To translate is to make up what is written

It seemed to be equally wrong in Dutch literature in 1779. ‘How!’, wrote the Amsterdam apothecary Petrus Johannes Kasteleijn in the opening verse of his collection. Poetic delights‘Wiltge, beside us, on the Dutch singing mountain, / With a ‘derivative shine, with gathered rays?’

No, Kasteleijn does not allow himself to speak here. He checkmates his would-be critics in advance by formulating their objections in his own words and contradicting them at once. His supposed wrongdoing? The collection of poems that opens with this polemical verse did not consist of original works, but of translations of German examples. Imitation and gossip he already heard the literary clique grumbling. And worse, lack of patriotism, which then could quickly become a neck-on-neck affair. Why wasn’t all that translation effort spent on original work in the native language, which at least benefitted Dutch culture?

Kasteleijn’s poem lines are close to exactly in the middle of the sturdy studio Translate in the Netherlands which was recently awarded the Language Book Award 2022. Rightly so, for the five authors who signed up, the book conjures up not only a fascinating picture of the controversies that have characterized translation practice (written and oral, to and from Dutch) over the centuries. They also convincingly show how important an apparently secondary activity such as transferring a text into one language from another has always been, perhaps even more so now than before.

Because through translations, areas of civilization are in conversation with each other, different worlds of thought influence and enrich each other, knowledge spreads and their own culture also advances. Theo Hermans, who is responsible for the period 1550-1700, states with subtlety that it was precisely a translation that could develop into the most important book in cultural history in and for the Dutch language: the Statenbijbel.

The Bible

That translation has nevertheless always been a controversial activity is not only apparent from Kasteleijn’s polemics. Should everything be available in the national language? This was the question already in the Middle Ages and early modern times. The laity had better remain ignorant of complex theological questions; How easily was the Bible misunderstood? And medical treatises would also rather remain unreadable for them, writes Dirk Schoenaers in the introductory part of this book. How much misery its abuse can cause!

It’s like hearing the current concerns about the internet and ‘self-medication’, and the unexpected resonances don’t stop there. Throughout the history of translation – but is it different in cultural history as a whole? – the same issues seem to pop up over and over again. More than two centuries after Kasteleijn, Gerard Cox once again made his opponents’ criticism his own in his satirical chanson ‘De Liedertjes’: ‘With words that sound poetic / Concepts from another language / They know how to sound a song together , / Dutch little bar.’ Ernst van Altena’s translation of Jacques Brel, immortalized by Liesbeth List, was the target for Cox, but the point was the same: ‘We had nothing to say in Dutch. / Translated songs are good.’

Kasteleijn, notes Inger Leemans in the part devoted to the eighteenth century, already had an answer there. Good imitation is better than bad invention, he argued, and Dutch literature could learn a lot from Germany. He also got his twentieth century variant. National literature without an international context remains provincial, observed JF Vogelaar in his programmatic article ‘On the meaning of translations’ from 1986. According to WF Hermans, the popular opinion that literature should be read in the original testified to a snobbery with which Dutch language knowledge was self-deprecating, overrated. With the wretched level of native literature, a surplus of translations was actually a blessing in disguise.

And more and more were translated in Holland. Just after the Second World War, only more than five percent of all published books originally came from abroad, by the end of the century this was already more than a quarter, according to the numerous tables and series of figures Translate in the Netherlands is included. For literary work, this was even almost two-thirds. By that time, French and especially German, from which it was mainly drawn in the beginning, had long since been edged out by English.

Reverse way

This was not the case in the opposite direction. Books translated from Dutch abroad still mainly find their way to the German language area: almost forty percent of the total. But here, too, the absolute numbers show a steady upward trend. The effort in the Literary Production and Translation Fund, which has since been merged into the Dutch Literature Fund, bore fruit.

Translation, Ton Naaijkens concludes in the last part of this book, has transcended dilettantism for a long time. Professionals have taken the place of relaxed ladies and gentlemen with some language skills and too much free time. After the Second World War, serious translation courses appeared with little difficulty at first, and later translation studies gained academic status in universities. From the mid-1950s, the Nijhoff Prize put star translators in the spotlight. Labor grants and extra fees compensated for some of the meager fees, although most translators still struggled.

And all the while, as the authors of this book conclude, translation is becoming increasingly important. Globalization means increased communication across language boundaries, from trade and medical information leaflets via EU treaties to interpretation in the courts and subtitling of TV series. More than a simple transposition of words, translation has become a meeting between cultures and worlds of thought. Nijhoff award winners are expected to act as true ambassadors for their language area. From the fringe or middle figure he once seemed to be, the translator proves in this book to be a leading player in international and intercultural traffic. Simon Vestdijk already called translation an unprecedented diplomatic education.

Almost no word in one language has exactly the same meaning as in another

Meanwhile, there is not much peace on the translation front. Controversy erupts with some regularity over the criteria that a good transfer must meet. ‘Translate what is written’ has been a frequently heard motto since Karel van het Reve – but very often it is far from clear what exactly it says. Languages ​​all organize the world differently: Almost no word in one language has exactly the same meaning as the corresponding word in another – and this can break a translator badly. For Ernst van Altena, literal translation simply fell into forgery.

However fierce the polemics about this may have been in recent decades, they were not new. As early as the beginning of the fifteenth century, Jan van Brederode, translator of the religious treatise, wrote: Somme le roisthat French is ‘a different way of speaking’ [had] than the Dutch do [dan het Nederlands het doet]’. Adjustments, explanations and sometimes abbreviations were inevitable, but he still hoped that he had left ‘den sinne ende die major matter’ intact.

Verbatim translation was prescribed only for biblical texts. God’s word is not tampered with. This didn’t always benefit accessibility, but even then a translation never seemed to transfer the original completely colorless. It could make a big difference whether the work was intended for a Catholic or Protestant audience. A translator is never neutral and – as Romantic poets argued a few centuries later – he should not be. As Cees Koster writes in his contribution about the nineteenth century, translation took place from an inner meeting with the author, who had to recreate as much as possible ‘con amore’ in Dutch.

To translate poetry, the poet Kloos even believed, ‘one must be a poet’. A translator is not a machine, not even a craftsman, but an artist whose personality resonates in his translation. As little ‘professional’ as it may sound in the recent controversy surrounding the poem’s translation The hill we climb by Amanda Gorman, that belief is still very much alive. The ‘spoken word’ of an American poet of color could only be adequately translated by a Dutch ‘spoken word’ poet of colour, publisher Meulenhoff was told the hard way.

Also read: “That Amanda Gorman’s translator must be black, or a woman. What nonsense!’

Translation controversies, as this monumental book makes clear, are as old as translations, and – as the subtitle rightly emphasizes – they drag the whole of cultural history with them. The romance is hidden in an identity political polemic; Van het Reve’s ‘Translation of what is written’ has biblical roots. This starting point does not end the discussions, but only really opens up the problem area. Because what does it actually say? To whom? To what place and time? And for what purpose?

This makes translation, as it was already called in the 14th century, still ‘a difficult and heavy work’. There is no straight, at least straight path from source to target text. ‘Translation’, as Harrie Lemmens – tireless translator and advocate of Portuguese and Brazilian literature – recently concluded, ‘invents what it says’.

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