Tue 30 September 2014

Notes from the Underground #28: Mons-Bokrijk, via Brussels

Students at the University of Mons have translated Atte Jongstra’s citybook about Hasselt and Genk into French. Kevin Mertens and Arnaud Stamps, students at the Faculté de Traduction et d’Interprétation, tell us about the translation project in these Notes from the Underground.

Academic year 2013-2014: the first semester. For a change from our usual classes, in which we translate the texts of our classmates, our lecturer suggests that we take a look at a ‘real’ text; one that will be read by a ‘real’ audience. How to respond to the opportunity to see our work end up somewhere other than in a binder marked ‘Literary translation, Dutch-French,’ on a shelf above our desks? With a resounding ‘yes.’

Initial contacts were made, and some time later – with much excitement –we received Atte Jongstra’s text, in which he tells the story of his stay in Limburg. None of us is from this region of The Netherlands, and the author’s work was also brand new to us. So: following a first reading and initial impressions, the text was divided between a number of different groups. After all, where two or three heads are better than one, a hydra with fifteen isn’t usually so quick to arrive at a final decision…

As Hasselt, Genk and (lest we forget!) Bokrijk reveal themselves to us little by little, doubts spring up on every street corner, and the ensuing questions fly from one group to the other: ‘The Black Sisters, are you guys capitalising that?’; ‘does anybody know if there’s a big pit in the middle of Genk?’; ‘a cafeteria, a café, a tea room… what’s really the difference between them all?’; ‘ he’s a geopneumono-what?’ In other words, a lively chaos. Thankfully, we were helped along in our endeavours by the enlightening advice of our lecturer, the wise suggestions of Robert and the Internet, and especially by Daniel Cunin’s translation of the earlier adventures of the geopneumonologist Gustav Joseph in Venice, where Death Comes up from Below.

A few weeks pass, and we compile the first version of our text. We’re not dissatisfied, as it’s already starting to look respectable. But a translation without revision is a little like neoscholarship: it looks the part, but only to those who already believe it to be so. Nobody else could fail to see its shortcomings. And so we take a stroll through the gardens of our neighbours, because the grass is at its greenest when we mow it ourselves: we make corrections and suggestions to the translations of others. The atmosphere is good in our group, which consists mainly of students from the first year of the Master’s programme. If we can’t reach an agreement among ourselves about how to best render a certain passage, we turn to second-year students, and then to our lecturer.

In early May our work comes to an end, and we’re happy to have been able to contribute to the project. All that remains is to thank Atte Jongstra for sharing his Limburg experiences with us, and thank Carola Henn and deBuren for giving us the chance to translate them. And – who knows? – we might organise a trip to the other side of our little country to see if the air between Hasselt and Genk is still crisp and clear above Bokrijk.

Kevin Mertens and Arnaud Stamp
(Students at the Faculté de Traduction et d’Interprétation de l’Université de Mons)


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