In the run up to the tour I’ll be interviewing three Dutch-English translators who have translated High Impact authors. First up is Sam Garrett. Sam Garrett (b. 1956) is an American who has lived in the Netherlands for more than thirty years. He currently divides his time between Amsterdam and the French Pyrenees.
A prolific translator from Dutch into English, he has translated Tommy Wieringa, Tim Krabbé, Arnon Grunberg, as well as the High Impact authors Geert Mak and Herman Koch. He is the only translator to have twice won the British Society of Authors’ Vondel Prize for Dutch-English translation.
MH: How long did it take you to translate Herman Koch’s The Dinner?
SG: Eight months, I believe.
MH: That’s quite fast for a fairly long book. I would have thought that translating the humour was the most challenging thing about this translation. Could you tell me something about that?
Translating humour is great fun, really, so it doesn’t feel like a challenge, let alone a burden. But it does require you to cultivate your own sense of, and ear for, the subversive, also in the more formal sense, I suppose. Humour has an immediate emotional impact, which makes it seem easy. But it’s also like the stock market: timing is everything. My regular reading still includes cartoons (like those in the New Yorker), and I grew up as a great fan of stand-up comedy. I don’t consider myself a particularly funny person, though.
MH: Could you give me a specific example of humour in The Dinner and explain how you dealt with it?
Well, there’s plenty of nasty humour in The Dinner. And if you don’t keep it nasty and funny, then you’ve already got three strikes against you. The Straw Dogs reference, for example.
The actress looked me over from head to toe before speaking. “Your wife tells me you will be leaving us tomorrow.” Her voice had something artificially sweet to it, like the substance in Diet Coke, or the filling they use in diabetic chocolates, which say on the package that they won’t make you fat. I looked at Claire, who rolled her eyes slightly, up at the star-studded sky. “And that you’re going to Spain, of all places.”
I thought about one of my favourite scenes from Straw Dogs. What would this artificial voice sound like if its owner were to be dragged into a barn by a pair of drunken French bricklayers? So drunk they could no longer tell the difference between a woman and the ruins of a cottage with only the walls still standing. Would she still be shooting her mouth off when the bricklayers set about rectifying her foundation? Would the voice come loose of its own accord once it was being peeled off, layer by layer?
The Dutch says: “Zou ze haar tekst nog weten op het moment dat de metselaars het achterstallige onderhoud ter hand zouden nemen.” I remember thinking about the “metselaars” and about that “achterstallig onderhoud”. The word “masons” is too bland and too ambiguous in the wrong way, so I chose “bricklayers”, which sounds sort of dumpy and has the advantage of the right kind of veiled double-entendre. That “achterstallige onderhoud ter hand nemen”, with its reverberations of “achterwerk”, backside, and hands everywhere, led me to “rectifying” with its reverberation of “rectum” and so of anal sex. And what might one perhaps rectify? “Foundation” sounded right, and besides the connotation of “nether parts” it had the advantage of being close to “foundation garment”, which is something I think this particular aging actress might wear. “Back maintenance” wouldn’t have done any of that for me, probably not for the reader either. So it’s Herman Koch’s darkly humorous comment, and I’m kind of riffing on it.
MH: You’ve also translated a lot of books by Arnon Grunberg who is also well-known for his ironic tone. Did this help you with Koch?
SG: I tend to think that every translation helps you with the ones that come after. I’ve picked up on the fact that Grunberg and Koch admire each other’s work, but they’re miles apart really. One thing they have in common, though, is that ability to find or create a voice and let that voice lead to its own, often painfully hilarious conclusion.
MH: What do you think about the Dutch comic tradition, not just in literature but also in other forms? I’m sure you’ve seen Jiskefet [Koch’s sketch show], for example.
SG: When I think of the Dutch comic tradition on the stage, I tend to think first of cabaret. That was a new genre to me when I came to Europe, and I’ve never become completely accustomed to it. It often seems a bit baroque to me. There are a few fairly young cabaretiers, however, who I think are wonderful. Hans Teeuwen, Theo Maassen, the Flemish Wim Helsen.
But the sketch form has always been a favorite of mine. So Jiskefet, yes, an absolute breath of fresh air. Their Bep van Mokum sketch about the (literally) over-inflated, brandy-swilling football trainer, or Koch’s impersonations of Prince Bernhard, or Derek, the German TV detective, or Kees Prins as the cheesy Dutch rocker singing “Smeuk Aan Het Water” - they all made me weep with laughter.
But in Dutch literature? I have the - perhaps mistaken - idea that there’s a clique in the world of Dutch letters or Dutch literary criticism that has a vested interest in enforcing their own distinction between “high culture” and “low culture”. Almost anything that’s funny, or exciting for that matter, is “low culture” and therefore suspect and not to be taken seriously. Popularity is something Dutch critics often sneer at, especially when it can be traced back to a writer’s ability to entertain. And I think that must work as a deterrent. Fortunately, the Flemish don’t seem to be quite so burdened by that pulpiteer’s urge to separate the highbrow sheep from the lowbrow goats.