As well as translating two of the High Impact authors – Peter Terrin and Ramsey Nasr - David Colmer has translated other famous Dutch-language writers, such as novelist Gerbrand Bakker, children’s author Annie MG Schmidt and poet Nachoem M. Wijnberg. In December he was awarded the 2012 Dutch Foundation for Literature’s Translators’ Prize.
David Colmer (b. 1960) is Australian. When he sits down to talk with me he immediately apologises for the luminous green t-shirt he’s wearing. It reads ‘Adelaide’s got balls’ - a satirical gift from one of his many sisters. He laughs disarmingly then gets straight down to business.
MH:Peter Terrin’s and Ramsey Nasr’s work is very different: one’s precise and pared down, the other’s flamboyant; one is prose, the other poetry. How did you get such a wide range as a translator?
DC: That’s a good question but difficult to answer. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a preconceived idea of what a literary style should be like, I just respond to the original. So my range can be as wide as the range of works I translate. That sounds a bit arrogant, doesn’t it?
MH: No, not really, carry on.
DC: Perhaps I’m just in search of the text that’s going to show me up as unable to translate it. The willingness to try new things is how I got started in this unlikely profession anyway. Ever since I started, I’ve been aware of the possibility of the current translation not working out.
MH: But things always work out in the end, don’t they?
DC: I always have doubts and I always find it difficult to go back to my old translations.
MH: It’s good to know that everyone feels like that, even prize-winning translators. What’s been the most difficult thing you’ve translated?
DC: Maybe Hugo Claus’s poetry, which I’m doing at the moment. It’s so rich, but at the same time it’s quite amorphous, especially compared to something like Annie Schmidt’s poems where the rhyme and metre are so clearly dominant. It’s hard to decide what makes Claus’s poetry work so well in Dutch: what to retain, what you can afford to change.
MH: Does it have anything in common with Ramsey’s poetry?
DC: Not a great deal. The sound is very important in both though. They both use a lot of rhyme, alliteration and things like that. And like Claus, Nasr draws on a large range of styles, from sonnets to prose poetry. The difficult thing for me about Nasr’s poetry is that he plays with the Dutch language, so that some of the things he does are quite idiosyncratic to the point of being ungrammatical. It goes against the grain for me to do that in English.
MH: How do you solve that?
DC: I tend to doubt myself and assume it’s probably just a usage I’m unfamiliar with., and thinking that, I make it sound more normal in English. Then Ramsey calls me on it when he reads my version, and tells me it shouldn’t be correct in the translation either. That’s the main point of contention when I get feedback from him.
MH: Peter Terrin has a very clinical style, is it difficult to replicate?
DC: I just try to reproduce the style of the Dutch and stop myself from adding any lyricism that’s not in the original. He read the translation and we discussed it, he had some questions. I don’t recall changing a lot after talking to him. I change a lot when working with Wijnberg for example, because he has very particular ideas about how the English should be so we have to negotiate. But I do enjoy that part of the process – working with the authors, it’s very helpful.