Susan Bernofsky on Robert Walser

From Scott Esposito (Center for the Art of Translation)
Robert Walser
Robert Walser

In 1993 when Susan Bernofsky published her first book-length translation of Robert Walser, the author was little-known in English and virtually unread in the United States. By 2009, when Bernofsky’s translation of The Tanners signified that all of Walser’s novels were available in English for the first time, the release of that book was greeted with praise from publications as diverse as BookForum, Time Out New York, and the Los Angeles Times.

The rise of Walser in translation over the past two decades has been nothing short of stunning, and it is thanks in no small part to a group of fine translators, of whom Bernofsky has played a leading roll. Since her first publication of Walser in 1993 she has published two other books by him, with two more on the way, as well as a critical biography of the author. No less a reader than the Nobel-winning novelist and critic J.M. Coetzee—one of Walser’s great contemporary admirers—has praised Bernofsky’s translations for their “ingenuity” and “resourcefulness” in dealing with his wide vocabulary and highly precise prose. Walser lived from 1878 to 1956, although it is widely believed that he gave up writing after 1933 when he committed himself to a sanatorium. In his time his writing received praise from the likes of Kafka, Musil, and Walter Benjamin, but after his death he fell into obscurity in Europe, and it was only in the 1960s and ‘70s that he began to be known again on that continent. Susan Sontag took up the cause of Walser in the U.S. in the 1980s, but wasn’t until the late ‘90s and the ‘00s, with the translation of a number of his major works, that he began to become known here.

Bernofsky has described Walser’s prose as walking “a fine line between the maudlin and the trivially playful,” going on to say that he “always manages to stay right in the middle, in that sweet spot where he achieves a sort of guileless profundity that takes the reader by surprise again and again.” The translation of such writing is difficult to say the least, and we are fortunate that Bernofsky has proven herself up to the challenge time and time again.

In addition to Walser, Bernofsky has translated German-language works from the renowned Japanese author Yoko Tawada, as well as Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse for The Modern Library, and others. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including ones from the PEN Translation Fund, the NEA, and the Lannan Foundation. [Read More]

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