Susan Bernofsky

Copyright: Jacobia Dahm
Copyright: Jacobia Dahm
Beginning her studies in 1984, Susan Bernofsky attended several universities in Germany, Switzerland and America, where in 1998 she gained a PhD in Comparative Literature. Having worked as a lecturer at various universities in America she currently teaches literary translation in the MFA Writing Program of the Columbia University School of the Arts, where she serves as Director of Literary Translation at Columbia. She is a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow. In addition to her teaching work she publishes her own research material and works as a literary translator. Her particular interest lies in the relation between German thought in the 18th and 19th Century and contemporary German language literature. Amongst her numerous awards she has two honours from the PEN Translation Fund Award (2005, 2007) as well as the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize (2006). She lives in New York, but refers to Berlin as her second home.

Selection of translated titles:
  • Robert Walser: Berlin Stories. New York Review Books Classics, spring 2011
  • Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation (Heimsuchung). New Directions (NY); Portobello (London), September 2010
  • Yoko Tawada: The Naked Eye (Das Nackte Auge). New Directions, 2009
  • Jenny Erpenbeck: The Book of Words (Wörterbuch). New Directions (NY); Portobello (London), 2007
  • Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha. Foreword by Tom Robbins. Modern Library, 2006

Three questions to Susan Bernofsky:

How did you end up working as a translator?
I began trying to translate literature as a teenager because I was learning to write fiction and happened to be studying German. The combination seemed to open up all sorts of interesting opportunities for experimentation, especially because I was so excited by the literature I was reading in German. I never intended to become a professional translator, it's just something I wound up always doing a bit of on the side because I enjoyed the challenges of translating and the way it made me see the English language from the outside.

Which German book do you like the best and why?
There are so many books I love that it's hard to pick just one, but I must admit that I have a deep and irrational love of Uwe Johnson's novel Jahrestage (Anniversaries), which is set in New York City in 1967/68. I've read it twice, which is really saying something when you consider that it's 1900 pages long (in German anyhow - the English translation is much abridged). It moves me deeply every time I pick it up to read a page or two at random. I love the narrator Gesine Cresspahl and really identify with all the difficulties she goes through as a twofold cultural transplant (from East to West, from German to English). I love how Johnson sees and describes the world, his prose style, and the way he weaves together the strands of his narrative. Gesine is afraid that her daughter Marie will grow up to be just an American, so she is constantly telling her German stories: about her childhood in East Germany and her father's childhood under National Socialism. These stories are interspersed with accounts of Gesine's own adventures and clippings from the New York Times: the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Uwe Johnson shares my birthday and died far too young, in 1984. If he were alive today, he would be only 76 years old.

Is there a particular book you would like to translate?
I would love to translate Franz Hessel's 1913 novel Der Kramladen des Glücks, a childhood story that is also a sort of love poem to Berlin. Hessel is an undeservedly forgotten writer who was known as a feuilletonist and intersected with both Walter Benjamin and Robert Walser.

Related links

British Centre for Literary Translation

Britain’s leading centre for the development, promotion and support of literary translation.

Emerging Translators' Network

The Emerging Translators' Network is a forum and support network for early-career literary translators working primarily into English.

German Translators' Workshop

6.30pm, first Thursday of the month, Goethe-Institut, 50 Prince's Gate, London.

Opportunities for Translators

Click here to view a database of programmes, prizes, scholarships and residencies for translators of German.