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Portrait: Martin de Haan, translation activist

Few translators are just translators. They are also writers, bloggers, critics… Martin de Haan, President of CEATL and Dutch translator of Proust, Kundera, Echenoz and Houellebecq, is all of these things and much more. A portrait by Camille Bloomfield (translated from French by Jill McCoy).

It is a paradox that instead of inciting fear, a literary pinnacle like Proust’s A La recherche du temps perdu is constantly spurring on new foreign-language translations. Are these the most crazed or the most passionate of translators? Well, that depends. IFVerso previously met with Guy Régis, who is currently translating Du côté de chez Swann in Haitian Creole. Now, to mark the imminent publication of the same tome in the Netherlands in a new translation by Martin de Haan and Rokus Hofstede, here is an encounter with a quite committed – and quite engaging – translator.

Translation and Criticism: Two Inseparable Activities

In addition to German, English, and Dutch, which Martin de Haan already spoke, he decided to study French as part of his studies in “general literature” (the Dutch equivalent of “comparative literature”). At the University of Leiden, de Haan worked alongside Evert Van der Starre, distinguished critic of Raymond Queneau, and begun research on the structure of Queneau’s poetry volumes. Dissatisfied with academia, however, he quickly distanced himself, turning toward freer forms of writing such as essay and criticism, and also beginning to translate. For de Haan, criticism and translation go hand in hand: “When translating, you need to have a critical viewpoint, and the fact of writing it down can provide clearer ideas on the author, the style, the context…” The writings he’s speaking of are short pieces written “on the fly” rather than long essays, and they allow both for a detailed approach and lightness of expression. Ready proof of this can be found at the very rich blog Hof/Haan, which de Haan shares with Rokus Hofstede: visitors can find full portfolios of articles in French and Dutch on every author he has translated.

Loyalty? Yes, but to the Author

Indeed, Martin de Haan is somebody who has managed to “follow” authors throughout an entire career. His bibliography includes 6 of Milan Kundera’s titles, all of Michel Houellebecq’s novels and most of his essays, 4 novels by Échenoz. This loyalty (which, in the case of Kundera, is coupled with a friendship) allows de Haan to enrich the relationship he has with the texts and to increase communication with the authors during the translation process. Symmetrically, this loyalty makes it possible for Dutch readers to identify a unique “voice” for each author and to “follow” him or her from publication to publication.

The rhythms of translation are different for each author and vary according to the degree to which each is present in the media. De Haan explains that when readers anticipate each publication as an event, rapid translation is needed, “or else people read the original version directly” – and this is the case for Houellebecq or Kundera. For Jean Echenoz, though, it’s possible to take a bit more time. De Haan is currently translating Echenoz’s Des Éclairs, published two years ago in France. For the author Régis Jauffret, the same is true: de Haan’s translation of Univers univers, published in France in 2005, is still in progress.

As for Proust, long periods of work are necessary (such as de Haan’s residency at the Translation House Looren). But why translate an author Dutch readers already know so well? It’s a question of reading, de Haan answers, of differences in reading. For the previous translator of Du côté de chez Swann, Thérèse Cornips, “Proust sounds like a 19th-century author”, while for de Haan and Rokus Hofstede, “he is a modern writer.” In the bookstores, Dutch readers will therefore discover two versions of the same work: Cornips’ 2009 translation, and de Haan and Hofstede’s. In an elegant way, De Haan sees the situation as a good thing, and even celebrates it, whereas others would disapprove. He recognizes his indebtedness to the previous versions and the paradox Cornips’ work puts him in: “I constantly have her translations close by, as I do the English and German ones. But the most difficult thing is to not repeat what she’s done even when we want to do the same thing – otherwise we’d be plagiarizing. So the danger is not imitating the other, but being forced to find a solution.”

Team translating

Martin de Haan’s bibliography is impressive. What helps is the fact that, unlike many others, he does not work alone. For ten years, on his most challenging translations, de Haan has teamed up with Rokus Hofstede, the Dutch voice of Bourdieu, Cioran, Perec, Ernaux, and Michon. Their collaboration began with the co-translation of Vivant Denon’s libertine novel, Point de lendemain.Then, Proust (Sodome et Gomorrhe with Jan Pieter van der Sterre in 2004 and Contre Sainte-Beuve in 2009), Régis Jauffret (Asile de fous in 2008), Houllebecq and Bernard Henri-Lévy (Ennemis publics in 2009), Émile Zola (Comment on meurt in 2011) and now, Proust again.

When we ask him how team translating functions, Martin de Haan cites the concept of groups of translators working as quickly as possible to translate a best-seller. But this is only to mark the contrast with his own method: “since we are working on each other’s text, it takes longer than if we were working alone. We aim for a higher quality.” In the tandem, each has his own specialty. Rokus Hofstede has the “feel for the right words” and concentrates more on vocabulary, whereas de Haan works on syntax: “I want the sentence to be truly Dutch”, he says. An ideal task breakdown, it seems. And yet, it is not so easy, because both must be prepared to see his text covered with red pen, to “accept the other’s opinion even when it’s not the ultimate truth, just a starting point for discussion. Once the acceptance made, it’s great to see that our text was read attentively and taken seriously.” This tradition, which is associated with the practice of critical writing, leads de Haan to recommend a reading approach unique to translated texts: “The only way to write intelligently on translation is to try and piece together the translator’s choices. When a seemingly simple sentence has been translated in a surprising way, it’s no longer appropriate to read word-for-word, because in looking further on in the paragraph one might notice that a problematic sound required an adjustment later on in the text.”

CEATL: In Defense of Translators

With practice also comes activism. De Haan is on the committee of the Dutch Society of Authors, where he represents translators, and has been part of the CEATL (European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations) since moving to France, and has been President since 2008. When de Haan joined the council, it did not resemble what it does today: an active institution linking 32 associations in 26 European countries, 5 or 6 work groups publishing authoritative reports on the profession of translator, and a rich website (where one finds, notably, an important Code of good practice).

When de Haan arrived in 2005, at the same time as Holger Fock from Germany, they realized that CEATL wasn’t achieving much. The first work group was then created, and in 2008 a 70-page report came out in French, English, and then translated into Italian, entitled “Comparative incomes of literary translators in Europe”. Based on research carried out all over Europe, the study made it possible to locate gaps and common points between different countries on several questions, such as the definition of a literary translator, the number of “active” literary translators, the ratio of translations to overall publications in a given country, and, especially, translators’ income, the type of contract they use, eligibility for grants and residencies, available social protection, etc. The text is an essential database for translation public policy workers, who use it for comparison on a European level, and also for publishers, who also may situate themselves on the editorial market beyond national borders. Finally, the report is especially crucial for translators’ associations, who use its mass of information as a precious tool for defending the rights of their members.

Martin de Haan is thus a translation activist on more than one level. The rigor that characterizes the translation work he does is the same that motivates his action within CEATL, and the same rigor also drives him to write critical pieces on the authors he translates, thereby standing by a certain French literature for readers in the Netherlands. It’s a rather serene rigor, but firm all the same.

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