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

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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.

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