Celebrated Dutch author Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s autobiographical novel La Superba, titled after the nickname for Genoa, where he has lived for the past six years, is the story of a writer named Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer and the group of expats—legal and illegal—he befriends, as they try to assimilate into the labyrinthine city. I met up with translator Michele Hutchison in Amsterdam to discuss our shared expat experience, the challenges of translating Pfeijffer’s poetic prose, and just how autobiographical the novel really is.
Stacey Knecht: It’s funny that you brought along the Dutch version of La Superba, while I brought the English version.
Michele Hutchison: [laughs] I’m more interested in the Dutch version than in the English!
SK: Why is that?
MH: Because everything’s already there [points to original], and only part of it is here [points to translation]. The translation is my own interpretation. Another translator would do it differently.
SK: Can you remember your reaction to La Superba when you first read it? And what you thought of it by the time you’d finished doing the translation?
MH: I was very excited when I knew this book was coming out, because I’d translated Ilja [Leonard Pfeijffer]’s first novel Rupert some years ago and I’d been waiting for him to write a big novel, a more ambitious novel which I felt could travel. When I first read this novel and saw the themes – immigration, expats – and the way he combined autobiographical elements with fiction, I found it quite thrilling. After translating it, well, I think when you translate something, you see more layers, uncover certain treasures – you’re the closest reader a book can have. But in this case it didn’t really change the experience of the book for me, I thought it was just as good.
SK: Have you ever had the experience of not liking a book, but then translating it, getting to know it better, and eventually falling in love with it?
MH: I don’t think I’d translate a book I didn’t like. I did struggle with my previous translation, Fortunate Slaves, by the Belgian author Tom Lanoye – not because I didn’t like the book, but because I underestimated the difficulties of it.
SK: How did you resolve that?
MH: I spent some time in the Translator’s House in Antwerp and immersed myself in “Flemishness.” That was the problem. The Flemishness was an extra layer of difficulty on top of the Dutch. I spoke with Tom Lanoye himself – he was very helpful and open to questions – and asked a Flemish translator friend of mine for help along the way. I needed back-up!
SK: Many readers won’t know the difference between Flemish and Dutch. Can you explain?
MH: Flemish is the Belgian dialect of Dutch—it’s still Dutch, but they have a different vocabulary, and they use similar expressions in a different way, so it’s really a difference in nuance. You have to be careful of that. I think even some Dutch readers from the Netherlands may miss out on those nuances. I found that out when I asked my husband what certain things meant.
SK: He’s Dutch?
MH: Yes. Dutch Dutch, from Amsterdam.
SK: Was he the reason you originally came to the Netherlands?
MH: We were already married, but living in different cities, he was here and I was in London. I came to the Netherlands in 2004, when I was pregnant with my first child.
“And now the question writers hate, but since you’re the translator, I can ask…”
SK: You mentioned that one of the things about La Superba that most appealed to you was the expat factor. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator says: “I want to be part of this world.” As an expat and translator, can you talk about that, with regard to this book?
MH: The narrator has a fantastical view of what Italy is and what it means to live there, and the possibility of integration and absorbing a life that he idealizes, until he gets to know it better and then discovers there are different worlds, not just one Italian world inhabited by “perfect” Italians – there are all the different layers of society, inhabited by immigrants. I don’t want to give away the ending, but he descends into a kind of nightmare and ends up not living the life he’d anticipated when he moved there. Though I actually think the author himself has managed to integrate and has found his perfect Italian girlfriend and does fit in and seems very happy there.
SK: And now the question writers hate, but since you’re the translator, I can ask: are the narrator and the author one and the same?
MH: [laughs] No. They’re not, even though they both share the same name and there are similarities between the two. Many of the characters are based on existing people, but Ilja always fictionalizes just enough to distance it from reality. He says reality would be unbelievable.
SK: Would you say that Pfeijffer is a poet writing a novel, or a novelist who also happens to write poetry?
MH: He’s a romantic, so he looks at the world in a romantic way, which is often closely aligned with poetry, and if you look at the kind of poetry he writes it is romantic. On a sentence level he pays a lot of attention to the sound and rhythm of language, which is also poetic. But I think that in terms of story, he manages to take it further, make it broader, encompass different worlds – and have a plot.
SK: Have you ever translated his poetry?
MH: I’ve actually translated some of his poems this year. They were almost impossible.[laughs]
SK: What made them so difficult to translate?
MH: Their fixed form. They rhyme –
SK: That’s a killer!
MH: Yes. And they’re in iambic pentameter, or something like that.
SK: Oh dear…
MH: And I’m not particularly talented at translating rhyme in the first place, so it was painful.
SK: Am I right in saying that there is poetry in this novel, too? Poetry within the prose?
SK: We’re so often told that poetry can’t be translated, or at least that poetry is always lost in translation. How do you preserve it, as a translator?
MH: By having a really good ear. By really paying attention to the sounds, and not to just the meaning. If you only translate the meaning, that’s when you lose the poetry. You need to give yourself a bit more leeway – then you can get the poetry back in. Ilja has always been very understanding in terms of giving his translators that space, not expecting a very literal translation, but understanding what the process involves.
“I hung out with Don in the square and he drank gin till the cows came home, very much like the character in the book.”
SK: Can you tell me a little about your collaboration? I know you went to Italy to work with him there.
MH: Part of my own preparation, of course, was translating Rupert (2002), which is a similar kind of book with a similar kind of prose, almost like a miniature version of La Superba. It’s also set in Genoa.
SK: Was Ilja living there at the time?
MH: He had a girlfriend there, a very long time ago, so that was related to a previous experience of Genoa. When I translated Rupert, I went over to Genoa to go through the translation with him and ask my thousands of questions. He took me around the city and I met the people. I hung out with Don in the square and he drank gin till the cows came home, very much like the character in the book. If I hadn’t been there then, I would’ve had to have gone and experienced a bit of Genoese life. In fact, his German translator did…
SK: Oh, we know all about her, from her description in La Superba!
MH: Actually, the real-life German translator is a man…
SK: Hm…. that makes it even more intriguing…
MH: So you see, the novel isn’t entirely true to life.
SK: Getting back to something you just said: why, aside from meeting with the author, was it so important for you to go to Genoa?
MH: Because the author is very specific about places, and the relationship of streets to other streets, the relationship of squares and cathedrals to the port, and everything else. I did also use Google images and maps to try and work out things that I couldn’t remember when I got back, and I had some pictures I’d taken there, which were actually really useful for certain details. And if you can meet the people the characters were based on, then you know how to convey the voices.
SK: Don is a wonderful character. I mean, in the book. Poignant.
MH: Yes. The real Don died only recently. Ilja wrote a very wonderful piece about that, which is in his new book, Letters from Genoa.
SK: We recently spoke about the Letters. You said you didn’t think it was something that could be translated successfully into English.
MH: It’s really long. The costs would be extreme. You’d have to maybe do it in volumes like Knausgard or something, and even then, the sections about the Dutch literary world, the in-crowd stuff, probably wouldn’t make sense to many readers, because they wouldn’t know what the author was talking about. It’s wonderful if you know who those figures are, because you immediately have an image and the information you need to understand why they act in certain ways.
SK: I see your point. But I secretly hope that you do translate it. I guess the question is: how.
MH: Oh, I’d love to do it. If anyone bought it, I’d jump at the chance! But I’ve been a publisher myself, so I know how they think, how hard it would be to get them to take on a really thick book about Italy and the Dutch literary world by a Dutch writer.
“Translation seemed to me quite close to the editing process. But even more intimate, even closer to the text and more involved with it.”
SK: Let’s talk about your work as a publisher. Were you already translating at the time?
MH: I started translating when I moved here. I was working for the publisher Cossee – they were basically teaching me Dutch, combined with evening classes. I started translating samples of their books, to show to people. Unpaid, obviously, just as practice. Then I went on to work at another publisher, De Arbeiderspers, in their Rights Department. I sold the English rights to Rupert, but the American publisher (Open Letter) couldn’t find a translator for it! All the big names they approached turned it down, and then the publisher said, “Why don’t you do it?” So I did. It’s a thin book, but it took me a year or so, because I was learning as I went along.
SK: What was it about literary translation that appealed to you?
MH: I was always attracted to it, even when I worked in publishing in England. I was an editor at three different publishers there and I always thought it would be fun to translate a book. I acquired lots of books in translation and I was one of the few people doing that at the time. I enjoyed traveling to book fairs in different countries and hearing all about the wealth of books that were available. Translation seemed to me quite close to the editing process. But even more intimate, even closer to the text and more involved with it.
SK: Are there disadvantages for you, as a translator, of no longer living in your own country?
MH: I worry about losing touch with English, and I’m noticing at the moment that that can be an issue in terms of, for example, the kind of language that teenagers would use. I don’t know any English teenagers, unfortunately – my friends’ children are younger. So plugging into that sociolect is really difficult.
SK: What would you do if you did come across a word or a phrase in “teenage slang”?
MH: Go on a research trip, I guess! [laughs] Actually, I do try to go to England and hang out and listen. And I watch English TV, drama series set in various regions, so I can stay in touch with all those different variants of English.
SK: Speaking of that, what is your view on translating dialects? I once taught a translation workshop in which one of the participants, a guy from Yorkshire, had translated a Flemish short story. He’d given the main character – an old woman living in a tiny village in Flanders who spoke a Flemish dialect – a heavy Yorkshire accent. I have to admit, he did a very convincing job, but it felt as though the whole story had shifted from Flanders to Yorkshire.
MH: I think that kind of thing is possible – “translocation” – but that’s not what we’re generally asked to do as translators. In Esther Gerritsen’s novel Roxy, which I translated, the father of the main character speaks with an accent. He’s from the south of the Netherlands, where spoken Dutch is often different from, let’s say, “standard” Dutch. And he’s a working-class kind of guy. So I decided to look for a sociolect rather than a dialect. I made sure he never said anything that sounded too posh.
SK: I love translating speech, the challenge of it. It’s so much fun!
MH: It is, yes. And like with poetry, you’ve got a bit more space, because you have to make it sound natural.
SK: Would you say you’re a sound-oriented person?
MH: Partly, yes. I’ve got a musical ear, which is very useful, but I also have quite a good visual memory, so I’d say I’m halfway between the two. It’s a good balance.
“If you only translate the meaning, that’s when you lose the poetry. You need to give yourself a bit more leeway – then you can get the poetry back in.”
SK: I recently read a review of your translation of La Superba, in which the reviewer describes the novel as “a book of letters.” Which is interesting, because his latest book – Letters from Genoa – as the title suggests, really is a book of letters. Something different seems to be going on in La Superba.
MH: Yes. Unlike Letters from Genoa, it’s not written in letter form. And yet there’s a certain quality to the book… it’s written as if he’s addressing a friend, someone he wants to borrow money from at some point, for instance. La Superba occasionally suggests letters, but not always. The author plays around with that aspect.
SK: Yes! And I love that, because it sets you off on the wrong foot – in a good way. You think, wait a minute, who’s he talking to?
SK: Let’s get back for a moment to the expat theme. You’re an expat –
MH: I think about that a lot, actually. I don’t feel like an expat, because I think I’ve integrated quite well, and “expat” suggests not integrating well into the culture and then hanging out with other expats and having a kind of expat lifestyle. Like living in a bubble.
SK: Okay, fair enough. So: we’ve got the narrator of the book and we’ve got Ilja himself. Which of them would you say is the most assimilated?
MH: I’d say Ilja himself. He has a lot of Italian friends, and even though he makes fun of his Italian, he does speak the language fluently. And I think he’s sensitive to how you need to behave in Italy, social rules, things like that, which are all part of assimilation. Knowing what’s expected of you.
SK: Do you have your own “Genoa”? A place you might write love letters to?
MH: I don’t know. I don’t know if you need to have a place like that. I lived in Lyon for a while, and I’d happily go back and live there again, and I loved living in London, and I love living in Amsterdam… I don’t feel like I’m searching for a special place.
SK: Much of La Superba is about that search.
MH: Yes, about looking for a better life. But I’m not looking for a better life. I’m lucky.
SK: I find that people tend to assume that all us expats are searching – and maybe in some sense we are, but it often has such a negative connotation, as if we’re trying to escape from something, pursuing something that’s not realistic, something that doesn’t exist.
MH: Well I mean, I’ll never be completely Dutch, so I suppose that doesn’t exist, but I feel integrated enough to fully enjoy the culture.
SK: Have you spoken to English readers who’ve read La Superba in your translation?
MH: My most critical reader is my mother [both laugh]. I’m always terrified of what she’ll think! She’s incredibly critical, so it was with great trepidation that I allowed her to read the book. I actually tried not to let her read it, by saying things like: “I don’t think this is a book for you, Mum! I’m not sure you’ll like it, it’s got quite obscene things in it…” But that intrigued her even more, so she said: “Right! I’m going to read it.”
SK: Was that while you were still working on it?
MH: No, no, I wouldn’t have dared… She read a finished copy.
SK: Is she a professional editor?
MH: No, but she’s totally perfectionist, pays great attention to detail – and that includes commas, grammar, anything like that. She has very high standards, so if something is poorly edited, then it’s immediately a great disappointment to her.
SK: So what did she think of the book?
MH: She really liked it.
SK: Thank God!
MH: [laughs] I know! And she couldn’t see why I didn’t want her to read it, or why she would think it was obscene.
SK: And did you have other, maybe more objective readers?
MH: People don’t really tell you what they think, do they? They never really dare to say if they don’t like it. They’ll say “It’s great!”, or “I’m really enjoying it!”, so I tend to take all that with a pinch of salt. The reviews have been good though, which is nice.
SK: The author and translator Lydia Davis has said that when she translates a book, she never reads it beforehand. How do you approach a new book that you know you’re going to be translating?
MH: I do read the books beforehand. But there’s usually a great gap between first reading a book and starting to translate it, because I’m usually booked up nine months in advance, so by the time I come to translate it, there’s a lot of water under the bridge and I can’t remember everything. But I don’t re-read it, I just start translating, and once I’ve finished the first draft, I figure out how I should’ve started it, and then I have to go back and change everything [laughs]. I think that’s a common experience! But I do think that when you do multiple books by one author, it takes you less time to find the “voice”, so there’s less drastic revision.
“The way he’s got the rhythm that goes: dá, di-dá, di-dá-dá-dá DA!”
SK: Do you not run the risk of having multiple books by the same author all having the same voice? Even though in the original they may be quite different?
MH: It depends how close the characters and the voices are in the first place, but I think that each writer has certain traits –
SK: What are some of Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s traits?
MH: The way he’s got the rhythm that goes: dá, di-dá, di-dá-dá-dá DA! [laughs]. And there’s sometimes internal rhyme within a sentence. This one for example: “We dream our dreams, feel desired, inspired and admired until the lights go on” (329). The way he uses three successive adjectives, or repeats a certain word to make a point, and long complex sentences, alliteration. Here’s another typical line: “It was the white hour after lunch, the blank page upon which some secret language could be scribbled in pencil, something that should be rubbed out again instantly as soon as the shutters were raised and life started again in black and white with profits, proceeds and protests” (73).
SK: What’s the worst part of translating, for you? And what’s the best part?
MH: I think I’m my own worst enemy. I worry too much about everything, and I get caught up in the fear of doing it wrong, the fear of letting the book down.
SK: And the best part?
MH: The best part is when you get a review that describes the prose exactly the way you yourself saw it in the original, and then you know that you’ve carried it through to the other side. It hasn’t been lost along the way.
Michele Hutchison is from the UK and has lived in Amsterdam since 2004 with her Dutch husband and two children. She was educated at UEA, Cambridge, and Lyon universities. She translates literary fiction and nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and children’s books. Recent translations include La Superba by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, Roxy by Esther Gerritsen, and Fortunate Slaves by Tom Lanoye.
Pfeijffer, Ilja Leonard. La Superba. Translated by Michele Hutchison. Dallas: Deep Vellum Publishing, 2016.
Fantastic, fascination discussion. Thank you both!