About comparing first lines and knowing you’ll never read the entire translation…

16 03 2013

It “only” took 5 years for Patrick Ness’ brilliant The Knife of Never Letting Go to get translated into Dutch (by Ineke Lenting for Uitgeverij Moon). Today I walked into the local book store and was actually pleasantly surprised to see the long-awaited translation Het mes dat niet wijkt. This store usually only has Twilight, Hunger Games and Beautiful Creatures stuff in their meager YA section, so seeing this genre-bending masterpiece was definitely something else. I did what everyone would do: I photographed the cover and the first pages… because I wanted to look at what the translator did with Todd’s very unique way of speaking and writing. So here goes:

The first line from the original English version:

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say. About anything.

The first line in the Dutch translation:

Het eerste wat je ontdekt als je hond leert praten, is dat honden niet veel te melden hebben. Nergens over.

Linguistically speaking the first line in the original text already says a lot about the narrative voice of Todd. Todd says ‘yer’ instead of ‘your’, he says “dogs don’t got nothing much to say”, using a double negative. In the Dutch translation you don’t see anything of this quote unquote “wrong” spelling and grammar… Nevertheless, in the original version, as a reader you are immediately thrown into Todd’s thoughts and you know that for some reason you will be dealing with a character who is not ‘learned’ or ‘educated’ in the conventional way. That aspect is completely lost in translation, while it’s a strong first line like this one that hooks you as a reader!

Also, I can’t think of a good reason for the translator to choose the word “melden” to translate “say” instead of “zeggen”. Just like in English, there’s a Dutch expression “niet veel te zeggen hebben”, which means that “you don’t have much to say.” “Melden” in this case is a lot more akin to “announce” or “proclaim”, and you wouldn’t say “you don’t have much to announce”, would you?

Anyway, moving on… bear in mind I only photographed a couple of pages, just to get an impression, so I’m not making a judgment about the work “as a whole”.

Obviously, the Noise is still the Noise – typographically speaking:


I also took a look at Todd’s phonetic writing. From the little I saw, it is used (luckily), but whether it actually has the same (alienating) effect, I’m not quite so sure of. I’ll let you be the judge of that…





In the English version, Todd says “Men are Noisy creachers.” In Dutch, this is “Mannen zijn Herrie-beesten” (Highlighted in pink, underlined in yellow). The phonetic “creachers” has been translated by the word “beesten” in normal spelling. “Beest” means “some kind of (wild) animal” in Dutch, but “creature” is not the same as “beast” of course…

In the highlighted parts you see “goddam”, which is translated as “verdómmese”, which is sort of phonetic, but also highly “Dutch” Dutch. In the highlighted section you can also see quite a few contractions – as if to mimic spoken language I guess – in words like “is-ie” (“is hij” or “is he”), “d’r” (“daar” or “there”) and “’em” (“hem” or “him”).

Though I appreciate the effort to imitate spoken language, there’s no one who pronounces “repareren” (“to fix”) as “repurreren”. Semantically speaking, the word “Noise” too, is a word that invokes so much more than “Herrie” – which btw, you can’t turn into an adjective, unlike noise –> noisy: “Men are Noisy creachers.”

So I guess that in those couple of pages I noticed a few too many things that I didn’t particularly like and it has actually strengthened my opinion about reading books translated from English into Dutch: avoid at all cost! Translating a novel completely changes the original book, especially when you know the original version as well. And most of the changes are not “good changes”… Translating is an art form in itself, and there are very few good literary translators (English –> Dutch). I had the same feeling when I read the first couple of pages of Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty in translation, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now and even just hearing the title of John Green’s The Fault in our Stars “Een weeffout in onze sterren” made me shudder. Translations? No thank you very much.

The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, Monsters of Men… those are the titles everyone should read… do it! Now! Before the movies… which are in the making, btw. The screenplay of The Knife of Never Letting Go will be written by Charlie Kaufman of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (ha!) fame… Could have been worse!



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