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Arnold Jansen op de Haar, King of Tuzla

August 29, 2010

Translated works always represent a challenge. There is something slightly disconcerting about knowing that you are not reading the actual words of the author, but someone else’s interpretation of them. There’s been some discussion of this around the blogs and in the media this year, partly because of the publication of Why translation matters by award winning literary translator Edith Grossman.

Ramona Koval, of Radio National‘s The Bookshow, interviewed Edith Grossman earlier this year. Koval introduced the interview with:

According to Edith Grossman, translation is a strange craft, generally appreciated by writers, undervalued by publishers, trivialised by academics, and practically ignored by reviewers.

Well, maybe translators are ignored by professional reviewers, but I’ve often seen the issue discussed in blogs and online bookgroups. We are keenly aware of the translator’s role and have been known to compare translations. Anyhow, to continue… The Wikipedia article on Grossman includes a quote from a speech she made in 2003:

Fidelity is our noble purpose, but it does not have much, if anything, to do with what is called literal meaning. A translation can be faithful to tone and intention, to meaning. It can rarely be faithful to words or syntax, for these are peculiar to specific languages and are not transferable.

Arnold Jansen op de Haar, King of Tuzla bookcover

Book cover (Courtesy: Holland Park Press)

This brings me nicely to Arnold Hansen op de Haar’s King of Tuzla. I found it a strangely compelling book. I can’t say I loved it, and at the beginning I nearly gave it up, but it’s short and so I decided to push on. However, more of that anon. First a brief plot. It tells the story of a young Dutch army officer, Tijmen, who finds himself in the middle of the Bosnian War as part of a UN unit, and tracks his experience of the war and his feelings about it. Interspersed between his story are little “cameo” stories about various civilians and the impact of the war on them. In fact, the novel starts with one such cameo, the Muslim Galib who had been a civil servant but had lost his job due to the war and was now a farmer. These cameos do not become part of the main narrative.

The book is divided into 5 parts. The first three parts are essentially chronological, while the last two are told after the war, in flashback, some of it through Tijmen’s journal entries. Overall I liked the structure of the book. The early chronological sequence, the interspersed cameos that gave “life” (albeit often horrific) to the matter-of-factness of the military detail, and the change in pace and perspective in the last two parts give the book interest by layering meaning.

The characterisation of Tijmen and his fellow officers is effective. Tijmen himself is an intriguing character: a bit of a loner, interested in the arts (reading, ballet, iceskating), ambitious (but “Eleven years later and still he had got nowhere”), and a little proud (the King of Tuzla, the Duke of Sapna, is how he sees himself during the conflict). I must say, though, that I don’t quite know why the book has been described as a coming-of-age novel. He is an adult when the novel starts and, while he is a little naive in the ways of the world, I saw no coming-of-age focus.

The trouble is that the book is a bit of a plod to read at times, and I wonder whether this is to do with the translation. So, here’s the rub: do I place my concerns at the author’s or the translator’s feet? Part of the problem is the flow. It felt clipped and jerky, but not in a way that seemed like it was done for effect. And at times, the sentences just plodded on one after another, like a boring history text. Maybe all this was intended, but I found it hard going. In addition, there are errors, such as “the colonel still lay there snorting” (“Snoring” seems more likely) and some awkward expressions, such as “It was some minutes before Eddy was able to extricate himself from the situation with some difficulty”. Is this a translation problem? “With some difficulty” seems redundant, and makes the sentence clunky to read.

There are, however, also some lovely images and gorgeous rhythms. I particularly liked this, for example (despite the errant, to me, semi-colon after “popes”):

This was the area where the different population groups overlapped like different geological strata. It was the land of popes; the mullahs and rabbis, the Christians, the Muslims, the Jews and the gypsies. The land of the long hot summers and the long severe winters, of rakija, walnuts and prunes and the land of the centuries-old struggle between the Turks, Hungarians, Austrians and Germans…

And this poignant description of Tijmen’s flat:

Eight years in the same flat, where time’s mechanism had jammed. No-one had been loved there.

In the end, figuratively speaking as we learn this two-thirds of the way through the book, the war is too much for Tijmen and he leaves the army. The book concludes with some nicely structured words beautifully conveying what he had earlier described as “this uselessness, this futility, human helplessness”. (Wouldn’t it be better with “this” before human?). This may not be the best war novel I’ve read, but it has its power.

This book has received some varied reviews. You may like to read a couple: Stu at winston’sdad and Lisa at ANZLitLovers.

Arnold Jansen op de Haar
(Trans. by Paul Vincent)
King of Tuzla
London: Holland Park Press, 2010
(Orig. pub. 1999)
199pp.
ISBN: 9781907320064

(Review copy supplied by Holland Park Press)

19 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2010 6:21 pm

    Hi Sue,
    I’ve more luck with translated works lately. The translator of Elias Canettis’ Auto-de-Fe, C.V.Wedgewood, did a superb job, so much so that I was never conscious of it being a translation at all, and the book I am currently reading, An Exclusive Love by Johanna Adorján, is brilliantly translated by Anthea Bell. The text flows, and the emotional intensity of the work is retained.
    I’m also reading an old Gotenberg version of Madame Bovary on the Kindle, which is translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling. That’s nicely done too.
    So I’m wondering whether there is something about the linguistic structures of the original languages of these books, i.e. Italian, German, and French, which makes them easier to translate than Dutch?

    • August 29, 2010 9:04 pm

      Yes, I wondered that too…and I must admit I’ve not read many Dutch writers (in translation) to compare. Like you, I’ve read a few translated works in recent times including Jay Rubin’s translation of Murakami, and felt no awkwardness. He does a lot of Murakami and I love the works.

  2. Jay permalink
    August 29, 2010 7:01 pm

    Dear Whispering Gums,
    As you may have seen from the other reviews, I am quite a big fan and so interested to know other people’s thoughts. I must say I enjoyed your review of King of Tuzla.

    With regards to issues with the language, I know 2 points that may or may not help to explain them. 1. The author’s writing style is known to be unique in both Dutch and English, although it is celebrated in Dutch, but apparently less so in English. Also, he was a poet before an author and I think he writes prose poetically, and we know how much poetry plays on language. 2 The translators who worked on this have kept it as close as possible to the original. I know that to do so sometimes means making the writing awkward in the new language.

    In response to Lisa, I don’t know if the language structures of Dutch are perhaps more difficult to translate, that is a good point actually, because I do know that in many instances in Dutch they use far more words than in English to state or describe something, so that translated literally the language would be long-winded for us (well, don’t quote me on that, but I believe even the author states that we use less words in English). So perhaps in keeping with the long descriptions that has caused the language to seem strange for you both.

    In saying that, I know a lot of Spanish translations, and some are straightforward and some are really complex, and usually it depends on the author’s writing style, because Spanish is generally not that hard to translate to English. I have read works that have been complex but so beautiful in Spanish, but then in English they are either nowhere near as good, or the language has been changed to make it better according to English and not according to what the author wrote.

    The art of translating is certainly a tricky subject, and does deserve more attention I think. Thank you for sharing this review.

    Humbly, Jazzmine

    • August 29, 2010 9:13 pm

      Thanks a lot of this Jazzmine.

      Your comment regarding ‘using far more words’ rings a bit true. I was nearly going to surmise that – and the fact that the translation might be more literal – in my comment on the example about “extricating … with difficulty”. It felt like it might be a literal translation and that the Dutch might use more words.

      In my review of Bergner’s novel recently I commented that the translator there had actually said that Bergner wanted him to used as many words in English as he had in the original! I read somewhere that the translator won an award so he must know what he’s doing.

      Anyhow, thanks so much for adding to the discussion … I much appreciate it.

  3. August 30, 2010 7:41 am

    in hindsight I wish I hadn’t reviewed this book as postively as I had and can’t understand why you choose to mention my review as you ve never commented on my blog .I enjoyed book on personal level as I had some connection to the story both the writers place of birth and working with people from bosnia at time ,so maybe I had rose tinted glasses in regards translation ,it maybe wasn’t as tight as the other two novels translated from dutch this year ,if you want a good dutch book in translation the twin gerharad bakker it won the three percent translation award last year and is a touching family story set in the remote farming area of the netherlands ,but pleased you enjoyed the book in some places ,all the best stu

    • August 30, 2010 9:01 am

      Thanks Stu. I have popped into your blog a few times and seen you at several other blogs. I mentioned your review because, for a book that is not so well-known I thought it would be good to do as Lisa at ANZLitLovers did to offer readers a variety of opinions. However, if you are uncomfortable with my posting your review here I am happy to remove it. I will note The twin and keep at eye out for it as I haven’t read many Dutch writers at all. Cheers.

      • August 30, 2010 9:07 am

        no its ok ,man on the move otto de kat other I ve read this year from quercus really good as well a world war te=wo book following dutch guy in pacfic war ,a different view on the confilict and its effects on one man ,have also seen you on l;isa and kinnas pages ,and have enjoyed your piece on writers recently ,all the best stu

  4. August 30, 2010 12:47 pm

    Thanks Stu, I will look out Otto de Kat as well. So many books …

  5. August 31, 2010 8:09 pm

    It’s an interesting issue. When one doesn’t like the writing in a translated novel, there’s always that question. Was it the writer or the translator?

    Often it’s moot though. Other translations may not be available and even if they are reading a book one didn’t enjoy again in another translation isn’t a tempting prospect (unless it’s pretty short).

    As I tend to note in these discussions, the reluctance to read translated fiction is true mostly for general and literary fiction. It’s not so true for crime, where readers eagerly seek out translated works.

    Translating a poetic author must be a nightmare. Very difficult indeed. From the discussion it sounds though like it is a good translation, but of an author not everyone will take to. Poetic novels can be hard going sometimes.

    • August 31, 2010 11:28 pm

      I guess there’s also the converse. If you like the writing in a translated novel we should also wonder whether it’s the writer or translator? But we don’t usually ask that do we? Hmmm

      With crime, do you think crime readers are more interested in the plot and the characterisation than the writing itself? As for translating poetic novels, yes … it certainly makes you admire those who translate poetry itself.

  6. August 31, 2010 11:38 pm

    A good translator must I think ultimately work with what’s there in the original. If that’s bad I wonder if they could make it good.

    If they can, they should probably spend more time writing their own novels and less time translating…

    I think crime as a genre is often about exploration of place. A lot of crime is really about a certain society or milieu, the crime is merely there to give everyone something to do while you explore that or to put the society under pressure so its cracks show. Due to that I think crime readers often want crime in translation. New societies, new milieus.

    So yes, I do think crime readers tend to be more interested in plot and characterisation than language, but I think they’re also often interested in location and decription of society. All of which works fine. You can have crime novels with literary language, Chandler springs to mind and above all William McIllvanney, but generally if you need to focus on the language it’s probably distracting from what the crime novel’s really looking to achieve. Good crime writing I think is often quite flat in literary terms.

    Generalising horribly of course…

    • August 31, 2010 11:44 pm

      Generalising has some value I reckon as long as we know we are generalising. I’ll think upon your comments on crime. You make a good point about place too. I’m in the process of a review now on a crime novel (not something I read much of) but left my book and notes at a friend’s house tonight so have stalled on that until I get them back, as I would like to include the odd quote.

  7. September 1, 2010 1:21 am

    It’s hard when reading a translation if there are issues to be able to judge whether it was the author or the translator. I tend to think it is the author and give the translator as muc credit as possible though sometimes it is really obvious the translation is not good.

    • September 1, 2010 7:54 am

      And I think that’s the fair way to go in the absence of any better knowledge. Imre Kertesz’s Fateless/Fatelessness is an interesting example – two very different translations done within a couple of decades as I recollect. It is very interesting to compare those two. I think Kertesz may have rejected the first translation. One is fairly formal and one more colloquial. I guess we should go with the one preferred by the author (and since he’s alive we know which one that is!).

  8. September 1, 2010 5:44 pm

    I started this book but dropped it after 75 pages – I found it difficult to sense any “flow” in it and I found no sympathy with the characters. The translation was definitely at fault. Also, the production values were amateurish which always puts me off – it looked like a self-published book. I think Holland Park will have to raise their sights a little to be able to make much of an impact.

    There are so many excellent translators that its a shame when it all goes so wrong. The book I have just read was such a seamless translation I am sure it captured the author’s voice perfectly – not that I’ll ever know for sure!

    • September 1, 2010 7:41 pm

      I agree with all you say. It was a slog to start with – for quite a long way. I sometimes found myself just reading words and not taking it in – except when I got to the little cameos. However half way in or so it did grab me a bit. My kindle arrived today – have just loaded two classics on it. Now I have to find time to read them!)

  9. May 17, 2011 7:10 am

    I like how you managed to maintain some middle ground on this book. I am halfway through it and starting to enjoy it more. But I agree, the translation seems clunky. I think it must be the translation, because I have tried to translate some of the sentences back to Dutch and they either become word-for-word correct Dutch sentence, or the redundant phrases wouldn’t be used in Dutch either. (well, maybe that last thing points to a fault with the writer?) I don’t know. I think this book won’t leave any kind of special impression on me, but I am glad to continue reading and I’ve frankly only started to enjoy it after page 50.

    • May 17, 2011 8:55 am

      Oh thanks so much for commenting on this Iris. I felt a bit unsure about it as there was a lot to like. It’s great having a native speaker like you confirming the problems but also seeing some enjoyment in it. I’ll look out for your review.

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