Jaap Robben’s You Have Me to Love has been described by Gerhard Bakker as “beautiful, just beautiful”. I’m not sure that’s the adjective I’d choose due to the intrinsic sadness and a sense of foreboding that builds to almost unbearable levels when a starving seagull consumes her own offspring. Is that how the relationship between Dora and her son, Mikael, will end? It’s quite a chilling thought. Detailed reviews of the novel are available on the blogs Never Imitate and Winston’s Dad. Today though I have the pleasure of interviewing David Doherty, whose translation of the novel was recently commended by the judges of the 2018 Vondel Prize.
How did you become a literary translator?
I moved to Amsterdam on a whim and when my Dutch got good enough I landed a job as a commercial translator, tackling everything from government speeches to signs for the local zoo. It was a colleague who suggested I try my hand at literature. Till then it had never dawned on me I might be able to translate a book. She had done workshops through the Dutch Foundation for Literature, so I followed in her footsteps, plucked up the courage to do a test translation and gradually began to pick up work from there. Haven’t given up the day job though!
How did you become Jaap Robben’s translator?
I got lucky. As I was starting to get the odd literary assignment, Eric Visser was setting up World Editions and was on the lookout for translators. As far as I know, his strategy of launching a whole series of titles he believed in on the English market instead of waiting for a UK or US publisher to pick up the rights had never really been tried before. The Foundation gave me the opportunity to translate an excerpt from Birk and World Editions liked it enough to take a chance on me.
Describe the process of translating You Have Me to Love.
The prospect of tackling an entire novel was daunting, so I went in search of expert guidance. In another massive stroke of luck, I managed to land a mentorship with David Colmer. It was a remarkable learning experience: internalising the feedback as the months went by and gradually becoming more aware of my pitfalls and blind spots. It felt like added pressure to begin with but I soon realised it was freeing me up to be bolder and try things out.
I’m one of those translators who fiddle till they drop, so even after all the rounds of feedback, I must have gone through the whole thing at least another twice before handing it in. That said, there is a kind of saturation point as the deadline approaches, the feeling that you’ve looked at the text so much you can’t see straight any more. But put the same text in front of me a few months later and I’ll carry right on fiddling. Sometimes I wish there was an off switch!
Jaap Robben didn’t see the translation until I had submitted the final draft. It took him a scarily long time to respond but it turned out he read the English aloud to get a proper feel for it. He seemed genuinely pleased with the result—a huge relief!
The original Dutch title is simply Birk. What considerations went into the title change for the English translation? Do you think it changes the emphasis of the reading in any way?
Yes, quite a leap to go from four letters to five words but it’s an inspired one, I reckon. Since Birk sounds so much like “berk” (as in “idiot”), it was clear the title had to change. My own attempts to conjure something from boy/gull/island/sea/son/mother/father either ended in cliché or emphasized one aspect at the expense of the rest of the book. Eventually it was Eric Visser who came up with You Have Me to Love, something the mother says to her son at a key point in the novel. It gets to the heart of their relationship while resonating with the other themes. Birk is the missing father but the impact of his absence comes through powerfully enough without his name on the cover.
There are many instances where attention is drawn to differences in the language as spoken by the islanders and mainlanders. How is this differentiated in the Dutch and how did you decide to approach the translation?
The setting of the novel is deliberately non-specific—a remote island in the North Atlantic. A Scottish accent felt like a natural fit, both geographically and for me personally, so that’s what I tended towards when non-standard English was called for.
There’s a Scandinavian flavour to the names of characters and places. We considered asking Jaap if he’d be open to changing them and giving the whole novel a more Scottish feel. But in the end that didn’t seem right: for Dutch readers the setting is clearly foreign and at a slight remove from reality, so pinning it down in English would have been a step too far.
I laid on the accents more thickly than in the original, probably because I had to work harder to achieve certain effects. When the distraught mother mishears “Da nie” (non-standard pronunciation of “Dat niet” which means “Not that”) as “Dannie” (the name “Danny”) all Jaap does is remove two ‘t’s and run the words together. My version “Call ‘im b’ name? Naw.” misheard as “Colin Ba-what?” is clearly more of a stretch.
Were there other places where you needed to be creative because the Dutch idiom didn’t translate easily into English?
Jaap Robben is a poet and a children’s writer too, and his young narrator often sees the world in striking images drawn from simple, natural elements. There’s an immediacy to these in the Dutch that I couldn’t always capture in English. At times I had to step back and “normalise” to make them work. So in English the novel opens with “My tongue felt like it was crawling with ants” while the Dutch is literally “Ants itched in my tongue.” I compensated where I could by condensing the imagery elsewhere. For instance, a later description of the rainbow colours in oil floating on the water around some boats becomes “[boats] ringed by oily rainbows that glisten on the water.”
I notice you’ve also translated a novel called The Dyslexic Hearts Club for World Editions. Tell us a little about that, particularly if the challenges of translation were somewhat different than those posed by You Have Me to Love.
From Mikael’s island tragedy to the madcap adventures of three damaged women on the run from the law and a pair of would-be assassins. How’s that for contrast?! I have a real soft spot for The Dyslexic Hearts Club. It’s a light, pacy read but there’s so much heart to it. You root for these unlikely protagonists through one close shave after another and with every lull in the action you care about them more. I’ve never managed to read the final pages without a tear in my eye.
Action and humour were the tough nuts to crack. The lighter touches in Birk are woven into the drama and the contrast between the innocent, observant child and the hapless adults around him. In DHC, Hanneke Hendrix makes unashamed use of slapstick and corny gags, most delivered by a loveable eccentric called Vandersteen, who became a kind of Julie Walters character in my head. So yes, tricky in its own way but an absolute blast. I hope to goodness I was able to do it some kind of justice.
Do you have any other translations in the pipeline?
I recently translated a gloriously ambitious debut novel by Flemish writer Sarah Meuleman, due out in the States this autumn. A heady mix of literary thriller, coming-of-age story, urban angst and post-modern romance, with appearances by Agatha Christie, Barbara Newhall Follet and Virginia Woolf—quite a trip! By way of contrast I’m currently working on a heartfelt novella by Margriet de Moor, a meditation on love, grief and memory. Deeply moving stuff.
As this interview will be published during Dutch Boekenweek 2018, please recommend three books of Dutch/Flemish literature for English-speaking readers.
One would have to be The Evenings by Gerard Reve. A landmark novel by one of the Big Three of post-war Dutch literature. For a long time, Reve had been proclaimed “untranslatable” so it’s great to see the praise for Sam Garrett’s translation blowing that myth clean out of the water.
I’d gladly read anything by Peter Terrin and his novel The Guard is a great place to start. Translated by David Colmer, it’s dark, strange and bleakly funny. The world is in meltdown and a pair of twitchy security guards are stuck in a basement trying to work out what the hell is going on.
Annelies Verbeke is a really interesting and entertaining writer who’s not afraid to take all kinds of weird and wonderful turns to get at the truth. She’s a master of the short story and her collection Assumptions has been translated by Liz Waters, as has her latest novel Thirty Days.
You are stranded on the proverbial desert island and you are allowed to take one book for translation purposes. Which would it be and why?
It would have to be something very special to keep me sane under those circumstances! Though I’ve only read the opening section, I might go for De onderwaterzwemmer (The Underwater Swimmer) by P.F. Thomése. Hooks you with a chilling childhood trauma and then spends a lifetime exploring the repercussions.