Friday, May 25, 2007

Introducing Jan Jacob Slauerhoff

J.J. Slauerhoff was a ship's doctor-writer-translator (from Spanish, Portuguese, and French to Dutch) widely regarded as one of the greatest Dutch poets of the 20th century interbellum.

When I first moved to the Netherlands, I imagined that someday I would translate Dutch poetry into English. I'd had a course in 20th century poets during an undergraduate semester at Leiden University, but that was before I'd read much of anything beyond the Romantics in my own tradition, and I didn't realize that relative to American poets after Whitman, the Dutch had an incredibly stubborn penchant for formalism--let alone that this would piss me off. (I don't know about you, but not much of the world I live in lends itself to orderly sequences of weighty conclusions hammered home by rhyme.) So anyhow, that didn't work out.

Then just as I was leaving for Mexico, my friend J gave me a novella by Slauerhoff called De opstand van Guadalajara (The Revolt of Guadalajara). It is a misanthropic little melodrama, written in the last year of Slauerhoff's sickly, misanthropic little life, and I loved it. I've been talking about translating it for years, ever since I discovered that it's come out in translation in Germany, Indonesia, and Italy--as recently as 1999 in the latter--but never in the U.S. I've even done rough cuts of the first and last of ten chapters, and made my friends read them and tell me they'd like to read the rest.

. . . Fast forward to this morning, when I got it in my head yet again to work on it serially in this blog, where I hope to be buoyed along by the inevitable crush of readers clamoring for its completion. A girl's gotta dream. Anyhow, it had been quite awhile since I'd had this particular bug up my ass, so it took some time to even find the book. Then, scanning the back cover, something registered for the first time: Slauerhoff died in 1936 at just 38 years old.

It just so happens that I am turning 39 next month, and it bears stating outright that I identified from the get-go with Slauerhoff as a kindred vagabond/poet/translator crazy in love with the sound of Spanish but more properly at home among the Dutch. So this discovery was kind of fraught, an echo of a moment 11 years before when, walking past a record store in Leiden, I felt compelled--really, physically compelled--to go in there and buy a German edition of Janice Joplin's greatest hits. From the liner notes I learned that Janice died at 27, the age that I was just about to stop being, and though I've never been all that rock & roll and her music is a bit out of character for me, it seemed important that I do something in honor of our unlikely connection that day. Like dedicate this translation of Slauerhoff to her. So here it goes:

The Revolt of Guadalajara

by J. Slauerhoff
translated by Jenny Gage

for Janice.

No comments: