To Be Translated or Not To Be: Case Studies — The Netherlands

Continuing the ongoing series on PEN/Ramon Llull’s To Be Translated or Not To Be report, over the next few days I’m going to post about each of the Case Studies included in Part III. These were written by various experts in their respective countries (frequently associated with the local PEN center) in response to a questionnaire (found on pgs. 46-47) that tried to get at the state of literary translation into and out of a particular language, the role of translators in that particular country, funding for translations, and more.

Bas Pauw of the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature wrote the section on Dutch literature, hitting on a few points that come up in the other case studies as well.

I feel like I’m beating a dead horse, but even in The Netherlands, there’s a lack of solid publishing data.

The last year for which reliable and detailed figures were published, was 1996. In that year, 651 works of Dutch fiction were published: novels, stories, and novellas. In the same year, 774 works of translated fiction were published by Dutch publishers. Detectives and thrillers are not included in these figures.

According to the Amsterdam-based Foundation for Book Research, translated fiction generally makes up about 45% of the total fiction published in Dutch in an average year. (That figure was apparently reversed in 1996 . . . )

Nothing specific about Dutch literature being translated into English, although Pauw does say, “Dutch authors are in general still relatively invisible in the international Republic of Letters,” a statement backed up by the Center for Book Culture data (18 works of Dutch literature translated into English between 2000-2006) and only one title (Arnon Grunberg’s The Jewish Messiah) in our 2008 translation database.

This isn’t for lack of trying though. The list of activities undertaken by the NLPVF is quite impressive, and they do fund up to 70% of the translation costs for publishers interested in doing a Dutch book.

Here are some of the activities Pauw cites as keys to helping spread Dutch literature throughout the world:

  • Presence at book fairs, including Frankfurt and London — as someone who typically meets with the NLPVF at these fairs, I can vouch for the fact that these face-to-face meetings are crucial to cultivating the necessary relationships that lead to Dutch books getting published in translation;
  • Writers’ Program, which supports Dutch authors appearing abroad;
  • Visitors’ Program, in which 8-10 publishers a year are invitged to come to Amsterdam for a few days to meet with publishers. (I’ve participated in a version of this, which greatly, greatly expanded my knowledge of and interest in Dutch literature.);
  • “Organization of literary manifestations abroad” — not sure, but I think this refers to readings and other promotions of Dutch literature outside of the Netherlands, such as PEN World Voices events;
  • A Translators’ House where “five translators of Dutch literature at a time can live and work for a period of one to two months at the invitation of the Foundation.” This House also puts on workshops and other activities to promote translation activities.

In addition to the translation grants referenced above, translators can apply for special travel and translation grants to supplement what they’re getting from the publisher. (In my experience, the Dutch government treats its translators quite well, both financially and in terms of general respect.)

This case study concludes with a short overview of Dutch literature and a list of great authors yet to be published in English.

According to Pauw, Max Havelaar is “the classic novel of Dutch literature,” which is available from Penguin Classics, yet is still relatively unknown outside of The Netherlands.

Louis Couperus (1863-1923) and Simon Vestdijk (1898-1971) are two other novels yet to receive their international due, and the same goes for Willem Frederik Hermans and Gerard Reve. (Hermans has a couple books coming out from Overlook, but a quick search for Reve books came up empty.)

In terms of poetry, Martinus Nijhoff (1894-1953) and J.H. Leopold (1865-1925) are mentioned, and I’m going to end this case study recap with a pretty strong recommendation for the latter:

Leopold’s poetry deals almost exclusively with the possibilities and the boundaries of the Dutch language; comparable maybe to the way James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake investigates the English language.

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