‘The writer’s job,’ Nabokov once wrote, ‘is to get the main character up in a tree, and then once they are up there, to throw rocks at them.’ As someone who believes that all literature worth its salt has something edgy about it, that explanation has always delighted me.
Dutch literature at its finest has that edginess too. At its best it is the domain of unbridled rock-throwing, of ribaldry, of gut-wrenching tragedy, black humour and in-your-face social critique. Often peppered with qualifications that would make the hair stand up on the back of any sensitive reader’s neck.
It is, in short, alive. Which is probably why I’m fond of it – and with me are its growing readership abroad.
One titillating aspect of being a literary translator from the Dutch is that so few people speak and read it – only an estimated twenty-five million worldwide: the combined populations of the city of São Paulo and Los Angeles County. Which makes it all the more rewarding and cosy, as though you were a member of some secret club of lost boys and girls. As though it were a kind of deep-op code, and you are the Enigma Machine.
But why on earth would any serious person spend the greater part of their productive life cracking the end-to-end encryption of something spoken by no more than one-third of one percent of the world’s population? Is it purely masochism? No … or at least, not purely. Are there other rewards then? Intangible ones in this case, for, God knows, no serious person – what am I saying? – no one in their right mind would enter this profession for the money.
To answer that, I don’t even have to rack my brain to find the moment when first I was forced into translating Dutch literature. For yes, I was forced. Even forty years later, the memory of that moment and the place it happened is as clear as the proverbial bell.
It was in the draughty upstairs kitchen of the squat my girlfriend and I occupied in the early 1980s, where I accidentally came across a special, twenty-page Christmas insert with stapled binding from a local Dutch paper; it contained a story called ‘A Day in the Life of David Windvaantje’ (a windvaantje, by the way, is a weathervane, spinning madly in every fair and foul wind that blows).
Someone had taken that insert out of the newspaper and folded it flat, face down, to use as a shelf liner; there were coffee stains – and something else that looked like peppery, red sambal hot sauce – on the cover, which bore a drawing of a man who looked exactly the way I felt at the time: mad-scientist hairdo, a seedy-looking angel on his shoulder and a string of hearts bubbling up from his left ear. The real surprise, though, was inside: the story follows a deeply neurotic librarian who makes a terrible, terrible mistake, then ends up fleeing accountability on a daylong bike ride around The Hague, fraught with perils imaginary and real.
The story was by Maarten Biesheuvel. Sadly, Maarten died in early 2020, having – against all odds – reached the age of seventy-nine, but from the moment I finished that Christmas special he became a fixture atop my literary Olympus. The dilemma, of course, was that now my friends back home absolutely had to read this. Yet, how could they? There was only one solution, and that was to translate the damn thing myself.
Later I discovered other memorable stories by Biesheuvel, and then Jan Wolkers’ autobiographical Terug naar Oegstgeest and Gerard Reve’s De avonden and Frans Kellendonk’s Mystiek lichaam and Tommy Wieringa’s Joe Speedboot. All just crying out to be translated. A great story, I learned, is a loaded gun pointed at the translator’s sense of fair play. For who was I – now that I had the key to break the code and unlock the trove – to keep these jewels all to myself?
Some of them I did end up translating, yes indeed. Others may come my way someday, and yet more will hopefully be discovered and handed over to new readers by a new generation of Dutch–English translators: serious people all, I’m sure. The poor devils.
By Sam Garrett