Susan Bernofsky directs the literary translation program in the School of the Arts MFA Program in Writing at Columbia University. She has translated over twenty books, including seven by the great Swiss-German modernist author Robert Walser, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Hesse’s Siddhartha and, most recently, The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck. Her many prizes and awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship this year, as well as the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize and the Hermann Hesse Translation Prize. She blogs about translation at www.translationista.net.
Asymptote: Describe your current/most recent project. Why is it cool? What should we know about it?
Susan Bernofsky: I’m working on a gorgeous and bizarre novel about polar bears by Yoko Tawada called ETUDES IN SNOW. It’s a three-generation story inspired by the short, tragic life of Knut, the baby polar bear born in the Berlin zoo in 2006, but that’s just the jumping-off point for her novel. It’s really a book about identity (national, species, etc.) All the main characters in the book are polar bears, and are described in their physicality as polar bears, but at the same time they move in human society, without any acknowledgment that there might be a contradiction here. The grandmother character, born in the Soviet Union, becomes a writer. As an author of polar bear extraction, she’s an ethnic minority. She later emigrates to Canada, from where her daughter returns to Europe, landing in East Germany, where she takes a job at a circus and experiences the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s a funny, sad, moving book.