Anneke Brassinga, born in 1948 at Schaarsbergen, Holland, did translation studies at the University of Amsterdam 1967 – 1972. She has been a free-lance literary translator from English, French, and German. She has been writing poetry and essays since 1984, winning several prizes, including P.C. Hooft-Prijs 2015.
Ming Di: You have translated Vladimir Nabokov, Oscar Wilde, Sylvia Plath, Jules Verne and WH Auden into Dutch and you have received PC Hooft Prize for lifetime achievement in poetry, the highest literary honor in the Netherlands. Does being a translator make someone a better poet? Or being a poet makes you a better translator?
Anneke Brassinga: Being a translator produced in my brains a surplus of language, because, being always occupied in choosing the right word or turn of phrase from the largest possible number of alternatives, one also develops a rather extended memory, visually (like where was this word on what line of which page) as well as contextually (what is the usage I know for this or that word, etc.), and in terms of frequency throughout a text. This whole reservoir of language created in me an urge to write. The need for precision is maybe a reason why a translator might be a better poet than he or she would otherwise be.
I don’t think being a poet makes one a better translator. A poet has a voice, he lives in his words, whereas a translator has no voice of his own, he disappears into the words of the text.
MD: Or a translator hides behind a voice. How do you choose who and what to translate? Who is your favorite and why?
AB: There is not always a choice, but I was very happy when I was offered books like for instance Hermann Broch’s Der Tod des Vergil [The Death of Virgil] to translate, or the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon, because these works enriched my range of expression – the one in prose lyrics, the other in venomous rhetoric – and both of them taught me a lot concerning the plasticity of syntax, rhythm and assonance.
My favorite translation remains Diderot – Lettres à Sophie Volland – because he is such a loving, high-spirited man with a wonderful free thinking mind and intuitions of ‘modern’ insights. Translating him brought me a kind of awakening, at the time, of the living presence of the past and of the immense value of ‘culture’ and the way it is shared (or repressed) in a civilization.
MD: I didn’t know you also translated Hermann Broch and Denis Diderot. I’m sure you have a long bibliography. What did you do first, writing or translating? Do you remember the first poem you wrote? Who influenced you as a poet? In what way?
AB: My first poem I wrote when I was say fifteen, about looking away when the boy I was in love with looked at me. But when I found my first poems scattered, crumpled, on the floor of my attic room, on coming home from school, I stopped at once and resumed writing only when I was 25 and had been living on my own for some years. In the meantime I read and did my translation studies at the University. It was T.S. Eliot and the Dutch poets Nijhoff and Lucebert who made me discover poetry as a continent, so to speak, where language had a different meaning, a power of evocation. And mystery.
MD: I love that mysterious power too. I’m sorry to hear about what happened when you were fifteen. I was writing poems in middle school and always afraid that my parents would find out. I stopped too. Let’s talk about translation again. You co-translate your poems into English and they are beautifully done. I was wondering if it’s fairly easy to translate poetry from Dutch to English and vise versa. Or do you also have to struggle with the music and syntax?
AB: Working together with translator John Irons, who is a native speaker from England, makes it a pleasure to translate my poems into English. I couldn’t do it on my own. Vice versa I work on my own. But it never seems easy and I would not like it to be that way. It is a kind of game, the more difficult the more entrancing.
MD: During the Dutch-Chinese poetry exchange program, I was so glad that Bas Kwakman brought Anne Vegter and you to Beijing and I had the honor of translating your poems into Chinese. I was struck by your poem “Beside the Nile”. Let me quote the opening stanzas here:
No entrance with flourishes needed to occur.
Of a vanishing point no one knew. Everything just
swiftly got smaller in the calmly spread-out realm
of humbleness and indolence; a sky as
dull and light as ash seemed to submit itself,
its hallowing was a veil, approached
the distant mountain ridge which, staying put,
returned to desert.
The music is haunting even if I don’t try to understand the meaning. Then you describe a woman like this:
Almost a mercy
to stand still there or to move as silently,
your skirts held high above your head, dwelling
in one’s shadow beside the Nile.
When I asked who she was, you told me your poem was based on a photograph by a French photographer. Do you frequently respond to work of visual art? There is a long history of Ekphrastic poetry but there is something special in your poem that I can’t quite describe yet, so I’m asking you: What do you try to achieve in your poems that respond to visual art?
AB: The photograph is titled Beside the Nile, made by Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1950. The woman, dressed in black and holding part of the dress over her head, is standing on the sands beside the river amidst a rather sloppy scene, with some men and donkeys, etc. In the background one sees the vast empty world of desert and hills. What impressed me was the way the figures seemed to be embedded in the wide landscape. What I tried to achieve was to enter that world which was a kind of afterworld, a beyond, where we could live as if in a dream, exempt from time. Like Proust says about art and artists: ‘In every picture shown to us, they seem to offer us only the slightest view of a wonderful place , different from the rest of the world, and where we instantly desire to enter, right into the depth of it, beyond the image that is shown.’ (Sur la lecture – On reading)
MD: That’s so well put. Both you and Proust (nice quote). In another poem of yours, “By the Sea”, which I’m quoting here in its entirety:
The wind weighs the words
and finds them too light
the wind weeps, sweeps the words
aside, out of sight
the storm petrel that gulps them up
will rise to the heights of the giant albatross
or merely wish to screech
as I do, dusted monkey chained to its perch.
As you told me, the last line was a description of the cartoon monkey in pulp culture. Here the visual art merely serves as a point of comparison, or a metaphor of the powerless you, the poet. It’s almost a poem of imagism but it carries the added weight of humanity when the “I” enters abruptly. It’s also a poem of Ars Poetica. But I was initially drawn to the play of sound in the translation: wind weights the word, wind weeps, sweeps the words, etc. And the final word “perch” echoing the “ch” sound in “screech”. Can you talk about your translation process? What’s usually lost or gained in translating Dutch into English and vise versa? (Please feel free to give examples of your translation of WH Auden and Sylvia Plath.)
AB: One has to be lucky, like with ‘weeps – sweeps,’ ‘light – aside – sight’, or the fact that ‘dusted’ and ‘bestoven’ have the same double meaning of ‘drunk’ and ‘covered in dust or sand’. The sss-sounds of wind over sand come about intuitively, as indeed one is playing it. Dutch has a lot of ‘dull’ endings of which the English is free, (‘screech – krijsen) – they are always a bother for the translator. English has this wonderful brevity. Sometimes the Dutch manages to be terse as well:
‘De bloedfontein is poëzie,/ Niet te stelpen.’ ‘The blood jet is poetry,/ There is no stopping it.’ (Sylvia Plath – Kindness – Zachtheid).
It is not really a matter of gain or loss, because the original remains, and every translation is like an offspring, or a very intensely close reading exercise. The cultural significance of exchange through translation is so much more important than any loss of meaning or effect. If the voice of a poet comes through, and if one can grasp the spiritual and social context of his imaginations, there is immense gain, in an absolute sense, of reciprocal understanding and enjoyment.
MD: I agree that translating each other face to face is the best way of cultural exchange. And thank you so much for translating my poem into Dutch, and thank you for talking with me through email as we didn’t have enough time to talk while in Beijing. As you may know Chinese New Poetry started in 1916 when Hu Shi wrote the first free verse of vernacular speech under the influence of the American new poetry at that time. In 1917, Hu Shi returned to China and started a literary reform that changed Chinese poetry from the rhymed quatrains in metrical patterns to free verse of any length. Can you tell me when and if modernism influenced Dutch poetry in the Netherlands? If so, in what way?
AB: Dutch poetry became infused with modernism after World War II. The movement was called ‘De vijftigers’ – ‘The boys of the fifties’. There had been in the twenties more radical modernists influenced from Germany, like Paul van Ostaijen in Flanders, and Theo van Doesburg in Holland, but mainstream modernism flourished only after World War II. The U.S., our liberators, brought then new heroes of poetry, like William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Ginsberg, with free verse, and also free thinking. The traditional weight of sin, calvinistic repentance, etc., were more or less lifted from the poets’ minds, together with the abolition of the strict formal patterns like the sonnet, etc. The young poets had all grown up during the German occupation, so there must have been a kind of ecstasy of liberation in the air. But long before that, around 1890, there had been a group of poets (The Eightyists) writing in the sensualistic mode, like Herman Gorter and Lodewijk van Deyssel, a style that might be called ultra-impressionism, which in fact nowadays seems more ‘modern’ than the later modernists.
MD: It’s so interesting to hear you talk about something that “nowadays seems more ‘modern’ than the later modernists.” We don’t have that in China. Qing Dynasty ended in 1912. When the Literary Reform started in 1917, everything flooded in from the West soon afterward, Imagists, Romanticism, Symbolism, Modernism, you name it. Another wave of Western influence came in during the 1970s and 80s, all of the above again plus the Beat generation, Confessionalists, New York School. But we don’t have a Ginsberg or Ashbery in China. We have strong influence from Russian and Spanish poetry too. A mixture of everything. Now a desire to return to the native ancient poetry. What are the challenges that contemporary Dutch poets face today?
AB: The challenges for Dutch poets today – maybe to get back in touch with the richness of the Dutch language as it was written in the days of Hooft and Vondel, the 17th century. That was the epoch of baroque poetry, like Shakespeare’s in England, a time when rhetorics were very much alive and sparkling. Shakespeare remains still everywhere to be found in Anglo-Saxon literature, as a source of endless quotation and reference, which makes that literature so fascinating because it has become a real ‘body of language’, with this resonance, reaching so far back – in Dutch writing we miss this historical link with the rich past. Biblical references, as well, tend to disappear from poetry, after decades of flourishing during the time (starting in the fifties) when the secularisation was getting the upper hand against the Protestant and Catholic churches.
You see that I myself am a most conservative poet. That’s what comes of having been educated as a translator. I think other Dutch poets are more often occupied with references to our own days, writing ‘about subjects’ (like: love; digitality; perception) instead of trying to find a kind of ‘inner voice’. What I like about them is their utter diversity – after the period of the ‘Vijftigers’ followed by ‘Zero’, the poets in the seventies who used mainly quotes from newspapers and commercial advertising as poetic material, poetry as a genre was scattered on the winds of time, it had no longer a relevance for ‘the state of mind in a society’ – the force has gone out of it, but maybe in some quiet corner it is recovering, who knows.
MD: How do you feel about the situation that Dutch is spoken in South African, some colonies in the Caribbean, and Indonesia? (I’m usually cautious about “post-colonial” topics but subconsciously I’m moving on to you, a Dutch poet, after finishing an interview with a poet from Indonesia.)
AB: South-African is wonderful, as far as I know it from South-African poetry. It combines the compact quality of English with the guttural and rasping sound qualities of Dutch. About the West-Indies and Indonesia I am sorry to be rather ignorant. It is an ambivalent matter: on one hand, from the language-naturalist’s point of view, it is wonderful that in a remote part of the world a language has been developing more or less independently, like a species of plant that has been transferred to another climate. On the other hand, for the people who have been obliged to grow up with a suppressor’s language, it must be a kind of curse, although when I went to India, where different languages are spoken, colonial English seemed to be a unifying factor, more than a relic of colonial times.
MD: I’d like to conclude the interview with your own poetry. Today is Memorial Day in China and I miss my mother terribly, as always in April for almost thirty years. Your poem “Away” comes to my mind immediately. Yes you have traveled far to Beijing and left your friend’s traces in a foreign country where some poets will read about her. Isn’t it what poetry is about? To make the beloved immortal?
AB: Yes, I would like that the love that inspires us to wish for a kind of immortality for the loved one could be felt and kept alive in memory, through texts, as a sublimation of real moments transformed, translated if you like, into what connects us all: language, metaphor, sound magic. It is an ancient Orphic tradition by which a balance, perhaps, is maintained between small individuals and larger tonalities – which, if they didn’t exist, are thus created.
By Anneke Brassinga
A roomful of empty shoes, yet
from all of them she rises, resurrecting in
her many forms: the one and only, vanished,
who now comes forth again, high-spirited
and smiling, through the darkness of the Lions’ Gate –
a piercing sun behind. She is
a shadow resting under flowers, beneath the grass
and I limp like an ape in her late shoes,
in her ancient coat in the cold breeze
chasing, as ever, life’s dream. I will
get to faraway places, leave your tracks
there, heels dug in the sand.
(Translated from the Dutch by John Irons with Anneke Brassinga)