Antoinette Fawcett on translating Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer

Translated from the Dutch (Pushkin Press, 2018)

When I first read Eva Meijer’s novel Het vogelhuis, in October 2016, I didn’t know it would occupy me in one way or another for as long as eighteen months, that it would continue to dwell inside my mind and body even now, some months after the final adjustments were made to the text, in the few weeks before publication.

Eva Meijer is a prizewinning young Dutch novelist and academic, specializing in animal philosophy and animal ethics. She is also an artist, singer-songwriter, and performer working in a range of media. This rich background informs Het vogelhuis and explains why Meijer was so attracted to its subject. Het vogelhuis—called Bird Cottage in English—is both an engaging story about the life of an unusual woman and a work that raises philosophical, ethical, and scientific questions about animal, specifically avian, communication and consciousness.

But when I first came across the novel I knew none of this. All I knew was that I had a book in my hands to which I already felt attracted. It was about birds, music, and an independent-minded woman. That was the extent of my knowledge. Yet the sensation of being occupied by—and dwelling in—the life and mind of Len Howard, the protagonist of Bird Cottage, was immediate. I forgot I was reading Dutch and instead felt I was reading some kind of language of the heart: a lyrical, pulsating, subtly changing language that embodies flashes of consciousness from significant moments throughout Len’s life.

It is important to know that Len—Gwendolen—Howard is not only a character created (or perhaps miraculously re-created) by Eva Meijer, but also a real person, an Englishwoman, who was born in 1894 and died in 1973. It is also vital to know that Len—her preferred, non-gendered name—was a musician, writer, and ornithologist whose theories about the individual intelligence of birds were far ahead of her time and whose books and articles achieved surprising popularity in the late 1940s and 1950s. Meijer’s novel, which is set in the UK, has brought Len Howard’s work back into focus and given it renewed meaning and importance.

After falling in love with the novel, the hard work of translation began. I had to find ways of expression and impression consistent with Len’s age at different points in the novel, with her changing milieu and relationships, and with the many societal transformations that occurred in Britain in the years between 1900 and 1973. Usually translators will try to recreate the flavour and atmosphere of a book’s culture of origin, taking care not to over-domesticate the text for its new target audience. In translating Bird Cottage, my challenge was different and more complex. I had to set the translation as accurately as possible in all its various periods and locations—which are English and Welsh, not Dutch. Additionally, I had to pay attention not only to the style and voice of the fictional Len Howard, but also to those of her real-life counterpart. This meant I had to be extraordinarily careful in my translation choices and draw on a wide range of sources and advice to arrive at sensitive and authentic solutions for each period and place that Len lived in.

Len was the daughter of upper middle-class parents—her father Henry Newman Howard was a published poet and dramatist—and as such Meijer shows her as a child and young woman interacting with servants, her siblings, her indulgent and intensely intelligent father, her languid, frustrated, chronically ill mother, and even local shopkeepers.

How might a six-year-old child express herself in 1900? How would a father speak to his daughter? To get the dialogue to sound authentic for English rather than Dutch ears was clearly of paramount importance. I ended up re-reading books by early twentieth-century writers like H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy, D. H. Lawrence, and Rudyard Kipling. But the novel spans an enormous time period: the main chapters flash in and out of Len’s consciousness in 1900, 1911, 1914, 1918, 1921, 1937, 1938, 1943, and so forth, right up to 1973. So the books that helped me identify appropriate historical ways of talking and thinking were many and various. There were a few constants, though: Len Howard’s own books (Living with Birds and Birds as Individuals) remained with me throughout the translation process, as did Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, To the Lighthouse, and Mrs. Dalloway.

At the same time, Meijer’s work is, of course, written now, for a contemporary audience, and in Het vogelhuis she creates a very particular, often delicate tone, which catches the vibrant intelligence of Len’s character. This delicacy is often present in the dialogue, too, especially in the earlier chapters, in which Len is portrayed as a child and young woman. The language she uses is not quaint or dated, not bound to a specific time, but instead is reflective of the thoughts and impressions that flow through Len’s mind and heart.

The following example—in my translation—should show what I mean.

“Look, Lennie.” Papa is holding something in his hands.

I run towards him.

“Is it a Titmouse, Papa?”

“It’s a Blue Tit. He’s fallen from his nest. I found him under one of the beech trees, by the girls’ school. Or rather, Peter found him.” Peter wags his tail at the sound of his name. “Now, you keep hold of him for a moment, and I’ll find a box to put him in.”

Its little feathers! I’ve never felt anything so soft in all my life. I shape my hands into a little bowl, a small nest, and lift them to my mouth. I give the birdie a light kiss. So soft! So blue, that tiny head! The creature stirs, shivers a little. It startles me, but I hold my hands firmly together.

Len is only six here and some of the words she uses are appropriate both for her age and for the period (1900), but she is also an intelligent middle-class child and, just as in the Dutch, calls her father “Papa” rather than “Dad,” “Daddy,” or the more formal “Father.” Later in the novel, as Len grows older, I often chose to use “Father” instead of “Papa,” to signify a move into adulthood and a growing distance between the two. The sweet seriousness of the child, on the other hand, is reflected in the translation of the diminutive meesje into the old-fashioned and formal species name “Titmouse” rather than “tit.” There were other reasons for this translation choice, as I shall explain further.

I was guided throughout the translation process by Len Howard’s own writing. This was especially important in helping me find the right popular scientific tone for the inter-chapters. These do not follow the main chronological order of Meijer’s novel but are set in the period when Howard focused on developing an intimate relationship with birds and on writing books and articles. Meijer’s decision to interweave aspects of Len’s scientific research with her personal life brings her public voice into the book. It also presents the story of a specific relationship with one special bird, Star, a great tit who had remarkable intelligence and individual character. I use “who” here very deliberately, as does Meijer in the Dutch. Meijer does not anthropomorphize the bird so much as recognize her true nature, her personality.

In translating these inter-chapters, which are of course Meijer’s creative work, and not that of the real Len Howard, I found it especially important to replicate the tone and terminology of Howard’s writings and to merge it with Meijer’s own. That led to some very interesting translation decisions, particularly with regard to species names—as shown in my example above—and the personal names Len gave to the birds she observed, which, where possible, I translated back into the original English names Len used in her own writing.

Today we are used to seeing species names without an initial capital letter in English. Likewise, Meijer does not capitalize species names in Dutch. A koolmees—the bird that formed the main object of Howard’s studies—would normally be translated into English as a great tit. Yet Howard did not write about great tits, but Great Tits, in common with most British ornithologists and scientific writers of her period. The same is true of all bird species: the names were used as proper nouns. Moreover, within the context of Howard’s own special relationship with birds, the use of capital letters creates a feeling of respect and reverence that I wished to reflect in the English version of the novel. Although my decision to use initial capital letters for the names of bird species at first seemed strange to my editor, Daniel Seton at Pushkin Press, he generously accepted them as authentic both to the period and to Len Howard’s voice. More importantly for me, I felt that this relatively minor decision also reflected Meijer’s own philosophy—her foregrounding of animal intelligence and animal agency.

Meijer does not confine her fictional story to the recovery of Howard’s own writing. She has created the impression of a living, breathing woman, ahead of her time in many respects, and has captured her physicality and subjectivity in intimate moments that manage to be both poetic and matter-of-fact:

The tall grass tickles my legs. I walk on till I can no longer hear the others, squat behind a rhododendron bush and pull down my cotton knickers. I relieve myself, letting the stream flow between my feet. Too fiercely, it splashes against my calves. I hear something and swiftly pull up my knickers. Perhaps it was a rabbit in the distance, or a squirrel, perhaps only the wind rattling the twigs. I wipe my left calf against the calf of my right leg. The last drops have evaporated before I’ve even taken four steps.

In this passage it is 1911 and Len is seventeen. She has slipped away from the boat in which her family and friends are taking a pleasure trip up the Dyfi (Dovey) estuary in Wales. Although the Dutch here is as clear and straightforward as the English, several interesting translation problems arose, mainly to do with the underwear that Len is wearing, and with the choice of words to do with urination.

Meijer is quite right to imagine that a girl of this period, especially one as open and free-minded as Len, would not hesitate, in the countryside, to relieve herself behind a bush. But what words would she have used to describe this act? The Dutch says “plas” (from the verb “plassen”)—the same word I used as a little girl, which is neutral rather than particularly childish. All our modern English equivalents, however, sound crude, rude, or babyish, and seem out of place for the era. The more technical words—“urinate” or “micturate”—seemed both out of character and disruptive of the style. The solution was to take the Dutch noun “opluchting” (“relief”) which expresses Len’s feelings during the action, and to turn it into the verbal phrase “relieve myself,” which is perfectly in keeping with Len’s class background and period.

As for the underwear—cotton knickers—I searched through all kinds of ladies’ magazines of the period, as well as checking through books of fashion history to arrive at this simple equivalent for the Dutch “katoenen onderbroek” (cotton underpants). Short knickers were a particularly modern choice for young women of 1911, in that they were far less confining than long drawers, pantaloons or bloomers, and were both practical and healthy. Meijer specified “cotton” (rather than lace, silk, or linen) for a reason, I believe; this is one of the many scenes in the novel that prepare us for Len’s decision to live as a freely independent woman, willing to break away from her well-off family and anxious not to fall into the trap of marriage.

Throughout the novel Meijer locates Len in specific places: Wallington, Surrey (then a developing town and not part of Greater London), Aberdovey (now Aberdyfi) in Wales, London, and Ditchling, near Lewes. Because Len is always attentive to her natural surroundings, even in the city, having some familiarity with these locations was vital. My mother-in-law grew up in Mitcham, Surrey, and remembers regularly visiting Wallington. Although she and Len were children at different moments in time, talking to her, reading up on Wallington’s history, and searching for images of Wallington on the internet were enough to help me gain a sense of its topography and atmosphere. The other locations were already known to me. Aberdovey, however, where Len spent much of her childhood and youth, was completely unfamiliar.

Meijer’s writing places so much emphasis on the present moment, on Len’s physical interaction with her environment, that I decided I needed to see the area for myself. I had already used Google Maps, particularly the satellite view, examined digitised historical maps (courtesy of the National Library of Scotland), sent enquiries to the Aberdyfi Tourist Office, read about the area’s geology, flora and fauna, and social history. But nothing really beats seeing and experiencing things at ground level. When I got to Aberdyfi, I re-created walks that Len took, inhaled the same sea air, went down the steps by the harbour and looked carefully at the rocks around the town, touching them in the warm sunshine, as Meijer describes Len doing: “The white rocks along the path feel warmer than usual and leave a chalkiness on my hand.”

Why go to all this trouble? Why not just focus on the words? As all translators know, words are slippery, sometimes shapeless, things. They depend on their surrounding context to give them body and meaning—and that context includes not only the text in which they are embedded, but the actual world our minds try to grasp.

If you are familiar with the geology of the Aberdyfi area, you will know that there is no bedrock chalk to be found there. The Dutch word “krijt” does, however, mean “chalk.” So what did Len see and feel? Were the rocks painted white with a chalky lime-wash, to mark out a path or to make them visible in the dark? Were they overgrown with a whitish lichen? Were they white-seeming limestone rocks, white in comparison to the darker mudstones, siltstones, and greywackes that form the bedrock of the area? I came up with all these possible solutions during my trip to Aberdyfi, but in the end stayed very true to Meijer’s description, choosing to translate “krijt” as “a chalkiness” rather than just “chalk.” After all, a chalky quality may be sensed in many things, and I proved to my own satisfaction that rock and whitewash in the Aberdyfi area can, when warmed by the sun, leave traces on the fingertips that feel rather like chalk.

The trip to Wales also helped me to understand the direction of the sailing trip in the Dyfi estuary (upstream and inland). A member of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution crew at the lifeboat station there confirmed that such a trip would have been perfectly possible and quite usual in 1911. That confirmation enabled me to come up with a good translation for the Dutch word “fort.” A literal translation of the Dutch passage where the word “fort” appears could be:

Past heaps of clay we sail toward the hills. We pass close to the fort on the rock with the pine trees. The flag at the front of the building is hanging down, without movement. I go and sit in the front of the boat, near my father.

The problem here is that the Dutch word “fort” is not necessarily an exact equivalent to the English word “fort”: it has a range of meanings that include a stronghold, a fortress, or a castle. There are plenty of ruined forts and castles in this part of Wales, of Roman, medieval, or later origin, yet most of these would be difficult to see from a sailing boat in the Dyfi estuary. So what did Len see on her sailing trip?

Before my visit to Wales a lucky find on the internet had led me to believe I had found the right “fort”: a folly, belonging to Trefri Hall, perched on a rocky islet linked to the mainland by a small footbridge. The image seemed to fit Meijer’s description, particularly as a flag was flying from the little tower. Yet it was only when I walked inland along the coastline and saw the folly with my own eyes that I was able to confirm this was exactly where the sailing boat had passed. This on-the-ground experience enabled me to come up with a better translation of the passage:

We sail towards the hills, past banks of silt, near the castellated folly on the rock with the pine trees. The flag in front of the building is drooping. I go and sit on the foredeck with Father.

All translations involve research. Bird Cottage, though, which is extraordinarily wide-ranging, demanded extensive research and thinking of the kind I have described above, as well as conversations with experts from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Woodcock Trust, British Birds (a journal existing since 1907), the National Rail Museum, and many more. I read about women and pub culture in Edwardian England, about London hotels, bars, and cafés, the suffragette movement, the First and Second World Wars, the Royal Air Force, the Air Transport Auxiliary, capital punishment, afternoon teas, the role of women in London’s orchestras, twentieth-century sculpture, and much, much more. But mostly I read Het vogelhuis, over and over again, often speaking the words aloud. And in response I read my own translated words out loud, trying to match the brightness, quickness, and lyrical flow of Eva Meijer’s prose.

In the end all the puzzling, hard work of the translation process vanishes into the ether, and only the text remains: words that weave a story beyond both Dutch and English; words beyond words, which dwell in the mind and possess the body. I hope they will resonate just as much with their new readers as they did with their Dutch audience, and then with me.