I first met Margot Dembo at a workshop for literary translators from the German at the Europäisches Übersetzer-Kollegium in Straelen, Germany early in the new millennium. She immediately drew me in with her kindness and open smile, and we soon discovered we were almost-neighbors; I was working at the time at Bard College, and she spent a lot of time at the farm her family owned (her older son was running things) in Ancramdale, New York. She invited me to visit, and the next thing I knew she was teaching me – a kid from New Orleans – how to cross-country ski. She was already over 70, not that you’d have known it from the vigorous way she conducted her life. I have so many warm memories of dinners with her (and sometimes also her husband Joe, who passed away in 2010) at her house or mine, walks with her irrepressible poodle Charley, and endless conversations about German literature. It was only a few weeks ago that she last called me up to talk through a translation problem – one of those ordinary, everyday German phrases that for no good reason lack a solid English equivalent. So when I got a call from her home number the weekend before last, I was fully expecting another such chat on our favorite topic, and was shocked to hear not her voice on the line but that of her daughter Wendy telling me that Margot had been in a car crash and passed away on July 10; a small family funeral had taken place on July 12. It’s hard to believe she’s gone. I will really miss being able to talk shop (and everything else) with her, and seeing her beautiful smile and warm eyes.
Besides being a friend, Margot was the prizewinning translator of over two dozen books, publishing under her full name Margot Bettauer Dembo. She won the 2003 Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize for her translation of Summerhouse, Later, the book of stories by Judith Hermann that kicked off the so-called Fräuleinwunder (“miracle of the young ladies”) in German literature, as a number of mostly young women writers rose to sudden prominence in a context that had been heavily tilted towards writing by men. In Margot’s translation, Hermann’s stories were gorgeous: quirky, nostalgia-tinged dispatches from the inner lives of women negotiating the end of a century and era. Before that, Margot had been awarded the 1994 Goethe-Institut/Berlin Translator’s Prize. Other of her translations include two more books by Judith Hermann, Zsuzsa Bánk’s The Swimmer, Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, and works by Robert Gernhardt, Joachim Fest, Ödön von Horvath, Feridun Zaimoglu, and Hermann Kant. She also translated a number of works of history, letters, and memoirs, e.g. for the Jewish Lives series at Northwestern University Press, but also including, for example, Shlomo Perel’s memoir Europa, Europa (for John Wiley & Sons) that was made into a film by Agnieszka Holland. Margot’s most recent gift to the literary world was her translations of the important East German author Anna Seghers for New York Review Books, including Seghers’s classic novels The Seventh Cross and Transit (which also became a quite good film last year, directed by Christian Petzold).
Margot was always one of my very favorite translation colleagues – one who had also become a treasured friend – and I’m really sad she’s gone. My heartfelt condolences to her family, and to all of us who knew and loved her.