Which, in Dutch, means “lost in translation.”
While in Amsterdam I checked out a number of bookstores hunting down the impossible: a discovery. The art of discovering something uncommon (or at least uncommon in one culture that might be totally popular in another) carries a certain cache “That proves you were there/That you heard of them first” as John McCrea once sang. I always do this when I travel, keep an eye out for that one unique thing I can bring back and say “Looky what I found!”
This time I was on the lookout for children’s book authors whose primary language was not English. I had hoped to find some French editions of Polo books — because I knew they were out there — but frankly the French sort books on the shelves funny and the one person I tried asking about Regis Faller’s books looked at me like I was from Mars.
In Amsterdam I was casually not looking for anything specifically when I spotted a number of books by a gentleman named Toon Tellegen. At an Internet cafe I did a quick search and found a site that said he was an award winning poet and writer of children’s books. Good enough. Next time I was in a bookstore I checked out the poetry section and — holy macaroli! — the man has an entire shelf to himself! So then I’m back in the children’s section looking at his books, trying to get a bead on what he’s up to.
But I never studied Dutch, I took German in high school, and where there are a lot of words in Dutch that sound the same as their German counterparts they aren’t written the same and I felt totally lost. I debated with myself — do I get something her and look for a translation when I get home, or do I just wait until I get home? I finally decided I was going to pick up one of his books and, hang it, if they weren’t in translation I’d translate it myself for fun. I had Suze help me decide on a book based by it’s cover and that was that.
Information was scarce, scarce in English at least. And translations from various Internet sites proved rough at best. Here’s the summary of the book I purchased — Maar Niet Uit Het Hart — as I was able to translate it.
The squirrel must take farewell of the ant. And ‘ not with lamentation and what I your missing will rapidly return and and this way ‘, because to that the ant has a hekel. But that cannot promise the squirrel. He certainly that he will continue think of the ant and him might weet forget. In but from the heart the most beautiful animal tales concerning farewell have not been brought at each other. For the tales concerning squirrel, ant and other one the animals tone Tellegen was among other things rewarded with the Woutertje Pieterse price, gouden the owl and twice with gouden the griffel. In 1997, he received the Theo Thijssen-prijs for its complete oeuvre.
Okay, I get it. I think. It didn’t take long to discover that, to date, only one of Tellegen’s books has made into English translation, and it was a book of poetry. The poems I was able to track down were extremely interesting and I had high hopes for my translation because it was clear I was going to have to work the book out on my own.
One sleepless night I sat at the computer and tackled the first chapter — three published pages — of the book using on-line dictionary and translation site, Babel Fish, for better or worse. Within a few sentences I began to be reminded of all the German grammar I suffered through, all the strange little rules for verbs and those little things that change the meaning of words but have no direct translation themselves. I worked line by line, then broke down specific words or phrases when their meaning seemed jumbled.
The word stof, for example, came up as substance. But contextually the characters were looking through a window and everything was covered in substance. I took a chance that the word was dust and tried translating it back into Dutch to see if I was correct. I was, and then the game got more complicated. The word rozenstruik came up as shrubshrub shrub in translation. A simple phonetic reading of the Dutch word seemed to indicate that it was a rose bush but the word rose came up as nam toe, which translates as the past tense of to rise, or increase.
Then I tried something wacky: I tried a Google image search for rozenstruik and came up image after image of shrubshrub shrubs: rose bushes.
I never pretended to imagine the work of a translator to be an easy one, nor did I imagine that the Internets, in all their glory of tubes and whatnot, would make quick work of the subtleties of written translation. What I didn’t fully expect or appreciate until I spent the wee small hours of the morning at it was how much like a puzzle it was, like code-breaking, cryptography. Each sentence contains a literal translation, that in turn requires the reader to make an interpretative translation in order to recover the meaning, followed by a contextual translation that works with the author’s intended meaning for the whole. Awesome stuff.
It’s been a week or so since doing those first pages. I’m not on a deadline with this, it’s just something to do when I need a diversion. I sincerely doubt it will even find a state where it could be published; assuming it’s worth the translation for an English speaking market, I’m sure someone else will get to it before I could anyway.
But in an odd way it’s fun. One day I hope to discover what exactly the Ant and the Squirrel saw, and how farewell (which I suspect may be a euphemism for death) plays into it all. It’s certainly still a discovery for me as I unlock the mystery of what is written on the pages.
It feels like learning to read all over.