Festival Neue Literatur’s Ulfers Prize Honors Susan Bernofsky: ‘Gifted, Attentive, Exceptional’

In News by Porter Anderson

Author Rivka Galchen tells the Festival Neue Literatur’s Ulfers Prize audience, ‘We are so fortunate to have Susan Bernofsky working in the trade of translation.’

From left, Sarah Girner, Friedrich Ulfers, Juliane Camfield, and Ulfers Prize winner Susan Bernofsky at the March 28 Festival Neue Literatur award gala in New York City. Image: FNL, Stefan Falke

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Honoring Bernofsky: ‘Ingenious Problem-Solving’
In its annual kickoff gala, the Festival Neue Literatur on Thursday evening (March 28) presented the Friedrich Ulfers Prize to German-to-English translator and educator Susan Bernofsky, described by the Canadian-American author Rivka Galchen as “one of the most gifted, attentive, exceptional women, or for that matter men, whom I have been so fortunate to work with in my life.”

The Ulfers Prize is awarded annually by Deutsches Haus at NYU to a publisher, writer, critic, translator, or scholar who has championed the advancement of German-language literature in the United States. It carries a US$5,000 grant.

Previous recipients of the Friedrich Ulfers Prize include Barbara Perlmutter, Barbara Epler, Burton Pike, Robert Weil, Sara Bershtel, and Carol Brown Janeway.

Bernofsky directs the literary translation element of the MFA writing program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and she’s the winner of the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, The Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize, the Ungar Award for Literary Translation, the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, and the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

Many know Bernofsky from her blog posts at Translationista. Her translations include works by Robert Walser (she’s writing a biography of him), Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Jenny Erpenbeck, and Yoko Tawada. Her translation of Erpenbeck’s novel The End of Days (New Directions, 2016) won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, The Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize, the Ungar Award for Literary Translation, and the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize.

Susan Bernofksy “is not only extraordinary on the page, but also as a teacher of and advocate for translation.”Rivka Galchen

Her translation of Tawada’s novel Memoirs of a Polar Bear (New Directions, 2016) won the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

The eponymous Friedrich Ulfers is an associate professor of German at New York University. In the past, he has also served as assistant dean of the College of Arts and Science, the German Department’s director of undergraduate studies, director of the NYU in Berlin summer program and director of Deutsches Haus at NYU. The recipient of NYU’s Distinguished Teaching Medal and Great Teacher Award, Ulfers is a two-time winner of the College of Arts and Science’s Golden Dozen Award for Excellence in Teaching,

The festival continues through the weekend with five events beginning tonight (March 29). For details and registration, see our preview coverage here.

Below, we want to add Publishing Perspectives‘ congratulations to Bernofsky and share with you Galchen’s comments on presenting the award last evening. We offer you those comments now, in full, as provided by Festival Neue Literatur.

Friedrich Ulfers speaks with gala attendees at the 10th annual Festival Neue Literatur opening on March 28. Image: FNL, Stefan Falke

Rivka Galchen’s Ulfers Prize Laudation for Susan Bernofsky

Many of you know Susan, but for those who don’t I would like to begin by sharing an anecdote to give you a sense of her agile, gentle brilliance.

Rivka Galchen

Not too long ago, I wrote to Susan with a translation question in relation to a piece I was writing about George Frederick Handel’s Messiah: Did “handel” mean “trade” in German? She answered me quickly, saying that yes, “Handel” did mean trade, but she explained how that wouldn’t get me anywhere, because in German the composer’s name is spelled “Händel” which is pronounced quite differently from “Handel”–the “ä” in Händel is like the “e” in “mezzo-forte,” whereas the “a” in Handel is more like the “o” in “on point.”

She went on to tell me that there is a German noun “Händel,” which is technically the plural of “trade” (in the sense of transactions), but that she never hears it used, that she think it’s archaic, and when it is used, it means “quarrel.”

She closed by saying, “Last time I heard it used was in Schlegel’s translation of the first scene of Romeo and Juliet, but keep in mind that I don’t get out so much.”

So that’s a bit of Susan. But now let me share something of how I first met her.

I will quote from Susan’s translation of the great Swiss-German writer Robert Walser. “So here was a book again,” the passage begins. This is from Microscript 54, a short piece that Walser wrote in his exceedingly tiny handwriting on the inside cover of a cheap paperback, this particular one titled, After the Torment. Most of Walser’s microscripts were likely written while Walser was living in an asylum, which he did for the last 23 years of his life. Even Walser’s microscripts contain joy and mischief.

“So here was a book again,” he writes, “and again I was introduced to a woman. I’ve acquired quite a few female acquaintances by reading, a pleasant method for expanding one’s sphere of knowledge, though one can certainly, I admit, become lazy in this way.”

I was lazy in this way, too. I was writing a longform review of Walser’s Microscripts for Harper’s and that book, like an old-fashioned calling card, introduced me to one of the most gifted, attentive, exceptional women, or for that matter men, whom I have been so fortunate to work with in my life.

Through her translations Susan has brought to English language readers not only the writings of Robert Walser, but also those of Jenny Erpenbeck, Jeremias Gotthelf, Yoko Tawada, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, and others.

Much of the work by these writers poses an especial challenge to a translator. The surface characteristics of the words are often essential, and also there are many plays on turns of phrase and archaisms.

The first Walser-related German question I asked Susan, I confess, was about her translation of “swinishness.” In one short piece, titled Swine Walser plays on the word so many times as to have its meaning kaleidoscopically shift. Susan carried this across with phrases like “high on the hog,” “culture promoting swine,” “utterly dainty and delicate swine,” and on to “people are glad to place beauty in proximity to pigpens.” There’s even a final sly “disgruntled” before landing on the closing line: “No one can claim he is not a swine.”

What impressed me was how Susan’s translation transmits clownishness and earnestness at once, and even finds the ideal level of piggishness in the word “swine.” How did you do that? I remember asking her, and though I can’t recall her exact words, it was something to the effect of: Oh that one was pretty easy.

She gave me another example, which had been trickier. I will spare you my pronunciation of the German but still try to communicate to you something of the creative and ingenious problem-solving done by Susan. In the passage, from another microscript, Walser uses the German word “Fond” in two different senses, once to mean a background as in a painting, and then to mean the back seat of a car. That same German word “fond” is then further echoed in the use of “Fund”—as in: a find! How to preserve all or any of this? Here is the passage in Susan’s translation:

This reality. This treasure trove of in-fact-having-occurred-nesses. This car drove off, and he and she were sitting in the back. How do you like my “trove” and “drove”? Make a note of these words! They’re not my invention. How could such delicate expressions have originated with me? I just snapped them up and am now putting them to use. Don’t you think my “trove” is ben trovato?

Susan explained to me some of the thinking that went into this, and this time I’ll quote her, “I couldn’t find a single word that could do double duty in this context, but I thought of the rhyme ‘trove’/’drove’ for the first instance. ‘Trove’ isn’t the same as ‘background,’ but in cases like this I think that the language play often is more important than (i.e. precedes/motivates) the precise choice of words. Then I couldn’t find anything for Fond/Fund in English, but thought of ben trovato as an Italian expression we use in English. Obviously there’s no Italian in Walser’s passage, but he does use foreign expressions (generally French or Latin) elsewhere in his writing for comic (mock-cultivated) effect, so that’s my excuse for thinking it’s justified.”

She lightly but also ingeniously maintains the internal logic of the passage.

There are, naturally, a thousand of these solutions in each of her projects.

We are so fortunate to have Susan working in the trade of translation. She is not only extraordinary on the page, but also as a teacher of and advocate for translation.

I am entirely delighted and not at all surprised that she has been chosen for this tremendous prize.

At the March 28 gala, Liesl Schillinger, Festival Neue Literatur co-curator, and John Wray, the festival’s 2019 chair. Image: FNL, Stefan Falke

More from Publishing Perspectives on Festival Neue Literatur is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.