Susan Bernofsky Walks the Tightrope: An Interview About Translating Yoko Tawada’s “Memoirs of a Polar Bear”

By Stefanie SobelleNovember 9, 2016

Susan Bernofsky Walks the Tightrope: An Interview About Translating Yoko Tawada’s “Memoirs of a Polar Bear”
WHEN MEMOIRS OF A POLAR BEAR first arrived in the LARB offices this summer, our fiction team had a tug-of-war over it; the author, Yoko Tawada, has one of the most original voices in contemporary literature. Writing between Japanese and German, Tawada crafts fantastical and imaginative novels that probe current political tensions and global, cultural transactions. This novel follows the lives of three polar bears. A grandmother, who lives in the Soviet Union, writes a memoir that unwittingly becomes a best seller, sending her into exile. Her daughter, Tosca, is born in Canada and then moves to the DDR, where she becomes a well-known circus performer. Tosca, based on an actual circus bear, is the mother of Knut, who was born in a zoo in Leipzig and rejected by his mother. The historical Knut was a minor celebrity in Germany, bringing millions of spectators to the zoo to see him. He died in captivity in 2011. Yet Memoirs of a Polar Bear is not only a novel about familiarity or celebrity — it is also very much a novel about difference, about how we see one another. Tawada first wrote Memoirs of a Polar Bear in Japanese, then self-translated it into German. The novelist Rivka Galchen has written that “in Tawada’s work, one has the feeling of having wandered into a mythology that is not one’s own. This is, of course, precisely what it feels like to speak in a non-mother tongue.” Indeed, Tawada’s writing often seems to be about various acts of translation, so I contacted her translator, Susan Bernofsky, to find out a bit more about what it might be like to work with Tawada’s world in such an intimate way. Bernofsky began learning German in ninth grade, and since her teen years, she has been translating some of the biggest names in German-language literature — Franz Kafka, Robert Walser, Hermann Hesse, et al. We first met when we were visiting faculty members together at Sarah Lawrence College over a decade ago; since then, she has become director of literary translation in the MFA Writing Program at the Columbia University School of the Arts and a leading figure in translation studies and German-language literature. I was eager to have the opportunity to sit down with her again after so many years, at the New York Public Library, appropriately enough, and discuss this novelist of whom we are both such avid fans.


STEFANIE SOBELLE: For readers who are hearing of Yoko Tawada for the first time, what do you think they need to know about her, or about her writing?

SUSAN BERNOFSKY: Hmm, where to start? She loves Kafka. She loves shape-shifting. She loves misunderstandings. She loves speaking the wrong language. And my favorite thing that she always talks about is what happens when you actually think about how you use your language: you become incapable of doing it. If you speak your native tongue fluently, for her that is the problem. Tawada is always exploring what happens when you actually start thinking about what you are saying and how.

This book has been getting a lot of attention, but really it is completely typical of her work. Her specialty has been writing these really imaginative takes on cultural border crossings for a long time — usually international border crossings. Memoirs of a Polar Bear is not even her first interspecies border crossing; her first big splash was a novel she wrote in Japanese, The Bridegroom Was a Dog, which won the Akutagawa Prize and really launched her international career more than a decade ago.

Something is happening in this book, then, about the connections between border crossings and the act of translation itself — about various forms of translation as being linguistic, cultural, and ontological. Does that seem accurate?

Yes, totally. One of her main characters in this novel is a polar bear in the Soviet Union who becomes a writer. As a polar bear, she is considered to be writing ethnic minority literature.

Why do you think Tawada does this interspecies writing?

It is really about people. It is about human otherness and the othering of people of various races and ethnicities. To me, this book is all about race. Knut goes to a party and someone touches his hair — a microaggression. The writer is walking around Berlin, and she is boiling, because it is so hot, and everyone keeps walking up and saying, “Aren’t you freezing? It’s so cold here.” And that too is a microaggression — Tawada is translating this phenomenon into interspecies relationships, but I think she is really talking about how we humans other others.

The timeframe of the novel runs roughly from World War II Soviet Union to a contemporary, unified Germany. Why that time frame? What does it do for the novel? 

For Tawada, it was important to be able to show both Germanys. The grandmother learned Russian before she learned German. She went to Moscow before she went to Hamburg. The Soviet Union is the important predecessor for East Germany, and Tawada is interested in the sorts of freedoms available under these different political systems, including Canada, where the grandmother moves out of political persecution when she is threatened with exile in Siberia.

She does not realize that she is being threatened, and that she is being rescued from something when she is sent to Germany (before Canada). Is that about the ways in which forces are controlling our lives — are things happening to us without us even knowing or understanding the forces at work?

Yes. I am translating another book now about refugees who have to leave their homes on three minutes’ notice, because all of a sudden something political has happened and changed their lives, and they don’t even know what has occurred — they only know that someone is holding a gun in their face, and they have to leave their homes, and then they arrive in another country where they are unwanted.

So they might as well be a polar bear being sent into exile.


At the end of the novel, Knut says,

Was my longing for the world beyond the wall not in and of itself proof that I was a Berliner? When I was born, the Berlin Wall was already part of history, but many Berliners still carried a wall around with them in their brains, separating the right and left halves. 

I have been thinking of that comment as referring not only to Berliners, but also to all kinds of people who are carrying around a wall in their brains. What does Knut mean by that? And do you think that is true? 

Yes. First of all, in terms of East and West Berlin, Berliners are certainly still very, very conscious of that, especially if they had ties to the eastern half of the city. Secondly, it is metaphorical, really, for all sorts of othering in situations where the difference is cultural, political, geographical.

Such as when the grandmother first gets to West Berlin, and they say, “Are you an ethnic minority? We love ethnic minorities here.”

And she eats too much salmon. And she loves sugar cubes.

And Sea Lion does not like sweets. What is going on with the character Sea Lion? Why a sea lion? Is it just because he is the slippery, unreliable publisher?

Well, Sea Lion is not a physical sea lion. He is a human whose nickname is Sea Lion, but he is a character who is making the division between animal and human slippery. This question actually came up in the editing process, because my editor Barbara Epler — a truly legendary, fantastic editor — was wondering if we could call him “the Sea Lion,” and I really didn’t want to, because I feel that what Tawada is doing is creating a human-animal hybrid. He is the only one named for his animal. I love the section so much when Knut is walking around the zoo and has all of these amazing conversations with all of these animals who have human personalities, the same way human beings have personalities, with all of their physical traits, described the same way you would a human character. She invites her reader to question the extent to which we consider polar bears very, very far removed from us. They don’t speak the same language as us, but if someone could translate between a polar bear and a human, what would they find out?

I know that it is about humans, and yet while I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think about the consciousness of animals as well. 

Yes, exactly.

The novel seems to focus largely on the lineage between these three polar bears — Tosca, Knut, and the unnamed grandmother. As you were translating, did you feel particularly attached to one of the bears over another?

As I was translating each chapter, that was the bear I was in love with at that moment.

Did you do them in order?

Yes, I did them in order. I was looking forward to Knut, because, you know, Knut! I even saw Knut once. And Knut used to be on my German bankcard. Knut was a national hero bear in Germany for a few years.

What is the effect of Tawada choosing a recognizable, actual bear, when she could have fictionalized all of them?

She could have fictionalized all of them, but in fact the second chapter is also based on real-life personages, which is kind of crazy, because she is writing this book that looks so fantastical, and at the same time is rooting it in these realia and the real world, such that it becomes harder to push aside. I think she is saying, “Do not dismiss this story as a fantasy. It is not a fairy tale. It is happening all around you.”

You have translated Tawada before. How did you first become familiar with her work? How did you start translating her?

I was living and studying in Germany, writing my dissertation, and I bought this literary magazine published out of Graz, Austria, called Manuskripte. In it, I read this short two-page story by her, and I thought, “Man, I love this story.” So I sat down and translated it, because I really liked it. Then I sent my translation of it to her, care of the magazine, and wrote, “Hi, I’m Susan (I was in my early to mid-20s at the time), can I have your permission to get this published?” And she wrote back, “Please get it published, and here is another one — can you translate this one too?” So we began this correspondence, and I translated a novella by her and some other stories that were published in magazines. I was trying to find a book publisher for her and could not — I didn’t have a name. I was an unknown person approaching publishers with an unknown author. And then she won the Akutagawa Prize in Japan, and Kodansha published The Bridegroom Was a Dog, and Jeffrey Yang at New Directions got in touch with her and said, “We’d like to publish you too,” and she said, “Cool — there’s this American girl who’s been translating me, why don’t you ask her to see the translations?” That is how I got my first book contract with New Directions, who is now my main publisher.

So it is through her? That is so interesting. Your whole translation career …

Is based on Yoko Tawada, yes.

Have you met her in real life?

We are friends; we hang out. She is amazing. And she comes to New York and does events.

In an essay by her that you translated, about translating the poems of Paul Celan (Celan Reads Japanese” in The White Review), Tawada writes, “Writing a word means opening a gate. To read the characters is to read the words, not the sentences or the sound.” What was it like for you to open her gates and translate her sentences? 

That is an interesting question, because, for example, when she writes in German, she is always trying to get you to look at the German language and not read it transparently, which means that the sentences are always stopping; she will stop the sentence and start talking about a word in the sentence, and sometimes these are things that don’t work as well in English, so I am always looking for ways to fudge that and make it work. She wrote the first draft of this particular novel, by the way, in Japanese and then self-translated it into German. It used to be that she would write half her books in German and half her books in Japanese, and then other people would do the translations into the other language, and she would publish in both languages. In the novel before this one, The Naked Eye, she wrote the first chapter in German and then the second chapter in Japanese, and then she kept writing the chapters in whatever language she felt like writing when that chapter arrived. Then, she translated everything into the other direction, so she had a complete German manuscript and a complete Japanese manuscript, both of which are originals, and she sent one to her German publisher and one to her Japanese publisher.

So she is self-translating as she goes?

She is now self-translating; with Memoirs of a Polar Bear, she wrote the book completely in Japanese and then in German and New Directions said to her, “The Japanese is the original, so we should translate it into English from the Japanese?” And she said, “I have already moved the book from an Eastern language to a Western language for you, so if you translate the German, it will be closer to my intention.” This goes against all conventional wisdom in translation. She knows a lot about translation, and she knows that translation transforms books, and she is one of those authors who embraces that. She will tell you as her translator: “Okay, I understand that this language play is not going to work in any other language — go make a language play of your own.” She knows that her translators are continuing the writing of the book in the other language, and she enjoys that. She is always about the group project.

Does she see translation, then, as a collaboration?

Yes. I think so.

Does she work collaboratively with you? When you translate her work, do you show her work in progress?

She doesn’t want to see it in chunks — some of my writers want to see what I am doing, but I only send her something if there are weird spots, for which I really have to write something new, and I’ll say, this is what I am planning to do here. In that sense, it is collaborative. For example, at the end of her early story, “Where Europe Begins,” there is a kind of alphabet soup where she has the letters that spell the name “Moscow” turn into things — characters and objects that have played a role in the story — as a kind of grand finale. In English, though, the letters that spell “Moscow” spell out different things than they did in German, so I had to write a whole new alphabet soup. I wound up using the Russian name of the city — she uses the German name, Moskau — but I didn’t want to use the English name, because the letter “o” appears twice in the English name, and it’s not very fun to do an alphabet soup if you have a repeated letter. I avoid having a repeated letter by using the Russian name, Moskva, instead, which I built into the story earlier — I had a Russian character speak the name in Russian to establish the Russian name of the city.

It must be so fun to translate a person who is already thinking about language on those levels. Has it changed how you translate other writers?

Well, I think that translating her helped me accept the fact that I was going to have to write some things that would seamlessly be part of the text. I do that with other things I translate now too. You really have to. You are “not supposed to”; we translators are always trying to hew very closely to the original text, which is what you are supposed to do, but very often if you do only that, too strictly, in many cases it produces something that is dead writing in English. And if the writing is dead, it does not serve the book. I am always walking a tightrope between writing exactly what the author has written and writing something with the same life as what the author wrote.

How much is translating then an act of writing?

It is an act of writing.

As a person who both translates and teaches translation, how do you approach teaching translation, and why is it so important to study translation?

I have taught translation in different sorts of contexts. Very often, translation is taught through the context of foreign language study, but I am now teaching translation in a creative writing program. Some of my students may not know the other language well enough to become professional translators, but they can still study and practice the art of translation. All of my students can write English well, and the single biggest obstacle in learning to translate is being able to write the language you are translating into well enough to have control over style and tone. So my biggest emphasis when I am teaching translation is on being as good of a writer as one possibly can be, while translating. You are not just writing the text the only way you can: you need to have a whole quiver full of stylistic arrows to match what the author is doing. Because the first thing that happens when you start translating, even to fantastic writers, is that the writerly side of the brain turns off, and the language-learning side turns on, but that is not how we write. By practicing translating, you are building the synapses between these parts of your brain — this is not scientifically proven, but I believe this is what is happening — the part of the brain that knows how to write is learning to talk to the part of the brain that reads between languages.

At the beginning of Memoirs of a Polar Bear, the writer-narrator describes the practice of writing as more difficult than being in the circus. Do you agree?

Writing is the hardest thing in the world. No, being in the circus is more difficult. I find writing really hard, indeed, but I can do it, whereas I think that no matter how hard I worked at it, I would never be able to swing from a trapeze or do those flips.

Have you tried?

Not since I was a little kid. So the circus is harder than writing, but writing is really hard also.

If you could choose any animal that best allegorizes your experience as a writer, what would it be?

I have a cat by my side whenever I am writing, but I don’t think about being a cat. Working on this book, however, has made me really indignant about the way we treat animals. Tawada invites us so strongly to accept the premise that animals have a consciousness and cognition and are intelligent, which we all know — we all know this — but we all willingly put aside this knowledge in order to go on living our lives in a way that is not good for animals. We go on raising animals and slaughtering them in barbaric ways. To believe that animals have a consciousness the way human beings do would mean that we would all have to change radically the entire structure of this country — the economic system and our energy waste. We are going to find out the hard way which animals’ extinction will cause our own extinction. I do believe that veganism is the morally correct choice, even though I do not always eat that way.

What was the very first thing you translated? Or rather, what was the very first translation that you published?

Robert Walser stories, as a kid. I started translating him when I was a teenager, and one of my teachers encouraged me, so I started out with something really hard, and I didn’t know enough German to be doing it, but it was such an interesting puzzle.

What are you working on now?

I am finishing translating Jenny Erpenbeck’s new novel, which is a real departure for her — this one is about refugees in Berlin — a present-day book, applying the same sorts of principles that she has used for her other, more historical novels. I am also writing a biography of Robert Walser, which I have been working on for a long time and am now finishing.

If you could translate any writer that you have not yet translated, who would it be?

Well, I have already translated Kafka, but I am dying to do more of his short stories.

What is fun about translating Kafka?

His prose is always full of switchbacks. The German itself is really fun. He is not even so obsessive about how he puts a sentence together, but his ideas flip back and forth in amazing, beautiful, gorgeous ways.

You have translated so many different authors — Herman Hesse, Kafka, Walser, Jeremias Gotthelf, Erpenbeck — of all the different authors you have translated, who has been the most challenging or the most surprising?

Every single book you take on winds up surprising you and challenging you in different ways. I have been very fortunate as a translator. Generally, translators wind up translating something they do not think is a good book. I have had the really amazing fortune to work with fantastic authors throughout my career — I have been incredibly lucky.


Stefanie Sobelle is the associate editor of fiction at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Stefanie Sobelle is an associate professor of English at Gettysburg College, where her scholarship focuses on the intersections of literature and architecture. Her criticism has been published in Bookforum, the Financial Times, BOMB, Words without Borders, Jacket2, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Review of Contemporary Fiction, among other publications.


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