Mon 05 March 2018

citybooks in translation | Pissed or urinated?

© Fjodor BuisIn November 2017 citybooks author Maarten van der Graaff visited the UK as the Dutch Language Union Writer in Residence. His tour included London, Nottingham and Sheffield where he worked with 4th year students of Dutch on the English translation of his citybook ‘DOLOR: Official Punk in Karlsruhe’. Supervisor Henriette Louwerse tells us more about the project and has collected some student experiences.

The citybooks Translation Project is becoming an annual tradition in the world of Dutch Studies in the UK. Previous citybooks that were translated by students Dutch in the UK are those of Rebekka de WitCarmien Michels and Abdelkader Benali. For the 8th edition we enlisted the expertise of literary translator Laura Watkinson and, of course, the author himself.

© Maarten van der Graaff

Maarten’s text proved a meaty challenge for the first time literary translators. DOLOR is an unruly text: neither traditional prose nor poetry, rife with intertextual and intercultural references, and in a mix of three languages. Fittingly anarchic for a text about a ban on punks.

What did our students chew on when making this translation? Here is a sample of the translation issues they discussed, in their own words.

Pissed or urinated?

One of my translation decisions was how to translate ‘plasten’ in: ‘Ze deden niets, dus plasten we af en toe op het plein’. There are many different options of synonymous words in English meaning ‘to urinate’. I considered ‘weed’, ‘peed’, ‘urinated’ among others. After deliberation, I decided that ‘pissed’ was the best language choice in English to create a faithful translation of the source text, as audibly it sounds most similar to ‘plasten’. And I found it the best option to convey the ‘punk’ ideals, as ‘pissed’ connotes a more rebellious nature than ‘urinated’.

Aisling Redmond

Digging or graves?

In the sentence ‘archeologie gaat over graven’ the word ‘graven’ caused a conflict of opinions. There are two English translations of the word: ‘graves’ and ‘digging’. Both made sense in the context of the text: ‘archeology is about graves’ or ‘archeology is about digging’. I discussed this the translator, Laura Watkinson, but we needed to consult Maarten to hear what he preferred since we could not avoid the ambiguity of the Dutch being lost in translation. Maarten preferred the verb: so ‘archeology is about digging’.

Rachel Atkinson

I commit myself to?

An issue that we all struggled with was the phrase ‘Ik verbind mij ertoe’, which many of us had translated as ‘I commit myself to’. However, this didn’t sound particularly natural in English, and after we spoke to Maarten, we discovered that it wasn’t a particularly common phrase in Dutch either. It is mainly used in contracts, which is the register that Maarten wanted to convey. We therefore decided to add ‘hereby’ in English, so the phrase became ‘I hereby commit myself to’ and Maarten agreed.

Natalie Smith

House, home, apartment or flat?

One particular instance that we discussed was the differences between the words ‘house’, ‘home’, ‘apartment’ and ‘flat’ as a translation for the Dutch word ‘woning’. ‘Ik verbind mij ertoe mijn woning een bewoonde indruk te geven’. In this sentence, we were unsure whether Maarten intended to refer to a particular type of building, such as an apartment or flat, or whether he was referring to a more emotional place, as would be implied with ‘home’. However, if Maarten had meant home, then perhaps he would have used the word ‘thuis’ instead of ‘woning’. In the end we settled on ‘home’, due to its more neutral connotation: ‘I hereby undertake to give my home a lived-in impression’.

Jennifer Francis


The full text in English is now available on the website.


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