2012 Wolff Prize to Burton Pike

I could not be more delighted by the news that Burton Pike has been selected for the 2012 Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize – an annual prize awarded by the Goethe Institut Chicago for an outstanding translation from the German. The prize, which has been around since 1996, comes with a hefty purse ($10,000) and a one-month residency at the beautiful Literarisches Colloquium Berlin. Pike is being honored for his translation of Gerhard Meier’s Toteninsel (Isle of the Dead), a classic of late-twentieth-century Swiss literature. But he could just as easily and worthily been lauded for many of his other translations, such as Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther or Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Pike also edited and co-translated Robert Musil’s huge masterpiece The Man without Qualities. Pike is a meticulous translator, obsessed with details of diction and tone. I remember that when he was working on his retranslation of Goethe’s Werther, he told me about spending hours filing away at his translation of a little scene in which Werther helps a servant girl with a heavy jug of water she’s just filled at the well. It is such a simple little transaction, and the language in which it is described is pure and spare. In his preface to the translation, Pike writes of this moment when Werther offers to help the girl: “she says ‘Oh no, sir.’ But Werther helps her, and she thanks him. Why the contradiction between negation and action?” Readers of this simple passage  may not suspect the thought and care that went into the translation of the simple words “She thanked me, and climbed up.” The same economy of expression can be seen in Pike’s translation of Werther’s encounter with a young woman surrounded by her brood: “She greeted me, I thanked her, stood up, stepped closer, and asked whether she was the mother of the children.” There is a great art to this careful sparseness. To give a sense of how easily such a passage can become floppily expansive, compare R.D. Boylan’s translation of the same passage: “She gave me greeting: I returned it, rose, and approached her. I inquired if she were the mother of those pretty children.” The temptation to expand can be huge. In any case, I am very happy to see Burton Pike honored with the Wolff Prize. Lesser translators (including me) have already received it, and it was high time it went to him.

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