Tue 02 April 2013

Notes from the Underground #20

Young Flemish writer Bouke Billiet, who made a bold debut with his novel In de naam van TienKamelen, wrote a citybook about Indonesia’s Semarang. At the invitation of Henriëtte Louwerse he spent two weeks in England experiencing first hand the translation of his imaginative story by English students of Dutch. Aimée Hardy was one of those students. Together, Billet and Hardy take you on a journey through England and the fascinating process of translation, supported also by the Dutch Foundation for Literature (Nederlands Letterenfonds).

Bouke Billiet (right) at a meeting with students in Sheffield. © Henriettte Louwerse

The British Isles and the Little Islands of Dutch

For the students and lecturers of Dutch at the universities of Sheffield, Nottingham and UCL, language and literature are, above all, a source of great pleasure. It quickly became overwhelmingly clear to me that those who are convinced of the importance of Dutch as taught in British universities ought to take very good care of these teachers. Not once, but three times, I met teams of lecturers that spoke of Low Countries culture with such infectious enthusiasm that I almost began to believe in it myself. Jane Fenoulhet (UCL) speaks Dutch better than I do, and ejected me from her study without batting an eyelid when a student came to ask for help. Bram Mertens (Nottingham) is looking forward to the vacation, not because he doesn’t enjoy doing his job, but because that’s the moment at which he can finally fall ill; in the holidays, as befits a thoroughbred educator. Henriëtte Louwerse (Sheffield) is to Dutch studies what the Gulf Stream is to our mild climate; if I ever forget what the value of culture is, I’ll be sure to spend fifteen minutes in one of her lectures.

In their company, I had to pull out every last stop in order not to reveal myself as a total dunce. That the students take their education dead seriously became clear the moment I saw their discussions and individual translations of my text online. Questions like ‘why do you use a semi-colon instead of a comma here?’; ‘what’s the difference between ‘dom’ and ‘stom’ (words that might be rendered in English as ‘stupid’ or ‘ignorant’, but with subtle, difficult-to-translate differences); ‘to what extent should we take into account the English reader’s familiarity with the cultural and historic background to the text?’. A ten-day-long interview that didn’t stop at the end of lessons, but ran happily on into the evenings in Soho restaurants and pubs in Sheffield.

The result of the translation project, Palm Leaves and Promises, is the first complete, professional translation of a text from my own pen. I’m searching in vain for more beautiful words than ‘super-proud’ and ‘über-cool’ to describe how my feelings. Maybe I can seek the advice of these young British forces just one more time?

Bouke Billiet
(click here for the original Dutch text)


'Meisje van vroeger' becomes 'Palm Leaves and Promises'

It is not often that a university translation project involves translating the work of an exciting, young author who you actually get the chance to meet as well; but this is exactly what a group of students have just had the opportunity to do. Advanced students of Dutch from the University of Sheffield, University College London and the University of Nottingham have spent recent weeks working on an entirely new and fascinating text that is part of the citybooks series.

citybooks sent the young up-and-coming Flemish author Bouke Billiet (In de naam van TienKamelen) to Semarang in Indonesia to gather inspiration for his citybook. The result of this, Meisje van vroeger or Palm Leaves and Promises is the meeting of a visiting narrator with a local woman who takes him on a sight-seeing tour of the city while relating Semarang’s rocky colonial past and the effect that it has had on the city. She also talks about present worries: nothing is being preserved as it should in Semarang and the city is slowly falling to dust.

Bouke Billiet amidst the group of students from Sheffield University. © Henriettte Louwerse

Our Translation Project consisted of a number of phases. After having completed our own translations of a section of the full text, we were put into small groups with students from the other universities to create a group version of our extract. We were lucky enough to be able to ask both the author and our very own professional translator, Jonathan Reeder, for help when we needed it. It was a great opportunity to work with students of Dutch from other universities, to pool our ideas together and to come up with some brilliant English translations of the text.

The project was very interactive and it was invaluable to be able to ask a professional translator of Jonathan Reeder’s calibre and experience for his opinion and help, as we were all novices in the field of literary translation. I can safely say that everyone enjoyed the project, and though we were propelled into the world of literary translation at great speed, with the help we had it became something that we could really get our teeth into, and definitely something that I’m sure most of us would love to do again.

After all of the groups had completed their translations, everyone involved took part in a video conference, at which Jonathan Reeder and author Bouke Billiet were also present. Issues were dealt with and an editorial team chosen who would work with Jonathan on the final English translation of the text, taking into consideration any queries that had come up. This project has been extremely worthwhile and I believe that despite our inexperience, it has resulted in an excellent translation. It has also instilled a passion for literary translation in lots of students, and further opened our eyes to the exciting world of Dutch and Flemish literature.

Aimee Hardy, University of Sheffield



comment on this article

Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are required.

is never shown