Michele Hutchison is an editor, blogger, and translator of both Dutch and French living in Amsterdam. For this interview, we’re talking about one of her latest projects, La Superba, a novel written by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer recently published in the US by Deep Vellum. Pfeijffer is known in the Netherlands for both his prose and his poetry, and this is the second novel of his that Hutchison has translated. La Superba is a semi-autobiographical account of a Dutch poet living in Genoa. The novel has won multiple awards, including the Libris Literatuur Prijs and the Tzum Prize for most beautiful sentence.
Graham Oliver: Tell me about that Tzum Prize. Did that add some weight when translating? Did you seek out those sentences first, or did you try to keep yourself unaware of which sentences they were?
Michele Hutchison: Yes, I did worry about those sentences and to be honest, I think other sentences in the translation worked out better. So if you were going to look for a Tzum contender in the English edition, I think you’d choose something different. Translation’s always like that—you try to pick up elsewhere what you’ve dropped along the way. To be more explicit, I’m talking about compensation, often discussed in translation circles. I try to compensate by imitating the author’s style where possible. For example, if he’s used alliteration in a passage, I might not be able to replicate it at that exact same point, but I hope to get it in somewhere.
GO: In the book, the protagonist mentions how he’s frequently approached when in his home country of the Netherlands when he’s out in public by people who recognize him. Do you have a sense of how true this is? While we have a few iconic writers in America, I can’t imagine there are many who worry about being recognized every time they go out in public.
MH: Remember that the protagonist is an unreliable narrator who lives in a fantasy world, so everything should be taken with a pinch of salt. That said, it’s actually true that Ilja is a very famous figure in the Netherlands and does frequently get approached in public. He’s a large, striking-looking man so it’s easy to recognize him. Actually, he was primarily known as a poet before he broke out as a novelist with La Superba which won a major prize. It’s hard to imagine, but poetry is a major art form in the Netherlands. Poets are famous here and poetry is well-respected. Ilja has won a lot of prizes for his poetry including a recent grand slam of three awards in a row for his latest collection, Idylls. Add to that a writer who has an amazing stage presence and is a great performer and yes, you’ve got a national celebrity.
I’d like to add that in real life he is quite modest. I’m concerned about Americans not getting the dry Dutch sense of humour in the book. The Dutch are quite self-deprecating and don’t mind having a laugh at their own expense.Continue Reading