Doodlings From Antwerp: Bad Translations, Boon


The idea for Bad Translations came to me a number of years ago in Ecuador. My wife and I, the mysterious Shuffy©, were staying in a little pension outside of the old town in Quito and there was a ramshackle bookstore nearby we would duck into during violent confrontations between groups of young protesters and the police. People were pissed off about the dollarization of the currency. Gustavo Noboa had recently been elected president. But this is ancient history.

Jorge Carrera Andrade

I found an old volume of poetry by Jorge Carrera Andrade. The pages hadn’t even been split and it smelled of dirt. Andrade is more or less a big deal in Latin American literature though you don’t hear his name very often up north. Such is the way of things. The poems were in Spanish, since Andrade wrote them that way. My Spanish is terrible. But I decided to start translating them anyway.

Some years ago, before even the trip to Ecuador, the man who taught me to read Golden Age Latin, the hairy and intense Alan Fishbone, made a comment to me over a game of pool. “You know,” he said (I’m paraphrasing here), “It’s all syntax, …. And syntax is magic.” I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant at the time, though it sounded cool. He was a cool guy, likely he still is, though his Juvenalian Foundation for a New Humanism located on Elizabeth Street in New York City only lasted about a year. Money did not pour in.

Fishbone’s comment stuck with me over the years. I came to realize that he was talking about how language manufactures meaning. He was saying that meaning happens in how the grammar of a sentence holds together. When you put a sentence together correctly, the meaning jumps right out. Boom, there it is. There are rules for this sort of thing but, on the other hand, the mechanical application of rules doesn’t always get you there. You can translate each word in a foreign sentence completely correctly and, still, the meaning eludes. Anyone who has read an instructional manual translated directly from the Chinese is aware of what I speak. That’s the part Fishbone was referring to when he spoke of magic. Syntax works via magic.

It is in the act of translation from language to language that the magic of syntax is most deeply experienced. You can struggle and struggle with a sentence, knowing its grammatical structure and the definition of all its words and the damn sentence still refuses to release its secrets. Then, suddenly, it pops into place. The magic of syntax.

When I started working on my bad translation of Andrade I realized that what I was getting down on paper was often that elusive little place between sense and nonsense where the magic of syntax does its work. Sometimes the line felt right, I was getting the real meaning of it. Other times I was just off. In some ways, I was using the slippery power of syntax to create a wholly new, and surely inferior, poetry out of the original poetry created by Andrade. But it held its own interest, this new monstrous stuff. It was compelling standing on its own.

Boon's little book

Now we are living in Antwerp and tooling around some of the bookshops here. There is no violence to flee, though recent tensions between the Flems and the Walloons could, well, who knows? I found a little volume that I fell in love with even before I came to really love it. It is by Louis Paul Boon, who is pictured on the cover wearing a funny hat. It’s called “Boon-Apartjes: aforismen, citaten en iutspraken van Louis Paul Boon verrameld door Gerd de Ley.” This translates roughly, badly, as: “Boon one-on-one: aphorisms, quotations, and pronouncements by Louis Paul Boon, loosely collected by Gerd de Ley.” I think the title is actually even funnier than that but, again, my Dutch (Flemish) is so bad that it is hard to say. Louis Paul Boon is, by the way, a wonderful character and brilliant writer but I’ll let you discover that, if you’re interested, on your own. The following Bad Translation is from the first three pages of his little book. These pages are found under the title, “De voorstad groeit” (The Suburb Expands). My comments on the bad translation are in the brackets, in italic.

De voorstad groeit

roman, 3e druk, Em. Querido’s Utig. N.V., Amsterdam 1963

You want someone. And as you are with two, it shows you were nevertheless happier, easier, and a divine, solitary thing, alone.

[I have no idea, really, how to translate this sentence. “Als ge met twee zijt blijkt” continues to elude me, syntactically. I feel pretty good about the comparative adjectives. Then it all falls apart again with the divine, solitary (goddelijk eenzamer waart, alleen). What is “waart”, by the way? A slightly archaic form of “zijn”(to be) probably? Who knows. Not even the internet seems to know]

To depart is nothing; as your head and heart are filled up with illusions. To come back, though, with empty hands and an empty soul, standing out on the corner of your street, the look-out, already past midnight, and not to dare to go in, not to dare, that is something else.

[Many problems here in the middle. I really like the way it sounds in my bad translation, though, what with the standing and the not daring.]

Just as a man who smokes encounters something, it’s the same whether it be joy, sorrow, or danger, the first thing he does is to grab that pack of cigarettes. And set him up for two hours without tobacco, he’ll creep under the door for a touch.

[“Creep under the door for a touch” (hij kruipt onder de reet van de deur om er aan te raken) is nonsense. Or is it?]

the little book near Flemish cheese with some flowers on it

Many people don’t open their mouth at all and you think: That is a man who really knows, that is someone who can’t be bothered to find another word to open his mouth for. Come on, it could just as well be that there’s such a prodigious emptiness in his skull that he simply has nothing to say.

That your knee hurts, that is something you’re allowed to trumpet forth about. Everyone would agree. That’s a true gentleman! But when your heart is in pain, must you hide it away like a crime?

[Alright, you tell me what “is het ochheren waar!” means, tough guy. I say it means “That’s a true gentleman!” I think this sentence is quite beautiful, though, even in the bad translation.]

Now, all at once you understand that the world, like him, rotates and whiffles. In the beginning, it all went well. The water, the mountains, the depths and the trees, all stood in their place. The flowers and the beasts were alone, in joy. But now.

[I decided on “rotates and whiffles” for “draait en waait”. I think “whiffles” should be a real verb.]

Someone who has fallen right away seeks someone else who is already down on the ground. All this just for you not to be alone, alone with a troubled conscience.

And whilst there is a pause in the war, all day healthy folk do their building and other folk in broken pieces return, and the master gives the same lesson as a thousand years ago. That you must be good and tender hearted, that you must give her the left cheek after she whacks the right. Of course, a lesson is a lesson and not the real world. We are big men, knowing that a story in a book is not the story of life. But children who still believe in everything they’ve made up are tossed hither and tither, between truth and trickery, lies, hatefulness, right and underhanded kerfuffles. Whilst there is but one thing that is the real kicker: Seeing that you got a nice sandwich, and are beloved in a fat place of approval.

[I believe I was doing pretty well, minus some of the nuance, up until the sandwich and the fat place of approval. But there is talk, in the Flemish, of a “boterham” and a “dikke plak bijval er tussen.” Anyway, I have become quite fond of the idea of a fat place of approval. I want to go there myself.]

A person who trusts in his work, is content. Labor is thus a sort of narcotic for his character.

When you are completely alone, you can easily persuade another, you shove another speech into the mix and everyone is bluffed. Every fanciful person around you all of a sudden simultaneously yields. But in the daytime when it is living faces you stand before with their obstinacy, with their apathy, and with their sneers, then, dejected, you search for the right word, you grope in a murky corner for your brains and find them not. You stand in an ever-rising tide of gruel, which always strangles your good intentions and pinches off your best thoughts.

[Mufffed on some details here, I’m sure, but I think I grasped the essentials. Haven’t we all groped in that murky corner for the brains and whatnot?]

the little book near my cat, Huck

Why must every man be convulsed and hurled here into the world, a world of sabulous clay and cement, blood, sinews, telephone poles and sin, men yet to be born and men who’ve died, and another world that haunts our mind without knowing whether it exists, subsists, or ever will come?

[I do not know what sabulous clay is either.]

What, really, is more enticing, more mysterious, more devilish than a forbidden book?

You know, people love the flap about the book more than the contents, from which copper can finally be teased out: that is now the by product of this book! And it mostly becomes something through which the writer of the book, in praising the book, praises himself…

[Whatever he is doing with the copper and the teasing was too sophisticated for me. Maybe there is some kind of alchemic reference. I don’t know. But I get the last part.]



  1. […] Read Morgan Meis’ previous Doodling from Antwerp here >> […]

  2. […] Read the first post in Morgan’s Owls project “Doodlings from Antwerp” here >> […]

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