Rhian Heppleston
Epilogue
DOOR Hassan Bahara
by Hassan Bahara
19-12-2007

I joked in a previous chronicle that people shouldn’t blame me if my words lost
their impact in translation. A week later, I read an article about a writer whose
English translator had made such a pig’s ear of his work that the writer actually
wrote a letter to the English book reviewer who had rubbished his book, fully
endorsing his criticism. Luckily, I’ve been spared that fate. Rhian Heppleston,
the translator who was given the task of tackling my texts on a daily basis, did a
brilliant job. My voice resonates powerfully through the English translation, as if
the translator had crawled into my head in search of the right tone. It was quite
something to hear that she had watched my film clips and looked at photos of me
on the Internet in an attempt to gain a true impression of me. This again proves
that translation is not a dead, mechanical process requiring nothing more than a
dictionary, but that it’s a human art-form. Finding the right tone and making the
right choices are the most important ingredients for a good translation.

My admiration for good translation work has steadily grown. But I still stand
by what I said earlier: that it’s asking too much of me to form an emotional
bond with my translated texts. I can appreciate the professional work of a good
translator, but I’d be lying if I said a translated text meant as much to me as the
Dutch original. Dutch, and Dutch alone, is the language in which words acquire
their true meaning for me.

In the summer of 2007, I was one of six European writers taking part in an essay
competition which took us on a short tour of Germany. We visited different
German cities where each evening a German acting duo would perform our work.
I remember quite clearly how unaffected I was by the performance of my texts,
as if a stranger had written them, despite it being an essay I had put my heart
and soul into and one in which I had broached subjects that really concerned
me. Even though I could follow the German text from start to finish, listening
to it did absolutely nothing for me. When later approached by lots of friendly
Germans wanting to compliment me on my text, I was at a total loss for words. I
felt as though I was accepting compliments on someone else’s behalf. Perhaps the
translator’s. Not mine at any rate.

Alle vertalingen van Rhian Heppleston
Epilogue
19-12-07

I joked in a previous chronicle that people shouldn’t blame me if my words lost
their impact in translation. A week later, I read an article about a writer whose
English translator had made such a pig’s ear of his work that the writer actually
wrote a letter to the English book reviewer who had rubbished his book, fully
endorsing his criticism. Luckily, I’ve been spared that fate. Rhian Heppleston,
the translator who was given the task of tackling my texts on a daily basis, did a
brilliant job. My voice resonates powerfully through the English translation, as if
the translator had crawled into my head in search of the right tone. It was quite
something to hear that she had watched my film clips and looked at photos of me
on the Internet in an attempt to gain a true impression of me. This again proves
that translation is not a dead, mechanical process requiring nothing more than a
dictionary, but that it’s a human art-form. Finding the right tone and making the
right choices are the most important ingredients for a good translation.

My admiration for good translation work has steadily grown. But I still stand
by what I said earlier: that it’s asking too much of me to form an emotional
bond with my translated texts. I can appreciate the professional work of a good
translator, but I’d be lying if I said a translated text meant as much to me as the
Dutch original. Dutch, and Dutch alone, is the language in which words acquire
their true meaning for me.

In the summer of 2007, I was one of six European writers taking part in an essay
competition which took us on a short tour of Germany. We visited different
German cities where each evening a German acting duo would perform our work.
I remember quite clearly how unaffected I was by the performance of my texts,
as if a stranger had written them, despite it being an essay I had put my heart
and soul into and one in which I had broached subjects that really concerned
me. Even though I could follow the German text from start to finish, listening
to it did absolutely nothing for me. When later approached by lots of friendly
Germans wanting to compliment me on my text, I was at a total loss for words. I
felt as though I was accepting compliments on someone else’s behalf. Perhaps the
translator’s. Not mine at any rate.

Epilogue
07-12-07

There’s a comment on Hassan’s website. It reads as follows:

“I don’t generally slag off colleagues, but shit, what a boring bunch of columns from the guys on that CB log. Christ. Shoot some speed, ecstasy, coke, champagne, whatever you want, but inject some talent at any rate.”

Penned by Niels Carels, blogger and novelist.

First off, let me comment on ‘talent’. I hate the word. Talent is, according to the dictionary, a ‘natural ability or aptitude’. By insinuating a lack of talent, you’re basically suggesting that you’re past caring about. You’re actually saying: ‘those guys’ on ‘that CB log’ are never going to amount to much with the crap they’re churning out.

I don’t believe in talent. At best, perhaps in potential. As in, statistically a tall black guy has a greater chance of developing into a basketball champion. In the same way that I, as the taciturn older brother to three gabby sisters, was probably more inclined to sit in my room writing stories than other boys of my generation.

I believe we understand ‘talent’ as that skill which we acquire in ignorance. Before we are forced to learn it at school – or while we’re at school and supposed to be learning other things. Like the doodlings in the schoolbook margins of Crossing Border-illustrator Matthijs Sluiter.

Was that boring? I apologise. I have the tendency to analyse things a little. With the emphasis on ‘a little’. And preferably using nice flowing sentences. I’m sorry if they put you to sleep.

Honestly speaking, I suspect Niels Carels is right when he says that the texts on the CB log are boring. I wondered why that was and I think it has to do with the format of the project. Picture this: a group of writers and translators thrown together, given a few days to brainstorm a broad, abstract subject like translation, and then asked to put their most profound thoughts to paper. What do you get? Texts filled with a heady mix of passion and addictive drugs? Or something that those not involved find difficult to connect with?

When we performed at the Poetry Society in London, something special happened; we succeeded in enthusing the audience with our topic. Maybe it was the wine we’d drunk earlier or the energy released during the forging of friendships. Perhaps it was down to the fact that people had come especially for us – entrance was free but just the fact that they turned up showed that they thought we were worth investing in. It felt as if we were really making them think about a subject that they usually take for granted. People listened and laughed; they even asked questions. Then again, they had no other option; it was warm, cramped and the exit was blocked by a man with one leg.

Contrast that with Niels Carels, who, sat behind his computer late at night, beer in hand with his willy hanging out of his trousers, decides to have a gander at a few Crossing Border blogs. He places our blogs in the context of all the things he could have been doing with his life at that very moment. Watching a good film. Getting dressed and going out on the town. Browsing through his new book.

As international chroniqueurs, our assignment was to talk, think, write and perform. The last element was especially nerve-wracking, but we were not alone. In a short space of time, we grew closer to one another – but perhaps not to the average visitor or reader. At any rate, not to Niels Carels.

It’s rather telling that I intuitively continue to regard the Chronicles as a social experiment and not as beautiful art, fascinating science or thrilling entertainment. Could it work differently? Is it possible to make a project like this – in a nutshell, a group of young writers in residence reporting on Crossing Border – interesting for a wider audience? It’s an interesting question open to discussion and one that I gladly pass on to my successors.

In any case, I think it’s an interesting question. If Niels Carels think it’s a boring one, perhaps he could do with a bit of speed, ecstasy, coke or champagne. Or talent. Talent seems to hit the spot.

A good sequel
24-11-07

In The Empire Strikes Back, we are reunited with Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and all the other familiar faces. The heroes develop in character and experience even more spectacular intergalactic adventures.

And yet, at the same time, the somewhat frivolous side of the first Star Wars makes room for something more sinister. We are introduced to the wise Yoda and we discover that Darth Vader is not the archrival, but merely the evil emperor’s puppet.

In this respect, the film is familiar territory but with a few extra layers added on – and I think I’m not the only one who reckons this is possibly the best sequel in the history of film.

This year’s Crossing Border was also a sequel, for me at least, and I was pleased to see a few old familiar characters. To begin with, the people organizing the festival, of course – and the writer Hassan Bahara, who in a mind-bending twist told me yesterday that he didn’t want to write any more books. The thing is with Hassan, you never know how to take these bold statements – does he really mean what he’s saying? But I can appreciate it, because that’s the way I know him. In the same way that I love it when Han Solo comes out with a smart-arse remark.

Last year, there was also this girl – sorry, long story – who looked like she was falling between two beds in a photo. I wrote a column about it and later received an e-mail from her mum – turns out the girl is a member of the The Hague band Mellow Yellow. This year, she came and said “hello” and I noticed she had less hair than before. How’s that for character development. The girl also revealed that the friend in the photo, who appeared to be offering her a helping hand, was actually pushing her between the beds. Just like that, she added another layer to the story.

Another recurring character was the enthusiastic kid from the secondary school where I gave a talk about my writing during last year’s festival. He also featured in a column. He told me he’d already read six pages of my book and twice forced me to ‘slip him some skin’. All part and parcel of the whole experience.

In terms of the nature of the programme, this year was far more content-based. More of a learning experience thanks to the workshops in London; the discussion about cultural differences with Priya, Crista and Rhian; the afternoon session on literature in education; meeting Jamilla, the Arabian-Dutch interpreter who switches between wiretappings and visits to the doctor; and Hetty, the interpreting coordinator for the immigration services.

Last year I wrote how, on the last day, everyone kept saying, “It’s been great, eh?” “Yeah, I really enjoyed it”, despite the fact that we still had another whole evening’s programme to go. So, here I am doing it again: it was a good sequel.

Column VI
24-11-07

I recently saw the author A.F.Th on television calling for a review of the way
writers behave towards one another. This was prompted by the torrent of verbal
abuse he’d received at he hands of another author, Arnon Grunberg. Everyone is
adamant that is was much ado about nothing. Two writers who have a go at each
other on paper, with next to no literary conviction. Cheap and childish, definitely.
But I doubt it affected their book sales. Both these thugs seemed to be cannily
aware that this slanging match would guarantee them a spot in the limelight for a
long time to come. Their outrage was definitely all for show. It’s integral to the art
of kicking up a fuss.

Yesterday, during an interview with A.F.Th at Crossing Border, they touched
briefly on the polemics of the past couple of months and the fact that A.F.Th
dined in a separate room during the awards ceremony for the AKO Literature
Prize. With palpable pleasure, they brought up the whole sordid story again. The
audience, of course, had a field day. I mean, what can be more entertaining than
watching two writers tearing each other’s eyes out in public? Which brings me
to my next point: how about initiating a literary equivalent of MTV’s Celebrity
Death Match at Crossing Border?

We could have a committee of literary critics whose task it would be to pair
up writers who hate each other. Arnon Grunberg vs. A.F.Th. Arie Storm vs.
Abdelkader Benali. Gerbrand Bakker vs. Joost Zwagerman. No, wait; everyone has
an issue with Joost Zwagerman. We’ll have to draw lots for him.

Crossing Border can bill the fights as pure polemics. Literary bigwigs finally going
physically head to head with one another. Having slagged each other off to the
hilt, they will commence battle using a weapon of their choice. The idea is to keep
attacking each other till one of them dies. The winner is then entitled to declare
himself the superior literary force. No words, no arguments, no mindless quips,
just plenty of strikes and blows. That’s what people want these days. Someone
once claimed in a TV programme that the literary polemicist died with W.F.
Hermans. That’s not true, these times simply demand a different kind of polemics
where the fist speaks louder than all the written words put together.

The machine language of the human brain
23-11-07

Priya has already covered this point earlier, but to reiterate: translation is ultimately the essential, daily process that occurs between language, in whatever form, and the human brain. Even if there is no particular need for a transition between, say, Dinka and Western Flemish. People who read books, interpret the written word according to his or her own personal experiences. The task of the literary translator is to commit an impartial interpretation to paper, so that new readers are given the chance to distil their own independently.

Aside from being a kick-ass action story, Snow Crash, by the American sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson, also puts forward a pretty good theory about modern languages as a sort of superior programming language to the universal machine language of the human brain.

For the non-programmers among you, this is how computers work. Programming languages like C++ enable programmers to write programs using abstract expressions, but ones which are still recognisable as a type of language. What we call a compiler then converts the code into basic commands that the computer chip responds to: instructions like add, subtract, clear space for bits, cast on, knit one, purl one, cast off.

According to Stephenson, or rather the linguist playing the main character in his book, the human brain works in a similar way. He even makes reference to the tower of Babel. Before this construction existed, people had faith in the original brain language. After the tower was built, various ‘superior’ languages were added, ranging from Farsi to the language spoken in Antwerp.

No one could understand each other anymore, but there were also advantages to this shift. According to Stephenson – and this is where the sci-fi bit really kicks in – the brain language had considerable limitations, in that you were only actually able to give commands; once again, a parallel with computers. Fragments of programming code were meant to spread like a virus and ensure that the old Sumerians worked hard at tilling the land, baking bread and so on.

Of course, Snow Crash also has its bad guy who takes advantage of the brain language. By mastering the century-old human machine language, he is able to reprogram people, as it were. He has them in his clutches and uses them to conquer the world. Luckily, the main character Hiro Protagonist foils his plans – and if I’m not mistaken, with the aid of flying skateboards and one almighty supply of explosives.

I prefer to see the machine language of the human brain not as a series of commands but more like a dynamic landscape of emotions. This would explain why a German, who allows the translation of my book to penetrate his mind, experiences something similar to what the Dutch reader feels. The superior programming language may be different, but the machine language still corresponds. The emotions of the machine language are universal.

I’m not saying that commands shouldn’t be given, but then in moderation. Take the accountancy department, for example: sure, they carry out their work diligently and conscientiously, and I couldn’t manage without them. But as far as handing over the reins goes…

Column V
23-11-07

It was a strange sight seeing Kula Shaker perform in a space that is normally
reserved for plays and theatre-goers. Wild dancing wasn’t an option since the
audience was wedged in between rows of seats. Other than bobbing your head to
the rhythm of the music and yelling appreciatively as the band struck up a new
song, people’s movements were restricted to a minimum. But maybe that was
better in the end, since it forced people to concentrate more on the music and the
performance. And they were good, brilliant in fact. Rock & Roll with a capital R.

Earlier in the evening, in another room, the Amsterdam student magazine
Propria Cures hosted an evening-long programme with authors including Cindy
Hoetmer, Hans Hogenkamp, and Janneke van der Horst. It was interesting to
see these people at work, especially for those who just can’t get enough of oldschool
Dutch literary satire where the primary aim is to ridicule others using any
unwarranted means possible – a job these people are very good at.

Satire is perhaps one of the most important literary genres around. From Don
Quixote to Glamorama and the Evil Spirits. Satire, good satire, stands the test
of time far better than other literary forms since there is nothing so liberating as
seeing the hubris of mankind brought into perspective.

Today, Salman Rushdie is performing. There’s a lot to be said about his work,
both bad and good. His greatest talent lies in the bold satirical element of his
earlier works, which enraged our Muslim brothers. It’s a pity that he seems to
have somewhat lost this wonderful knack for crafting great satire. Nowadays,
you’re more likely to find him in the comment section of the papers writing deadly
serious pieces about the Dutch government’s failure to provide protection for
Ayaan Hirsi Ali. These are the moments when you wish that certain writers were
forbidden from having any further say in matters of public debate. It is all too
often a tragic squander of their talent. Which is sort of the case with Rushdie.
Which of his books over the past ten years has actually been a work worth
remembering? What if he were to channel all this energy squandered on flexing
his political and literary muscles in the newspapers into writing a new book? With
his phenomenal talent for writing good satire, he could say more in one book than
has been said in all these newspaper articles put together.

Picking up windmill
22-11-07

Would all the Windmill fans raise their hands, please? I realise you’ve all come here to see the band Windmill and not the writer Niels ’t Hooft. But I’m going to read to anyway. I’ll start by bringing you up to speed on why I’m here.

I’m part of a project called The Chronicles which focuses on the art of writing and translation. Last year, I took part in a similar project involving four writers – the so-called chroniquers – who paced up and down the streets of The Hague and across Crossing Border. Our task was to write columns and then read them at the festival.

At the end of last year’s project, I suggested that the chroniquers should shadow a band sometime. Crossing Border head honcho Cees Debets jumped at the idea like a batgirl to an undertaker wearing a trench coat – all squealing and excitable. So, I decided to go and pick up the band Windmill from Schiphol airport.

Here’s the thing. The night the author Aukelien Weverling stood in front of an enormous hall full of Razorlight fans to read from her own work was – and still is – engraved in my memory. She did it brilliantly, but hardly anyone was listening and, apparently, someone even yelled out “Stop, stop!”.

A flash of inspiration came when I realised that, knowing she had to perform that night with Razorlight, Aukelien’s best tactic would have been to write a column about it. This would have been her chance to tell all the fans that the drummer had a habit of picking his nose pretty frequently and pretty deeply.

Today, I’m scheduled right before Windmill. At the time of writing, I’m not sure how big the room is going to be or how fanatic and numerous the Windmill fans will be, but it still seems like a good idea to put into practice what I’d been preaching. If only because Cees had been so damn enthusiastic.

Unfortunately, I found out this morning that the band wasn’t arriving at Schiphol at all, but coming with their own transport. So, that was my great plan up the spout. I could maybe still sit in on the sound check, but I kind of felt that wasn’t really full-proof enough. I’m not the kind of person who strikes up conversations easily with new people, but I should just about manage it during the trip to and from the airport in the Crossing Border bus. Surely the Windmillers won’t have much else to do other than tell tales about their nose-picking drummer. But during the sound check I’d stay quite definitely in the wings, unsure of whether I should chip in or not.

At the time of writing, the sound check is in full swing. It’s just a stone’s throw from the café where I’m typing away at my MacBook. But I don’t think I’m going to make it. And besides, my column’s already finished.

Column IV
22-11-07

It felt good to be back at one of the greatest festivals in the Netherlands.
As opposed to the majority of festivals, this one at least rocks. Pure and
unadulterated rock & roll infuses the literary performances as well as the
music. Borders are being well and truly crossed here in The Hague where
literature swings and music becomes poetry. A prime example being last night’s
performance by DJ Kubus and rapper Bang Bang – familiar faces to those who
were at last year’s opening night of the Crossing Border Festival. I had just come
from hearing the Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa recite a Ginsbergian poem, which
in terms of rhythm and expression, was a worthy match for the rappers.

There was a definite Arabian theme to the night. The writer Hisham Matar
was given free reign to put together an evening full of performances of his
own choosing and confided that the Palestinian rap group DAM was one of his
personal favourites. I have to say, they weren’t exactly what you’d call innovative,
their rap was far too clichéd and smacked of the hackneyed pop rap that clogs
up the TMF and MTV airwaves. Even their strong political character was a bit
too much of a good thing for your average rap fan. No one would dispute the
suffering caused by the Israeli occupation, but after a few numbers you’ve pretty
much had enough and start to long for a bit of light relief. Luckily for us, they
had a broad repertoire and people were eventually given the chance to catch their
breath, but not before hearing another heavy track about the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. What would Palestinian’s rap about if they didn’t have to think about the
occupation? Presumably, all the normal stuff that pretty much every other rap
artist writes about: beautiful women, expensive cars and getting your kicks.

The simple pleasures in life are universal in that they are recognisable to
everyone – yet another example of borders being crossed. As the rappers from
DAM start rapping on a theme that speaks to the Palestinian and Dutch youth
alike, the audience comes to life and starts feeling the flow. Universal themes
like beautiful women, expensive cars and getting your kicks need no translation.
This is a language that everyone speaks and understands, even those living in
destitution and in countries where fun is short on the ground.

The eye of the storm
21-11-07

This is the eye of the storm. I think back to the translation adventures in London while at the same time trying to imagine what awaits us at the Crossing Border Festival in The Hague. I try to distil an original insight or a good joke from all the fragments bubbling to the surface of my mind. But it simply isn’t happening.

Outside, someone’s taking a stroll. Dry leaves hang precariously from the branch of a tree – just one gust of wind and they’re gone.

London was fun. Beforehand, I wasn’t sure what to expect and it was a bit awkward at the beginning, but the performance in the Poetry Society on the last evening, the gala evening as it were, really turned things round.

Something weird and wonderful happens when you bring a group of people with shared interests together for a few days and force them to interact with one another. A bond develops, knowledge is transferred, processes are set in motion. This is perhaps completely normal for some people, but yours truly doesn’t go in much for clubs and societies. To my surprise, I even found myself kind of growing to love these people.

Anyway, point being…. This is the eye of the storm and I’m trying to get this column written. Only there’s no sense of urgency. This column is just one of the many jobs on my to-do list. And they all have to be done today, otherwise someone will get mad. In theory, at least. In practice, tomorrow would do.

Maybe it’s that I’m doubting my capabilities. Am I the kind of person who produces columns? This morning, I fitted a socket in the bathroom, scraped away some adhesive from between the tiles (so I can gout them later), hoovered the flat and bought some paint from the D.I.Y store. Today, I’m a jack-of-all-trades: electrician, tile-scraper, hooverer, paint-buyer. But clearly not a writer. Which makes sense really, given that today I’m not being subsidised by any funding bodies that like the sound of ‘talent development’.

How different it was in London, where I was a writer doing writery things. All the talk about translating had convinced me that there exists a kind of truth about translation. It was like having a nail in your foot – nothing else matters except the pain down there. The translation problem had lodged itself in my brain’s computing system and compelled me to write, with great conviction, a column listing a number of different ways in which a translation can be better than the original. With mathematical precision. Kind of.

There was just one problem: after all the talking (and thinking, and even dreaming) in English, I was having trouble writing anything at all in Dutch. Especially, since I knew my text was going to be translated straight afterwards. Which is why my column originally began by suggesting that we simply scrap the Dutch all together. I only ditched the idea so I could keep a subsidized focus on translation.

Column III
21-11-07

How do you halt the dwindling interest in literature among young people? This
was the key question discussed at a Crossing Border event involving secondary
school teachers and eight writers. One of the writers, Tommy Wieringa, provided
the best answer by reading three magnificent columns about the writer A.L.
Snijders, one of Wieringa’s former teachers. All those who attended Tommy
Wieringa’s reading will be wondering where this apathy towards literature stems
from, since it certainly can’t be a result of his work. Wieringa’s piece contained
everything you should be allowed to expect from good literature: humour,
inimitable surprises, beautiful language and thought-provoking ideas. Literature,
written in the way Tommy Wieringa writes it, is therefore not the root of the
problem.

This tricky issue was discussed in greater detail during the workshops
that followed. The most important area of discussion focused on how the
entertainment factor in new media is killing young people’s interest in literature.
The familiar indictment of the sorry state of modern culture was made more than
once: that television and the Internet breed laziness and offer instant pleasure, as
opposed to literature that requires more effort. This is true of course, but it isn’t a
particularly groundbreaking insight. What struck me was the absence of any selfcriticism
on the part of the teachers. Not one of them dared to point the finger
at themselves and openly admit that the education system, with all its reforms
and modernising policies, is promoting the marginalisation of literature. During
a short sketch, Wim de Bie did a merciless impersonation of the new breed of
teachers who have become more like managers as a result of all the education
reforms. They barely have any time to concentrate on their primary task of
transferring knowledge.

I don’t believe we can blame the lack of interest in literature entirely on new
media and lazy school kids. Teachers with passion who can open their pupils’
eyes to the marvellous world of literature are key to change. Once teachers are
forced to take on the role of best branch manager and start to view education as
a form of business management, literature ceases to be treated with the affection
it deserves. I consider myself fortunate that I went to school at a time when the
emphasis wasn’t on self-study projects. I still remember vividly the fascinating
Dutch teacher who would wax lyrical about writers I’d never heard of, who would
devote a whole lesson to analysing a poem like “In Nederland” by Slauerhoff. I
can honestly say, without a trace of melodrama, that my life would have been
all the poorer for not having had such a teacher. I wish all today’s pupils could
benefit from the same experience I did and that we can finally put an end to the
pernicious reforms.

Better translations
13-11-07

I’m in London to discuss translating and being translated. But we’re expected to do more than just discuss, if the chic black hardbacked notebook we were given yesterday is any indication. Thing is, by the end of the day, I’d only written one single sentence.

There’s something you should; I’m the kind of person who tends to worry about whether what I’m doing is correct as well as proper. Which is why I was afraid that one sentence in such a beautiful journal would seem such a waste – looking a gift horse in the mouth, as it were. I glanced across the table and saw Priya and Crista scribbling away like mad. They’d already written almost a page. Oh dear.

But it turned out okay in the end, I think. That evening, back in my hotel room, I stared at my notes – at that single sentence – and it struck me that if that was all I had written, it must be of some significance. I’d written the following words: “Ways in which a translation can be better than the original.” In English – because after a whole day talking and thinking in a different language, you apparently end up writing in that language too.

I started pondering over ways in which a translation could be better than the original. Someone once told me that Harry Potter is better in Dutch than in English. Apparently, J.K. Rowling has a great gift for writing catchy little storylines, but lacks a sense of style when putting pen to paper. The Dutch translator was able to improve on the style and produce a more elegant version of the fantasy books. So, that’s one method: the stylistic improvement.

Method two is of a more practical nature. Say, the translator discovers that the main character takes his coat off twice during the same scene – that’s bad continuity. If the translator changes this, it will certainly make for a better translation. Unless, it turns out later in the book there was something very special about that jacket.

Method three was discussed at great length yesterday, albeit the negative aspects. Hassan fears that the German translation of his book will fail to hit the mark. He doesn’t think that the problems he writes about – young Dutch people of Moroccan descent – are relevant to German readers. The average German wouldn’t understand the book’s context.

But what if it was the other way round? What if my second novel Sneeuwdorp (Snow Village) turned out to be the ideal book for your average Siberian because the context that’s lacking in the Netherlands just happens to be what Siberia does best? This requires a real leap of the imagination as you have to remember that the quality of a translation is not only determined by the ‘voice’ of the translator, but also by the ‘ear’ of the reader.

Method four is the most interesting. I’m a big fan of the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. His weighty masterpiece, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, is a three-part book with a remarkable history of development. The first part appeared in serial form before being published as a book together with part two. This is really hard to imagine when you read it now, since part two ends with a frustrating number of questions. Finally, a year later, the author added the third part which rounded the whole thing off nicely.

When the American Jay Rubin began translating The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle into English, he had his reservations. Certain passages were a bit longwinded and he felt the transition between parts two and three needed to be smoother. After discussing it with the author, he took an axe to Murakami’s masterpiece. The result: a more streamlined version of the novel. The great thing was that Murakami adopted Rubin’s changes in his final Japanese edition – changes which the Dutch translator later also preserved.

Yesterday, we had a lengthy discussion about ‘mutilated’ translations where, at the publisher’s request, authentic obscenities like ‘puddles of piss’ had been cut out of a final translation. But it doesn’t have to be that way; the translation can improve on the original.

Column II
13-11-07

Thanks to a weird and wonderful process, you are now hearing English instead
of Dutch, the language I wrote this text in last night. If the translator has done
her job properly, you won’t notice the transition. You’ll think that English is my
mother tongue and the language I write and think in. Because I trust in her
talent as a translator, you will be impressed by the text’s fabulous rhythm and
the originality of my original choice of words. You’ll grasp all the ideas waiting
to unfold in this text. Every meaning, every layer and every symbolism will shine
through in the language I am now addressing you in. Even those sentences that
at first glance seem impossible to translate, will survive the translation. What do
I mean by that? I mean that even quintessentially Dutch phenomena will emerge
from the translator’s mould intact. Like window prostitutes in clogs, or the Dutch
‘gezelligheid’ (which English has rather poor equivalents for, such as cosy).

But should this text read like a manual for a new electronic gadget from Japan,
don’t blame me; blame the translator. Because it means she’s been unable to
transpose my fluent Dutch into equally fluent English. I’ve done my best to
entertain you with a beautifully written text. It’s now up to the translator to
ensure you aren’t denied this pleasure by rendering the text in rotten English.
During a translation workshop, a high-profile translator claimed that no book
or text is untranslatable. Even a Dutch classic like De Avonden (The Evenings)
by Gerard Reve can be translated. The only reason why this book may prove less
successful abroad is because people in other countries will lack the relevant Dutch
context. What a tragic fate for such a beautiful book! And what a tragedy for
all those who don’t understand Dutch! They won’t know enough of the context
to fully understand the text; they’ll be denied access to a book which is right up
there with all the great world classics. I’m glad my dad decided to emigrate to
the Netherlands. Imagine if he’d stayed in France! Sure, I’d have grown up with
the French classics, but I wouldn’t understand a word of De Avonden, because I
wouldn’t have an inkling of the Dutch context. The horror! (That last bit I wrote
myself in English).

That’s the problem with translations. A piece that is brilliant in the original can
end up being mutilated in translation, that’s right, mutilated. So, don’t blame me
if my words fail to charm you. I can assure you that the original text is absolutely
brilliant. It falls to the translator to ensure that the English version is just as
fabulous.

Quick question – how’s my English doing?

A significant difference
05-11-07

I’ve been translated into Japanese and German.

The Japanese came about when I put some questions to a video game designer
who couldn’t understand any English. Not even my pidgin English. An interpreter
came to our aid, translating in real time and though over very quickly, there was
no getting away from the fact – I had been translated.

The German episode was in the form of a whole book all at once, following the
debut of my novel ‘Toiletten’ (Toilets) in the Netherlands. I’ve always considered
this a real gift, since I didn’t have to lift a finger. Didn’t have to return anyone’s
calls, no pre-sales pitch, no texts to revise. Then one day, I was handed a green
and pink book in hardback – looked better than the original – and I had more
money in my account. Bonus.

I vaguely remember having a cup of tea with the translator. The sun was shining,
it was warm and I only had to answer a few questions, like, what did I exactly
mean by that weird joke. Those kinds of things. The title was never an issue: it’s
the same word in German, ‘Toiletten’. You just pronounce it differently.

My book actually sold more copies in Germany than at home, and in some ways it
even seemed to have a greater impact. I still get emails from girls – always girls
– telling me how my book moved them to tears. No Dutch reader has ever come
to me with such a bizarre compliment. Maybe it’s because the Dutch cry less or
would rather not admit to it. Maybe there are so many Germans that you’ll always
manage to touch one or two of them with your work. Or maybe the translation is
better than the original.

I’ve never been translated into English, till now that is. (At the time of writing
this, I’m actually running ahead of the facts.)

Having said that, I did actually write an English story once. I was working in
Frankfurt at the time and had had a couple of beers with my colleague, a Japanese
Brit. Have you noticed how all the languages in this column have a miraculous
way of intertwining: a Dutch guy in a German city having a beer with an
Englishman of Japanese parentage. Brilliant. Anyway, when you spend a certain
amount of time constantly speaking English, you start to feel like you are actually
thinking in English. And so it was that I arrived home, a few beers and a whole lot
of Dutch courage later, and decided to write in English. Failed miserably. I lacked
the necessary breadth of vocabulary and that essential flair for language.

The same applies the other way around. If you ask me, there are lots of young
Dutch who think they can speak great English. They think translations are
rubbish because Dutch sounds so childish while English sounds really cool. I’m
guilty of it too. I prefer to read books written by English authors in the source
language. And yet, it’s inevitable that I’ll never understand all the nuances. If I
read a Dutch book, I’ll get about 90% of the meaning. If I read an English book, I
can reckon on about 70-80%. Unless it’s James Joyce. Then you can knock off the
two zeros.

I recently experienced this scenario first hand when reading ‘Guts’ by the
American writer Chuck Palahniuk. Pretty much the most stomach-churning story
ever written. Apparently, when Palahniuk gives readings of this work, there will
always be at least one member of the audience who faints. But when I read it a
couple of years ago, I just thought: okay, it grosses you out, but it’s not that bad.
Sometime later, I came into contact with the Dutch translator of Palahniuk. He
wanted my opinion on his translation of Guts before it went to the printers and
gave me a copy to read. And I can tell you, it hit me like a ton of bricks. When
translated into Dutch with this kind of precision, Guts was more than just gross.
Even me, with my cast-iron stomach, felt sick from reading this book. That was
clearly the 10-20% extra reserve of vocabulary and flair for language working its
magic: the difference between bang en WALLOP!!!!

If the mediatory power of a skilled professional can allow everyone to understand
Palahniuk’s story as well as I did, then world peace is within our grasp. This is why
I would like to propose that all English-Dutch and Dutch-English communication
during our stay in London and The Hague be conducted through written notes
using skilled translators. The difference will be significant.

On being translated
05-11-07

My book is going to be translated into German. The translator’s going to have
a real job on his hands trying to find a German equivalent for the broken Dutch
spoken by the characters in my book. How do you translate words that don’t
even exist in a Dutch dictionary and are only used on the street by Dutch kids
from ethnic minority backgrounds? My fear is that the translator will opt for the
easy route and, for want of a better solution, will use the latest youth slang as a
substitute. My aim with this book was to avoid that very pitfall and to use words
which are authentic and which haven’t already been hijacked by the advertising
world.

The painful results of such a misjudgement can be seen in the book Londonstani
by Gautam Malkani. Language that still comes across authentic in the English
is lost in the Dutch by an unfortunate overuse of cringe-making words that are
supposed to sound modern and hip but have become hopelessly outdated. Even
a book like Trainspotting is robbed of its expressive power as soon as it is read
in any other language than the original. Every translation inevitably becomes a
distortion of the original, and this has its most damaging effect in books which
have been written in a language with very specific ties to a particular region and
context.

I wrote my book in Dutch with a specific audience in mind, the Dutch. I don’t
claim to have any universal pretensions. For some writers, every reader is
welcome, but for me, the only reader that matters is the one holding a Dutch
passport with a command of the Dutch language. I realise it’s a pretty scary
assessment of literature but as I said, my pretensions are of a more modest
nature; they don’t have to stretch any further than the Dutch national borders. I
also can’t help wondering what the reasons were behind the German publisher’s
decision to have my book, in particular, translated into German. I can’t imagine
it was anything more than a misplaced desire to capture a certain exotic quality.
Perhaps there are book critics who will praise or vilify it on account of its style
or storyline, but somehow I don’t see a big future for my book amongst the top
bestsellers in Germany. It is too closely linked with the Netherlands for that to
ever happen. Germans will have trouble relating the subject of my work to their
own society. I’m working on the assumption that Germany does not have a large
group of Moroccan youths on the fringe of society like the ones portrayed in my
book.

This group of young people is the subject of much debate in Dutch newspapers
and on television. They are a great source of worry and fear for a lot of Dutch
people. But what do they mean to your average German? They will not be able to
compare them to young Turks living in their country for the simple reason that
these two groups are poles apart. And what is a German supposed to do with a
book that uses language as a means to comment on the changes currently taking
place in the Dutch language? I don’t know what I’m to make of the translation.
The fact that German readers may or may not like it is, quite frankly, of no
concern to me whatsoever, because I didn’t write the book for them. If I had my
way, I would just cash the money for the translation rights without ever having to
lay eyes on the German translation. I wrote the book for the Dutch, not for people
who can have absolutely no concept of what I was trying to achieve with my work.
The book is too far removed from their society for it to ever have the same effect.