Taking Up the Translator’s Baton: An Interview with David Colmer

The crucial part is what is revealed, not the particular set of circumstances that make the revelation possible.

“Do maintain the colloquial tone,” David Colmer reminded me during a recent exchange about editing. And it was far from the first time I’d heard the Amsterdam-based Australian translator emphasize the importance of respecting and preserving the vernacular. Certainly, David’s almost chameleon-like ability to absorb and translate divergent Dutch and Flemish voices in fiction and poetry has led to his name becoming synonymous with Dutch-language literature in translation.

Over the past two decades, David Colmer has translated the work of celebrated novelists including Gerbrand Bakker, Dimitri Verhulst, and Peter Terrin; the poetry of Anna Enquist, Hugo Claus, Martinus Nijhoff; former Poet Laureates Ramsey Nasr and Ester Naomi Perquin; and the work of iconic Dutch children’s author, Annie M.G. Schmidt. Colmer has received numerous prizes, including the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for his translation of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Detour, The Vondel Prize for his translation of Dimitri Verhulst’s The Misfortunates, and the NSW Premier’s Prize and PEN trophy for his entire oeuvre.

In spite of his numerous achievements, David is most comfortable discussing his current projects and the challenges faced by translators at all stages of their career. For David, keeping it “colloquial” also seems to be code for not getting carried away, a timely reminder that the original voice and tone of any text should remain the translator’s constant anchor. With this in mind, I invoked the Dutch-peppered Australian we both speak, and asked David about his recently published translation of W.F. Hermans’s classic postwar novella, An Untouched House, the art of switching Englishes and his advice for up-and-coming translators.

March 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): The last time we saw each other was at the end of 2018 when you were in New York for the publication of your translation of An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans. An Untouched House is a dark, confronting, and occasionally absurd novella about the final months of the Second World War first published in the Netherlands is 1951. How did you come to translate it?

David Colmer (DC): I was the next cab off the rank, I suppose. I read the original in the early nineties soon after starting to learn Dutch, and it made quite an impression. I remember being shocked by the disturbing clarity of the author’s amoral vision and the climactic eruption of violence. The way he managed to combine a coolly thoughtful, almost philosophical perspective with both gripping action and humor was inspiring. I made a mental note of it as a book I’d love to translate, as I sometimes did after I began reading in foreign languages in the late eighties. Hans Fallada’s The Drinker was another one that made a similar impression on me, but I never really counted on the opportunity coming along. Over the following fifteen years, though, two things happened that changed that. I began to establish my credentials as a translator of Dutch literature, and Hermans had a late, second wave of publication in English, with two of his best novels, The Darkroom of Damocles and Beyond Sleep, published in translations by Ina Rilke and being very well received. Then, three or four years ago, when a Hermans story was slated for inclusion in The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, Ina wasn’t available to translate it, so I was able to take up the baton.

STH: In the afterword to An Untouched House, Cees Nooteboom notes that Hermans’s first books were “real bombshells in the Netherlands” because his depiction of the resistance was “diametrically opposed to the nation’s heroic dream of itself.” What was so confronting about Hermans’s view of Dutch society during the war?

DC: Hermans had a fierce loathing for hypocrisy, dissembling, and self-deception. The truth of the matter is that during the occupation the Dutch administration and police adopted a policy of cooperation with the Germans and most Dutch people were concerned solely with getting themselves and their families through the war in one piece. On top of this, there was a significant minority of fascist sympathizers or opportunists who were active collaborators, sometimes directly involved in hunting down Jews and profiting from the Nazi regime. The resistance existed, but it wasn’t a mass movement. Then, after the country was liberated, its membership sky-rocketed. In his books, Hermans tears shreds off this retrospective heroism and the idea of a plucky nation bravely withstanding the Nazi jackboot. His characters are motivated by things like sex, adventurism, revenge, greed, and self-preservation. Even—or perhaps especially—when their motives are noble, their actions can have very negative consequences. Stupidity and coincidence are omnipresent. He applies this vision to World War Two in particular, but also to other subjects. In his novel I’m Always Right, for instance, Hermans attacks the Dutch colonial war against Indonesian independence, which took place after World War Two, and its atrocities, which haven’t been exhaustively investigated or fully acknowledged to this day.

STH: Why do you think Hermans’s writing continues to strike a chord with readers today?

DC: Stylistically, I think his best writing has lost none of its power and, as I said, his theme is not solely or even essentially related to World War Two but is more concerned with human psychology and society. He kept returning to the war because he thought that such extreme circumstances revealed something fundamental about human nature, like a laboratory experiment that strips away superfluous layers—an appropriate image for a discussion of Hermans, given his background as a scientist. War as the hothouse of human vice. The crucial part is what is revealed, not the particular set of circumstances that make the revelation possible. And these revelations are as important as ever. It’s the sad truth that we live in an age where many negative political and social tendencies seem to be stronger now than at any time since the war. Militarism and nationalism, for example. I shudder to think of the fury with which Hermans would have reacted to current politicians’ opportunistic embrace of anti-science, charlatans playing with all our futures for short-term gain.

STH: You are currently working on a translation of Will by Jeroen Olyslaegers, which is another novel about World War Two, though published in 2016. Do you approach the language of an older text like An Untouched House in the same way that you would a modern portrayal of the war such as Will?

DC: I’ve actually finished Will and Pushkin will be publishing it in the UK towards the end of the year. I think the approach is similar in that in both cases I would try to avoid language that might come across as anachronistic, but different because the books are very different stylistically even though they’re both first-person narratives. Although it’s largely about the war, Will is presented as a memoir written by an old man in the twenty-tens. The voice is an earthy, colloquial Flemish, a kind of stylized, literary version of a diluted Antwerp dialect. The book has a lot of swearing and a lot of colorful language. The narrator of An Untouched House, on the other hand, uses a much cooler, more precise, more “written” style. With Will, I tried to use a kind of synthetic generalized British working-class idiom. We’ll have to see how that comes over!

STH: Speaking of language, you are, of course, originally from Australia and speak an English that is neither British nor American, but uniquely somewhere between the two. Do you have a default form of English that you use when translating or does it change depending on the project?

DC: This is a massive question! It’s so difficult to disentangle your own language influences and produce something that won’t set off any alarms in a reader from a different background. And certain backgrounds are privileged, of course. You can play it safe by veering towards a university-educated metropolitan usage, but that might not always be appropriate for the character or book. Besides geographical origin, you have generational and class factors too.

From my time-warped perspective on Australian English, I feel like we have British, American, and Australian words and expressions, but that we’re grammatically much closer to British usage, even if ours is a more informal variant. Personally, I feel that I can produce something that approaches pseudo-British, but I’m much less confident when it comes to American English. I seem to have a fundamentally different sense, for instance, of where an adverb should come in a sentence, and often I find it hard to judge the register or tone of American words and expressions. I have no objection to using specifically American phrases and words when necessary, for instance in my most recent kids’ book, I’ll Root for You (poems by Edward van de Vendel to illustrations by Wolf Erlbruch), a title that, from an Australian perspective, could hardly be more American, but then I need to rely on good editorial input even more than usual. Fortunately, the publishers of adult fiction and poetry I work with tend to be more relaxed about non-American usage.

An example of the kind of problems you face is the difference in which words rhyme, and when Eerdmans published an American version of my translations of Annie M.G. Schmidt’s children’s poems, I had to rejig quite a few of them. (A lot of my rhymes fail in American English simply because of the pronunciation of the R.)
An example I like to give of rhyme variation in English is the stanza –

And when it rains I’ll go and dance
in puddles up to my knees.
I’ll poke my tongue out at my aunts,
’cause when I’m old I’ll have a chance
to say thank you and please.
And I’ll do everything that’s wrong,
the whole day long, the whole day long!

– not because I had to change it for the US edition, but because the triple rhyme works in the dominant variants of British and American English, but not in my own, South Australian English! But I’m digressing.

I think the answer to your question is that I do have a default form of English, but I try to be aware of it and modify it according to the book, the characters and, sometimes, the intended audience. A good example is Gerbrand Bakker’s The Detour, which is set largely in Northern Wales and includes many conversations in English carried out by English, Welsh, and Dutch characters, with the Dutch characters having various degrees of fluency and some of the Welsh characters being native Welsh speakers. In the original, this dialogue was presented as standard Dutch with occasional phrases in English giving local flavor, but the translation demanded authentic and differing voices for all of the characters. That required a lot of research and consultation, and I was very relieved that in the end, people seemed to find it convincing. There was even a positive review in a North Wales journal—but maybe they were just being polite!

In Gerbrand’s books, I’ve been happy to leave the narrative voice closer to my own, perhaps because it seems to suit the characters and the generally informal tone. (An exception being the opening and closing chapters of June, which is told from the perspective of the Dutch queen!) Obviously, I do try to exclude particularly Australian words. People don’t get shickered or ropable—though shickered would have been an excellent word for Will!

STH: In 2017 you edited an anthology of Dutch poetry for The Enchanting Verses Literary Review which included work from pre-war poets such as Martinus Nijhoff and Gerrit Achterberg alongside the work of contemporary voices like Mustafa Stitou and Kira Wuck. How did you go about choosing the voices to include in the anthology?

DC: The anthology, published both in print and online, was subject to a major constraint in that I was explicitly commissioned to curate a selection of Dutch poetry in the sense of poetry from the Netherlands, rather than Dutch-language poetry. That meant excluding a lot of wonderful Flemish poets, including Hugo Claus, who I translated several years ago for Archipelago, and consider the greatest postwar Dutch-language poet. The magazine’s format also set the number of poets, the period under consideration, and the number of poems per poet I could choose. Within these boundaries, my goal was to provide an introduction to Dutch poetry, from Modernism to the modern day, and a kind of sampler in that I wanted to include those poets who are available in English so that the readers could use the anthology as a starting point for an exploration of Dutch poetry. As space was limited, that meant excluding many other, very worthy poets. I also wanted the poems to work as poems in English, choosing works with existing translations I admired or commissioning retranslations. I wasn’t always able to organize or get permission for the latter, so that was a further constraint. I didn’t have the pretention of choosing the greatest Dutch poets of the last hundred years, although I did include many of the greatest, and neither did I have any ambition to showcase a controversial, individual selection that focused on my own taste. The aim was simply to provide an introduction to Dutch poetry with English versions that stand up both as representations of the original poems and as poems in their own right in English. I am quite proud of the result and tend to get a little carried away with enthusiasm when I have an opportunity to show it to people and point out my favorite poets and poems.

STH: Which new voices in Dutch literature are most exciting to you?

DC: I’m always a bit slow to catch on to these things, but I think young poets like Simone Atangana Bekono and Radna Fabias are very exciting, both to read now and follow over the next few years. Another young writer is Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, whose poetry you’ve translated and whose first novel will be published by Faber early next year in a translation by Michele Hutchison.

STH: You often mentor emerging translators. In terms of building a sustainable and successful career, what do you feel is important for an aspiring literary translator to understand?

DC: There are so many things! I think one thing that emerging translators might underestimate is the need to be cautious about your abilities and to safeguard quality. When you’re desperate to get your foot in the door or even to pay the bills, it can be very tempting to let yourself be pressured to take on jobs under time pressure or be persuaded to do things that you might not be ready for. That’s especially the case here in the Netherlands, where publishers are always trying to commission last-minute samples before book fairs. Sometimes they even say things like: “Just do a rough version, so we have something to show.” The bottom line is that a literary translator lives or dies by the quality of their work and anything shoddy will come back to bite you. If you’re having trouble making ends meet, do a rush job on something unimportant and anonymous, but every literary translation with your name on it is a calling card, except you don’t control who gets to see it.

STH: What’s next for you?

DC: I’m working on another Hermans novel, a long one this time, for Archipelago and Pushkin, and also on the poetry of Charlotte Van den Broeck, a young Flemish poet, for Bloodaxe in the UK. But there is such a long lead time in this profession that the books that will be coming out next are mostly projects I completed long ago. Besides Will, for instance, I’m very excited about Elsewhere Edition’s upcoming publication of Toon Tellegen and Ingrid Godon’s I Wish, an absolutely gorgeous children’s book of poems and portraits that I fell in love with when it first came out in Dutch eight years ago and managed to find a home for via a partial publication in Modern Poetry in Translation. I’m also greatly looking forward to Phoneme Media’s publication of the poetry of Mustafa Stitou, a poet whose work I first translated almost twenty years ago.


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