Posts tagged Dutch

On translating Jacob Groot

© Willem Groenewegen

Some of Jacob Groot’s poems defy straightforward syntactic analysis; in others, personal pronouns seem to hang in mid-air and lines combine verb tenses that are deliberately ungrammatical. His reasoning may be discursive (‘To See’, ‘Wimpled One’) and his subject matter ranges from the cosmic (‘Local Universe’) to personal catharsis through a jukebox tune (‘Please Don’t Leave Absentee’). His poems are often suffused with the erotic (‘Her Legs’), the multicultural (‘Wimpled One’) and the colloquial (‘Local Universe’ and ‘Release Me, the Time Has Come’).

Each festival poet had been asked by the programmers to hand in a poem with Chaos and Order as its theme, and Jacob Groot chose ‘Verlos me, het is zover’ (Release Me, the Time Has Come) from his latest volume, Divina Noir. I had 10 days to translate this 20-quatrain-long poem and it gave me a good idea of what I would be up against in the rest of his festival poems. The poem has a strong sense of rhythm (the metre is anapestic, generally speaking) and lots of wordplay and assonance. Stanzas 2 through 8 are mostly one sentence with various sub-clauses, and woven into the fabric of the poem is a Dutch translation of Antonin Artaud’s La culture indienne. I could have spent days just analyzing the overall structure and references, but time demanded diving straight in, although I did spend an afternoon in a university library searching for English translations of Artaud’s poem. I managed to find two editions, but unlike the Dutch imprint Ooievaar (literally, Stork) mentioned in the poem, neither of the American publishers of Artaud’s work had bird names. Should I invent something based on the existing publisher’s name, or simply provide a note? I could write an entire blog entry on that question alone.

Jacob Groot proved to be quite willing to help me unravel the poetry. The translations stay close to the original poems, but they have been through a process of deconstruction and reassembly. With so many subclauses within six or seven stanzas, a translator has to take the lines apart, figure out how they relate to each other and then put them back together again in translation. The reassembly is essential to the success of the translation, because the poem in English should be as difficult (or as simple) to read as the original. That is the only way to ensure that a translation retains as much of the original’s ambiguity as possible.

Of course, as the saying goes, things do get lost in translation. “Maal je vertaald?” in stanza 12 of ‘Release Me, the Time is Over’ becomes “Do you rave in translation?” It retains a little assonance, but you lose the grinding sense of worry that comes with translating (this kind of) poetry.

Which brings me to the final question: did I enjoy translating Jacob Groot’s work? Over the past decade, I’ve translated many a poet for this festival, and I’ve come to appreciate those who take the effort to be playful with syntax and semantics. Poets like Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, H. H. ter Balkt, Tsead Bruinja and now Jacob Groot, take all of reality in their stride, with colloquialisms, fragmented imagery and lack of punctuation. Or as Kees ’t Hart says in his festival introduction to Jacob Groot,  “he is merciless in compelling us to share reality as it occurs to him”. That is the kind of poetry I enjoy, even though it is often difficult to translate.

Willem Groenewegen (1971) has been a professional poetry translator for ten years. His book publications include work by K. Michel, Arjen Duinker and Rutger Kopland. The latter earned him a shortlist nomination for the Popescu Prize for European Poetry in Translation (The Poetry Society, 2007). Poets he has translated for Poetry International include Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, Erik Menkveld, Mark Boog and Tomas Lieske.