Susan Bernofsky reflects on her collaborative relationship with Barbara Epler, publisher of New Directions.
Barbara Epler’s work as an editor channels two very diverse hobbies from her personal life, combining the tennis-player’s warrior fierceness with the jeweller’s filigree concentration. I have never worked with an editor who has a more minutely developed sense of how to tweak a sentence to make it pitch-perfect, combined with the boldness to intervene decisively where intervention is in order.
Barbara’s editorial prowess is clearly demonstrated by her contributions to a book I recently translated, Robert Walser’s Looking at Pictures (New Directions/Christine Burgin). In the story entitled ‘The Painter’, the title figure – a young painter infatuated with his benefactress – reflects: ‘I shall paint her beautifully, more beautifully and meticulously than any landscape. How I look forward to painting her hands, for example. Her hands! An entire trembling, timorous joy seizes me now that I think of it.’ That’s how I translated the passage anyhow. Barbara looked it over, noted a certain discomfort with the final ‘it’ and suggested instead: ‘Her hands! Thinking of them, an entire trembling, timorous joy seizes me.’ The sentence is now much tighter, and more in character. Barbara heard the urgency of this painter’s voice through my slightly lopsided sentence and chiselled it out like a sculptor extracting a bit of loveliness from a hunk of rock.
Here is another example, from Walser’s prose piece ‘Catastrophe,’ which purports to be a description of a painting entitled The Burning Ship. We have just been reading about people being forced to jump into the ocean to avoid the flames, and now comes this sentence (in my translation): ‘The decorative beauty of the flames was deceptive, as was the water with its silken smoothness, which appeared to be a well-tended surface across which one might pleasantly stroll, while however failing to offer stability of any kind.’ Barbara’s edit reads: ‘The decorative beauty of the flames was deceptive, as was the water with its silken smoothness, which appeared – though failing to offer stability of any kind – to be a well-tended surface across which one might pleasantly stroll.’ This is a particularly brilliant edit, because in my original version, the strolling takes place under the guise of stability, whereas in hers, she’s placed the instability first, followed by the now uncomfortable strolling modified by the now clearly ironic adverb ‘pleasantly.’ In short, the edited sentence does the very thing it describes. I wish I’d thought of it myself.
Good editors make you better. Brilliant editors make you sound at least occasionally brilliant. Barbara Epler has for decades now been quietly taking translations of literary works from more languages than I can easily name here and hitting them with the genius stick. She has a fantastic nose for great literature and has made the English-language careers of several important German-language authors. Barbara was the editor of the first novel in English by the then virtually unknown German author W.G. Sebald.
Under Barbara’s leadership New Directions invests in authors – literally as well as figuratively – which in some cases means bringing out book after book that doesn’t sell. Publishing books that don’t sell many copies is pretty high up on the list of things that publishing houses don’t like to do. But then someone like Barbara comes along and is willing to take the risk of losing money in the short-term to go on publishing books by a poorly-selling great author in the hope that their work will be recognised (and sell better) later. Without Barbara’s intuition and commitment, it seems highly unlikely that Jenny Erpenbeck, for example, would have a significant English-language career now. Her first two books in English sold very few copies. Visitation sold pretty decently (and was picked up by a co-publisher in the U.K.), and her fourth book, The End of Days, was a hit. Just think of all the years of publishing in good faith required to make that possible. Yoko Tawada is a similar story. New Directions published two books of her stories and two novels (translated half from German, half from Japanese) before a book arrived, Memoirs of a Polar Bear (also lovingly edited by Barbara), that actually sold some copies. Now Tawada joins Erpenbeck as one of the most beloved mid-career German-language authors in English, and without Barbara’s willingness to take risks – including significant financial risks – for the literature she believes in, it’s likely that neither author would be in that position.
The task of the translator is inherently collaborative, and I can think of no finer ally than Barbara in this venture. Working with her to bring all these great authors to English-language readers is a privilege and a pleasure. Both as an editor and as a publisher, Barbara Epler has proven herself one of the very best friends of German-language literature in the English-language literary community.