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

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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.

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