The time-share issue

     by Willem Groenewegen, 2003

When I read the editorial (July 16th, 2003) on for the first time, I wasn't really struck by anything - just wanted to get stuck in, read the essays. However, coming back to it, there is a highly relevant question embedded in this introduction, at least, relevant to my own practice: why translate, when in the same amount of time you could write a poem, or even: why do either when there's so much to read, or so much living to be done?

I am both a publishing poet and a poetry translator. Every day I find myself choosing between the two crafts. I usually translate in the morning and write during the afternoon. Translating starts up the linguistic motor so to speak, which then actually facilitates the writing process in the afternoon - writer's block, therefore, is not in my vocabulary. Publication-wise, translation still has the upper hand: one book of poetry translations vs. only magazine entries of my own work. I have at times thought: if I'm capable of credibly translating Dutch poetry, then why become yet another debuting poet? The former talent is the lesser exploited, so would create the greater niche. However, the personal poetic vein must be tapped, if only because of the inspiration translating poetry provides. Furthermore, others have started to take notice of my own poetic skills, so I'm also feeling obliged to work at this. Lastly, there is of course the bread-winner issue, translation rendering more of an income than writing poetry. But that is a given and therefore not a matter to be discussed here.

In Martijn Meijer's review of the Poetry International 2003 seminar dealing with poetry translation, Lisa Katz and Raoul Schrott reassert the main arguments for translating poetry: the best way to understand a poem and how poetry works, is to translate. For me, there is an added component: if I really like a poem, I want to translate it. Translation is to me a way of showing my appreciation for the original. Unfortunately, with all the assignments I get these days, there is little time left to translate for mere pleasure - certainly if I want to carry on writing my own work to boot!

In an essay I recently wrote for a Dutch literary magazine, outlining my poetics, I was asked to say something about the way I write. That turned out to be quite a long essay, because I have a highly structured way of writing. Studying in Sheffield (UK) for a short period, I was offered the opportunity of delving into the Peter Redgrove archive (see for a more detailed description of his method). This poet, who I'm sorry to say died this summer, had a writing system comprising a sequence of notebooks, known as the 'Incubator'. Through a series of drafts, like in any poet's work, he would arrive at a final, publishable, poem. However, the way he ordered his drafts, starting with snapshots, clippings, quotes and the like, which he would glue and/or write into the first notebook and then associate with through following notebooks, suited my needs. It's an organic way of writing, and yet highly organized at the same time. And if I wanted to free up time for my writing from my translating schedule, I would need some sort of ordering principle for my own work.

For years I'd been haphazardly writing poetry - and translating - in notebooks, but just one after the other, drafting as I went along. Now, though, I start with ideas brought about by collecting odds and ends in the first notebook and then gradually distilling poetry out of the associative process through the following notebooks. Book number four, the thinnest one in the series, contains the finished product. Then I can go back to book one and start something new, using old material or new stuff, whichever seems relevant at the time. Going back and forth, knowing something's brooding on a left-hand page, wanting to be processed onto a right-hand page, thrills me to bits and at the same time gives me a sense of calm, knowing they lines will sit there until I'm good and ready. It makes the time I spend on writing more delineable and therefore opens up my translating schedule.

Now something about translating methods, for they have made me more productive and aware of what I do as a poetry translator. When I started translating it was mostly for practical reasons: fellow poets in Groningen (NL), where I lived and studied English, would go to England to read and needed translations for their English-speaking audiences. What started it off properly was a poetry festival I organized in Groningen in 1996, called Poetry North, where English and Dutch poets read who at one time or another had taught at the University (Jeremy Hooker, Jeffrey Wainwright) or had visited there as poets (Julia Darling, Keith Armstrong). Naturally, the English poems had to be translated into Dutch, but I also thought it might be a sterling idea to have the Dutch poets translated into English. Not knowing any translators, I set about translating them myself. Rutger Kopland, however, insisted he be translated by his own translator, the late James Brockway.

The latter turned out to be quite approachable and he took me under his wing as a poetry translator. Correcting the versions I handed in, he would summon me to his stately home in The Hague and basically tear my drafts apart. This instilled in me an awe for the work of a literary translator. The work at hand wasn't to be dealt with lightly! The following year a Dutch poet, J. Bernlef, was writer-in-residence at the University of Groningen. One of his friends in the poetry world is Seamus Heaney, and for one term, he did a weekly workshop of translating some of Heaney's sonnets into Dutch. Bernlef taught me something new, and quite exciting. He would do a draft translation of the original poem, then leave the poem to one side and 'turn' this translation into a 'poem' in the target language, Dutch in this case. This translation/poem wouldn't be a totally novel piece of writing after this, but at the same time, it wasn't a faithful and exact representation of the original poem, either. So I learnt two approaches, the faithful word for word vs. the more liberal rewriting mode.

You might be wondering what this learning curve has to do with the time-share issue. Well, through these approaches I am better able to choose when to do what. As I said, these two approaches have made me both more aware of what I do and more productive. If I am working on a particularly taxing poem of my own, I will choose to translate poetry where I can be somewhat more liberal in translation. Conversely, if I am translating a particularly intricate set of poems, I won't write anything too taxing. That's how I resolve the balancing act content-wise.

So, all in all, I manage the balancing act quite well. True, there are days I do more writing than translation or vice versa, but on the whole the system stands. At the moment I'm doing more reading than either, because I want to translate new things at the start of this new season.

In closing, let me add a topic for further discussion. It is one that has been much on my mind lately: why be a poetry translator, when there is no sustenance in it and all the grants go to 'original' authors? I put as much work, effort and creativity into translating as I do with writing. In one respect I even do more: unlocking other people's writings to the world. But am I eligible for grants in this country? No, only writers are. I can translate all the poetry I want, yet not earn a (euro)penny while I'm at it. Only when I translate other languages into Dutch do I get to make a living. This is a sorry state of affairs. So you have to have a servile nature to devote yourself to translation. As the joke goes: This is my lot in life. It's not a lot, but it's a life…


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