Literair vertalen, een hele kunst

Bespreking van een geslaagde bijeenkomst van literair vertalers

[document-ikoon]Vertaler Engels Chris Gordon nam op 17 mei j.l. deel aan de Grote Vertaaldag. Het thema van het middagprogramma was "Vertalen, een hele kunst". Er waren bijdragen van onder anderen Cees Nooteboom, Bindervoet & Henkes, Bartho Kriek, Miedema en Damsma, Marjan Hof en Philip Freriks. Daarnaast waren er vertaalworkshops in vijf talen en een vertaalestafette. En minister Plasterk kreeg een Vertaalpleidooi.

They’re an odd lot, them literary translators. I’ve always thought of literary translation as being the most difficult form of translation. I wouldn’t, couldn’t, even attempt it. Yet literary translators are also the worst paid within our profession. Lucky to get 6 cents a word, lucky to earn enough in a month to make striking bus drivers seem affluent. And foreign publishers regard Dutch translators as relatively well paid!
 
So it was with great humility and curiosity that I attended the Grote Vertaaldag (actually an afternoon), on Saturday 17 May, at the home of the KNAW in Amsterdam. The Grote Vertaaldag had been organised with a dual purpose: to bring literary translators together for a much-need team-building session (and several hundred turned up), and to highlight what the organisers claim is the growing need for good translators and the need to improve the economic and cultural position, the status, of the professional literary translator.
 
Philip Freriks chaired the afternoon’s proceedings, sang his own translation of a French chanson and generally proved that he can complete an entire sentence without fluffing his lines. The afternoon proper got off to the best possible start with an entertaining and beautifully crafted address by Cees Nooteboom in praise of translators and our art: ”Vertalers zijn alchemisten die goud maken uit goud”.
 
Then it was straight to work, with participants splitting up into the different language sections to discuss, in the case of the English section, submitted translations of a two-sentence extract from Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. Participants spent three-quarters of an hour discussing how to translate “delicate strains of spinach”, “grown expert”, “toiled in unfriendly soil” and “coaxing such things from the ground”. There were well over 20 different suggestions for just the first of these. It was humbling to hear such considered and passionate debate among such skilled wordsmiths.
 
The following workshop on my itinerary was entitled “Vertalen op de universiteit”. It was from that point on that I began to doubt some of the logic of the claims made by the organisers of the Grote Vertaaldag. There’s no doubt that literary translators are poorly paid, but rather than include a discussion on the economics of this sector the university academics dominating that workshop were content simply to argue the need for more academically trained translators. Bring back the old vertaalwetenschap degree that the University of Amsterdam used to award! I couldn’t help wondering who would benefit. The university academics of course. But at the risk of condemning another generation of translators to work in a sector that would most likely leave them sharing the penury of our current literary translators. If the earnings of literary translators are to rise even modestly, perhaps what we need are not more literary translators but fewer. There is something fundamentally wrong when a sector claims to need more translators to meet demand but at the same time sees its current members earning little more than a pittance. And if there’s to be a vertaalwetenschap degree, why not put the greater emphasis not on literature but on something that will put graduates in a better position to exploit their income potential – as legal or commercial translators, sectors where rates of pay are higher?
 
So when, at the end of the Grotr Vertaaldag, the Education Minister Ronald Plasterk was presented with an appeal for a new academic course for literary translators and an improvement in the economic and cultural position of translators, one wonders whether he wasn’t doing our literary translators a favour by pointing out that the autonomy of our universities meant the former was not within his power. The second, as the minister pointed out, was the result of market forces. We can lament the lack of status enjoyed by our literary translators, but if cheap is what the market wants, that’s what our publishers will demand, and, it seems, get.
 
A final point. Hundreds of thousands of euros are spent in subsidising translations of foreign literature into Dutch. One argument used to justify this is that the subsidies enable the translator to make something approaching a decent living. But I wonder whether it doesn’t also help perpetuate a system which sees so many of them earning so little.
 
I suspect many of those attending will have enjoyed the Grote Vertaaldag, and perhaps been inspired by what we heard. It might even have given us hope that before too long the status – social and economic – of literary translators will improve. But I for one won’t be betting on it.

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