Keetje in the street: Dutch classic translated from the French
Keetje trottin (1921) is a Dutch classic that has never been available in Dutch - until now. Historian Anna Geurts spent eight years working on the translation of Neel Doff's French novel about a working-class girl in 19th-century Amsterdam, entitled Keetje op straat. ‘This book was revolutionary at the time.’
Eight years ago, Anna Geurts – now a teacher and researcher at the Radboud Institute for Culture and History (RICH) – proposed to read Keetje trottin, a novel about the Dutch working-class environment in the 19th century, in a reading group with friends. Geurts read the French original, her friends the Dutch translation Keetje Tippel. ‘Halfway through the meeting, we found out that we had been reading two different books. The Dutch translation turned out not to be a translation, but a compilation’, Geurts recalls. ‘Keetje Tippel is pretty different from what I was reading.’
Keetje trottin means 'Keetje the errand girl' and is the last book of a trilogy: Jours de famine et de détresse (1911), Keetje (1919) and Keetje trottin (1921). The books were written by Neel Doff (1858–1942), who grew up in Holland and moved to Antwerp and then Brussels with her family as a teenage girl. There she 'escaped' from her family and became a painter’s and sculptor’s model. In that artistic environment she met her first husband, the son of a notary, and became part of the bourgeoisie. She wrote books about the Netherlands but published them in French. Geurts: ‘In the 1920s and 1930s she was picked up by people who wanted to promote a proletarian literature, of which she was seen as one of the main interpreters. She never really became part of the canon, however.”
In the 1970s, Keetje and Keetje Trottin were merged and edited by Wim Zaal to form Keetje Tippel. ‘It turned out that the original novel Keetje trottin had never been fully translated into Dutch,’ says Geurts, who spent the past eight years working on the translation every Saturday in her spare time.
Keetje trottin is a fictionalized autobiography about the childhood of working-class girl Keetje Oldema in 19th-century Amsterdam. Her parents keep moving to shabby basements and attic rooms. A large part of Keetje's life takes place on the street. At the age of 8 she becomes a runner. First, she brings factory workers their hot lunch, which she picks up from their wives. She slowly climbs up, working as a runner for a pharmacy and eventually becoming a runner for a hatter.
Anyone expecting a romantic story about a dreamy girl from Amsterdam will be disappointed. ‘The story is pretty serious’, says Geurts. 'It deals with themes such as female sexuality and homosocial attraction, but also a child's life in the slums and sexual violence.' Keetje trottin fits in with a literary movement that arose at the end of the 19th century, in which books were written from the perspective of a child: Woutertje Pieterse (Multatuli, 1860-70s) De kleine Johannes (Frederik van Eeden, 1884), Het huisje aan de sloot (Carry van Bruggen, 1921), Kees de jongen (Theo Thijssen, 1923). The adult reader often knows what is going on, but the child character does not. For example, Keetje supplies hats to people whom the reader knows are probably sex workers. They also rate her for the job ('She has potential'), but Keetje primarily takes that as a compliment. Geurts: ‘What is special about this book is that we see the story through the eyes of a girl – a working-class girl, even – while the writer has personally experienced that perspective. That was revolutionary at the time. And unfortunately, it is still an exception.'
Excerpt: Eight years old - Keetje's first job (translated from Dutch)
‘So if your Keetje could bring the food to my husband every day, I'll give her seventeen and a half cents a week [...]’
My mother kept me home from school for this beautiful merit. I left, the pottery pan tied in a diaper; it swayed to the right and left, the sauce pouring over. The tree-lined Schans overlooked the canals. There I would chase rats and lean far over the water to see where they had passed; I was very surprised that they could breathe underwater ... 'They are not herrings after all, let's see ...' and I stirred the water with a branch to see if I could fish up any drowned rats ... Then again, the poppies unfolding on the quays caught my attention...
I often arrived at the factory after the husband had already started his work, embracing a bouquet in my left arm, my right arm clamped around the pan. Then the husband looked at me. I could sense that he forgave me, but also that he was sad, and I told myself I would bring the food straight to him the next day and only see what happened to the rats in the water on the way back.
Translating the novel was not easy, says Geurts. ‘Doff mingled with the high bourgeoisie in Belgium and was inspired by elitist French-language literature from Paris, but she was also surrounded by Walloon in daily life. And with that mixed French she wrote about a Dutch place, with Dutch names and Frenchified Dutch expressions, such as 'that's no bacon for your mouth'. That layering made it quite difficult sometimes.’
A young Neel Doff.
And then it was also a historical novel that had to be translated into contemporary Dutch. Geurts: 'At one point, Keetje says that she is angry and 'clambered into the upper bunk'. Is she talking about a kind of bunk bed box? That is very unusual. Or did the house have multiple floors? That matters a lot, because it would mean that her parents had a little more money at the time.’
Geurts is also working on a number of academic publications about Keetje trottin. One of these will be published later this year in the prestigious Signs journal: 'Flânerie as a Mode of Pleasure: Lessons from a Working-Class Flâneuse'. Another article is about the importance of reading and literature for Keetje. The second book of the trilogy, Keetje, is therefore still waiting for an enthusiastic translator. Geurts: 'Ifanyone reading this wants to do that? It's great fun, but I'm a little busy at the moment.’
The translation of Keetje op straat was made possible in part by the Paul Hazard foundation and was published by Uitgeverij IJzer at the end of April.