The Week Before the Festival: Felix Poetry Festival, Belgium

Simultaneously Guest and Host

A Conversation with Translators of Dutch poetry

/ by Patrick Peeters and Carl De Strycker

For this interview, we talked to several translators who have specialized in translating Dutch poetry into other languages. What inspires them? How do they work on their translations? And can they make a living from translating poetry? What follows is a conversation with Kim Andringa, David Colmer and Stefan Wieczorek, translators of Dutch-language poetry into French, English and German, respectively.

What gave you your love for Dutch-language poetry?

Colmer: To be honest, I don’t think I have a special love for Dutch-language poetry. I happened to learn Dutch and I love literature. I came into contact with Dutch-language poetry and discovered a lot of beauty in it. I suspect that many other unknown treasures can also be found in other languages. However, I do have a love for translating, which stimulates me in my efforts to translate beautiful poetry into English.


Wieczorek: I’ve always read a lot of poetry, even before I went to study: Dada, Grotesque poetry, Morgenstern, Brecht. During my literature studies, I focused mainly on the literature of the 20th century and literature from the GDR, especially the poets Peter Huchel and Erich Arendt. In retrospect, I can say that it was crucial to my development that I went to study at Utrecht University with an Erasmus scholarship. Translation became a new way of approaching poems and reading more accurately. During that period, I attended an internship at Poetry International and I came into contact with the project “Poesie der Nachbarn” / “Poetry of Neighbors,” a translation project of the Künstlerhaus Edenkoben. My first published translations followed after that... Eventually I didn’t stay in Utrecht for one, but four years and I graduated there.

Andringa: Maybe I'm in an exceptional position, because I am Dutch. I grew up with Dutch literature and have always read a lot. I love the wealth and elasticity of language, something poetry makes great use of. I also love the pithiness, and the melodious aspects of language, the way Leopold uses it, for example. The fact that I wanted to start to translate poetry came from Dolf Verspoor. I once read a piece by him about the various versions he made of a Quevedo sonnet. To vary on what Nijhoff once said: It says what it says, but it could say something else as well – I thought that was fascinating.

How do you decide what you translate? Is it down to the assignments you get, or can you make your own choices?

Andringa: I usually work on commissions, especially for Dutch or Flemish authorities who want to give Dutch-language poetry more visibility in France. For example, organizations like deBuren, the Dutch Embassy or Septentrion. In most cases, in France, Dutch-language poetry is completely unknown. Sometimes it’s possible to get a few poems published in a magazine, but that would be mostly about an author I propose to them, not on their own initiative. Publishers are usually not keen to publish a collection, because they know in advance that they will sell only a few books. If a particular publisher does express an interest, I will look for a poet who I think fits into their remit, but of course my own taste also plays a part. And I need to be up for translating a complete collection too…

Colmer: I also usually translate on assignment, but I decide whether I want to take on an assignment, and sometimes it's also possible to get a publisher to give me a particular assignment. For example, translations of Paul van Ostaijen’s Occupied City and my selection of the poems of Menno Wigman were proposed by myself to the publisher. This also applies in part to my translation of the poems by Annie M.G. Schmidt. The publisher of my translation of the poems by Benno Barnard – from whom I learned a lot about translating poetry – was found by the poet himself, based on a script we had worked on together for almost twenty years. Other books, such as my translations of Hugo Claus or Ester Naomi Perquin, are projects for which I was approached by a publisher. After the initial contact, I then made the selection, in the case of Perquin, in consultation with the poet.


Wieczorek: Both as a reader and translator I love diversity and discoveries – both useful features for a poetry translator. To me, it’s important that I recognize in a poet a kind of poetic project, a search for an implicit concept. And I expect that poetry alters my vision of the world after reading. As a translator, you are both guest and host. You are a guest in another language, in someone else's poem. But as soon as you begin to translate, you also host the poem in your own language; a paradoxical game of distance and proximity. I work with some very pragmatic game rules. For example, I make sure that I never translate only one poem by a particular poet. You must recognize the decisive characteristics of a poet and their work, like sound, rhythm, language registers, sources and variations of metaphors, relations to certain traditions, intertextuality, even typography ... and that's only possible if you are working with multiple poems.

Can you live off the translation of poetry or do you need to accept other assignments?

Andringa: I have a full-time position as a lecturer at the University of Liège. I could not live off translating poetry. If I decided to also translate novels, it might just work, but in that area there is also more competition.

Wieczorek: In addition to being a translator, I am also a presenter, essayist and literature researcher. They are complementary for me. Last year, along with two anthologies and a translation of The Lonely Exploration, I published three translated collections: by Rodaan Al Galidi, Frans Budé and Andy Fierens. In addition, I translated The Art of Crashing by Peter Verhelst last year. Flanders and the Netherlands being the host country at the Frankfurter Buchmesse, it was a very busy year for me. It became less a question of whether I could translate than if I would survive the workload.


Colmer: For as long as I have lived in the Netherlands (since 1992), I have lived off translation in the broadest sense, because I also provide translation workshops, I mentor and I have also been a teacher of translation, among other things. My biggest source of income, however, is the translation itself. In the past, I combined literary translation with more lucrative – commercial – translation assignments. Because I was lucky enough to win some valuable translation prizes a few years ago, I got a little more breathing space. In the last four or five years, I have lived mainly from literary translation. However, there are very big variations in the types of payment we receive as translators. Unlike translations into Dutch, subsidies for translations from Dutch into another language do not take into account the level of difficulty: for hard-to-translate poetry like Claus and Wigman you need to accept a rather low hourly wage. That means one cannot afford to take on only difficult jobs. With more narrative or parlando poetry, the ratio is more favorable. I have to mention that it’s the subsidies from the Netherlands and Flanders that make it possible for me to translate so much poetry, because most publishers in the English language area hardly have any money to pay for translations and therefore they work mainly with academics and enthusiasts.


Is your target language open to translations, or is it rather difficult to get a foot in the door?


Wieczorek: There is a fascinating poetry scene in Germany. When a few years ago almost all major publishers stopped publishing poetry, a few independent publishers rose up and started to create beautiful books. This created a very specific dynamic. I always visit the Frankfurt and Leipzig bookshops to keep in touch and talk about new plans.

We have a rich and vibrant tradition in Germany as regards to the reception and translation of international poetry. German-speaking poetry is very open to foreign influences. A few years ago I published a booklet, Ein Fest zu feiern und sich zu berauschen, containing poems for Pablo Neruda by German poets, to show that his poetry left many traces. The biggest poetry project I have been working on in recent years is the Polderpoesie. Junge Lyrik aus Flandern und den Niederlanden. Christoph Wenzel and I bilingually present 21 poets born between 1973 and 1988, a generation of Dutch-language poetry that has so far remained almost unknown in Germany. And the reactions so far have been great. In the postscript I emphasized poetry in public space, poetry that is visible in society – for example, city poets as ambassadors, the function of the Poet of the Fatherland, the Lonely Funeral, Intermedial Projects, Backward Poems ... those are initiatives that people are very curious about in Germany.

Andringa: The French literary world is not as self-involved as people abroad might think. There is definitely an interest in translations, but often only in translations of prose, and mostly from what I will call ‘obvious language areas.’ The Dutch language area does not belong there. Actes Sud is an example of a publishing house that regularly publishes Dutch literature, but it does not publish poetry. A large part of the poetry circuit is a bit of a parallel world. Take, for example, a magazine like Le Magazine littéraire: there's only one page dedicated to poetry, and then usually not even a complete one. Poetry also often appears with small publishers. They can afford fewer financial risks, and so they often steer clear of poetry in translation.

Colmer: The English book market is notorious because it is said to be closed off to translations, but even still there are poetry publishers who want to enrich English-language poetry with translations. If you look at all that has been published from Dutch in the last five, six years, you have to conclude that it is not as bad as one might think. Of course it is the case that practical and financial support of the funding bodies helps. I think that a great advantage of Dutch-language poetry in English is the quality of translators, which is also reflected in the funding bodies, who not only organize and support workshops and follow-up courses, but also stimulate professionalization, because they enable good translators to make poetry translation a part of their bread winning, which provides them with a lot of experience and confidence.


Can you say something about the position of Dutch-language poetry in the English-speaking world?

Colmer: Except for a few names (such as Toon Tellegen as translated by Judith Wilkinson; Remco Campert in translation by Donald Gardner; Hans Faverey translated by Francis Jones), Dutch-language poetry is almost unknown in the English-speaking world. The biggest difference with the reception of foreign poets here in the Netherlands is of course that British and American poetry enthusiasts cannot read Dutch poetry directly in Dutch. This makes it difficult for Dutch-speaking poets to build a name before they are translated. Claus and Nooteboom are of course exceptions because they have become famous for their prose work.

How important are international festivals?

Andringa: You don’t necessarily have to make any contacts at such festivals, but it’s important to make contact with international festivals, I would say, so that the organization invites Dutch-speaking poets. That's what I know from the French publisher for whom I translated Tsjêbbe Hettinga: He heard him at a festival, not even in France but in Medellín, and actually decided to publish him based on this encounter.

The interview was prepared by Patrick Peeters and Carl De Strycker

Patrick Peeters

is grants manager poetry, drama and nonfiction for Flanders Literature. He is part of the editorial board of Poëziekrant and editor for the Belgian domain at Poetry International Web and Lyrikline.

Carl De Strycker

is the director of Poëziecentrum and editor in chief of the poetry magazine Poëziekrant. He made his PhD on the topic Celan auseinandergeschrieben. Paul Celan in the Dutch-language poetry (Garant 2012). Together with Yra van Dijk and Maarten De Pourcq he wrote a book  Draden in het donker. Intertekstualiteit in theorie en praktijk (Threads in the dark. Intertextuality in theory and practice).