A Conversation with Translator David Colmer

David Colmer is an Australian translator of Dutch literature based in Amsterdam. He has won many translation prizes, including the Impac prize for his 2010 translation of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin and the Independent Foreign Fiction award for his 2012 rendering of Bakker’s The Detour. His most recent translation, a selection from the collected poetry of the giant of Flemish letters, Hugo Claus, is forthcoming from Archipelago Books under the title Even Now. Jan Steyn interviewed him over email.

Jan Steyn: How did Even Now come about?

David Colmer: The idea of the book came from Jill Schoolman of Archipelago. She’d published Claus’s novel Wonder in Michael Henry Heim’s award-winning translation and also worked with me on Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin and somehow decided to bring those two things together by asking me to select and translate a major collection of Claus’s poetry. Obviously there’s a big difference between translating Gerbrand Bakker’s prose and Hugo Claus’s poetry, but I guess Jill had seen some of my poetry translations and decided that it was a gamble worth taking. It was flattering to be asked for such an important and daunting project, but I spent quite a while reading and re-reading his work, fiddling around with some rough translations before deciding that I would be able to retain enough of the original’s strengths to make it worthwhile.


JS: Am I right that in your illustrious career as a translator of Dutch literature, this is the first time you’ve worked on Hugo Claus? Why Claus? What is distinct about translating him?

DC: Yes, this is the first time I’ve translated Claus. Obviously there’s a tremendous range in his poetic oeuvre, from difficult almost hermetic work with dense imagery to narrative poems and humorous rhymes, and that makes it hard to generalise, but I think there’s a consistent richness of tone and vitality to the work that’s important to convey and there’s also a great confidence in it. To be successful the translation should have that flow and naturalness, even when the meaning is hard to pin down.


JS: Can you say a word or two about the place of Claus in Dutch letters and in translation before this volume?

DC: If you talk about post-war Dutch-language literature, writers who emerged after the war and dominated the new literary scene for the decades that followed, Claus was clearly the leading Belgian and on a comparable level to the “Big Three” in the Netherlands: Hermans, Reve and Mulisch (Hermans has been picked up recently but Reve still remains virtually unknown in English). The difference between them is Claus’s enormous range and productivity; he produced so much in so many genres that, in Flanders at least, it’s hard to overestimate his cultural importance. A number of his novels have been translated into English and been critically well received, but his poetry has had a much more marginal existence. There was one book-length collection, but that stayed pretty much under the radar, and otherwise the poems have mostly appeared in fairly minor journals and magazines. Coetzee did include a series of Claus’s poems in Landscape with Rowers, his anthology of Dutch poetry, and I think that was the one notable exception in terms of getting Claus’s poetry into the public eye in English.


JS: How did you approach those poems for which there were already extant English translations?

DC: There are existing translations of many of Claus’s poems and these are the work of many different translators, with wildly differing backgrounds and approaches. Some of the translations are more academic, aiming mainly to reproduce the content of the poems without bothering too much about the form. Others strive to turn the poems into equivalent works in English, with varying degrees of success. Part of the attraction of a collection like this lies, hopefully, in the unity of its approach, and that is largely due to the collection being one translator’s version of Claus. An anthology of existing translations would see the poetry fragmented through different voices and be, I feel, much less convincing. I had read some of the translations before starting the project and I read many others while working on my own final versions. Often I was intrigued and surprised by the interpretations visible in the previous translations (not just the English ones) and considered these carefully before making my final decisions, sometimes consulting native speakers and Claus experts in an attempt to clarify differences of opinion.

In general I feel that, beyond the unity of the book, my translations have some value compared to previous English versions, but this is not always for the same reason. Sometimes it’s because I feel I’ve done a better job of rendering Claus’s poetic voice, sometimes because I have more accurately rendered the meaning or intent of Claus’s original, elsewhere because I’ve made more of an effort to reproduce his intertextuality by incorporating quotes in the translations.

The question of similarities between my translations and existing translations is a vexed one. Sometimes these similarities occur because the most obvious translation is simply the best. Elsewhere Claus is quoting an English source, which leaves little room for variation. I didn’t feel that I had to avoid words just because they had been used in previous translations, but I definitely repressed the temptation to pilfer brilliant and idiosyncratic solutions. Coetzee’s wonderful “nankeen” for instance, remains plain old “yellow” in my translation. 


JS: Even Now covers more than five decades of Claus’s poetic output. You’ve spoken about his variety and range, and about the underlying “richness of tone and vitality.” Does Claus change much in his style, his views, or his obsessions over this time? And is there a trajectory to these changes?

DC: Claus was famous for his innovativeness and willingness to experiment. He established his name as a poet with the almost hermetic, image-laden “Oostakker Poems,” for instance, but tended generally to move away from that to more accessible poetry that is much easier to understand and interpret. He also published volumes of particular kinds of poetry, such as his versions of Shakespeare’s sonnets or the biographical poems of “Hearsay,” often written from the perspective of fairly non-intellectual characters, people like a truck driver or farmers. Towards the end of his life, his developing Alzheimer’s led him to much simpler poetry, still powerful, but with less risk of entanglement.

You can see compulsions through his body of work. Certainly his erotic drive and his anti-authoritarianism recur constantly.


JS: I’m interested in the editing aspect of Even Now. What were your principles of selection?

DC: Claus’s two-volume collected poetry is almost 1,500 pages long, so a book like this is severely limited. This said, I wanted to include a large number of his best-known poems, while also making the collection representative, by including things like “mad dog stanzas” from “Morning, You” and Knittelvers, or rhymes, from “Almanac.” Beyond this, I looked at which poems Claus himself had included in the selections produced in his lifetime and also considered which poems had made it into Dutch and foreign anthologies. Personal taste played a role, as did translatability: I avoided poems that revolved around what I saw as an untranslatable wordplay, for instance.

I was fortunate enough to get the advice of several academics and poets who are very familiar with his work, and they looked through my initial selection and suggested some additional poems that they considered particularly important or representative.


JS: It was striking to me upon reading through Even Now how unified it felt, how satisfying it is as a collection. And this had me stumped—my experience with Claus before this was of a man writing with radically different forms, styles and concerns. I think part of the satisfaction derives from having a single translator, with a clear sense of Claus’s voice. But then going back to the originals, I found that suddenly they didn’t seem all that different after all. They were indeed working through a set of what you call “compulsions.” And even the most mystical Oostakker poems seemed inflected with an almost oxymoronic bluntness and a contrariness of spirit. For me, your translation has revitalized the original and returned me to it with new insights and questions. How much heed did you pay upon translating them to the era in which each poem was written, or to the “compulsions” of the volume in which they were first published?

DC: I certainly didn’t try to impose a unity on the work through a particular translation strategy, but I feel that there is a constant voice through the different styles and forms and I did try to render that voice by trying to take it into account each time I detected it. Once I’d selected the poems I also translated them in a kind of isolation and you’re right that embedding them in each original volume or series and translating that work in its entirety would probably have had consequences for the translation choices. It would have been the most scrupulous approach, but it would have enormously expanded what was already a large and demanding project. As far as the development of Claus’s voice through his career goes, it’s worth noting that he was a tireless rewriter and often reworked poems before republishing them in anthologies. The versions of the Oostakker poems in his Collected Poems, for instance, are quite different from the originals; they’re significantly less baroque, pared back. These are the versions he chose to present late in life and I think it was right to respect the poet’s decision by using the Collected Poems as the basis for translation. It does, however, reduce the variation in the work and make the anthology less of a historical overview and more a presentation of the body of work he chose to leave behind as his poetic monument. That’s an important footnote. Like the Collected Poems in Dutch, Even Now does provide a chronological and historical vision, but it’s one that’s been modified late in the poet’s life. In that way it’s a historical snapshot, but from a very definite perspective.


JS: What did you make of Claus’s political preoccupations, which seemed to exercise him however directly or indirectly at various stages of his career, leaving traces that can only be read with some effort across time and distance? And what of his growing fame and his awareness of his persona?

DC: I found Claus’s political positions fairly understandable given his generation and background and didn’t have a problem with them personally. His anti-religiousness can sometimes seem exaggerated in its blasphemy, but it makes sense as a response to the repressive Catholicism of his youth and although it might lose some of its impact for a reader without a similar background, it’s still relatively accessible. In his anti-nuclear poems or Cuban poems, he’s a child of his time, though less wide-eyed than some of his contemporaries. It was mainly in his concern for the history and politics of Belgium that he became harder to open up to an English-speaking readership, especially with some of the historical poems in “Lord Wildboar,” so I didn’t include any of them, although that was partly because of the length of those poems too. They didn’t seem crucial enough in his oeuvre to take up that much space.

I’m not really sure about the influence of his fame and persona on his poetry. He knew he had an audience, so that was a privilege he may have felt compelled to justify. And even in the sixties he was already something of a cultural rock star, so frank personal poetry like “Morning, You” must have worked on a public level by feeding celebrity voyeurism as well as on a literary level as an ecstatic erotic outpouring.


JS: You’ve been producing remarkable translations, several of them prize-winning, at an admirable rate. What’s your secret? How do you work?

DC: Like buses, translations tend to come in bunches, so translators often seem more prolific than they really are. I think part of the “secret” is to choose to translate excellent books and work really hard at them, taking the translations through numerous drafts and questioning every decision. Of course, not all translators get a choice and everyone has to start somewhere, but if you keep plugging away at books that may go unnoticed, you can get lucky and once your CV has acquired a critical mass more opportunities will come your way. I’ve been translating for more than twenty years, but it’s only been in the last five or so years that I’ve established a name for myself.


JS: What’s next? What are you working on at the moment?

DC: At the moment I’m working on a couple of different projects. Most notably a children’s book by Annie M.G. Schmidt, who’s something like the Dutch Astrid Lindgren, but never broke through in the English-speaking world. I’ve done several of her books that have been published in English in the Netherlands by her Dutch publisher, to some success, but this is the first to be commissioned by an English publisher, Pushkin, as part of their daring new list of children’s classics in translation. My translations of some of her poems, a selection from her book published in the Netherlands, A Pond Full of Ink, will also appear in the U.S. early next year, published by Eerdmans.

I also have a few other books in production: including Light Everywhere a new collection of Cees Nooteboom’s poetry with Seagull and a new Dimitri Verhulst novel, Christ’s Entry into Brussels, with Portobello.

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