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A Unique Competition for Translators in the USA

By Grace Moss, German Book Office New York
This past autumn, the German Book Office New York held a unique translation competition. The competition encouraged up-and-coming translators to try their hand at translating a work of fiction, an excerpt from Nora Bossong’s Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung (Limited Liability, reviewed in NBG autumn 2012). Riky Stock, Director of the German Book Office, explains the concept behind the competition: ‘Many of the translators we usually work with are sought after and sometimes booked up for months. The German Book Office as well as the publishers we work with are always in need of good translators and we wanted to find new talent. We also wanted to offer unknown translators the chance to get a foot in the door. I am happy to say that in addition to identifying a winner and a runner-up, the judges asked for contact information for some of the other translators on our shortlist.’
About The Competition
The competition consisted of two rounds of judging. In the first round, editors Lexy Bloom from Random House, Jenna Johnson from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and John Siciliano from Penguin read the English sample translations with the U.S. market in mind. The second round of judging consisted of experienced translators Ross Benjamin, Susan Bernofsky, and Burton Pike. Ross Benjamin said that he was ‘reading for accuracy and fluidity, eliminating for mistakes that jumped out at me ... and infelicities that were just jarring.’ For Jenna Johnson, the goal was to differentiate between ‘those which were obviously most readable and those which were not flowing particularly well at all.’ She said that she found herself ‘going back through those in the middle and carefully comparing particular lines. It’s fascinating to see how many variations come through of a particular phrase or word. For readability, for elegance of language, and for clarity of expression, there were certainly some that stood well apart. It was a pleasure to spend some time with those few and really consider the choices the translators were making and why – a pleasure and an education!’
Contestants were each given the same 705-word excerpt from Bossong’s novel to translate from German to English. Each contestant was allowed to have one novel in translation previously published. The winner, Kurt Beals, was awarded $600 to complete a sample translation of the first fifteen pages of the novel.
As judge Susan Bernofsky pointed out, ‘Since no publishing experience was required to apply, it was a chance for talented translators with no publishing credentials to be “discovered” based on the quality of their work.’ The German Book Office often hires translators for sample translations of books (such as those included in New Books in German), and so translators who competed in this competition had a genuine chance to be ‘discovered’ and put to work.
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Riky Stock introduces translators Burton Pike and Lexy Bloom and moderator Ed Nawotka
At the Awards Ceremony
The competition culminated in an awards ceremony at the Goethe- Institut New York / German Book Office, where Burton Pike and Lexy Bloom took to the stage on a panel moderated by Ed Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. The three discussed the competition, and Burton shared some wisdom about translation:
‘The concept of culture has expanded well beyond the limitation of national boundaries and is in good part obliterating them, and this has implications for writing literature and for literary translation and its future. ... One can argue that literature has benefited from the lightening of its heavy accretions, that as the notion of culture has broadened and changed, literature has been liberated from older formal, cultural conventions that belong to history.’
The German Book Office found it refreshing and inspiring to read every single one of the literary translations we received and is looking forward to working more and more with new talent.
About the Winner
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Kurt Beals
Kurt Beals is a Ph.D. Candidate in German Literature and Culture at the University of California, Berkeley. He received his BA in Philosophy with a Minor in German at Oberlin College, and also spent a semester at the University of Munich. He has published one book in translation so far: a poetry collection by Anja Utler entitled engulf-enkindle, published by Burning Deck Press, which was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award and the Northern California Book Award.
‘As a reader and a student of German literature, every so often I come across a work that’s brilliant, unexpected, and untranslated – and as a translator, that’s the kind of problem that I like to solve. The impulse to translate these works comes in part from a desire to share them with others who don’t read the original language.’