The Art of Literary Translation

January 10, 2018
stacks of books in front of a shelf full of books

The late José Saramago, a 1998 Nobel laureate in literature whose works have been translated from Portuguese into dozens of languages, noted that “Writers create national literature with their language, but world literature is written by translators.”

Once relatively unseen, literary translators are emerging from the shadows of publishing. In 2016, the prestigious Man Booker International Prize went to The Vegetarian, with the award shared between its author, Han Kang, and her translator, Deborah Smith, whose work received kudos from book reviewers. The National Endowment for the Arts, which since 1981 has funded the English translations of some of the world’s best writing, will award 22 fellowships in 2018 to support the translation of works from Japan, Madagascar, India and other countries.

Susan Bernofsky

Susan Bernofsky, Photo by Caroline White

Susan Bernofsky, director of literary translation in the MFA writing program at the School of the Arts, is a key player in the field. A preeminent translator of German literature and a 2014 Guggenheim fellow, Bernofsky recently shared the first Warwick Prize for Women in Translation with Yoko Tawada, the Berlin-based Japanese author of Memoirs of a Polar Bear, which Bernofsky translated into English. “With literary translation you’re trying, of course, to reproduce content accurately,” said Bernofsky. “But you’re also writing a style beautifully, and constantly asking questions like, is the writing muscular? Is it spare? Are the rhythms close and tight or is the style more languorous?”

She added that “translation is not a freestanding art form, yet it’s both an original and a derivative work.” Translations of the same work can offer readers varying experiences, she noted, suggesting that if translations of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary were compared, “You would be stunned by how different the translations are from one another.”

Bernofsky’s fascination with German literature began in high school when she read Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the original language. She joined Columbia in 2012 after earning an MFA in fiction writing from Washington University and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton. Her recent work includes new translations of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Next up is a translation of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain.

She is also working on a biography of the Swiss-German modernist author Robert Walser and has translated eight of his works of fiction. Writing in The New Yorker, poet and novelist Ben Lerner called Bernofsky “one of Walser’s brilliant translators.”

“Susan Bernofsky is one of the most highly regarded literary translators working today,” said Carol Becker, dean of the School of the Arts. “Her translation of The Metamorphosis was a breakthrough for a story all of us thought we knew so well, with its gorgeous further elucidation of Kafka. She inspires young creative writers to be creative translators, demonstrating with her own practice how each pursuit can invigorate the other.”

At Columbia, translation is taught as a literary art through workshops, seminars and master classes. Students also have the opportunity to collaborate on translation projects with counterparts at universities around the world. Bernofsky said that she urges students to avoid a dictionary mentality. Every language has a different grammar, she explained, and the “scaffolding” of a translation may look very different from the original in terms of sentence structure.

“We teach our translation students how to be writers with a full command of how to use language, as one might do while writing an original text, but while also reproducing what an original text says and does,” said Bernofsky.

Many of the program’s graduates are now professional translators. Two alumni started a translation publishing house, Transit Books, in 2015. Another recent alumna, Tenzin Dickie, just published Old Demons, New Deities, the first collection of Tibetan short stories translated into English.

Exposure to translation encourages a writer’s development and imagination, Bernofsky said, and creative writing skills are essential for translation.

“The translator is giving you her interpretation of the work, similar to performing musicians,” Bernofsky added. “Even those musicians who are doing their best to follow the notes on the page just as the composer wrote them are invariably infusing the work with their own interpretation and style.”

—by Eve Glasberg