Back Talk: Susan Bernofsky

Back Talk: Susan Bernofsky

A conversation with the translator of Robert Walser’s Microscripts about Walser’s writing rituals, his Chinese box sentences and the beauty of Zusammenhaengen.


Susan Bernofsky has been translating the work of the Swiss novelist Robert Walser for twenty-five years, ever since she was a high school student studying German and creative writing. Her translation of Microscripts (New Directions and Christine Burgin Gallery; $24.95), the eighth of Walser’s works to have come over into English, has just been published in a special edition featuring facsimiles of the original manuscripts. Bernofsky has also translated Walser’s novels The Tanners, The Assistant, Masquerade and Other Stories and The Robbers, and is at work on a biography of the novelist.    –Christine Smallwood

What are the microscripts? And what do they look like?

They are rough drafts of texts that Walser started writing in the early twentieth century, but we don’t know exactly when: in the late 1910s at the latest, but it could have been as much as a decade earlier. He had been writing manuscripts on big sheets of paper. He worked as a copy clerk when he needed money, so he developed utterly gorgeous handwriting–"copper-plate handwriting"–suitable for producing bank documents. His manuscripts looked like that when he was writing them out. But near the end of the first decade of the twentieth century he experienced some kind of writing crisis. He describes it as a breakdown. He developed the technique of writing rough drafts in pencil, not pen, and in a very, very small script on little pieces of paper, as a way of breaking with ritualized longhand writing. It became a new ritual. He began recycling scraps of paper, desk calendars. He would cut the pages to size, taking small pieces of paper and making them even smaller. He would cut them into regular shapes, so there would be groups all the same size, although there are some irregulars. And then he would fill them up, from margin to margin, with teensy-tiny writing, one to two millimeters in height. When Walser died in 1956 a batch of 526 of these little pages were found. No one knew what they were, and his legal guardian, who had become his literary executor, thought they were a secret code.

This writing isn’t "small" as in quotidian. It’s not one day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway. It’s small but mythic, grand in the way that children have grand visions. People talk about Walser the same way that Joseph Cornell is discussed–he’s a tiny magician! Is this fair to the work?

Yes. Cornell is all about being tiny and juxtaposing a lot of stuff. Walser does that too. It’s the part of him that seems to be modernist. Wanting to make the language really jazzy and in your face. He’s not using language to tell a story–the language itself is the story.

I always need to read Walser twice. Do your translations try to replicate that feeling of bewilderment?

German readers also have that experience. I was at Stanford giving a lecture on the microscripts, and I read the first sentence of "A Sort of Cleopatra" in German. The native Germans in the audience couldn’t follow it. The whole sentence is one big interconnected Chinese box, and you can’t get it. I read it to the Germans, saying, "All right, this is the subject of this sentence, here comes the main verb." It’s not as if you could recombine the parts to make them totally clear. They are transmitted with a great level of complexity, with lots of clauses that are all logically interdependent. Walser is not trying to make it hard willfully. He has said it as efficiently as possible, this big thought. But the thought itself is this many-tentacled thing.

You mentioned that the last sentence of "New Year’s Page" was especially challenging.

In the original version, in the rough draft, it ends with, "When a year stops, another instantly commences as if one were turning the page. The story keeps on going and we see the beauty that lies in connectedness." It sounds all right. The problem is that "connectedness" is not really the right word. In German the ending is, literally, "we see the beauty of a Zusammenhaengen." Zusammenhaengen is a cognate with "hanging-together," and it’s the noun that means "context." And I thought, It means "connection," "connectedness," but the word does not refer to the kind of connections between people. German has a whole different set of words for that. And when we see "connectedness" in English, we instantly think about connections between human beings. That’s why it’s not the right word even though it sounds OK. I turned it in, and everyone liked it. And I said, No, it’s just a placeholder, because I haven’t found the right thing. I started thinking about the beauty of context. I was thinking about Wallace Stevens, "I don’t know which to prefer,/the beauty of inflections/or the beauty of innuendos,/the blackbird whistling/or just after." In German Zusammenhaengen is so simple, and in English it was so hard. "And we see the beauty of context." That is clunky. It’s falling down stairs. Finally, finally, finally: the brainstorm was to turn the sentence around–"the beauty of a context is revealed"–because "revealed" is a nice word to end on. That works.

Thinking about the future of publishing, I can’t imagine reading Walser on a digital device.

That does seem wrong. Looking at the manuscripts, and the facsimiles in this book, is really special because by seeing how obsessed Walser is with the physical texture of writing, you come to understand something more about the stories. Even in his correspondence he’ll write a perfect block of text, such that he’ll make sure that the last line completes the square. He’s not going to end the line in the middle of a line–he’ll go all the way to the end. You can see he’s conscious of the text as an object, and literally how it’s framed. There was a letter to his sister I found in the archive, and he signs off on the letter and then he writes, "Greetings to so-and-so"–and I’m sure he only wrote "Greetings to so and so"–to fill out the line. His first book, Fritz Kochers Aufsaetze (Fritz Kocher’s Essays), is a book of stories that should be translated sometime. It’s supposedly a book of school essays written by a boy who died tragically young, and he, Robert Walser, has collected and published these essays for us. He wrote to a publisher pointing out that it’s easy to calculate the length of the finished book because all the essays are exactly the same length. Paul Valery would do things like that too. He once had a job to make a book for an architectural publication in which he was told the number of characters his text had to be.

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