'I cannot work without Van Dale'

Date of news: 30 September 2021

Geurts, A. 1 zwartwit

Anna Geurts, lecturer in General Cultural Studies and researcher at the Radboud Institute for Culture and History (RICH), has been working at Radboud University since 2019.
Translated book: Keetje op straat (IJzer Publishers)

Translation means for Anna Geurts: "Constantly moving back and forth between what the writer probably wanted to say and what the reader probably understands. Unfortunately, the writer is often already dead. Fortunately, the reader is not! So you can ask them questions. For me, translation also means being a reader. But an honest reader: do I really understand what this says? And a bit of a cheeky reader as well: sometimes there are three things in a sentence at the same time and you can't express the ambiguity properly in the target language. Then you have to dare to choose which meaning you want to convey to your readers."

No French study

Keetje op straat - Neel Doff. Classic. Published 100 years ago. First full Dutch translation', appears on the website of publisher IJzer. Geurts translated this revolutionary novel from French into Dutch alongside her work at the university, even though she had never studied the French language. Geurts: "During my historical studies I read and translated many French sources, especially French diaries from the 19th century. Neel Doff's book is set in the 19th century, exactly the century in which I specialise. In addition, Doff was originally Dutch and you can see from her text that she often still thought in Dutch. What also helped was that I also translated from English and German. That's why I was able to translate this French novel."

Whether she calls herself a 'translator' after eight years? "Yes, I am a beginning translator. As a student, I translated short extracts from historical texts. Indeed: alone in an attic room. This is my first book. When I discovered with a group of friends that a full translation of Doff's work did not yet exist, I immediately felt the urge to translate it. I started spontaneously. Without a deadline or a publisher. That shows: if you are good at puzzling with language and have a dose of perseverance, you can translate a book."

And what about the permission to translate the book? "Doff died more than 70 years ago. Then there is no more copy right on her work."

Engage with the author

Geurts has a tip for others who also want to translate: go and talk to the author of the work. Geurts: "But that was a bit difficult in my case: Neel Doff died on 14 July 1942. Otherwise I would have liked to talk to her about Keetje. I would have liked to ask her what she meant by certain passages."

"What also made the translation of Doff's work a challenge was the low status Doff as an author. Neel Doff had a poor childhood and was not highly educated. As a result, many people later tended to be a little condescending about her work. As if she didn't really know what she was doing. That's why I stayed a bit closer to French than I normally would have done with my translation: because I was aware of the risk that I, too, might be influenced by that tendency to know better than she how her book should look."

But of course you can always talk to other people, even if the writer is already dead. "I asked for the opinion of specialists in the French language, such as my colleagues Ellen Dijkstra, Lonneke Dortmans and Maaike Koffeman. But also, for instance, from fellow historian Anton Schuurman on a matter of content. Doff talks about an 'upper bedstead'. What exactly does she mean by this? If that is an alcove bed on another floor, then that would mean that Keetjes parents had more money than when it concerns a bunk bed, so it really matters how you translate that."

Geurts emphasises: "But perhaps most important is to have your translation read by people who have not seen the original text at all. Does it work as a book?"

Imaginative thinking

How did she work during the translation of her first book? "By reading passages from the French novel and then thinking visually. How do I see what is happening in this scene? Only then did I take the step to the language side: which Dutch words can I use to best express this visual idea?"

During the translation process, Geurts constantly kept the author in mind: "The nice thing about translating is that you can lean on someone. You really form a team with the author."

And when do you decide that the translation is really finished? "That is when the publisher says: 'Now it is ready for the printer'. It remains to be seen whether you would still do it exactly the same way a year from now. I can understand why translators might have different ideas about their translated work after thirty years. But then again, the publisher makes sure that a translation is finished for the time being. And then it's a question of letting go. Just like you have to do with your interview once you hit the publish button."

Tips for literature students with an urge to translate:
- Dare to ask for help
- Translate together
- Dare to choose
- Read and write a lot in your target language
- Contact the author (if he/she is still alive)


Vincent Hunink, lecturer and researcher at Radboud Institute for Culture and History (RICH), has worked at Radboud University since 1988.

Translated books: more than 100.
Last translated book: Seneca (Athenaeum).
Foundation: This foundation aims to make a positive contribution to the translation climate in the Netherlands and Flanders for Latin and Greek.

Vincent Hunink breathes translation. More than thirty years ago he sent his translated work to the large publishing house Athenaeum. Now he is still active as a translator of Greek and Latin texts. And still for the same publisher. Hunink has a hundred translated books to his name and has won prestigious translation awards.

For Vincent Hunink, translation is: "The most intensive way of reading. As a translator, you have to know the source text very well. You have to run through each part of the text in your head. You can't say: 'I'm not interested in this sentence, so I'll just skip it'. So to make a translation, you have to read everything. That is why, for me, translating is the only way to read intensively. During the translation process, I read both the Dutch and the Latin language intensively. During the translation process, I go back and forth between the source text and my translation. The word order, the feeling: everything must be correct. It is a very interactive process. You can't read more penetratingly than that."

Hunink recommends translating to students of literature in particular. "Translation is one of the most beautiful things you can do with a degree in literature: everything comes back to it. However, I would like to give beginning translators the following advice: be bold, make a translation of something you like and go to a publisher. But be prepared for your first contact with a publisher. No publisher is waiting for a young translator with only a dream. Your type of translation must fit in with the publisher's fund. Show them well translated work. Without mistakes and missing words, because you make sure that it has been checked by someone beforehand. One thing is important: you have to stand out from the editor's huge pile."

Just do it

Hunink has been translating for Athenaeum publishers for over thirty years. "This publisher's fund is a good fit for my translations: classical works. I sent them a message, waited for a reply and was then allowed to send the manuscript. It was accepted fairly quickly. My lesson? Just do it!"

In the time that Hunink has been translating, a digital translator has been born. Where there used to be only dictionaries, there are now digital translation tools. Hunink: "Fortunately, Google is not made for Latin. They do not have the big data for that. For example, the Latin sentence structure is completely different from the Dutch and English sentence structure. Machines cannot transform this into the correct Latin constructions. Latin and Dutch dictionaries, however, do help me with my translations. I cannot work without Van Dale."