Greetings, fellow Circle members,

This issue of the Gotham focuses on translation prizes and prize winners.

In June 2021, I attended a ceremony at Goethe-Institut New York at which Jackie Smith and Jennifer Jenson were honored for their translations from the German. Ms. Smith translated Judith Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses and Ms. Jenson Elsa Koester’s novel Couscous mit Zimt (Couscous with  Cinnamon). Jennifer Jenson and the publisher Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt GmbH have graciously allowed us to print an excerpt of her prize-winning translation which speaks so eloquently of a life touched by multi-culturalism. At the same ceremony, the noted writer Alexander Wolff shared some illuminating thoughts on the art of translation which he has also given us permission to publish here. Many thanks to Mr. Wolff and to Ms. Jenson for sharing their words with the Gotham.

I am also including a write-up of a recent online event sponsored by Words Without Borders which featured the work of Lauri García Dueñas and Conceição Lima, two prize winning poets writing in Spanish and Portuguese, and their English language translators Olivia Lott and Shook.

If any of our member translators have received any similar honors, please let me know. We would be delighted to acknowledge your achievements in the Gotham.

With best regards,

Patricia Stumpp, Editor

Goethe-Institut New York Hosts Award Ceremony for Two Literary Translators

On June 24, 2021, the Goethe-Institut New York hosted an award ceremony to honor the work of two German to English translators. Two literary translation prizes were awarded at the ceremony. The first was the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize, which was established in 1996 by the Goethe-Institut. Mr. and Mrs. Wolff were the founders of Pantheon Books, a publishing house established in 1942 which specialized in German works translated into English. The second award was the presentation of the Gutekunst Prize of the Friends of Goethe New York, which was established by the Goethe-Institut New York in 2010. It has been supported by the Friends of Goethe New York since 2017

David Gill, German Consul General in New York, welcomed the audience to the event. Also in attendance from the Consulate were Yasemin Pamuk, Head of Cultural Department, and Susanne Krause, Cultural Affairs and Science officer at the Consulate.

This was the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Wolff prize which awards $10,000 annually for a translation of a German work published in English. This year the honored translator was Jackie Smith for her 2020 translation of Judith Schalansky’s work An Inventory of Losses. Ms. Smith accepted her award from London via video. In her acceptance speech, she candidly discussed her struggles with the esoteric nature of Ms. Schalansky’s language which includes minute descriptions of nature, books, buildings and cultures that have been lost through the ages.  The translation required extensive research to find just the right word to describe, for example, the sound of the call of an extinct bird.

Ms. Smith’s outstanding work was acknowledged via video by Ms. Schalansky as well as by the translator Philip Boehm, the winner of the Wolff prize in 2020 for his translation of Christine Wunnicke’s novel The Fox and Dr. Shimamura.

The presentation of the Wolff prize was made particularly memorable by the presence of Alexander Wolff, the grandson of Kurt Wolff. He shared reminiscences of his grandfather and step-mother and provided insights into their work as publishers of translated books. According to Mr. Wolff, Kurt Wolff struggled somewhat with English and Helen Wolff was his primary link to the English language. Their communication during their marriage was almost a form of translation.

Mr. Wolff quoted from a speech that Helen Wolff had delivered in Manhattan thirty-one years earlier as she looked back on her life in translation publishing. The speech was entitled “Elective Affinities,” a phrase that she borrowed from Goethe. In the speech Mrs. Wolff stated that the publishing of translated works was “personal, idiosyncratic, and depends on a web of human relationships, based mainly on affinity. You respond, or don’t respond, according to your sensitivities and preconceptions…” Mr. Wolff went on state that “translators are among those co-conspirators drawn into the vast plot to make public the unknown…isn’t the text of a translation really one lengthy elective affinity?” Mr. Wolff has graciously allowed us to publish his entire speech which can be found in this edition of the Gotham.

The Gutekunst Prize was then presented to translator Jennifer Jenson by David Detjen, Vice Chairman of the Friends of Goethe New York, who also spoke of the mission of the Friends to promote transatlantic relations through cultural and social programs.   The prize was established in 2010 and recognizes the work of translators under the age of 35 who have not as yet been published. Ms. Jenson who was honored for her translation of an excerpt from Elsa Koester’s novel Couscous mit Zimt. The book describes the lives of three generations of women with roots in Tunisia, France and Germany.

In her acceptance speech, Ms. Jenson spoke of how the inability to communicate across different languages and cultures plays a pivotal role in Couscous with Cinnamon. The book raises the question of how one can foster communication without giving up one’s own linguistic and cultural uniqueness. Ms. Jenson sees  translation as one means of reaching across cultural divides. As she stated in her speech, translation “can highlight places of connection while also preserving difference…the space the translated work creates is one in which we as readers learn to approach others without the violence that stems from fear, without the immediate assumption of superiority that homogenous and hegemonic cultures presume and a humble willingness to submit to the Other.” The translator Alta L. Price offered her congratulations to Jennifer Jenson via video.

I would especially like to thank Dean Whiteside of Goethe-Institut New York, Mr. Wolff and Ms. Jenson for their help with this article.  The awards ceremony proved to be not only a celebration of two outstanding translators but of the art of translation itself.

Remarks by Alexander Wolff at the Goethe-Institut New York Award Ceremony

Thank you Doctor Schumacher and the Goethe-Institut for inviting me today, and greetings to members of the jury, and Institut staff, friends, and guests, here and abroad, who are joining us. This is precisely the kind of event Kurt Wolff most kindled to—an intimate gathering dedicated to the reach and touch of books, amidst the fellowship of those who love them, all pulled off despite, in defiance of, tumult and uncertainty in the wider world.

My Opa Wolff would be at the head of the line toasting each of today’s honorees, foremost of course Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize winner Jackie Smith, but each shortlisted translator too. When I realized that the bibliography for my recent book cited the work of no fewer than eight winners of this prize, I shivered at the depth of the connection.

But that’s not the only reason I feel at one with today’s gathering. Goethe-Institut New York is the direct descendant of the Goethe House of 1014 Fifth Avenue, where my uncle Peter Stadelmayer served as director through the late Sixties and into the early Seventies. Peter was the husband of Kurt Wolff’s daughter, my aunt Maria, whom readers of Endpapers come to know well, and the entire Stadelmayer family inhabited the top-floor apartment of that building. I’m told that the perils of its beautiful main staircase can’t be reconciled with modern safety codes, so 1014 Fifth remains largely closed to the public. But I still have childhood memories of visits to my aunt and uncle, and joining cousins after hours to slide down the balustrade of that staircase. That a hellion who haunted the old Goethe House stands before you in coat and tie inside today’s Goethe-Institut is an unlikely transit indeed.

I submit to you this afternoon dialogue from a marriage. The exchange took place on the morning of October 17th, 1962, between Kurt Wolff and my step grandmother Helen Wolff, freshly awake in their room at the Hotel Beau-Rivage in Lausanne, Switzerland:

Kurt, in German: Ich habe einen merkwürdigen Traum gehabt. [I had the most remarkable dream.]

Helen: Ich auch. [Me too.]

Kurt: Ich träumte, ich schreibe einen Roman. [I dreamed that I wrote a novel.]

Helen: Ich auch.

Kurt: Ich weiß auch noch den ersten Satz. [I remember the first sentence.]

Helen: Ich auch.

Kurt: “Es gibt Tage, von denen wir sagen, sie gefallen uns nicht.” [There are days of which we say they don’t please us.]

Helen, in English: “Some days are more dreadful than others.”

This exchange left such an impression on Helen that she shared it often after Kurt’s death a year later. It wasn’t only that she and Kurt could dream synchronously, almost identically. Yes, it was that—“die Gleichheit des Grundgedankens,” as she put it—the way the essence of their respective sentences chimed. But it was also “die absolute Verschiedenheit des Ausdrucks.” The complete contrast in expression.

Kurt’s Grundgedanken comes in German. Helen’s in English.

Helen recounted all this in a 1974 letter to Günter Grass. She had shared the story with him orally during a face-to-face in Frankfurt, and Grass asked her to write it down. She told this story to me once too—but I’m everlastingly grateful to Grass for urging her to put it to paper, and that she did so, and that it’s preserved in the Steidl Verlag collection of their correspondence.

In her letter to Grass, Helen goes on: “Kurt’s opening sentence is, I believe, a quotation from Goethe, or at least in the style of Goethe. Mine, quite notably, is in English. I often dream in English, especially if I wish to formulate something (in my dream) concisely.”

It’s left to me these many years later to postulate that, in their REM sleep on the banks of Lac Léman in 1962, as October 16th edged into October 17th, Kurt and Helen were passing translations back and forth across the pillow. Doing jointly, subconsciously, what those who would someday be recognized with this award do in very conscious solitude: extrapolating a second manuscript from a first, testing out transactions between German and English, measuring and annotating the distance from one port to another.

English was my grandfather’s Great White Whale. He was a compulsively social man, no more at home than in the salon, engaging in the parry and thrust of good conversation. His clunky English was the abiding curse of a turn-of-the-century Gymnasium education, which privileged the learning of classical languages over modern ones. I cannot imagine doing what he did in his New World adventure with Pantheon Books—publishing bestsellers in a language he hadn’t fully mastered. He could do so only because of Helen, sui generis; and one other class of people, the translators in whom they together placed complete trust. Storm and catastrophe would cast Kurt far from Germany, to the outer reaches of the gravitational pull of the language of the books he had so loved and honored—first, beginning as an adolescent in Bonn, by collecting them; and then, in Leipzig and Munich, by publishing them. Until the night the Reichstag burned, Kurt seemed not to suspect that his fate would be that of publisher in exile.

Not so Helen. She had been raised to be a survivor. Scrappy, prudently suspicious, relentlessly practical, she seemed to live life on perpetual alert. She collected modern languages, tossing them into her toolbox; this woman born in a village in Serbia and raised in the Ottoman Empire just before World War I would come to regard each as a kind of protective coloration.

Thirty-one years ago last month, here in Manhattan, Helen delivered a talk to an audience much like ours today. It contained a tour d’horizon of her life in publishing, and for a title she borrowed, felicitously enough, from Goethe. She called her address Wahlverwandtschaften: “Elective Affinities.” As she said that day, quote: “This profession means more than selecting, publishing, and promoting the written word. It is personal, idiosyncratic, and depends on a web of human relationships, based mainly on affinity. You respond, or don’t respond, according to your sensitivities and preconceptions, and the same, vice versa, is true of the writers you deal with, the agents and foreign publishers you connect with, and all your colleagues whom you have to draw into the conspiracy of making public the unknown, and make it known.” Unquote.

Translators are among those co-conspirators drawn into the vast plot to make public the unknown. Indeed, they serve as the deepest of undercover operatives. And isn’t the text of a translation really one lengthy elective affinity? Isn’t the rendering of German into English in fact the business of like finding like, practiced with excruciating care? Even if the German in Kurt’s dream was perhaps a little more elegant, when set alongside the English in Helen’s dream, which was perhaps a little more concise.

To you—all of you, whether holders of this prize or aspiring holders or simply champions of the art and craft we celebrate today—here’s to you and your dedication to the search for such virtues as the golden mean between elegance and concision. And here’s to your commensurate attention to authorial intent and nuance and connotation and the dozens of other contingencies you weigh, and calibrations you make, as you do your work. It is largely unsung work, but we sing of it today—sing the unsung, as Helen and Kurt worked to make public the unknown, and make it known.

Herzlichen Dank, and thank you.

Excerpt from Elsa Koester’s Couscous mit Zimt (Couscous with Cinnamon) translated by Jennifer Jenson

2. Marie
It was my country, my land. I knew every corner of the fields, the hidden paths, the
meadows covered with poppies in the spring. I knew when water flowed through the
oued and when it was just dry sand. I knew every olive tree, oleander shrub, and bird’s
nest. I always knew which cactus had ripe fruit and which cat had just had a litter, and I
took care of the kittens and the baby birds and the jasmine blossoms, because it was all
going to belong to me. That was what your grandfather told me. It was a warm summer
evening after a blistering hot day and the sun was just setting. We stood on the terrace
in front of our house and looked over the wheat-filled hills. I stood with him, matching
his wide stance, wanting to measure up. I can still remember it perfectly: “All of this will
belong to you one day, ma petite chérie,” he told me, stroking my head, “this will all
belong to you.”
Ah, my Lisa, I’m not sure—what do you want to know? It’s a long story, after all. A long
story. I had a wild life in Tunisia, ma petite chérie. I roamed the fields alone, free from
any watchful eye, and I spent most evenings with the Arabs: with Ulima’s family. Ulima
was our nanny, our nounou. She spent the days with us; I was very fond of her. She
would wrap me in a bedsheet and then pull on one end, spinning me quickly so that I
tumbled out onto the bed. I found it very amusing; we played it often before my sister
Solange was born. Most evenings she and her family ate with us, as Mamie insisted on
cooking the most magnificent dishes: poulet au citron, roast veal, lamb cutlets, cassoulet,
and of course her famous couscous. My father would ring the bell and then the workers
would come in from the fields, clean themselves up, and sit down at the table with us.
They enjoyed eating with us, my nounou, her husband Suleiman, and their three
children. I never played with the two boys, but I loved Aisha, their oldest daughter.
Aisha was my own age; we grew up like sisters. By age three we were fighting over
who got to play with the kittens. I admired her glossy, dark black curls. My hair was
also black, but straight and boring, and while Mamie always cut my hair short in Tunis,

Aisha’s hair tumbled down her back, the curls often falling into her face as her almond
eyes glared out at me. On the Fridays my nounou didn’t come to dinner, I would go to
their small house at the end of the chili field (my father grew chilis along with the
wheat). I would run down the hill and then the small path along the wheatfield—not the
boring, wide lane our car always took, but the narrow path that went along the
neighbor’s olive trees—and I’d start to sprint: olives to my right, chili peppers to my left,
and the red earth below me so wonderfully firm that I believed I could feel myself
dancing on the globe as it spun. Sometimes I stopped, picked a ripe pepper, and brought
it to Aisha, knowing full well that she would make me take a bite of it. And of course I
would bite it—I had to prove to her that I was a real Tunisian, like her—and then the
heat would burn my tongue and my throat. I never asked for bread or water to cool it,
though, never. I showed her I was one of them.
We usually ate couscous at Ulima’s. Although I would never say it out loud, it tasted
almost better than Mamie’s, because we ate with our hands and tasted with our fingers.
I would stuff the sauce-drenched couscous in my mouth, take a bite of the merguez
sausage, and then lick the red, greasy sauce from my fingers while smiling at Aisha,
whose mouth was also completely red. Aisha would teach me some Arabic, most of
which I’ve forgotten. Khobz is the word for bread—see, I still know that. I was always
jealous of how Aisha and Ulima would move fluidly between French and Arabic. In the
middle of a sentence they would suddenly switch languages and I would no longer
understand until they—equally suddenly—would speak French again. Aisha felt sorry for
me. You couldn’t go through life only speaking French—that would be sad, she told me,
so we would sit on our two stones under the lemon tree that Mamie had planted in the
courtyard and study. The lemon leaves smelled so good when you rubbed them
between your fingers; some words still carried their sweet scent into my nose long
afterward. I even knew a couple of sentences, you see, but I’ve forgotten it all. My, that
was all so long ago.

Winning Poets and Translators: Words without Borders’ 2021 Poems in Translation contest

On September 27, 2021, Words Without Borders presented a virtual poetry reading featuring the winners of its third Poems in Translation Contest which is co-sponsored by the Academy of American poets.  The two winners, Lauri García Dueñas and Conceição Lima, were chosen from 606 poems received from 327 poets and 79 countries. Ms. Dueñas poem was translated by Olivia Lott and Ms. Lima’s by Shook. The poets and translators were introduced by Eric Becker, Words Without Borders editor, and Airea D. Matthews, the guest judge for the contest. The event featured a reading of the prize-winning works by the two poets and their translators followed by a question and answer session.

Lauri García Dueñas lives in San Salvador, El Salvador and is the author six poetry collections. Her poem “0” is written in a free form style and contains strong elements of social protest, shared and personal experiences and an intense concern for the passage of time.

Ms. Dueñas has been a recipient or finalist for literary prizes in El Salvador and Mexico. Her work has been partially translated into Arabic, Catalan, English, German, and Italian. The winning poem was translated by Olivia Lott, the translator of Lucía Estrada’s Katabasis (2020, Eulalia Books), which was shortlisted for the 2020 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Hispanic Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

Conceição Lima is a native of the island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe and is the author of four volumes of poetry. She studied journalism in Portugal and attended graduate school in London, where she later worked for the BBC’s Portuguese Language Service. Her poem “Afroinsularity” is a haunting paean to her native land and to the departed souls who populated its plantations. It acknowledges the nation’s painful colonial history which left its indelible mark on the country.  Her translator Shook is based in Marshall, California. Shook’s most recent translation is Mario Bellatin’s Beauty Salon (Deep Vellum, 2021).

The text of the winning poems and readings by the poets in the original Spanish and Portuguese are available on the Words Without Borders website.