Of the Dutch>English literary translators based in the Low Countries, many (if not most) of us are based
in the Netherlands. I am American, live in Amsterdam and translate from both Dutch and Flemish. We
thrive on Holland’s rich cultural life and its world-class literature. But we also love much about Belgium
– the food, the pubs, the retro streetcars, the way the Flemish use the language – and most Dutch
translators jump at the chance to translate a Flemish-Belgian author. What’s the draw? Is there
something essentially unique about Flemish writing, or is it just the attraction of an exotic neighbour?
When we translators get together to talk about Belgium, we usually do it op café – in the pub. So,
for this special Dutch Riveter chat, I invited two colleagues with similar experience translating Flemish
writers, to share their thoughts at our socially distanced ‘Zoom Bar’.
JR (‘Bolleke’, amber De Koninck beer, in a goblet-shaped glass): All the Flemish books I’ve done till now are set in Belgium, mostly in Flanders itself, while many Dutch authors seem more likely to cast an eye abroad. So when I’m offered a Flemish book I’ve come to expect the themes, style, setting and language to feel more ‘regional’ than Dutch ones.
PV (Westmalle Tripel): My experience has been less black-and-white than yours, but you could say that Belgians have a more diverse cultural palette to work with.
CM (red wine from the Ardennes): It seems that in Belgium there’s an openness to engaging with localised writing and less standard language.
JR: I’ve seen more films and television in local Flemish dialects than Dutch ones. There was even a TV series set in Belgian Limburg that was subtitled in Dutch, so that the rest of Flanders could understand it. Can’t imagine that in Holland.
PV: There’s also the Dutch tendency to set stories in a middle-class or educated environment …
JR: … hip young urbanites doing things on their laptops and mobile phones …
PV: … whereas in Belgium it’s often working class, set in small provincial towns.
JR: Or ragtag city neighbourhoods.
CM: Sometimes I think there’s a sort of ‘Netflixing’ happening in literature, especially among young writers. When you standardise the style and setting, you also limit the kind of people you can write about. The Flemish like to tell stories about things happening closer to home. The local element is what makes translated literature so interesting. And look at the books from the Netherlands that have done well in translation and have won big international prizes: intimate, local settings.
JR: How about their use of the Dutch language? Are we attracted to it because it’s really special, or just because it’s colourful and kind of sexy?
CM: There’s certainly a different approach to the language in Holland. In Belgium, the Flemish have really assimilated a certain Frenchness into their way of writing. Dutch can be more staccato but I definitely get that French rolling, lyrical feel in Flemish. Even their sentence structure has a definite French influence.
PV: You could say the same for Flemish poetry. What I like about Flemish literature is its tendency to work more with colloquial patterns of speech. It’s lively.
JR: It can be beautifully baroque and exuberant, although sometimes it’s exhausting to read. There’s a lot to be said for the down-to-earth Dutch style, especially froma translator’s point of view. Speaking of the French influence, I do love how the Flemish have appropriated so many French words, either literally, like ‘facteur’ for ‘postman’ or ‘bricolage’ for ‘DIY’, or bastardised, like ‘goesting’, from ‘goût’; ‘nonkel’ – ‘uncle’, from the French ‘oncle’; or one of my favourites, the expletive ‘nondeju!’, from the French ‘nom de dieu’.
CM: Nondeju, love it!
PV: There’s a lot that makes Belgium an interesting place to write about. Take the cultural and social tensions between the Flemish and the Walloons. Belgium’s also got a more volatile history, what with all the devastation and upheaval in the First World War, which brought about a lot of changes, including in their literature. The Netherlands is a stable, regulated, peace-loving place, and it shows in their writing.
JR: So guess what the 2020 Words of the Year in Belgium and the Netherlands were? It kind of says it all. Both, not surprisingly, have to do with Covid. Here in the Netherlands, the winner was ‘anderhalvemetersamenleving’, meaning (roughly) ‘socially distanced society’, whereas the Belgian winner was ‘knuffelcontact’, literally ‘cuddle contact’: Belgian regulations allow every Belgian one ‘hug buddy’, ie, someone from outside your home you’re allowed to hug.
CM: Santé to that!
JR: Op uw bakkes!