1 book, 5 translators

Take an exciting family history, the author, five translators, one established literary translator, mix them all up, and what do you get?

Jeroen Thijssen’s latest novel portrays the lives of three generations of Dutch brothers, from the 1890s to the 1980s. The first part tells the story of Hendrik and Theo who travel to the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, to join the Dutch colonial army. They are involved in several battles, or more accurately, assaults on the local population where they loot a sizeable number of jewels.

After being discharged from the army, the brothers go their separate ways. While Theo tries his luck in journalism, Hendrik buys a plantation, aptly named Solitude, located in a rather remote area. Hendrik happily takes over his predecessor’s business and even more eagerly his harem. Each night, three women compete for their new master’s favour. But at this point in the story, Hendrik has scant idea who is who and lets himself be guided by all his senses, except eyesight.

Painem, Dewi and Wulan (p.104)

Her name was Painem, and sometimes Dewi or Wulan. In the dark her skin was soft and dry, like his mother’s, or else oiled and smooth, or warm and moist; it came as a surprise every night. He made a point of leaving the lamps unlit when entering his bedroom, to increase the tension and heighten his desire so that when he lifted the invisible mosquito net, the darkness turned into skin and her scent betrayed her presence. Coconut, mace or musk, natural perfumes artfully applied, always accompanied by the deep, earthy, intoxicating smell of receptive womanhood. It was so dark he sometimes felt he was riding night itself, pushing into the dark-made-flesh, that would dissolve again in the morning light. But at sunrise, it was just a young woman lying beside him, sometimes Dewi, sometimes Painem, otherwise Wulan.

Translation: Antoinette Fawcett, Fiona Graham, Alice Paul, Eileen Stevens and Eline Tuijn, July 2015

In July I attended the Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School 2015, run by the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT) in partnership with Writers’ Centre Norwich at the University of East Anglia.

The BCLT offered several language specific workshops, including Dutch-English. In this group and joined by the author himself, Antoinette Fawcett, Fiona Graham, Alice Paul, Eileen Stevens and I worked on Jeroen Thijssens’s latest novel ‘Solitude’ with acclaimed translator David Colmer as our workshop leader. Jeroen was a great help clarifying and explaining difficult elements and passages of the text.

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