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Spratbelly Surprise

by Willem Groenewegen on June 13th, 2010

It was my distinct pleasure to translate the work of Tomas Lieske (pseudonym of Antonius Theodorus van Drunen). I say pleasure, not only because his work was quite a challenge, but also because Lieske and I established a constructive dialogue from the outset. His replies and suggestions were always prompt, insightful and to the point. I translate poetry by living poets every day of the working week, so good communication is vital to producing both a timely and well thought-out product.

I found his poetry exciting. His subject matter sometimes took me to places I had rarely been: Egyptology, for example, in ‘Complaint of a Shrewmouse (Mummified)’. Most of the poems selected were quite intimate, concerning familial relationships and love. However, the viewpoint of his characters often proves startling (the shrewmouse v. the falcon) or puzzling (‘Caravan of Salt’) if you are not aware of the poet’s thinking behind it. However, even he could not always provide adequate assistance when I queried his work. It is an example of further research that I wish to discuss here, on this forum provided by the Poetry International team.

It concerns a term used in the short prose extract from his novel Gran Café Boulevard. ‘Sprotbuiker’ is a nickname used to describe someone from Roelofarendsveen, Lieske told me, but he didn’t know where the term originated. So I asked some fellow translators what to do with it. One said to leave it out altogether, another to translate it literally, and another still to substitute it with a nickname of my own making. All agreed that ‘sprot’ meant ‘sprat’, a fish used as bait to catch mackerel. As the town is close to water, that would corroborate that theory. ‘Spratbelly’ would then be an adequate translation. Someone with his belly full of sprat. But, as a translator, I am not easily convinced, so I tapped other sources. I telephoned the local council and they knew of a local historian who could probably tell me more. And it transpired ‘sprot’ had nothing to do with fish, but with French beans, cultivated for centuries in that particular area. Farmers were usually left with an unsold surplus after auction, which instead of destroying, they ate themselves. So, while the ‘sprot’ might not be fish, the farmer and his family still had a bellyful. My sincere gratitude to the local historian, Mr Gerard van der Meer.

Although the word was now explained, this still left me with a translation problem: spratbelly, beanbelly, French beanbelly, whatever the choice would be, it would remain an alien term, as it couldn’t be sourced to a specific locale as was the case in Dutch. So, were the other translators right? Should I have abstained from my amateur sleuthing exercise and chosen a simple, even literal translation instead?

Conferring with the translations editor, we agreed on ‘potbellied’, as that referred to the bellyful without getting into the problems caused by connotations not being easily transferable into an English context.

I’ll be present at the festival all week, sitting in on Lieske’s translation project, so please don’t hesitate to tell me what you think of this solution!

One Comment
  1. Just came across the place name ‘Sprotborough’ in Margaret Drabble’s “The Peppered Moth” (book on a pile of holiday reading), so perhaps a ‘Sprotbelly’ might be possible after all.
    And I’ll be posting the abridged version of this blog, that I read out at the Friday translation project presentation, on my soon-to-be wordpress blog.

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