Susan Bernofsky on Artists as Translators

Susan Bernofsky on Artists as Translators

The Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia performing St. Matthew Passion. Photo by Sharon Torello.

On the occasion of the American premiere of Felix Mendelssohn’s 1841 revision of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion—presented by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia with Center support—we invited author and German-language literature translator Susan Bernofsky to discuss the practice of artistic translation.

Mendelssohn’s revision was designed to popularize Bach among mid-19th-century audiences and included such modifications as replacing the boy choir with adults, and shortening the overall length of the piece.

Much like Mendelssohn brought his own creative sensibility to bear on his translation of the work for his generation, Bernofsky argues that translating a literary work requires a great deal of interpretation and flexibility, as well as sensitivity to contemporary language and culture. Artistic translations “bear the mark of their translators to a far greater extent than the layperson might assume,” she says.


Everyone knows writers like to beg, borrow, and steal from other writers, preferably dead ones, and of course there’s no particular reason for them to confine themselves to works written in their own language.

A bit over a decade ago, Rosmarie Waldrop, of the independent publishing house Burning Deck, asked me to translate an experimental novel from the 1960s by Ludwig Harig, The Trip to Bordeaux. The book, it turns out, is indebted to both the great early 19th-century German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, and the greatest essayist of all time—who was born just outside Bordeaux—Michel de Montaigne. It is filled with their quotes, which I diligently tracked down. But there was one mysterious chapter that eluded me. Entitled “Table Talk,” it described the most grotesque of feasts, in the form of a strange list of butcher-shop prodigies. Baffled by the obscure German words for all these mysterious meats, I turned to other sources.

First, I consulted the Brothers Grimm’s authoritative dictionary begun in 1838. Its usage notes led me to a bawdy 16th-century German translation of Rabelais’ 16th-century Gartantua and Pantagruel, then Thomas Urquhart’s 17th-century translation of the novel. As I searched for a paragraph or two I could borrow, I realized that none of the passages in question appeared in Urquhart’s English translation—nor in the French original, for that matter. All of them had been added by the book’s German translator, Johann Fischart, a satirist, who had not only made free with Rabelais’s prose but added entire chapters of his own. As my bad luck would have it, the bits that appeared most succulently those of Ludwig Harig were invariably Fischart’s additions. The translation I finally published (with some incisive edits by my publisher, Waldrop) invites the reader to feast on “all manner of smoked and dryed and salted and raw meat: further many barrels full of rank dog-befarted boar’s flesh, of farced fatted beeves, wethers, emasculated bullocks, gelded calves’ chalderns, miscarven oxen from vicar or knacker.”

Our modern notion of what a literary translation is (i.e. a piece of writing closely corresponding in content, style, structure, tone, etc. to its original) may seem to us intuitive and obvious, but in fact this model isn’t much more than 200 years old in literary circles. While an insistence on lexical accuracy was always a key feature of Bible translation, it was long the norm in the case of literary texts for authors to translate the work of other authors with an extremely free hand. It went without saying, then, that an 18th century author like Christoph Martin Wieland, setting himself the task of “Germaning” Shakespeare, would give the Bard’s writing a flowery overlay, and render his verse as prose. Wieland is a big name in German letters, big enough that when I discovered a three-volume edition of August Wilhelm Schlegel’s turn of the 19th-century Shakespeare translations (my German Shakespeare of choice) at an antiquarian bookshop, the bookseller apologized for not having Wieland on hand as he was ringing up my purchase.

Nowadays we translate quite differently, at least much of the time, or at least we try to. But the possibility of the existence of a truly “faithful, accurate” translation tends to be much overstated. Every act of translation is of necessity an interpretative act; every translator worth her salt is by definition a writer, and translations bear the mark of their translators to a far greater extent than the layperson might assume.

This is particularly true in the case of poetry. So what might it mean to translate a poem “faithfully?” Does it mean to accurately convey the information communicated in a line? Imagine what “Full fathom five thy father lies” sounds like in translation. The Schlegel translation actually gets it perfectly, but only by deviating substantially from standard German usage: “Fünf Faden tief liegt Vater dein.”

In many cases, even poets with strong voices can translate others with startlingly convincing ventriloquism. Paul Celan succeeds in this beautifully in his translation of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death—,” which captures Dickinson’s characteristic rhythms and breath pattern. Celan achieves this by allowing himself a certain degree of lexical flexibility in German, choosing rhyme words that may not correspond exactly to anything in Dickinson’s original (e.g. “in the Ground” becomes “ein Hügelrand” [the edge of a hill]) but nonetheless blend well with her general vocabulary and that of the poem. In the poem’s final stanza,

Celan takes advantage of the syllable count and stress patterns of key German words (Jahr·hun·der·te [centuries], E·wig·keit·en [eternities]) to slow down lines Dickinson has to slow with punctuation: He’s speaking in Dickinson’s rhythms but making it his own poem, too.

One of the most extreme—and successful, in my opinion—recent examples of a poet inhabiting another’s work in translation is Mary Jo Bang’s 2012 Inferno, which punches up Dante’s original with 21st-century references while at the same time remaining uncannily true to the themes and tone of Dante’s poem, as well as his tendency to fill his cantos with references to (14th-century) popular culture. Given that Dante was just discovering and establishing written Italian as a literary language (as an alternative to Latin), his lines may well have seemed just as iconoclastic then as Bang’s version does now, as she threads Dante’s stanzas with lines borrowed from rap lyrics and adds a whole spate of 20th- and 21st-century military villains to the inhabitants of hell. It’s incredibly effective. She makes Dante’s hell her hell, our hell.


Explore More