1475 Translating from the Dutch

Speaking in Tongues: Selected Poems
by H.C. (Hans) ten Berge, translated by Pleuke Boyce with an Afterword by Breyten Breytenbach

Victoria: Ekstasis Editions, 2021
$24.95 / 9781771714167

Reviewed by Christopher Levenson


Preconceptions are comforting: most Anglophone readers probably still think of the Netherlands’ cultural contribution solely in terms of the visual arts and maybe architecture. Few know of, or care about, Dutch literature. Though some contemporary novels have been translated, where poetry is concerned, even major writers of the twentieth century, such as Marsman, Slauerhoff, Vestdijk and especially Achterberg have remained largely untranslated. So while the situation is gradually improving, on those grounds alone a collection such as Speaking in tongues by a leading contemporary Dutch poet, would be welcome.

In fact, it offers much more, almost sixty years’ worth of high intensity poetry from a man who has travelled widely, read deeply and somehow managed to embody most of it into his writing. Ten Berge’s range of themes and concerns is enormous. While the earlier poems exhibit a keen awareness of the natural world in lines such as ‘Too late an early hare gets wind / of the preying fox’, most of his middle and later volumes evoke and interrogate past or present civilizations, whether these be the European Middle Ages, where he focuses on the Plague and the Danse Macabre, First Nations creation myths, Aztec and other pre-Columbian myth as well as the violence and chaos of modern day Texas, along with the many, often repulsive, forms that religious fanaticism took.

The poetry itself is correspondingly rebarbative, disjunctive, chaotic, visceral. In ‘Whip-shaped sermon’ we are abjured ‘therefore live / a life that’s not watered down by others’ and indeed there is nothing watered down about his verse. Here, for instance, are the first two stanzas of ‘Nemrud Dagh’, the Turkish mountaintop site of Antiochus’ mausoleum:

Resentfully like ageing bulls the mountains stand
Up to the westerly Euphrates.
Drought carves the roads and marks them with inscriptions.
Right from the base I hitch a ride and think: Mashallah,
What a girl! After an hour the car gets stuck
In Commagene, where Antiochus the Anatolian
Built a mountain terrace with stone gods.

No cart track and no camel, we are
fucked. Her throat a rasp that’s
Spouting wrath. I swallow caustic
Words and whistle a shrill tune
Under the hood. The sun burns
endlessly, immoveable it seems, an almost
Scorching fire above the ridges in the west.

Hans ten Berge

Leaving aside the arbitrary capitalizations at the beginning of lines — presumably the publisher’s error — this aspect of Ten Berge’s style is fully represented in the English version but other features unfortunately are, if not lost, at least blurred, in translation. Which in turn begs the question, who should review a new book of poems in English translation? Someone familiar with contemporary English poetry? or someone who knows the language and literature of the original? or, better still, someone who knows both? The main problem here is that we have only the English text to go by, not the Dutch original.

While it is hard enough reviewing a book of poetry in translation when the originals do appear on the facing page, at least with most European languages — Greek and some Slavic languages being the obvious exceptions — even if we don’t know the language in question the alphabet is the same, so that we can form some conclusions.

However, when the poems are available only in their translated form most readers for whom such a book is presumably intended and who cannot read the original, will have to take totally on trust both the skill and accuracy of the translator and the competence of the reviewer. Homer and Dante, Goethe and Baudelaire can survive bad translation, whereas a poet from a relatively small language area such as Dutch, whose work is being introduced into a foreign language in book form for the first time, may not be so fortunate.

This is what has happened here with H.C. ten Berge. In general, translators translate into their own first language. Ten Berge’s prize-winning translator, Pleuke Boyce, as a native speaker of Dutch, on the one hand has the built-in advantage of picking up on allusions and nuances that might elude a non-native speaker, but on the other hand, since very few poets manage to write good poetry in languages other than their own, it is no surprise that she has the corresponding disadvantage of not always being very impressive in the target language, English. Yet without the originals how could the average reader tell?

Hans ten Berge. Photo by Robin de Puy

Luckily, with the help of a Dutch friend who is both a fellow-poet and a translator, I was able to access most of the texts used. Even so, the fact that at times the poet himself apparently changed, omitted or added lines specifically for the purposes of this translation, which of course any poet is at liberty to do, does make the reviewer’s task more difficult.

Here as in any translation there are places where a different translator might have chosen a different word. Translators inevitably try to compensate for a shortcoming in one rendering by choosing a more robust alternative elsewhere. But some problems come with the territory. One of the delights of the Dutch language is the muscular, consonantal quality of many words. Thus although the surface meaning of, say, ‘doordrongen’ is conveyed in context by ‘imbued’, or ‘ontwrichten’ by ‘unbalances’, the sound of the words, their atmosphere and sheer physicality, is not. So too in ‘The Great Disdain’, a sequence that often reminded me of Ted Hughes, the lines ‘ Een kind kon zien / dat hij het boze oog / aan wrok en wanen paarde’ (my italics) are rendered ‘A child could see/ that he paired the evil eye / with delusion and spite.’ Despite her command of colloquial English, Boyce’s word choice here tends to be flatter and more cerebral than the often violent, disruptive original. Moreover at times the non-native speaker is revealed in the choice of an archaic word like wrath (for ‘gramschap’), rather than rage, anger or fury, and in unidiomatic phrases such as ‘a man nearly alien to me’ (i.e., almost a stranger ) or word order as in ‘we must until the day of judgment / in painful solitude / do without / the glow of love’ What these impart cumulatively to ten Berge’s poetry is an undeserved eccentricity.

Breyten Breytenbach contributed the preface

Other minor distractions include an occasionally obtrusive scholarship, as in ‘Danse Macabre’ where the translation of ‘nettendrager’ as goliards, rather than buffoons or jesters, may be, indeed is, more specific, but also more recondite, so that most readers would have to consult a dictionary. The same applies to several foreign terms, mostly German and Spanish, such as ‘Wüestenunge’, ‘ vremedunge’, ‘lüten rüefe’ and ‘alumbrado’ that are left untranslated. Since, as we have come to expect of contemporary Dutch writers, ten Berge combines knowledge of several foreign languages with such a broad historical, geographic and cultural awareness, it would have been helpful to have had a few more footnotes or endnotes for references to, or quotations from, sources that though perhaps familiar to the usually multilingual Dutch are not necessarily so to his average mostly monolingual Canadian reader, Likewise, he assumes a greater acquaintance with European painting than is probably the case with most Canadians.

Although I have dwelt on what are essentially minor blemishes in the translation and formatting of the book, what really matters is whether as a whole, despite these caveats, it repays attention as a collection of poetry. And it does. Throughout the book it is ten Berge’s bracing poetic energy that holds the reader, so that however one reacts to individual poems, overall one cannot help but be exhilarated. It is a roller-coaster ride: the climb, the view from the top and the brief surrender of the descent, it is all there.


Christopher Levenson in Zurich, August 2019. Photo by Oonagh Berry

Christopher Levenson, author of twelve books of poetry, most recently A Tattered Coat Upon a Stick (Quattro, 2017) lived two years in the Netherlands, has published two volumes of translations from seventeenth century Dutch poetry, and in 1971 co-founded CAANS, the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Netherlandic Studies. Editor’s note: Christopher Levenson has recently reviewed books by John Barton, John PassRob TaylorKevin SpenstDerk Wynand, and Daniela Elza.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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6 comments on “1475 Translating from the Dutch

  1. Dear Pleuke Boyce,

    First of all, I am glad to have occasioned a public discussion about translation, which otherwise rarely happens except among translators and their authors and publishers.

    Secondly, I admit that I was unaware of the biblical overtones of ‘gramschap’ and so missed the ironic coupling with the preceding line ‘we are fucked’. This is one of those instances where growing up in the language area from which one is translating, does make a difference. By the same token, I would not expect a non-native English speaker to pick up echoes of nursery rhymes or lullabies. Finally the capitalization of line beginnings in the Dutch version of Nemrud Dagh was consistent throughout. For whatever reason, in the English translation it is not.

    Of course, many major poets, especially those writing in different alphabets, are translated without the originals (and yes, their translators have won major prizes) but I would still maintain that wherever possible, a shorter selection with original texts would have been preferable to a longer book without. Even without knowing Swedish, I find I can get more from bilingual editions of Tramströmer and Gustafson.

    As for ‘a few foreign phases’, I agree that ‘nothing’s wrong with a bit of effort on the part of the reader’ and that occasionally the translation is provided in a footnote. However, to take just my three examples from the poem ‘I fly through the Thirteenth century’, I could not find Wuͤstenunge or vremedunge nor luͤten ruͤefe, all presumably Middle High German, in any of my dictionaries. Nor do I share Ms Boyce’s confidence in Google, especially where literary rather than simply technical translation is concerned. Moreover, when one does look up these words the explanations are in German or Dutch. This seems to me to be taking historical local colour too far. Besides the translator is always free to add information not in the original.

    It seems to me that everything depends on how one imagines the audience for such poetry. For, despite their enormous influence on poetic modernism, how Elliot and Pound wrote cannot automatically give an imprimatur to all the practices of later poets, and as Ms Boyce concedes, the kind of classical education and linguistic ability they presupposed no longer exists.

    However, none of this takes away from her overall achievement and along with Ten Berge’s literary midwife, Gary Geddes, she is to be commended for introducing a major talent to a mostly monolingual readership

    Christopher Levenson

  2. To the editor:

    As the translator of the Selected Poems of H.C. ten Berge, I would like to respond to the review of Speaking in Tongues by Christopher Levenson.

    I too enjoy bilingual editions of translated poetry; being able to see the originals, even when I don’t know the language. It does however significantly increase the costs of producing such a book. Still, that should not be a consideration if it’s absolutely necessary. But it’s rarely absolutely necessary — especially in the case of a little-known language — and in the end you will just have to trust the translator.

    Much translated poetry has been published without the originals beside it. The marvellous Selected Translations by W.S. Merwin is a case in point. Then there is glottal stop, 101 poems by Paul Celan translated by Nicolai Popov & Heather McHugh. This book was the winner of the 2001 Griffin International Prize for Poetry. (Celan’s poetry, which is extremely difficult, even in German, is very well-served by the mammoth undertaking of Pierre Joris, who brought out a bilingual edition, with extensive notes, of all Celan’s work in 2 volumes, totaling 1285 pages.) H.C. ten Berge is himself an excellent translator of poetry from several languages. Most of his translations (including 10 Cantos by Ezra Pound) are collected in Op een mat van gele veren – Poëzievertalingen 1968-2003 (On a mat of yellow feathers – Poetry translations 1968-2003) and do not come with the originals. And of course, Polish poets like Milosz, Szymborska, Zagajewski and Krinicki are routinely published in English translation without the originals; as are Swedish poets Tomas Transtromer and Lars Gustafsson.

    As for retaining a few foreign phrases in the texts, I did not think those should be translated. Not everybody in Holland can understand those immediately either. And what’s wrong with a bit of effort on the part of the reader? These days you don’t even have to own a dictionary. You just Google the words and will have your translation instantly. And in the Triptych for Max Beckmann, his German words have a translation on the side.

    Poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound used quotations from many languages in their work. In Pound’s Cantos, 21 different languages were made use of in the texts, including Chinese, that was moreover written in Chinese characters. Admittedly, Pound and Eliot wrote at a time when most ‘educated’ people would ‘have’ at least Latin, Greek and French and could probably quote Dante.

    The capitalization of the lines in ‘Nemrud Dagh’ is not an error by the publisher but is also present in the originals.

    ‘Gramschap’ is an archaic, even biblical Dutch word. An attribute of God in the Old Testament, when his chosen people had again done something wrong. It is not a word any Dutch person would use in conversation. I think ‘wrath’ is the right translation of this word, rather then ‘rage’, ‘anger’ or ‘fury’.

    Every translation was extensively discussed with H.C. ten Berge, who is himself fluent in English, and often went through several versions.

    In closing: although English is not my first language, it has been my second — and also daily spoken — one since age 18 (I started learning it when I was 11) and I am now considerably older and have lived on Vancouver Island for the past 45 years.

    Pleuke Boyce, Errington, B.C.

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