Wednesday, August 22, 2007

denkend aan holland

If you can read this, you probably don't have a pressing need to learn Dutch. Not only do a very limited number of people speak Dutch, but most of those who do speak other languages as well, usually English or French. Moreover, the few English phrases that refer to the Dutch don't exactly show them in a good light. Double dutch means gibberish, a dutch uncle is hardly avuncular, dutch courage is the kind that comes out of a bottle, and a dutch treat is no treat at all. Similarly, the monyet belanda, or dutch monkey of Borneo is primarily known for its rarity, not its beauty.

But because I like learning useless things, I was looking at a site that introduces English speakers to Dutch, and I found the text and audio of one of the best-known (in the Netherlands, anyway) Dutch poems. I listened to it again and again, trying to match the unfamiliar sounds to the unfamiliar words. The poem is called Remembering Holland, and the beginning describes a riverside landscape of trees and towers, churches and farms, all intricately bound together. But the last four lines reveal the menace underlying the scene, the precariousness of the tranquility, the threat that looms in the background: the ever-hungry sea.

The Dutch have a saying that G-d made the world, but the Dutch made Holland. They pushed back the sea and held it in place with polders and dikes. But polders and dikes weren't always enough. Sooner or later, storms and floods would try to reclaim the land that had been stolen from them. And often they'd succeed.

If you let the words of the poem wash over you, they have an eerie beauty, like the phantom chimes of the bells in the lost churches from the villages swallowed by the sea. And the words have an added resonance because the poem was written in 1936, when it was not only the sea that threatened to engulf the Netherlands. You read the poem knowing that the peaceful countryside it describes will be destroyed, that, in the end, the sea will win. In 1940, after the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, the author, Hendrik Marsman, fled the country. Crossing the English Channel, Marsman's ship was hit by a German torpedo and he drowned.

Denkend aan Holland
Thinking of Holland

zie ik breede rivieren
I see the broad rivers

traag door oneindig
slowly through unending

laagland gaan,
lowlands they run

rijen ondenkbaar
rows of impossibly

ijle populieren
delicate poplars

als hooge pluimen
rise like long feathers

aan den einder staan;
at the horizon

en in de geweldige
and the enormous

ruimte verzonken
expanses encompass

de boerderijen
all of the farmsteads

verspreid door het land,
spread through the land

boomgroepen, dorpen
tree clusters, villages

geknotte torens,
foreshortened towers,

kerken en olmen,
churches and elm trees,

in een grootsch verband.
all joined as one.

De lucht hangt er laag
The sky hanging low

en de zon wordt er langzaam
and the sun being slowly

in grijze veelkleurige
covered by haze

dampen gesmoord,
in the colors of greys

en in alle gewesten
and in all of the regions

wordt de stem van het water
the voice of the water

met zijn eeuwige rampen
with its endless disasters

gevreesd en gehoord.
is feared and obeyed


Jitters said...

I "accidentitly" spell things in Dutch all day using my keyboard. I add an extra aa or oo or go from the i key down the j immediately for a little ij I have no need to learn how to write in dutch, but understanding is another thing.

slouching mom said...

Even the English translation of the poem is beautiful, so I can only imagine how gorgeous it is to someone who understands the language.

LeRoy Dissing said...

Wonderful, yet sad poem and a sad ending to its author as well. I suppose the same could be said of New Orleans.

niobe said...

slouching mom: What a nice thing to say about my very first attempt at translation. I didn't like the English translation on the website, so I tried to come up with something that matched the meter of the Dutch a little better. I looked up the words in an English-Dutch dictionary, but I'm sure that I've only approximated the actual meanings.

Emily said...

Beautiful. I like learning useless things as well. They stick in my mind better than the things I should remember (like dental appointments.)

Mrs Macgyver said...

To translate this poem literally would have lost the rhythm and simple beauty of it. Your artistic licence in translating this has maintained the underlying feelings expressed.

I could have given a literal translation, but so much would be lost...

Amelie said...

beautiful, both the poem and your translation, niobe. And what a sad end for the author.

Magpie said...

That's quite lovely - thank you.

Magpie said...

Oh, and can you explain a Dutch auction?

niobe said...

Magpie: On the off chance you're being serious: a Dutch auction is the reverse of a normal auction and is basically a way of trying to exact the highest possible price for an item. You start with a ridiculously high price, and slowly reduce it until someone bids.

Now, I would think that the term, like the others is insulting -- as in, look! Dutch people don't even know how to run an auction and/or Dutch people are so greedy that they're always trying to rip everyone off. However, Wikipedia tells me that the term like, say, Dutch chocolate, is one of the few references to the Dutch that's descriptive, rather than pejorative, stemming from the fact that its best known example is the Dutch tulip auctions.

missedconceptions said...

I spent two weeks in Amsterdam a few years back, and the Dutch really are lovely. Very down to earth, very practical, and very patient when I attempted to say "hello" and "thank you" in Dutch.

I have studied German and Dutch always looks like German written by someone drunk typing at a keyboard.

Sanne said...

I'm Dutch - and both the post and your comments make me laugh. The poem is one of my favorites in the Dutch language and your translation very beautifully captures the meaning. I really like it.