In other words – writing, reading and literary translation

I have recently been working on a translation into English of a short story in Dutch.  It’s part of an ongoing project, and I am finding the process fascinating.  As a writer who is also a translator, there are a number of things going on at the same time when I undertake literary translation, and although the temptation is to say that much of it is instinctive, in fact there are layers of practice at work which I find it helpful to analyse and articulate.

Any translation has elements of decoding meaning from the source language (which in my case is Dutch) and encoding it in the target language (in my case, English).  Sound straightforward enough?  Well, not really, because the differences between how languages work, the building blocks that make up meaning – things like word order – mean that it’s not simply a case of grabbing a dictionary and swapping one word for another.  Also, you can’t just translate expressions and idioms literally, because the same idea may be expressed completely differently in the two languages.  For example, iets kennen als zijn broekzak literally translates as ‘knowing something like his trouser pocket’ – which makes no sense whatsoever in English.  The equivalent idiom in English would be ‘knowing something like the back of his hand’.

But what if the meaning of the text is made up, not only of dictionary words, or even idioms and colloquial phrases, but of subtle nuances of tone, sound, repetition, alliteration, rhythm, pace, and so on.  This is most obvious in translating poetry, of course, but any literary text is more than the sum of its words, and my challenge is to extract a sense of those extra layers of meaning and to convey that into English.  It is my job to write the short story in English which the original author would have written if they had been a native speaker of English.

This is, of course, impossible, but the best translations get so close to this ideal that the reader forgets that they are reading a translation.  This is what I am aiming for.  I need to identify and isolate the quirks, style and individual voice of the author and find a way of distilling that into an equivalent voice in English.  If the story reads as if I wrote it, then I’ve failed.

Ironically, I believe that it is the fact that I am a writer which equips me to do literary translation.  Finding my own voice, using all those tools of tone, sound, repetition, alliteration, rhythm, pace, and so on in my own writing, enables me to put that toolbox at the disposal of the author whose words I am translating.  Because I am a writer, I am well-placed to see the workings behind the scenes of the original text, to recognise what the author is doing, and to do what is necessary to create the corresponding effect in English.

It can be a slow process.  This is not like translating an online article about a new archaeological discovery, or even like translating a piece of academic writing.  Those kinds of texts are mainly about conveying the content.  The voice of the original author is rarely the main feature of the translation, and the task is to convey the information in appropriate, equivalent English.  It may take time to do the necessary research to find that appropriate equivalence – especially where there is specialised vocabulary involved – but it is not an especially lengthy process.  With literary translation, by contrast, I need to live with the text for a while before attempting to start translating it.  In the case of this short story, I first read it more than six months ago, and have gone back to it many times since.  I have it read straight through; read it for structure; for style; for vocabulary; for geographically-specific references (the author is Flemish, and the story is set in Antwerp).  I have marked up ‘problems’, passages where it is not immediately apparent how I should translate the text.  One particular phrase occupied me for a long time – in the end I decided to take a risk and move quite a long way from the literal meaning of the original Dutch word in order to create the same shock-value and controversy in English.  Re-reading my translation now, I am really pleased with the ‘solution’ to that particular ‘problem’.

There is a campaign ongoing in the translation and publishing industries at the moment to put ‘translators on the cover’ – in the vast majority of cases, literary translators are not named on the covers of the books they translate, even when these translations go on to win major book  prizes.  Often – in Anglophone markets, anyway – it is hard to know that the book you are reading is a translation.  At best, you might find the translator mentioned on the title page, but usually they will merely get a credit tucked away on the copyright page, which only the most nerdy amongst readers ever actually reads (I do – but I’m an ex-librarian and back in the day, when cataloguing was done manually, this was where you found the information you needed in order to catalogue a book).  If you live in an English-speaking country, you have probably read the work of literary translators without even realising it.  It is my hope that, having read this post, you may seek out the work of literary translators and enjoy the results of the process that I have described.  There is a whole world of books out there, and literary translators are the people who make it possible for you to read them in your own language.

Photograph of part of a page from a Dutch/English dictionary, showing the entries for 'vertalen' (to translate), 'vertaler' (translator) and 'vertaling' (translation).

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Humans getting taller – is it all in the mind?

I recently listened to a programme on the BBC World Service which explored the reasons why humans have got taller in recent generations, and why people in some countries are generally taller than in others.  The programme grabbed me from its opening sentence, which asserted that the Netherlands was the tallest country for men (for women, Latvia just nudged ahead).  As I am half-Dutch, and have always been one of the tallest women amongst my friends and colleagues, this interested me.

There is not, it appears, a consensus as to the cause of this increase in height (nor is it consistent – in some places, such as the United Kingdom, the rate of increase has slowed markedly, and in others, such as Uganda, it has actually reversed).  There are two main theories: firstly, it’s genetic.  The predisposition to be tall is inherited, either individually or in certain groups of the population.  Secondly, it is attributed to the improvements in nutrition and healthcare during the past two centuries or so, together with (arguably) greater equality in society.  This, it is argued, explains why the historic differences in heights between the privileged classes and the poor (evidenced by archaeology) have narrowed in recent generations as nutrition and healthcare have improved in the general population.  This theory is also espoused by Dutch researchers, who attribute the Netherlands’ position as a country of unusually (by international standards) tall people to a national diet which is big on dairy produce, an excellent welfare state, and a more equal society.

I’m no scientist, so I’m not qualified to evaluate the detail, but on the face of it this second theory is quite plausible.  It also avoids the slightly queasy overtones of eugenics which inevitably attach to any theories which posit that one group of people is genetically better than another – and undoubtedly human society regards being tall as a Good Thing.  Small may be beautiful, but higher is better – just think for a moment about all the words and phrases which include ‘high’ – can you think of many that are negative?  Would you rather be high status or low status?  High class, high quality, the moral high ground, high-minded, the high life – altitude equals advantage.  Studies show that taller people are more successful, healthier, richer.  Taller men are deemed more attractive to women.  It has a wide range of psychological advantages – most humans equate height with status and leadership.  Who wouldn’t want to be tall?

The programme offers a third theory, however – that increased height is linked to increased optimism.  Where a society is hopeful about its future, its children and grandchildren grow taller.  Until fairly recently, the USA was the country with the tallest people – might this be a result of the American Dream?  The programme cited the case of Germany after the First World War, when the rigid stratifications of society broke down and there was the prospect that people could improve their situation.  So many children grew so tall that it was thought to be a medical problem, an abnormality.  Proponents of this theory cite sub-Saharan Africa, where height increased significantly in the middle of the 20th century, arguing that this was as a result of a wave of optimism after the end of colonialism; in many countries where there has been ongoing instability that trend has since reversed, with adults now being, on average, shorter than their grandparents.  Also, this theory suggests that the famous tallness of the Dutch was due to a surge of optimism in 1848, the ‘Year of Revolution’ in Europe which in the Netherlands saw the creation of a constitutional monarchy.

So – can tallness be caused by optimism, self-confidence, a positive view the future?  Could a physical change like this be the result of a psychological outlook – a psychological outlook on the part of a society or community, moreover, rather than the individual who is growing up tall?  I find it a fascinating idea.  I was born in the late 1960s, which was, I gather (I was a bit young at the time to experience it first hand), a time of optimism, social change and liberation.  More specifically, my parents were at that time turning their backs on the constraints of society and looking ahead to a life of fulfilling their dreams of travel and freedom.  My father (of Welsh ancestry and a working-class background) was born during the First World War and at 5’6” (168cm) was significantly taller than his parents or siblings.  My mother was a shade shorter than him, and the tallest person in her (Dutch) family was my grandfather (born in 1900 into a professional middle-class family), who had peaked at 5’7” (170cm).  By the age of 13 I was the same height as my grandfather, and a final growth spurt while at university took me to 5’ 7 ¾“ (172cm).

This makes me quite a bit taller than the average for a woman in the United Kingdom (figures vary, but it’s somewhere around 5’4” or 162cm), and also taller than the average for the Netherlands (5’6” or 168cm).  In the UK, it is very unusual for me not to be the tallest woman in the room – so much so that it’s quite disconcerting when I meet a woman who is taller than me.  I had always put my height down to Dutch genes and good nutrition – but what if it’s actually a product of being born to idealistic parents at a time of promise and societal optimism about the future?  And how does that fit with my mindset, which is definitely not positive or optimistic – wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony if my tall body was the product of a psychology that my mind doesn’t share?


Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash

If you are interested in the programme which inspired this piece, it’s available to listen at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3ct064s.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

My creative inheritance – the story of three generations of women and our textiles

I have been making things with yarn and textiles for almost as long as I can remember.  I can vividly recall the first time I saw someone crocheting (I was about four at the time), which I described as “knitting with one needle.”  Evidently I already knew about knitting with two needles!  As a child in the Netherlands I grew up around embroidery and cross stitch – my aunt used to make amazing tablecloths embroidered with naturalistic leaves, berries and flowers in tiny cross stitch, a style which is very common in the Netherlands but rarely seen here in the UK.  It always impressed me that the reverse was very nearly as beautiful as the front of her work, and I was taught that this was something to aim for.  My Oma (grandmother) was skilled in a wide range of embroidery styles – blackwork, drawn thread work, and crewel work as well as cross stitch and needlepoint.  She always had something on the go – unless she was immersed in one of her beloved English-language whodunits!

Occasionally she would knit – I have a vague recollection of cardigans she knitted for me when I was very small – but it was my mother who was the prolific knitter.   Rarely working from patterns, between the 1940s and the 1980s she produced a vast number of garments, not only the usual sweaters and scarves, but also entire dresses – with panelled skirts – fully fashioned and a perfect fit and, astonishingly, knitted from the finest 2-ply or laceweight yarn on knitting needles barely thicker than sewing needles.  She always claimed to hate knitting, but nevertheless she put a lot of time and effort into her creations, even when knitwear was easily and cheaply available to buy and knitting was no longer the necessity it perhaps was in the 1940s and 50s.  She also made her (and my) clothes occasionally, including her own wedding dress, on a 1950s Singer sewing machine with an electric motor.

Image of textile art. Skyscape in blue wool with vapour trails and clouds suggested in white and oyster silk. Image and art copyright Lisa Tulfer 2012.

Beacons Skyscape. Wool felt and silk. Lisa Tulfer 2012

It was probably inevitable that I would continue the tradition.  I was embroidering (including blackwork and drawn thread work) by the age of 6, and I also remember learning to knit when I was 6 or 7 – it was a scarf for one of my dolls, made out of scrap yarn in stripes of olive green and burgundy.  I made all my dolls’ clothes, sewing as well as knitting and crocheting.  Up until my late 20s (when my eyesight started to struggle) I made fine cross stitch cards and bookmarks as gifts.  After that, I moved onto needlepoint, as it is larger scale, uses chunky wool instead of fine cottons and silks, and is altogether easier on the eyes.  For a time I took commissions, creating unique bespoke designs for cushions.  In my 20s I acquired a 1930 Singer hand cranked sewing machine, which is my pride and joy, and started dressmaking.  Unfortunately, full-time work and the demise of fabric shops in the 1990s eventually ended that, but I still use the machine to do alterations, shorten trousers, and make things for the house, even if I haven’t made myself an item of clothing for many years.

Image of a hand knitted sock, with a second just begun, and a ball of yarn, in stripes of three shades of green.

I knit compulsively – I’m more than a little obsessed with yarn, especially wool and silk, and deeply in love with the self-striping sock yarn which has been developed in recent years in a kaleidoscope of colours.  I think that for me it’s often about the process of knitting – the meditative rhythm of it, and the tactile and visual enjoyment of the yarn – as much as the finished garment.  I rarely use commercial patterns, usually sketching out my own designs and often making it up as I go along.  If the yarn is colourful or has a great texture I try to keep the design simple so as not to compete with the materials.  Over the last few years I have set myself new challenges – I have learned to knit socks (my partner is now the proud owner of a number of pairs of custom socks in the knock-your-eye-out colours she loves) and also plucked up the courage to try lace knitting, with generous guidance from Liz Lovick of Northern Lace.  Both of these do require patterns, as well as intense concentration.

When I was very young, I was told I couldn’t draw.  With art therefore not open to me as a creative outlet, I turned instead to the skills I did have, inherited from the women of my family – textiles.  For me, there has always been more to making things with yarn and cloth than simply making functional garments – colour, texture and pattern are paramount.  In my late 30s I discovered feltmaking, and rather than making the clothes, wraps and bowls which many of my contemporaries created – often very beautifully – I ‘painted’ with coloured wool fibres to create wall art which was mounted and framed like a picture.  I then discovered spinning – with a spindle, still my preference, and with a wheel – and with the unique yarns I was making I started to weave.  I did make myself a scarf, and a table runner is currently awaiting its bead fringing, but otherwise everything I weave, too, is wall art.

Although I have inherited a number of things which belonged to my Dutch grandparents, I think the one I would save from a fire is a blackwork wall hanging embroidered by my Oma in 1966 – before I was born.  It hung on her kitchen wall for as long as I can remember, and now it hangs on mine.  It depicts the signs displayed outside Dutch hostelries and other businesses in former times.  It could do with specialist cleaning, but the marks on it tell the story of family life, and for me, as the work of her hands, it’s infinitely precious.

Photograph of a blackwork embroidery, dated 1966, depicting old Dutch inn signs and associated advertising slogans.