Language: Dutch

Universal Things: An Interview with Esther Gerritsen

In the Netherlands, we often make the mistake of thinking that the emancipation of women has been completely achieved.

Boekenweek is a week-long festival of Dutch-language literature held annually in the Netherlands since 1932. Aside from the now legendary Boekenweek ball in Amsterdam, readings, panels, and other literary events are organized throughout the Netherlands and Flanders, and a prominent writer is commissioned to write a novella which is then gifted to the public during the ten-day festival. In 2016, Dutch writer Esther Gerritsen was given the honor of writing the Boekenweek novella, one of only two women to do so in the past eighteen years. This year, Gerritsen’s novel Craving was one of several recently published Dutch-language novels in translation featured at the World Editions Boekenweek celebration at Flanders House in New York City. One of the most celebrated novelists in the Netherlands, Gerritsen also works as a screenwriter and columnist and is the recipient of numerous awards including the 2014 Frans Kellendonk prize for her entire oeuvre. Craving, artfully translated by Michele Hutchison, is Gerritsen’s meticulous excavation of a complex mother-daughter relationship which is further complicated when the daughter moves back into her childhood home to take care of her dying mother. In honor of Boekenweek, Asymptote asked Esther Gerritsen to share her thoughts on Craving, radical thinkers, and gender equity in the Dutch-language literary world.

-Sarah Timmer Harvey, New York, April 2019

STH: Craving opens with a powerful scene in which the mother, Elisabeth, spots her daughter biking on a busy street in Amsterdam and decides it is the right moment to tell her that she is dying. Immediately, the reader is made aware that the mother isn’t neurotypical and that the relationship between mother and daughter is quite strained. What drew you to these characters and inspired their story?

EG: I started writing about the mother, Elisabeth, first. I wanted to write about ‘stuff.’ Objects, materials, the love human beings have for things. I originally had Elisabeth talking posthumously about all the things in her life, from the first blanket she’d slept under and her childhood toys to the furniture she owned when she was older, even the bed on which she died. In her version of heaven, everything she ever possessed was there, new and complete; shoes without scratches, puzzles with no missing pieces—an ideal, silent world filled with beautiful stuff. Of course, then the story became very . . . silent. And I thought: for a person who likes quietness, order, and perfection, what’s the worst thing that could happen? I knew then that she should have a child—and that’s where the daughter comes in. Coco is her mother’s opposite, chaotic and messy. They live in different worlds, but both have the best intentions and would love to be closer, but are just too dissimilar. When the mother is dying, and the daughter is already an adult, they try to form a closer relationship before it’s too late and end up tormenting each other with their good intentions. Coco and Elisabeth really can’t stand one another, but because they are family, they are inextricably linked. READ MORE…

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.

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What’s New in Translation: January 2019

You won't be lacking reading material in the new year with these latest translations, reviewed by Asymptote team members.

Looking for new books to read this year? Look no further with this edition of What’s New in Translation, featuring new releases translated from Kurdish, Dutch, and Spanish. Read on to find out more about Abdulla Pashew’s poems written in exile, Tommy Wieringa’s novel about cross-cultural identities, as well as Agustín Martínez cinematic thriller.

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Dictionary of Midnight by Abdulla Pashew, translated from the Kurdish by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, Phoneme Media (2018)

Review by Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong

Dictionary of Midnight is a collection of several decades of Abdulla Pashew’s poetry as he recounts the history of Kurdistan and its struggle for independence. Translated from the Kurdish by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, the work includes a map of contemporary Iraq and a timeline of Kurdish history for those unfamiliar with the plight of the Kurds, something Pashew, one of the most influential Kurdish poets alive today, has taken upon himself to convey and to honor.

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Le Rouge et le Noir: Marrakech Noir In Review

“Amerchich was the kind of insult you hurled at someone to accuse them of both foolishness and insanity . . . ”

 

Marrakech Noir, collection edited by Yassin Adnan, translated from the Arabic, French, and Dutch by various, Akashic Books

With the twisting, winding small alleys in el-Medina, the bustling Jemaa el-Fna, a main square and marketplace, with its storytellers and performers, and the endless souks frequented by tourists and locals alike, Marrakech is the perfect environment for myths, legends, and stories. Seeing a rather large population increase over the past two decades as villagers and immigrants move to the city for opportunities, as well as an influx of tourists come to explore the tanneries, cuisine, and find a bit of paradise, the Red City contains a diverse landscape unlike any other in the world. Storytellers, like al-Sharqawi in “The Mummy in the Pasha’s House,” control the city’s reputation, and they can even “incorporate [a story] into the city’s very soil, till it became a part of its reddish clay or the dark green of its palm trees.” This phenomenon is notable throughout Marrakech Noir as each story, despite being written in the noir style, doesn’t reflect a noir city, but the noir that can exist in its occupants.

Marrakech Noir joins Akashic Books’s Noir Series, a series of anthologies of dark short stories set in different neighborhoods and locations around the world. This exploration of Marrakech includes stories by Fouad Laroui, Fatiha Morchid, Halima Zine El Abidine, Mohamed Zouhair, and more translated from Arabic, French, and Dutch, showcasing not only the linguistic diversity of the city but also the cultural and societal differences found within Marrakech’s meandering back alleys and main thoroughfares. But, as editor Yassin Adnan notes in the introduction: “Despite their variety, these stories remain rooted on Moroccan soil . . . ” which provides readers with new insight into a city with ever-increasing global popularity. The noir genre, while an odd literary form to use to boast about a city, manages to emerge in most stories in the anthology. The authors, however, make a conscious effort to divert the noir from the city itself and place it within the mélange of people of the city. Adnan describes the Marrekechi’s desire to tell stories with a lot of pizazz and spice; however, noir is a genre that doesn’t work as “the Marrekechi impulse is to always remain joyful.” Fortunately, that impulse was placed aside, allowing the noir to seep into the work for some powerful moments in the diverse cityscape.

Jemaa el-Fna unites practically every story as its importance in the city draws performers, local guides, tourists, and locals. Whether there to make a spectacle or simply sit in a café and witness one, everyone passes through this square. It’s in this square that Abu Qatadah in “An E-mail from the Sky,” after receiving an email from the heavens, shouts in religious fanaticism and awaits his escort to Paradise. Although not present in the square with the other onlookers, Rahal and his entire cybercafé watch as Abu Qatadah terrorizes tourists and is taken away by the police. In the same square in a different story, “A Person Fit for Murder,” Guillaume, a Frenchman who comes to Morocco to escape the monotony of France, is picked up by a young Moroccan boy who’ll fulfill his fantasies and eventually murder him. It’s also where Yusuf in “Mama Aicha” goes to gift a precious purple silk to the eponymous character and visit his former comrade, Aziz, with whom he joined in revolutionary thought and action until Aziz’s arrest.

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In Conversation: Canan Marasligil

What I find important is to talk from a personal place: sharing what you know, writing from what you know, expressing yourself with sincerity.

Canan Maraşlıgil’s world has always been a multilingual one. Currently based in Amsterdam, she was born in Turkey, spent her childhood in Belgium, and, as a student, lived for a short time in Canada. Today, as a freelance writer and literary translator, she often travels internationally to deliver workshops and presentations, and works in no less than five languages: English, French, Turkish, Dutch, and Spanish. Always involved in several inspiring projects at once, Canan explores literature through writing and translation, but also photography, video, podcast, and digital media. You can therefore easily imagine our joy when, in addition to all of her brilliant projects, she kindly agreed to schedule an interview with Asymptote’s team member Lou Sarabadzic.

Lou Sarabadzic (LS): You work mostly in French, English, and Turkish, and are regularly involved in projects dealing with multilingualism. What does multilingualism mean for you, and why is it so central to your work?

Canan Maraşlıgil (CM): Multilingualism is my reality. I grew up in a family who came from Turkey to Belgium. We spoke Turkish at home, I went to school in French, then I learned Dutch at school (Belgium is a trilingual country if you count German, but the second language we learned at school was Dutch). I was also hearing a lot of German in our living-room through TV and our cousins living in Zurich and Hamburg—I also have family who migrated to Germany. I started to learn English through friends of my dad who was working in a hotel as a night receptionist, and through popular culture—films and music. However, English only became part of my formal education much later. Now, I start my sentences in one language and end them in another. In my mind, everything is multilingual. Certain feelings come to me in one language, and others in another language. I also work in Dutch a lot, but I don’t really feel in Dutch, nor in Spanish, which is also a language I know, but use much less.

Multilingualism means seeing the world through many different lenses. You can try and understand issues and current affairs through different media in different languages. I think that’s a huge advantage in today’s world.

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What’s New in Translation: November 2018

Need recommendations for what to read next? Let our staff help with their reviews of four new titles.

Join us on this edition of What’s New in Translation to find out more about four new novels, from Amsterdam, Colombia, Russia, and Azerbaijan.

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Childhood by Gerard Reve, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, Pushkin Press, 2018

Reviewed by Garrett Phelps, Assistant Editor

The narrators in Gerard Reve’s Childhood are at that credulous stage of youth where hazy moral lines are easily trespassed, where curiosity and cruelty often intersect. All of Reve’s usual themes are here: taboo sexualities, the illusion of moral categories, the delicate balancing acts that prevent erotic love from teetering into violence. But the two novellas in Childhood transgress in unexpected ways, insofar as children’s very inexperience puts them outside the sphere of sin.

The first novella, Werther Nieland, is told by a boy named Elmer, who bounces between friends’ houses and other neighborhood locales, and whose longing to form a secret club is less a wish than an absolute necessity. After feeling an affinity for local boy Werther Nieland, he decides: “There will be a club. Important messages have been sent already. If anybody wants to ruin it, he will be punished. On Sunday, Werther Nieland is going to join.” Why exactly Elmer is attracted to Werther never really gets explained. More confusing is the fact that as early as their first meeting Elmer feels the urge to abuse him.

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Winter 2013: The Journal That Never Sleeps

In a world that moves with bewildering speed, Asymptote stops to linger over each work and give it all the time and close attention it deserves.

We are not told officially; the longlist simply lands on 3:am’s website without fanfare. I stumble upon it two or three days after the fact. Disbelieving at first, I click on the hyperlink. Only when Asymptote’s familiar landing page flashes on my screen do I accept what has happened: Within two years of the magazine being launched, we have been nominated for Magazine of the Year! Just as miraculously, Jacob Severn (one of two amazing Jacobs interning for us that quarter; the other being Jacob Silkstone, who provides the inspired introduction below as Assistant Managing Editor) tells me his wife overheard someone next to her on the New York subway recommending the journal over the phone. Of the eight events ambitiously planned within three weeks of our second anniversary, I’m directly involved in two of them (find photos of all 34 events we have ever organized here). The Beijing one doesn’t go too smoothly (not only does photographic documentation fall through, I experience an embarrassing moment of brainfreeze during the event; I had planned to prepare for the panel after launching the issue and rushing to the airport for my flight to Beijing, but cold medicine knocked me out for most of the overnight flight and for most of the day leading up to the event itself, so I showed up to my first-ever Asymptote panel on an empty stomach, in the midst of a freezing Beijing winter). But that is irrelevant. I still wouldn’t have given up meeting readers in the flesh for anything. As, one by one, actual readers come up to talk to me after the panel, it feels I’m meeting whom all the hard work has been for.

Asymptote is the journal that never sleeps. Pick any hour of any day and you can be reasonably certain that, somewhere in the world, someone is working on an Asymptote article, someone else is editing a submission, and still another person is writing a review of a newly translated book. (In its early years, you could be reasonably certain that one of the three was our editor-in-chief,  tirelessly working to shape “the premier site for world literature in translation.”) The story of how the journal’s ninth issue came together is—at least from my perspective, the perspective of a 23-year-old intern—one of sleepless nights, dozens of emails back and forth, and marathon sessions in front of an increasingly blurry laptop screen.

Midway through 2012, I returned from half a year working at an international school in Dhaka after graduating from an MA programme. If you’ll allow me a couple of slightly over-indulgent metaphors, I’d imagined university life as a straight path leading into a mist-obscured wood, or a bright circle of fire around a thick knot of darkness. I’d reached the end of the path and the fire burned a little colder than before. To borrow Chuya Nakahara’s lines from Goat Songs”: READ MORE…

Fall 2011: The Pleasure of Literary Engagement

Featuring Lydia Davis’ first translation from the Dutch, an excerpt from Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and Dubravka Ugrešić on Croatian novelists

Miraculously, word spreads. Asymptote is selected as The Center for Fiction’s international journal of the month for September 2011. Publishers Weekly features us in a writeup. We are a Paris Review staff pick: apparently, poetry editor Robyn Creswell has been “poking around in Asymptote” and has especially enjoyed the (very) short story by Robert Walser, translated by Susan Bernofsky, Adonis’s “Ambiguity,” translated by Elliott Colla, and an essay about riddles by the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, translated by Shushan Avagyan(!)” Literary heavyweights Jane Hirshfield and John Kinsella, whom I don’t know personally, write to offer blurbs in support. I discover that Parul Sehgal, an award-winning literary critic I admire, has a Singaporean connection. Had she been based in Singapore, would her talent in literary criticism have been recognized? Would it even have flourished in the first place? This inspires me to move to Taiwan for the lower cost of living. Here to introduce the first issue that I edited out of Taipei (and that also features my translations of Jing Xianghai and Belinda Chang) is contributing editor Sim Yee Chiang. 

As I re-read the interview I conducted with Motoyuki Shibata for the Fall 2011 issue of Asymptote, I am catapulted at once to the terror of that late summer afternoon at the University of Tokyo. Why on earth had I insisted that we speak in Japanese? I was armed with notes, even a few jaunty segues, but I knew my adopted tongue could abandon me at any moment, just as it had abandoned me six months before at a disastrous interview for prospective Ph.D. students.

What prevented disaster that day was hearing Professor Shibata talk about the “pleasure” of literary engagement and translation. Translators tend to fall prey to all kinds of pesky anxieties: of influence, of equivalence, of legitimacy etc. Even now, years after that conversation, I still find the principles of pleasure and humour not only useful defences against said anxieties, but also indispensable qualities of a successful translation. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Keeping Elephants Warm” by Dieuwke van Turenhout

She’s in northern India. Keeping elephants warm.

This week we are thrilled to celebrate women in translation by bringing you a heartbreaking story from Dutch writer Dieuwke van Turenhout. Beautifully translated by Michele Hutchison, this story makes use of the cycling tradition of the Netherlands to delve into one woman’s experience of loss. 

Now autumn has shown its face, I bike to the shops every day. I’ve stopped keeping my bike at the back of the bike shed; it’s at the front of the garage now. I avoid the asphalt road and when I cross the ring road it’s as though I’m seeing my old self through the windscreens of the waiting cars. I dress for the autumn chill and each time I put on my coat I think about you, and about elephants. (You can’t really call it chilly, objectively speaking. The weatherman, the one you despise, with the bent back and the stupidly hip suits, keeps smiling and calling it wonderful weather, but what does he know? I shiver and even wear your scarf indoors sometimes.).

Tuesday was the first time there was a bit of rain, ‘real’ autumn. The oak trees and beeches along the canal shook their heads scornfully and punished me for going out by collecting big droplets and swishing them at the lenses of my glasses.

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Announcing the Winter 2018 Issue of Asymptote

Celebrate our 7th anniversary with this new issue, gathering never-before-published work from 30 countries!

We interrupt our regular programming to announce the launch of Asymptote‘s Winter 2018 issue! Here’s a tour of some of the outstanding new work from 30 different countries, which we’ve gathered under the theme of “A Different Light”:

In “Aeschylus, the Lost,” Albania’s Ismail Kadare imagines a “murky light” filtering through oiled window paper in the ancient workroom of the father of Greek tragedy. A conversation with acclaimed translator Daniel Mendelsohn reveals the “Homeric funneling” behind his latest memoir. Polish author Marta Zelwan headlines our Microfiction Special Feature, where meaning gleams through the veil of allegory. Light glows ever brighter in poet Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s “syntactically frenetic” “Arachnid Sun”; and in Erika Kobayashi’s fiction, nuclear devastation blazes from Hiroshima to Fukushima.

The light around us is sometimes blinding, sometimes dim, “like a dream glimpsed through a glass that’s too thick,” as Argentine writer Roberto Arlt puts it, channeling Paul to the Corinthians in The Manufacturer of Ghosts. Something dreamlike indeed shines in César Moro’s Equestrian Turtle, where “the dawn emerges from your lips,” and, as if in echo, Mexican writer Hubert Matiúwàa prophecies for his people’s children “a house made of dawn.” With Matiúwàa’s Mè’phàà and our first works from Amharic and Montenegrin, we’ve now published translations from exactly 100 languages!

We hope you enjoy reading this milestone issue as much as everyone at Asymptote enjoyed putting it together. If you want to see us carry on for years to come, consider becoming a masthead member or a sustaining member today. Spread the word far and wide!

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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.

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What’s New in Translation? April 2017

We review three new books available in English, from Hebrew poetry to haunting fairy tales.

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The Milk of Dreams, by Leonora Carrington, tr. by the author, New York Review Books

Reviewed by Beau Lowenstein, Editor-at-Large for Australia

Leonora Carrington grew up listening to folktales told by her Irish nanny in Crookhey Hall. She spent most of her life in Mexico City and became renowned as a Surrealist painter, artist and novelist. Her children recount how they used to sit in a large room on whose walls their mother’s fantastical stories were brought to life. There were deranged creatures and wild forests, and mystical persons standing amid steep, clouded mountains. Carrington’s breath as a storyteller was as broad as her genius for painting and imagery, and the paring of the two resulted in a small notebook she called The Milk of Dreams (New York Review Books, 2017) – perhaps the only surviving relic of that enchanting time where, each day for her children, she opened the door to a realm of fantasy and wonder.

We are introduced to Headless John on the first page, which immediately sets the tone:

The boy had wings instead of ears.

He looked strange.

“Look at my ears,” he said.
The people were afraid.

Her stories, which are often not much more than a few lines in length, give a sense of whimsical creativity; the kind that is not just rare in literature but exceedingly so in children’s stories. Meet George, who enjoys eating walls and eventually grows his head into a house; Don Crecencio the butcher and his goat’s meat roses; and the monster Chavela Ortiz, who has six legs, a golden jewel, pearls, and a portrait of Don Angel Vidrio Gonzalez, the head of the Sanitary Department. There is a freedom in Carrington’s tales that is both outrageous and unpredictable, and yet underlying is the realness of raw experience. These are not watered-down shadows of a story like so much of fantasy writing seen today – they delve into genuine emotions, which are often dark and complex.

And yet Carrington imbeds a wicked humour in her stories, too. In “The Horrible Story of the Little Meats,” an old and ugly woman is nicknamed Lolita by her friends and captures three children, imprisoning them and cutting off their heads. They are saved by a Green Indian who, in his ignorance, reattaches their heads to their hands and feet and buttocks, though, “the children were happy in spite of having their heads stuck on such funny places.”

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Translation Tuesday: Excerpts from “His Name is David” by Jan Vantoortelboom

All I want to do is milk the cows and work the land. So why do I need to know the capitals of Europe, or who Napoleon was?

Newly translated into English, Jan Vantoortelboom’s His Name is David, a Dutch-language bestseller, is a tale of forbidden love set in World War I Flanders. Consisting of vignettes, the narrative unfolds as memories of a young Belgian school teacher as he faces a firing squad for desertion. Presented here are just two scenes from the classroom, showing how he tries to transform the minds of his students, “the boys of Year Six.”

‘But sir, why do we have to cram all these things into our heads?’

Roger interrupted my lesson about the capital cities of Europe. His way of constantly questioning everything drove me up the wall sometimes.

‘Neither my father nor mother have ever been further than Ypres or Poperinge, and on Sundays, my mother goes straight home to milk the cows after Mass and my father only ever gets as far as the pub for a pint.’

‘Quite a distance, if he has to crawl home,’ Jef said.

We ignored the remark.

‘Well, Roger. Maybe you will travel further than your parents one day, and see the whole wide world,’ I said.

‘Who, me? Why? Whaffor?’

‘To look at churches and castles in other countries, perhaps. To see how people live there. Or to observe the wildlife.’

I thought of my childhood. Of the books Father brought us. Of the cupboard full of skulls and bones in my room. Of my brother.

‘But I won’t have the cash for that. And anyway, I don’t give a damn about those things.’

Judging by the way his eyebrows twitched, he knew he should be watching his words.

‘Honest, sir. All I want to do is milk the cows and work the land. So why do I need to know the capitals of Europe, or who Napoleon was? And on Sundays, I want to go drinking, like Dad!’

I needed all my creativity to come up with an answer that would have a motivational effect on the obstinate lout.

‘Well, Roger. Imagine that one day, you take over your father’s farm …’

He interrupted me enthusiastically.

‘Oh, I will, sir! Cos luckily, I’m the oldest!’ He laughed, sneering at Jef and Walter, who both had elder brothers.

‘All right,’ I continued. ‘And now imagine you do, as you say, also take over that genial habit of your father’s, namely drinking on Sundays.’

‘Yes, naturally. Sometimes, I’m already allowed…’

‘That’s enough, Roger,’ I cut him short. ‘As you know, however, no one on this planet is immortal. I’m sorry I have to say so, but one day, your parents will die.’

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Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “Everything There Was” by Hanna Bervoets

We started craving other things. Things that were there. Though they were becoming scarcer by the day.

Today we present a haunting extract from a newly translated novel by critically acclaimed Dutch writer, columnist, and journalist Hanna Bervoets. Stranded in a school building after a catastrophic event leaves the outside world uninhabitable, a TV crew and the subjects of their documentary struggle to survive in Bervoets’s post-apocalyptic universe. From the scattered diary pages of the crew’s researcher, we learn the troubling story of everything there was, and the little there was left.

We haven’t turned on the computers in a long time. The last time we turned them off again, there still wasn’t any internet. Until then we still opened the browsers every day. Though perhaps that was just habit, like in the old situation, tearing a page off my calendar every morning, even though I already knew full well what day of the week it was, or what date. But the more often you do something, the stranger it is not to do it. So I can’t say whether we still believed the internet would come back. Just that we kept hoping it would.

It is perhaps hard for you to imagine how important the internet once was. I also find it hard to imagine. Perhaps it really wasn’t all that important.

But I think it was.

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