New York: Jackie Smith Wins the Wolff Translator’s Prize for ‘Inventory of Losses’

In News by Porter Anderson

The annual Helen & Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize goes to Jackie Smith for her translation of ‘An Inventory of Losses’ by Judith Schalansky.

Jackie Smith receives her Wolff Prize honor in a remote connection from New York City’s Goethe-Institut. Image: Goethe-Institut, Daniel Albanese

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Capturing the Musicality of the Original Text’
In a presentation made this afternoon (June 24) in New York City, Jackie Smith has been named winner of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize.

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, the Wolff is  an annual honor, recognizing a literary translation from German into English and produced in the United States the previous year. The program carries a US$10,000 purse. Funded by the German government, the Wolff Translator’s Prize was established in 1996.

Until 2014, the prize was administered by the Goethe-Institut Chicago. Since 2015, it’s been handled by Goethe-Institut New York, where today’s gathering was held.

Alexander Wolff, the grandson of Kurt Wolff, the author of Endpapers: A Family Story of Books, War, Escape, and Home (Atlantic Monthly Press, March 2), spoke at oday’s program, saying, “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 not only despite tumult in the wider world, but in defiance of it.”

Smith’s win honors her translation of An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky (New Directions). Jurors for this year’s 25th-anniversary edition of the award cycle were Shelley Frisch serving as the panel’s chair; Bettina Abarbanell, Philip Boehm, John Hargraves, and Susan Harris. Schalansky spoke during today’s event by remote, as did Smith.

In its rationale, the jury wrote, “Judith Schalansky’s genre-bending (or blending) text roams across time and space in 12 chapters whose identical lengths belie their tremendous diversity of subject matter, as they transport us from an island that disappeared into the South Pacific all the way to the moon, from ancient Greece to present-day Germany – and beyond.

“Jackie Smith’s translation follows this back-to-the future slalom with remarkable grace and agility, brilliantly capturing the musicality of the original text, its philosophical depths, psychological insights, meticulous scientific observations—as well as its playful ingenuity and deeply poetic imagination. In fact a catalogue of these achievements might properly be construed as an ‘Inventory of Gains.’”

Smith, on learning earlier this year of her win, said, “I’m honored and thrilled to have been chosen as this year’s winner of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize.

“An Inventory of Losses is a book like no other, a kind of literary cabinet of curiosities, and I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to help bring it to the English-speaking world.”

Smith worked as a commercial translator–including a stint of several years at a German bank–before going into book translation. She translates fiction and nonfiction, and in 2017 was the winner of the Austrian Cultural Forum London Translation Prize. An Inventory of Losses is her first full-length literary translation. It was also longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2021.

Gutekunst Prize of the Friends of Goethe

Jennifer Jenson receives the Gutekunst Prize from Friends of Goethe chair David Detjen. Image: Erin Cox

During today’s program, the annual Gutekunst Prize of the Friends of Goethe New York also announced its winner. Jennifer Jenson was praised for her translation of an excerpt from Elsa Koester’s Couscous mit Zimt (Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, 2020).

And Jörg Schumacher, executive director of the Goethe-Institut New York, spoke to the fact that the award program is in its 25th year, saying, “The impressive list of past recipients shows a jury that has struck a perfect balance between honoring well-established and up and coming translators.

“The promotion of German-language literature in translation is an essential component of our mission at the Goethe-Institut to foster cultural exchange across the Atlantic. We’d like to thank our partners at the German Foreign Office and the Friends of Goethe New York for their continued generous support.”

Those past winners of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize include:

  • John E. Woods
  • Joel Agee
  • Anthea Bell
  • Ross Benjamin
  • Susan Bernofsky
  • Philip Boehm
  • Daniel Bowles
  • John Brownjohn,
  • Isabel Fargo Cole
  • Charlotte Collins
  • Peter Constantine
  • Margot Bettauer Dembo
  • Shelley Frisch
  • Michael Henry Heim
  • Michael Hofmann
  • David Dollenmeyer
  • John Hargraves
  • Breon Mitchell
  • Burton Pike
  • Catherine Schelbert
  • Damion Searls
  • Jean M. Snook
  • Leila Vennewitz
  • Krishna Winston

‘Inventory of Losses’ author speaks at the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize event in New York City. Image: Goethe-Institut, Daniel Albanese

Wolff Translator’s Prize 2021 Shortlist

  • Jefferson Chase for his translation Hitler: Downfall, 1939-1945 by Volker Ullrich (Penguin Random House/Knopf)
  • Tess Lewis for Kraft by Jonas Lüscher (Macmillan/Farrar Straus and Giroux)
  • Jackie Smith for An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky (New Directions)
  • Imogen Taylor for Beside Myself by Sasha Marianna Salzmann (Other Press)

From left are Jörg Schumacher, Jennifer Jenson, David Detjen, and consul general David Gill. Image: Goethe-Institut, Daniel Albanese


More from Publishing Perspectives on the Wolff Translators’ Prize is here, more from us on translation is here, and more on publishing and book awards is here.

More on the impact on world publishing and the books business of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.