Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Symposium

The Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Symposium (participants pictured above) took place earlier this week, and was one of the most interesting symposiums I’ve ever attended.

The Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize—which goes to the best translation from German published in the past year—was awarded to John Hargraves for his translation of Michael Kruger’s The Executor, and the symposium that took place the next day was very focused, very enlightening, and very exciting.

This year’s topic was “Interpretation and Translation,” and each of the panels addressed the idea of how personal interpretation of a work influences how the translator approaches it. This topic was especially interesting in relation to the panels of poetry translation, especially the opening one on lyric translation, which gave Pierre Joris a chance to talk about his careful—and extremely thoughtful—translation of Paul Celan’s “Todtnauberg.” (Which you can find on Celan’s Wikipedia page.) He claimed that because of the very nature of poetry, a translated poem must be more difficult than the original—to smooth it out and make a poem easier to understand is to fail as a translator.

Nick Hoff’s self-analysis of his decisions regarding his translation of Holderin’s poetry was very astute and fascinating, especially when he compared his translations to Michael Hamburger’s, detailing how Hoff’s interpretative bias towards musicality and emotive force lead to very different translations from Hamburger’s, which favor meter over everything else. Ross Benjamin—who translated Holderin’s Hyperion for Archipelago—also gave a great presentation about his decision-making process, and really made me want to read this novel.

I don’t think I was the only person in attendance who was blown away by Nick’s and Ross’s attention to detail and quality. The perceptiveness of these two young, very talented translators is a great sign for the future of German literature in translation.

The prose side of things was interesting as well. Breon Mitchell talked about the process of retranslating The Tin Drum and Krishna Winston talked about Grass’s translator meetings. In relation to My Century, Michael Henry Heim gave a wonderful speech about how to treat dialect in translation, addressing the many problems, the different traditions present in other cultures (for instance, French translators frequently translate English first names in to their French equivalent), and proposing that translators invent dialects.

All that said, it was a bit of a bittersweet occasion. For the past seven or eight years, Dr. Ruediger van den Boom has done a remarkable job putting on this prize ceremony and symposium. Unfortunately, he’s retiring from the Goethe Institut this summer and returning to Germany, leaving behind some (literally) big shoes to fill. Nevertheless, I believe the symposium will continue—it’s an extremely valuable opportunity for the best German translators in the country to discuss the ins-and-outs of the craft at a very high level. And to be able to hang out with people like Drenka Willen and Helmut Frielinghaus and hear these translators talk shop is something else . . .

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