Leiden University Press is bringing out a new, unabridged, lavishly-illustrated edition of Huizinga’s study of life and thought in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in France and the Low Countries. We asked Diane Webb about her experience of translating this famous work.
“Dauntingly difficult, highly exhilarating, supremely rewarding – this describes a large part of my experience of translating Huizinga’s Autumntide of the Middle Ages (Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen). Above all, however, I felt a huge responsibility. Herfsttij is famous in Dutch as much for its form as for its content (as shown by Huizinga’s nomination, as a historian, for the Nobel Prize in Literature). The book is famous in English, too, even though the two existing English translations fail to give the reader any sense of the author’s style.
It was my struggle, over the course of more than two years, to comprehend the content and find Huizinga’s voice that made this translation so absorbing. My reading, at the end, of the third set of proofs coincided with my contraction of the coronavirus. After sending off the final PDF, I collapsed.
My Covid malaise was compounded by something akin to post-natal depression. I felt as though I had given birth to a massive tome, which had been whisked away for adoption by the publisher, only to be sent off, alone, into the wide, wide world. I lay there, feeling totally exhausted and utterly bereft, wondering how I could live without work as gripping as the translation of Autumntide had been. As soon as I had the energy, I contacted Anton van der Lem, the editor of Autumntide and also of Huizinga’s My Path to History (Mijn weg tot de historie). He encouraged me to (re)translate that slender volume, and so my post-Autumntide activities have been enriched by more Huizinga, and I live in hopes of translating, one day, a volume (or two) of his copious correspondence.”