Translating Dutch poetry

A while ago, someone at work approached me because his friend would love to go over some poetry translations with a native Dutch speaker. This friend, Stephen Frech, is working on translations of poems by Menno Wigman. Last night I had the second multi-hour session of delving deep into the poetry.

Although I speak both English and Dutch fluently, translating is quite something else. You really have to dig into the meaning of the words to relay the appropriate tone. Metaphors and vernacular words can’t just be literally translated. Poetry only adds difficulties; tone and imagery is all the more important.

I never really extensively read poetry before: parts of “Karel ende Elegast” in Dutch literature class in high school and “Beowulf” purely out of interest. The only poet I have a little more familiarity with is the Belgian poet Paul van Ostaijen. The Wikipedia page shows one of his more famous poems, demonstrating his use of different type settings.

My favorite Van Ostaijen poem is called “Marc groet ‘s morgens de dingen” (Marc greets things in the morning). It’s my favorite because my mother used to recite the poem to me.

The Wigman poems, from his book “Zwart als kaviaar” (Black as caviar), are quite dark, although I believe there is some (ironic and sarcastic) humor in them as well. Analyzing and translating the poems made me appreciate the poetry as well as the creative word choices. And, in general, it made me appreciate the semantics of words and language.

Translating poetry was quite an interesting experience. I hope Stephen Frech’s translations will get published sometime soon.

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