power.

The original English says nothing about glittering eyes or power but merely notes, “As the minutes drag past, a change comes over the tired curator.” Even the helmet itself, which in German Donald describes as a masterpiece of “Teutonic goldsmithery,” is anything but nationalistic in English: “Boys, isn’t this helmet a beauty?” is all he says. In an interview, Dr. Fuchs said she hoped that a child who “sees what power can do to people and how crazy it makes them” would be less susceptible to its siren song in later life.

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