Translation is inevitably a process of metamorphosis, an audacious leap from one poem to another, across the boundaries of two different languages and cultures, in a sense an impossibility. However faithful one tries to be to the original in diction, form, tone, rhythm – all of which are, I feel, an integral part of a poem – the translation will always be something intrinsically ‘other’, and probably must be so if it is to stand on its own feet as a poem with its own organic logic. Confronted by the abundance of powerful poetry being written in the Low Countries today, it is extremely tempting to attempt to translate some of this work, to find an equivalent life for it within the context of another culture.
Having moved to Holland after living in England for many years, I gradually became more familiar with contemporary Dutch and Flemish poetry, and for a translator, discovering the extraordinary work of Toon Tellegen felt akin to striking gold. The first collection of his that I stumbled upon was Over Liefde en Over Niets Anders (About Love and About Nothing Else), which not only made me want to translate this poetry straight away, but also left me trying to define for myself what it is that makes this work so peculiarly striking, and so instantly and exclusively recognisable as Tellegen’s.
Certainly, the work lends itself to translation, not only because of its linguistic simplicity – one might almost call it prose-poetry – but also because of a certain timeless, ‘placeless’ quality. His concise poems sometimes read like parables, with few topical references to Dutch life or current trends. In fact they occupy a unique position in Dutch poetry and almost ask to cross boundaries, to be placed in a broader European context.
One of the things that struck me about his poetry is its momentum, its ability to travel great distances and often create a sense of the vastness of the universe within a single, short poem. “In the beginning there was tumult . . .”, for example, moves from creation myth to a picture of human solitude and confusion within just a few verses. If technique is the right term for a poetry that achieves its effects with such apparent ease, as if it had simply ‘happened’, it is a technique which involves using the plainest, most minimal language to great dramatic effect. The Flemish poet and critic Herman de Coninck, in his book Intimiteit onder de Melkweg (Intimacy under the Milky Way) comments: “Tellegen’s poems are full of cheerful human misunderstanding. With their fairytale speed, his poems encompass entire novels”. Tellegen is a natural story-teller, but even in his more narrative poems, the narration tends to be interspersed with living speech, with the urgent questions and impetuous exclamations of his personae.
He probably owes the ease with which he can enter the domain of the fairy-tale to his maternal grandfather who seems to have been Tellegen’s earliest literary influence, as shown in his colourful memoir, De Trein naar Pavlosk en Oostvoorne (The Train to Pavlosk and Oostvoorne). His grandfather, himself an unpublished writer, had spent the first half of his life in Russia. He shared with the young Tellegen his fantastical stories of Russia, comfortably mixing fact and folklore, full of strange metamorphoses and unexpected turns of event. Tellegen’s poetry has a similar capacity for shifting from the metaphorical to the literal and for embracing the absurd at all times. Not surprisingly, Tellegen is sometimes compared to Eastern European writers, such as Zbigniew Herbert or the Russian absurd writer Daniil Charms, with whom he shares a sense of the unpredictability of everyday life.
Particularly in some of the poems written in the first person, I was struck by Tellegen’s ability to stay close to the pulse of the emotion, close to the immediate intuition or apprehension. For example, in the wonderfully concise poem ‘Don’t leave, I thought . . . ’, the speaker’s mounting anxiety is conveyed by the repeated “don’t leave”, while the loyalty or staying power of the persons addressed comes through in the quiet “and no one left”. The shift at the end, where the speaker finally reaches a place of trust, is a purely emotional shift, achieved not through conscious logic but through a less quantifiable – but wholly believable - inner development.
In other poems Tellegen is a sympathetic and amused observer of human affairs. His characters, portrayed with absurd but uncynical humour, act and speak with a certain naivety, a lack of worldliness that allows basic emotions to be expressed in unselfconscious, fresh ways, so that what is ordinary becomes a source of childlike wonder. Not that the poet’s own voice is naïve: there is an unobtrusive awareness of human experience in all its complexity and at times an almost tragicomic view of life. But the language used remains unsophisticated, in tune with the characters portrayed.
In translating Tellegen’s poems, it therefore seemed especially important to keep the language of the translations as unencumbered and fresh as that of the originals, to stay close to everyday speech and avoid abstractions and cerebral language as much as possible. This was not always feasible, since Dutch has many abstract words that are in fact rooted in something very concrete which still shines through. Inevitably, difficulties also presented themselves when the poems used Dutch words for which there is no real counterpart in English, such as ‘ijver’ in “In the beginning there was tumult . . . ”. ‘Ijver’ is the kind of word or term of praise used by an old-fashioned, bourgeois Dutch schoolmaster, emphasising the importance of solid, efficient, hard work, and the translation loses something with the word ‘diligence’.
In terms of the whole rhythm and structure of the poems, I tried to keep the English as dynamic and dramatic as the Dutch. This meant resisting the temptation to make lines flow all too smoothly, allowing for the kind of abrupt shifts found in the Dutch, and not always letting the ending of a poem become too weighted and emphatic. Tellegen shared with his grandfather a love of the open ending; his poetry resists easy resolutions, resists reasonable theorising. It depicts a world in which affection, love, and the human imagination in all its variety and idiosyncrasy are the persistent forces.