American Academy of Arts & Letters | Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation

In 1923, the American Academy moved to its current location on Audubon Terrace in Washington Heights. Its beaux-arts administration building, pictured here, was designed by Academy member William Mitchell Kendall, from the architecture firm McKim, Mead, & White, and houses the library, archives, members’ meeting room, exhibition galleries, and staff offices. A second, adjoining building, designed by Academy member Cass Gilbert, was completed in 1930. In 2005, the Academy purchased the former headquarters of the American Numismatic Society, its neighboring building on Audubon Terrace. A glass link now connects the Academy’s existing galleries to newly renovated ones in the former Numismatic building.

In 1923, the American Academy moved to its current location on Audubon Terrace in Washington Heights. Its beaux-arts administration building, pictured here, was designed by Academy member William Mitchell Kendall, from the architecture firm McKim, Mead, & White, and houses the library, archives, members’ meeting room, exhibition galleries, and staff offices. A second, adjoining building, designed by Academy member Cass Gilbert, was completed in 1930. In 2005, the Academy purchased the former headquarters of the American Numismatic Society, its neighboring building on Audubon Terrace. A glass link now connects the Academy’s existing galleries to newly renovated ones in the former Numismatic building.

The Academy Library

The Academy Library

Bill Porter (Red Pine) with his editor at the Wilder Prize ceremony on May 23, 2018

Bill Porter (Red Pine) with his editor at the Wilder Prize ceremony on May 23, 2018

The American Academy of Arts and Letters was founded in 1898 as an honor society of the country’s leading architects, artists, composers, and writers. Thornton Wilder was elected a member in 1928. He received the Gold Medal for Fiction in 1952.

Though Wilder’s dramatic reputation soared with the premiere of Our Town (1937), his first Broadway shows were translations: André Obey’s Lucrece (1932) and A Doll's House (1937) by Henrik Ibsen. He also translated Jean Paul Satre’s The Victors [Mort sans sepulture] from French at Sartre’s personal request, and The Bride of Torosko by Otto Indig from German for producer Gilbert Miller. The Victors was produced off-broadway in 1948 at The New Stages Theatre in the West Village, directed by Mary Hunter Wolf. Wilder’s translation of The Bride has never been produced in the United States.

Wilder also enjoyed working closely with writers who translated his own work into French, Italian and especially German. In the case of his German translators, he felt so strongly that translators never received their due, that he broke with custom and shared ongoing royalties with them.

In keeping with Thornton Wilder’s life-long work as a translator and alongside translators, since 2009, the American Academy of Arts and Letters has administered the Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation, which awards $20,000 to a practitioner, scholar, or patron who has made a significant contribution to the art of literary translation.

Each year, the Academy solicits nominations for the Wilder Prize from its members. Works by the nominated translators are then read throughout the year by the Literature Awards Committee. The 2020 committee is chaired by Joy Williams and includes Louise Glück, Amy Hempel, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Terry Tempest Williams. The committee meets three times a year: in May, November, and January, at which point a final decision is made on the prize.

The five prizewinners to date are:

Gregory Rabassa, 2009, has brought into English many of the titans of South American fiction in translations that are both scrupulous and inventive, and in doing so he has created a luminous ideal to which all translators now aspire. He has mastered the magic of conjuring from a thousand possibilities the single best choice. Among his celebrated translations is Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Michael Hofmann, 2012, has translated Joseph Roth’s work into English. He has also rendered the savage war diary of Ernst Jünger and the plays and fiction of Thomas Bernhard, Gert Hofmann, Peter Stamm, and the novelist and poet Herta Müller. A poet in his own right, Hofmann has published translations of the poems of Durs Grünbein and the essays of filmmaker Wim Wenders.

David Hinton, 2014, translates classic Chinese poetry. His Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China is a classic, like Cathay and Poems of the Late Tang. The translations read in English as though they were written in it originally. A magician’s grace glows through all of the poems.

Jamey Gambrell, 2016, has translated the works of the wizardly Russian, Vladimir Sorokin, and her translations are wizardly in their own right. Hip, unflappable and at ease in the otherworldly post-apocalyptic mesmeric Xtreme sport of storytelling Sorokin represents, Gambrell captures the tone of this rogue modernist masterfully.

Bill Porter (Red Pine), 2018, has translated classic Chinese Taoist and Buddhist texts, in particular the three hundred surviving Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, where he has done the nearly impossible: personalized the poems of an ancient master without making them sound antique or foreign or contemporary American. Porter’s translations of Han Shan, the 13th-century poet called Cold Mountain, have set the standard for all future English language versions of these spare, luminous, concrete, and transcendent Chinese poems.

The next prize will be given in May 2020.

The Academy’s 250 members are elected for life and pay no dues. In addition to electing new members as vacancies occur, the Academy seeks to foster and sustain an interest in Literature, Music, and the Fine Arts by administering over 70 awards and prizes, exhibiting art and manuscripts, funding performances of new works of musical theater, and purchasing artwork for donation to museums across the country.

Amanda Woods