Translator or Actor?

I find myself asking myself more and more: ‘Why do you sit translating?’ What are the deeper-lying, the ultimate reasons for it? After all, for years I have objected to being referred to as ‘James Brockway, the translator’, for translating is only one of the things I have done in the Netherlands since the war. Writing about British authors in Dutch and about Dutch authors in English often amused me more. I never needed to translate and in recent years I have confined the activity mainly to poetry, and to poets of my own choice too. An exception is translating for the Poems on Walls project, whereby poems in various languages, with translations, are painted up on outdoor walls in the university town of Leiden, the work of an enterprising group of people.

The other day I found myself translating a story by Jan Siebelink as I might have been doing years ago – that is to say: to commission, because I had been asked to – and as I sat writing, I became aware of an old contentment. I was sitting there, quietly enjoying myself. Why? I asked myself, and then the answer came, shot up out of my unconscious of its own accord.

As a youth, for six years, I played a highly active part in school dramatics as an actor, a producer, even writing a play, and producing it and acting in it myself. These were some of the happiest, most fulfilling hours of my life. I suppose I should have become an actor – for the answer to my question was: for me translating was the next best thing to acting.

As a translator, one is always acting a part, pretending to be someone else – as I was, as a flyer in the war. That wasn’t me. When I am translating the poems of Dutch poet Rutger Kopland, I am trying to become Kopland. When Achterberg, I am trying to become Achterberg (difficult!). I have also tried to become female writers like Maria Dermoût, Vasalis, even Andreas Burnier. Perhaps I was fairly good at it because at school I was often called upon to take on women’s roles. Yes, translating, I am play-acting.

There were some translations, however, I was required to do which I found harder – because the author was so different from myself. Flemish author Herman Teirlinck, for example, with his great, grim, cold novel The Man in the Mirror (Zelfportret of het Galgemaal, 1955), stern and severe in matter and style. But what a challenge! I found I got another sort of satisfaction from assuming similarly difficult roles and deliberately took on translating Jan Wolkers and Heere Heeresma by my own choice. I proved good at it – a thing I could always tell from the responses I received from British editors, who often took the work eagerly. As for the critics, the reception in the London press of Heeresma’s brilliant novella A Day at the Beach (Een dagje naar het strand, 1962) was so positive it surprised me. It resulted in Roman Polanski buying the film rights in my English version, though the film was never released. More’s the pity – but it justified my taking on the translation myself when the official ‘Powers That Be’ had said it had no chance and refused their support. Moreover, once my English version had appeared, it was followed by at least a dozen in other languages – English being the key to the world.

This brings me to the question: translate to commission or independently? The former guarantees some income, but not much, and had, for me, several drawbacks. Would work done to commission even be published? That matter was, after all, then in different hands. It is a fact that much of the work I did to commission did not get published, whereas work I did independently usually did – because I had certain editors in mind and knew what they would and would not like. When third parties were involved, difficulties would arise which never occurred when I worked on my own. True enough, I had to submit four stories by one Dutch woman author before I could convince a certain editor that she could write. And in another case the translation of a novel by Jaap Harten misfired because the first publisher who took it was bought up by another and the second one went bankrupt. But usually, when the contact was direct, so was the acceptance.

Another drawback of translating literary work to commission is that the wonderful incentive of risk – shall I or shan’t I succeed? – is missing. I think the element of risk was one of my main incentives and added to the excitement. No one on my very insular island was waiting for Dutch writing, no one was crying out for it. I wanted to do something about this and wrote wherever I could about authors like W.F. Hermans, Gerard Reve, Harry Mulisch (the Holy Trinity). I knew it was important to place information about their work next to work by British authors like Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Ted Hughes, and I did.

The publishing situation fluctuates. Only recently I heard from a publishing acquaintance in London that the outlook for translated fiction in Britain was hopeless, impossible. They were taking nothing on. The American ‘blockbuster’ mentality is partly to blame for this. I have always preferred to go for what are misleadingly called the ‘little magazines’. From the literary angle, there is nothing little about such a magazine as London Magazine, first under the editorship of John Lehmann and for thirty years now under Alan Rose, himself a writer and poet. The work I placed with them was spade-work, pioneering work, but I think it helped to open up the field. Recently Ross has published work by poets Rutger Kopland and Anton Korteweg, also a story by the Jewish author, Frans Pointl. We shall continue.

I can, however, recall a commissioned project which was wholly satisfactory and enjoyable and which threw up no difficulties. It concerned a series of radio talks on Dutch and Flemish writing for Radio Netherlands World Service, and I took it on only on condition that I had a free hand to re-write the talks, where necessary. It was and I did, for authors like J.C. Bloem, Achterberg, Adriaan Roland Holst, among the poets, were missing and no postwar writers were mentioned. It meant translating poems and prose extracts by about seventy different authors, ranging from the anonymous author of the medieval Egidius to Jos Vandeloo and Remco Campert, for I added a talk of my own about then younger figures. The talks were broadcast and later appeared in book form as A Sampling of Dutch Literature. This was an exercise in discipline which I enjoyed – especially the re-writing bit.

Nevertheless, I prefer my ‘game of literary roulette’, as I call the independently done translation. I could have done ten times more, it is true, but, after all, when I came to the Netherlands in 1946 it was to pursue my own writing and I became ‘the translator, James Brockway’ only by accident. By mistake.

A word before leaving about the difference between translating prose and poetry. There is a world of difference. Poetry that really is poetry – much of it isn’t – is a very special, highly concentrated, subtle and roundabout, oblique way of saying something so that it will stick and live on in the mind. It is far more difficult to translate, especially if your aim is to remain true to the original and yet produce a translation that is, itself, a poem. According to Dutch poet J.C. Bloem, that is the most difficult task of all in writing and I love trying to prove American poet Robert Frost wrong when he defined poetry as ‘what gets lost in translation’. It need not get lost.

But now I must go away and pretend I am Pessoa, Cavafy, Ingeborg Bachmann, H. Marsman and Frederik van Eeden, for those charming Poems on Walls people. It gives a special satisfaction in a money-based society to be doing something that has nothing to do with money. An act of defiance, if you like. As long as he can still put up poems (with translations!) on walls, there is still hope for man.

By James Brockway

First published in The Low Countries, 1995