The Best Canadian Poetry In English Series

The Process of Translation

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I consider the poem Interbellum to be an example of the lovely sparseness that can work so well in Dutch writing. It was written by Jules Deelder, a well-known Rotterdam poet, and performer who was born in 1944. The whole of it goes like this:


We lopen langs het stille strand
De lucht staat strak

Scheve bunkers in het zand
De oorlog zwijgt

Opkomend tij
Mn moeder pakt me bij mn hand

Ik ben niet bang
Wel klein1

In a poem as concise as this one, every word carries significant weight, and I think it makes sense to translate it close to literally. But there are moments when the shift from one language to another gets tricky. The opening line reads We walk along the quiet beach. The word beach could be replaced with the strand, which would go on to rhyme conveniently with sand and hand, as in the original Dutch, but strand sounds outmoded and therefore conspicuous in English.

The sky stands taut.

Then the expression De lucht staat strak, which means The sky stands taut. A taut sky refers to a cloudless sky, and the expression is ordinary in Dutch, but the literal meaning of stands taut also introduces an element of tension. For me, the phrase the image conjures in the context of the poem is military soldiers standing at attention. The sky stands taut preserves that element, but because the wording is unusual in English, the line becomes less clear and conversational. Those qualities can be maintained by translating to the sky is clear or the sky is blue and letting the tension go. There is a middle ground in something like the blue sky is taut, but then the original rhythm of four syllables is compromised. With every option, an element of the original poem evaporates.

The final troublesome line is De oorlog zwijgt. De oorlog is the war. Zwijgt is a verb that means to not speak, and as far as I know, there is no English equivalent (less pressingly, but relevant to the translating, I think the sound of zwijgt resembles a wave crashing onto a beach). I get distracted here from the poem itself because untranslatable words preoccupy me as an immigrant as much as a writer. What is it they represent? They are things left behind, in the sense that they are nameless in the new language, and therefore lack significance in the culture. But they’re also carried over, remaining a part of the speakers perspective even if they aren’t used again.

The war is mute 
Rising tide 
My mother takes me by the hand

Returning to the poem, if zwijgt is replaced with the idea of muteness (which is imperfect zwijgt implies a pause in the war, while with mute the war can be paused or soundlessly continuing), then the remainder translates approximately like this: Crooked bunkers in the sand / The war is mute / Rising tide / My mother takes me by the hand / I’m not scared / But small.

This poem has eight lines, and its translation here is between two languages that have a relatively recent common root, in the context of similar cultures and histories the translation difficulties that arise even under those favorable circumstances really underscore the compromises inherent in all translations. It seems to me that translators have to identify what is essential to the original poem in this case, for example, it might be the conversational tone, or particular images, or the rhythm really it’s probably never one thing, but a series of elements that recur as priorities throughout the poem. Then, knowing that aspects of the original will be lost, the aim is to retain what is unmissable.

1. Deelder, Jules. Interbellum. Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1987.

Sadiqa de Meijer’s poems have appeared in The Malahat Review, Geist, CV2 and other journals. Her writing won This Magazine’s Great Canadian Literary Hunt and was shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards and Arc’s Poem of the Year Contest. Her poem “There, there” was included in The Best of Canadian Poetry in English 2008.