Back to the Netherlands

It’s not that I haven’t been back to the Netherlands, and it’s not even that I haven’t been back for a longer period of time; but my stay at the Translators’ House, in January and February of 1993, was somehow so concentrated a time, so much an opportunity to be Dutch, so much an occasion to merge into a neighborhood and become part of a setting, a setting which ever since my childhood I wanted to be mine.
I was seven in 1942 when my family fled from the Netherlands and sixteen when I left Curacao to go to the US. Somehow the Netherlands – and the Dutch language – were never truly forgotten, never really left behind, but inevitably they faded.
Take the matter of language. I continued to read Dutch without the slightest difficulty, spoke Dutch fluently, and as an American academic – teaching English literature at San Francisco State University – translated five books of Dutch poetry. But something happens when you don’t use a language daily. You can find the words, yes, but you can’t find the perfect words, the ones you need now, immediately. You want to say that you can be flexible about your arrival time in Maastricht but the only word that comes to mind is buigzaam (bendable), and that’s clearly not the word you want.
What happened at the Translators’ House to bring about some of that linguistic and other acculturation? It’s that I had to say something in Dutch about the way the in-house computer differed from mine at home. It’s that I was invited to the weekly Thursday-evening drinks at a tavern in Amsterdam with other translators brought together by the literary magazine, De Tweede Ronde. It’s that I went to the Nijhoff Translation Prize Awards in The Hague and afterwards lost my kindly host Rudi Wester, the deputy director of the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature, and suddenly there was a terrifyingly large reception where all my American-made cocktail party small talk was useless. And much more: I started to hear again the Dutch sounds that go with the language, the ‘Cough, Hm, Ja, Nou, Dat valt nog mee’ sounds, sounds that were familiar and reassuring. No amount of reading Dutch in a faraway place like San Francisco could accomplish that. And still more: what pleasure to read De Volkskrant in the morning and recognise the principals on TV at night!
As a small child in the Netherlands I was aware of being different, Jewish, a refugee already then, and wanting above all to be Dutch, to be indistinguishable from the other Dutch kids around me. Curacao, the United States – it was not exactly exile, but the dream of the Netherlands was deferred, maybe displaced. I became an American. It’s so much easier to become a real American than a real Dutchman, maybe because nobody is finally, fully, a ‘real’ American: we are all a bit estranged. Anyway, the longing for the Netherlands persisted on some level – and here, now, though with an identity clearly established in another part of the world, here I was free to become Dutch again, and somehow it worked.
Whether I walked through Amsterdam, visited my aunt in The Hague, took the train to see friends in Amersfoort, travelled to Limburg to give a lecture at an American institution, I felt what the Dutch poet Remco Campert called ‘The spacious feeling of Holland / when evening falls …’. I could understand those lines: only someone Dutch could, I think.
For two months I translated Campert, completing fifty poems. Occasionally he and I would meet, either in his flat near the Concertgebouw or in my apartment within the Translators’ House. We talked about words and phrases, he in his quiet, intense way, I somewhat more ponderous and academic. But the real gain was that the conversation took place at all; the gain was in all the conversations I had in those months in which I was working hard as a translator by slowly acculturating myself to Dutch turns of phrase, to Dutch tones, to Dutch ways of thought.
Funny little codes take longest to master. I remember, one late February evening, being told that a fragment from a show I watched on TV where a languid young man says, ‘Het basismateriaal is kurk’ (‘Cork is the basic material’) was not pure affectation, as I thought, but pure satire. Frank Ligtvoet, the Foundation’s Director, and Pleuke Boyce, the charming Dutch-Canadian translator who lived in the other apartment in the Translators’ House, burst out laughing. Well, it takes more than two months. No wonder I’m coming back.

By Manfred Wolf

First published in The Low Countries, 1994

Praise for the Painters

With my friends the painters
I feel the greatest affinity,

for they see in a face,
a body, a landscape,

colour playing poker with a shape:
that raw stain of red ochre

turns out to be a languid thigh
in the light of the accomplished painting.

By Remco Campert
Translated by Manfred Wolf