Have you been following the World Editions blog tour in preparation for Dutch Book Week in March? This week they are featuring Esther Gerritsen’s, Craving, a powerful and sometimes uncomfortable novel about a complicated mother/daughter relationship, which I reviewed last year. Today I’m delighted to discuss it and other Dutch literary matters with the translator, Michele Hutchison.

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Photograph (c) Elma Coetzee


Welecome to the blog, Michele. How did you become a literary translator?

I studied literature, languages and philosophy and went into publishing as an editor. Given that I could read a number of foreign languages I soon found myself commissioning and editing foreign titles and it became my specialty. When I moved to Amsterdam in 2004, I got a job in Dutch publishing and started translating samples of books to pitch at book fairs. It grew from the odd sample to whole books and eventually I stopped editing and went full-time as a translator because it was easier to combine with having young kids. I also really enjoy the work and don’t miss wasting time in office meetings (I like being productive and efficient J).

How did you become Esther Gerritsen’s translator?

I translated a sample of her novel for the Dutch Literary Foundation and felt an immediate affinity with her writing. When World Editions bought the rights they asked me if I’d translate the whole book. I was glad I was available at that moment. I subsequently translated Roxy, another of her novels. I hope I’ll get to translate more of her work in the future.

Describe the process of translating Craving

The process was the same as any other translation in that I come up with a rough draft and then keep on revising it until I’m happy – or until the deadline hits! To be honest, I’m never really happy so it’s usually the deadline. In terms of Esther’s work, there’s a lot of dialogue so I found myself reading the translation out loud quite a lot to find out if it sounded natural.

Esther wasn’t confident enough about her English to want to get involved much in the translation. I prefer this to [Dutch] writers who are overconfident about their English and then you end up having to try to explain grammar and idiom to them.

Were there any passages where you needed to be creative because the Dutch idiom didn’t translate easily into English?

There are always things like that in any translation. I remember worrying about RAS-patat which are deep-fried chips (as in French fries) made of reconstituted potato. You can get them in Holland and France but not in the UK. The main character craves them at one point and gets some from a snack bar. I’m not sure I found a good translation; I’d probably handle it differently now in retrospect. I feel like that about all of my translations. When I open them, I always spot things I’d do differently.

I was really happy with my translation of the title. In Dutch, it’s ‘Dorst’ which literally means ‘thirst’ but can also be used in the context of heavy drinking. It’s not as neutral as the word ‘thirst’. Craving is more explicit but fits the subject matter and characters really well.

Which of your translations gave you the greatest pleasure and why?

I always enjoy the first stages of a translation, immersing myself in the book and then having minor epiphanies along the way as to how to handle challenges specific to each text. I enjoy translating difficult texts because I like puzzling over things, but once I’ve finished I tend to feel dissatisfied. I loved translating La Superba by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer (Deep Vellum) which is set in Italy and is absolutely hilarious in places. I kept a list of all the food and drink in the book and tried to consume everything along the way. I had to farm out some of the alcoholic drinks to friends, though – there are a lot of Negronis in the novel.

You’re also an author.  Which role do you prefer?

The process of writing and translating is quite similar. With writing non-fiction, there’s a wonderful pre-writing phase of lots of research, which is both fun and fascinating. Post-publication things are radically different, though. As a translator you’re not expected to promote the book, though of course you are free to do so and it’s appreciated. As a writer there are a lot of promotional responsibilities and these can become incredibly time-consuming so you hardly have time to write (or translate) your next book. I spent 2017 giving an interview a week on average, I travelled to promote my book, I gave presentations and wrote articles. All of this unpaid. It was invigorating and tiring by turns but also frustrating at times.

Dutch Book Week will be celebrated in the UK from 10th to 18th March 2018. Which three works of Dutch/Flemish literature would you recommend we bloggers read,

Have a look at The Consequences by Niña Weijers (Doppelhouse Press), translated by Hester Velmans. It’s an interesting debut and has been very well received in the States.  I also recommend Turkish Delight by Jan Wolkers, translated by Sam Garrett for Tin House. It’s a 1969 classic and may be even more controversial now than it was then. It’s not politically correct but the writing’s fantastic.  I’d also like to recommend the Flemish graphic novelist Brecht Evens, published by Cape in the UK. I’ve co-translated three of his stunning-looking books. Flemish graphic novels are fab and worth investigating.

You are stranded on the proverbial desert island and you are allowed one book to take for translation purposes.  Which would it be and why?

I think I’d take Het Ware Leven (True Life) which is a playful literary novel by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, first published in 2006. It’s nice and thick and has different characters and different voices, so that should keep me busy and entertained.

I’m going to insert a clause into the desert island contract to allow you to take a second book by W F Hermans (because why, oh why have only two books of his been translated into English?). Which would it be and why?

There’s no need, Lizzy. I, too, love the work of W F Hermans but he had an excellent translator in Ina Rilke and now has another excellent translator in the form of David Colmer who has just translated Het Behouden Huis (An Untouched House, due out July this year – Pushkin UK/Archipelago US) and is sure to continue with more of his work.

(Ed. What a joyous note on which to end! Thank you, Michele.)

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