Paul Binding, Susan Massotty, Ina Rilke

Judges' Report

25 February 2010

The Vondel Translation prize for the best English translation of a Dutch book published during 2007 and 2008 goes to Sam Garrett for his translation of Ararat, written by Frank Westerman (Harvill Secker 2008).

Sam Garrett is a gifted translator. Reading any of his remarkably fluent translations, one forgets that the book was not originally written in English, despite exotic names, places and customs. A literary text has to be written into the new language for the translation to equal the original, and that is what Sam Garrett does, quietly vanishing in the process, so much so that the only way we get to see him is by closely comparing the original and the translation. What becomes clearly visible in the harsh, unforgiving light of comparative evaluation is his unfailing resourcefulness, his conscientious attention to subtleties, and his excellent ear for the tone of the original.

Besides having style and flair, he is also prolific. Not only is this the second time he has won the Vondel Prize (the first time was in 1993), in the period under review he published four important literary translations. While they were all consistently fine, we felt that the fit between author and translator came closest to ideal in the English edition of Frank Westerman’s eminently well-written Ararat.

Ararat, the mountain on which Noah’s Ark came to rest after the subsiding of God’s punitive Flood; Ararat, the snow-peaked mountain on the borders of Armenia and Turkey. Westerman balances the mountain’s long and profoundly resonant mythological status against its present divided political one, standing as it does on the frontier of the Ottoman/Islamic/ NATO world and the Armenia/Christian/ Russian one. In his exploration of this fabled place’s double identity he draws on his own boyhood experiences of religion and on his adult life as a lively and responsible journalist in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. Westerman first sets eyes on Mount Ararat, for so many years an imaginative magnet for him, in November 1999, with the Millennium, and all its uncertainties, imminent. We leave him in winter 2005 involved in an enterprise to scale its most stubborn flank with a party of mountaineering enthusiasts. Sam Garrett captures both Westerman’s ruminative moods, fuelled by his sense of history, and his ceaseless response to adventurous challenge.

Like the author during his ascent of the mythical mountain, his translator moves ‘quickly and lightfootedly along the scree slopes’ of the Dutch text. His sentences are well-balanced, his rhythm compelling. Not content to settle for a prosaic translation, Garrett repeatedly comes up with a more interesting phrase. Consider the liveliness of the verb in ‘We hoisted ourselves and our packs into the Kamaz’; or ‘the birds were hopscotching back and forth on the withered grass’. Or the zip and humour in ‘Armageddon in the offing’, and in the name he gives the author’s old maths teacher: Calculus Knol. Or the ease with which he describes Westerman’s little daughter’s first forays into language: ‘she decided to refer to the saying of grace at my parents’ house as “plate-look”. After the “amen,” she said, “Gramma, Grampa, ‘gain plate-look?”’ Garrett’s use of paraphrase is finely measured throughout: explanatory phrases are woven into the text without ever allowing the pace to slow down. The scattered references to specifically Dutch/Calvinist issues of Bible translation and interpretation are consistently well handled. No less pleasing is his treatment of the term ‘mudwalking’, or ‘wadlopen’, a pastime peculiar to the Dutch, and a typical instance of where the gap between the original reader’s familiarity with a subject and that of the English reader needs to be bridged. Garret inserts unobtrusive, essential extras into a graphic description that speaks clearly to the non-Dutch reader:

‘My plan to slosh off to one of the northern islands at low tide was intended as a form of training. “Wadlopen”, as it is called in Dutch, was sometimes referred to as “horizontal mountain-climbing”: the sludge on the seabed sucked on the soles of your shoes just as gravity did on a climber’s legs. Whether wading through a channel or ploughing your way across a snowfield, the effort was more or less the same.’

His inventiveness can likewise be seen in the relaxed, and seemingly effortless, rendering of the author’s interior monologues, which frequently hinge on a specific word or abstract idea. An example is the charged word ‘overgeven’, in the context of his own youthful bewilderment at the intricacies of religious difference:

’ “We have to hand it over,” he had told her. “Hand it over” was an expression that made me blink; I had always thought that my mother was the only one who used it, in the sense of “putting it in God’s hands.” Apparently the Servaas family was more like ours than I’d been prepared to admit.’

Besides being deft, Garret is hearteningly bold, as illustrated by this clear-headed, colloquial rendering of another pensive moment:

‘Mathematics revealed a logical universe, and at the same time introduced you to the unknowable (and not to the seeming unknowableness of stellar make-up) […] To me this bordered on the divine. Mathematics, it seemed, allowed you to create nonexistent worlds that still had an impact on reality. Was that not the proof that there was more to reality than what we could quantify?’

Part memoir, part travelogue, part philosophical treatise, Westerman’s Ararat offers his translator ample opportunity to demonstrate his versatility. ‘Strike two sentences together and you get fire’ the author says. With Garrett as his translator, Westerman’s writing sparks and glows.