Close Approximations: In Conversation With Poetry Runner-up Sarah Timmer Harvey

"I spent less time in my head or researching, and more time translating purely from instinct, from the body."

Today, we continue our spotlight on the winners of Asymptote’s annual Close Approximations translation contest, now into its 3rd edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000 USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 editionAfter interviews with fiction winner Suchitra Ramachandran and fiction runners-up Brian Bergstrom and Clarissa Botsford, today we have poetry runner-up Sarah Timmer Harvey in conversation with Asymptote Assistant Interviews Editor, Claire Jacobson. 

Sarah Timmer Harvey is a writer and translator currently based in New York, where she is completing her MFA in Writing and Translation at Columbia University. Her excerpted translation of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s poetry collection Kalfsvlies (Calf’s Caul) was a runner-up in Asymptote’s Close Approximations contest. Poetry judge Sawako Nakayasu wrote, “The tumbling syntax of this poetry could not have been easy to translate, but it works so very well here—carrying the reader along the dark swerves of this youthful, yet not-so-innocent series of mini-narratives with a touch of the surreal.”

Claire Jacobson (CJ): I loved reading your translation of several of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s poems from her collection Kalfsvlies (Calf’s Caul). What was it that drew you to this text and motivated you to translate it?

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): I first became aware of Rijneveld’s work through Dutch literary magazines and blogs in 2015, when Kalfsvlies was first published in the Netherlands by Atlas Contact, who have a great reputation for attracting and fostering exceptional writers. Both readers and critics seemed completely bowled over by Kalfsvlies, something rather unusual in the Netherlands, given the genre and Rijneveld’s youth, but once I read the collection, I understood why everyone was raving. The first line of the first poem in Kalfsvlies (Calf’s Caul) reads “How do you go to bed when you have just run over a sheep?” Now, that is an opening! I found it so incredibly brutal and compelling. I read the entire collection in one sitting and then, the next day, I began translating, purely for the pleasure of it. A little while later, I contacted Marieke Lucas to discuss doing something with my translations.

To me, Rijneveld’s work feels quite rebellious—the narrative voice in Kalfsvlies is unfiltered and entirely unconcerned with establishing its authority. Rather, it is blatantly vulnerable and at times incredibly naïve considering the deeper themes at play: the death of a sibling, alcoholism, struggles with gender and sexuality, the confines of a rural upbringing. But Rijneveld’s youthful eye is also her strength, it draws the reader into a world that feels spontaneous, wildly intimate and full of unexpected wisdom. I can’t wait to read her debut novel, which will be published in the Netherlands (also by Atlas Contact) in October.

CJ: In your translator’s note, you speak of the velocity of Rijneveld’s language and the difficulty it poses in translation. What are some places in the translation that were problematic, and how did you choose the best way to render them in English?

STH: My greatest challenge with this collection was in translating the title. Kalfsvlies is the amniotic sac or water bag that surrounds a calf when it is born. In Dutch, it is such a punchy, beautiful word and I really struggled to replicate that in English. I considered “Calf’s Membrane” and “Calves’ Flesh,” in addition to variations of the amniotic sac. I asked other translators for suggestions and read a ridiculous number of blogs written by farmers and veterinarians on birthing cattle, but nothing sounded quite right. I felt I was getting further and further away from Rijneveld’s original image. Almost ten months after beginning the project, when most of the poems had been translated and I was starting to fret about not having a title to submit with the poems, I stumbled upon “Calf’s Caul” while reading old recipes online. Not only does it have a very similar meaning to the original Dutch, but the sound of it is almost as pleasing as the original. And once I had that title, the whole project felt knitted together.

CJ: What are some linguistic or rhetorical peculiarities of the Dutch language and Dutch poetry that are interesting or challenging to express in English?

STH: I always come back to the prevalence of the Dutch diminutive. The “je,” “tje,” “kje” suffixes are frequently employed and do so much work in both written and spoken Dutch. Unfortunately, there is no real equivalent in the English lexicon. The diminutive communicates not only the size or measure of something but can also be used to signify a certain atmosphere, relationship or a very nuanced opinion of something or someone. I’m constantly looking for new ways to translate the diminutive and try very hard not to rely too heavily on the words “little” and “tiny” when translating Dutch into English.

CJ: In translating Rijneveld’s poems (or, more broadly, in translating poetry), do you feel as though you are rewriting or creating a new piece, or simply communicating the original piece in a new language?

STH: When I am translating poetry or prose, I am usually very careful not to rewrite an author’s original work, nor do I want to create something that is entirely new, but there is a certain separation. I like to think that what I am doing is communicating but it is more of a dialogue than a simple transfer. Charlotte Mandell writes, “Any time a translator translates a text, he or she enters a kind of communion with that text until it becomes a colloquy with the author.” And I think that is what I am usually attempting to do, entering a piece of writing and seeking a connection or dialogue with the author, but always deferring to the original text as though it were a teacher, letting it guide my process, inquiry, the tone and syntax.

But with Kalfsvlies it felt different, far less of a formal exchange or “colloquy” and more of a shared breath. I spent less time up in my head or researching, and more time translating purely from instinct, from the body. Perhaps it is a shared aesthetic or my familiarity with the subject matter and the places Rijneveld refers to, but it often felt as though we were not working in separate languages at all. Sasha Dugdale recently wrote some wonderful things about translation as the ultimate act of friendship, that translating someone else’s work is “listening to them so intently you can hear their pulse…you follow their thoughts deeps into the subconscious.” And while working on Kalfsvlies I certainly had a sense of being able to hear the poet’s pulse through her words and images, which was a completely new experience for me; electrifying but also quite confrontational and challenging in its own way. I care very deeply about these poems and I’m excited to share Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s incredible world with English-language readers.

Claire Jacobson is the Assistant Interviews Editor at Asymptote. She studies French literature at the University of Iowa, and translates from French and Arabic.


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Read more interviews with our Close Approximations winners: