A Professor Shifts From Literary Translation to Biography

After translating works by Swiss-German author Robert Walser for decades, Susan Bernofsky has written an English-language biography of him.

Eve Glasberg
July 14, 2021

The Swiss-German modernist author Robert Walser (1878-1956) lived on the fringes of society, shocking his Berlin friends by enrolling in butler school and later developing an urban-nomad lifestyle in the Swiss capital, Bern, before checking himself into a psychiatric clinic. He was interested in everything inconspicuous and modest—social outcasts and artists as well as the impoverished and the marginalized—prompting the writer W.G. Sebald to dub him “a clairvoyant of the small.”

Taking that quote as her title, Professor Susan Bernofsky has written the first English-language biograpy of the writer, Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser.

Bernofsky, who directs the Literary Translation concentration in the Writing Program at the School of the Arts, discusses her new book with Columbia News, along with the overlap between literary translation and creative writing, her summer plans, and who the guests will be at her next dinner party.

Q. What gave you the idea for this book?

A. The Walser community—and there really is a sort of community of scholars and fans of this author—had been waiting for decades for someone to write a new biography. I’d thought it would be Bernhard Echte, who’d been conducting research for years, but then he published a big volume of his research that wasn’t a biography, and I realized that no one else was writing one either. So I did.

Book cover: "Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser" by Columbia Professor Susan Bernofsky

Q. What was it like to write a biography of an author, many of whose works you have translated from German into English?

A. It was a strange experience, because I was so used to “thinking with” Walser as I wrote his sentences in English for so many years (more than 30!). But when I started considering his work from a biographer’s perspective, I realized that the sense I’d developed over the years of knowing how his mind worked was illusory, a projection. So I had to start from scratch, approaching his life on the basis of historical fact. I arrived at a quite different picture of who he was.

Q. How do creative writing and translating intersect?

A. Literary translation is a form of creative writing. I like to describe it as a writing exercise with maximal constraints: Write a sentence; here’s what it needs to say, here’s what the style should be, and here’s what the tone is—and you still have so many artistic choices to make before the sentence is written.

Q. What are your summer plans?

A. I’m working on a new translation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. That should keep me busy for a month or two.

Q. You're hosting a dinner party. Which scholars or authors, dead or alive, would you invite, and why?

A. Don Mee Choi, John Keene, Yoko Tawada, and Tonya Foster—some of my favorite writers and thinkers—because one should never pass up the chance to partake in brilliance combined with warmth.

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