Last night I went to another wonderful reading at Schoen Books, Susan Bernofsky reading her translations of Robert Walser, particularly The Robber and Walser’s first novel, The Tanners, which is forthcoming from New Directions this summer, with an introduction by Sebald.
Her reading was so loving and precise; she often interrupted herself as she talked about Walser to share another anecdote, another thought, another challenge or pleasure in translating him, so that each statement branched off and escalated into celebration. She couldn’t help but pause after a passage to note something about how the prose functioned, to note some particular beauty of the German she regretted her English couldn’t convey. The title of this post was from a sentence in one of the stories in the collection Masquerade, her first translation of Walser’s, and she noted sadly how in English there was no way to finish the long fantastic construction of it–about, if I remember, peasants in the Swiss revolution knocking soldiers off their horses, a brutally effective maneuver as the soldiers’ pointed shoes caught in the stirrups as they fell–with the perfect verb “kissed” as in the German. A loss. And it struck me then listening to her that translators are really the most beautiful readers, the readers who are at once so perfectly humbled by and invigorated before the text.
Masquerade, she said, was accepted for publication when she was 22 or 23, which she said happens more and more rarely now; publishers are hesitant to take chances on new translators. Something to remember.
In answer to a question from the audience, she discussed the mystery of why Walser stopped writing when he entered the asylum, or even whether he did, since there are claims to the contrary. I hadn’t known anything—is it terrible to admit this?—of his biography before going. I sat back and listened. People used to ask him why he no longer wrote, she said, and he would reply “I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad.” And as she went on about his time in the asylum, how he dedicated himself to his job gluing paper bags, I thought: this is a small useful metaphor for encountering literature from another language. One enters abruptly at the middle of the conversation, listening to the perambulations and vertiginousness of Walser’s descriptions, swept up in them while knowing nothing. Others in the room begin an informed conversation of his life and work and one just soaks it up, each story unfolding unexpectedly into another, all of them unknown. Or, how any great work comes abruptly out of a life and into the shared language: announcing itself as though it had always been meant to be there, any further explanation failing to enter the space it has made for itself, and which its readers are surprised to note was so empty in them before.