At a dinner party in Berkeley some years ago I met a visiting history professor from the University of Leuven in Flanders. Naturally I told him I am half Flemish. When I tell people that they usually just assume that the other half is English. But the professor didn’t assume. “What’s the other half?” he asked. When I responded “Irish” he reared back in mock horror and said “Goodness, what a volatile combination!” My family has had a few laughs over that ever since, blaming our volatile combination for any number of sins.
In consequence of this heredity I’ve always been alert for any historical or literary connections between the two countries. When my Flemish Uncle Lieven died I was motivated to look up the origin of his unusual name, which I had never heard in either England or the U.S. I was amazed to find that Saint Lieven was actually Irish! Usually known by his Latin name Livinus, he was born to Irish nobility around 580. By the early 7th century he was living in England where he was ordained by St. Augustine of Canterbury. After some time back in Ireland he traveled to Ghent in Flanders as a missionary, preaching the gospel to the still pagan peoples of the low countries. But the Irishman and the pagan Flemings turned out to be a volatile combination for St. Livinus came to a grisly end. In the town of Esse he was attacked in mid-sermon, his tongue cut out, and his head severed. According to the 1633 publication Chronicle of Ireland by Welsh clergyman Meredith Hanmer:
“When he was beheaded, hee rose up, tooke with him his owne head, (believe it who list) and carried it to Houtthein, where the Angels had made a sepulcher for him.”
Sainthood naturally followed this miraculous martyrdom, though some historians now say the whole story is a myth and Livinus may not have existed at all. Nevertheless he is remembered in St. Baaf’s Cathedral in Ghent, which displays a medieval manuscript said to be the Gospel of St. Livinus, and in Ireland where several parish churches are named for him.
On the literary front, I could hardly believe my eyes one day when, browsing the poetry shelves in a bookstore, I saw Turning Tides: Modern Dutch and Flemish Verse in English Versions by Irish Poets. The anthology could practically have been written for my family so I snatched it up at once. How, I wondered, could so many Irish poets (twenty-nine in all) manage to translate from the Flemish? The answer lies in the title, which states “versions” not “translations.” Editor Peter van de Kamp explains:
“This anthology grew out of a seminar course in Translation Theory which I taught at Leiden University in 1986, and in which we progressed from theory to practice. Students transposed poetry from The Netherlands and Belgium into English by making … translations with notes on the syntax, style, rhetoric, prosody and semantics of the poems, and on their cultural and historical context. In the classroom these served the purpose of showing the difference between translations … and versions, between translating a poem and re-creating it in the cultural context of the target language. Versions leave room for all the liberties advocates of literal translation might frown upon, and may result in poetry which, being poetically acceptable in the target language, is in some respects a more immediate representation of the original.”
If all that sounds a little dry and academic, the resulting poetry is certainly not. Van de Kamp prepared the translations and notes for a range of Flemish and Dutch poetry from 1880 to 1994 and recruited an impressive number of Irish poets, including Nobel Prize-winning Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane, Desmond Egan, and Michael O’Loughlin, to recreate the poems in English. They are presented in five sections by historical period with the original Dutch/Flemish and new English versions on facing pages. The first poem to catch my eye described what I think of as the quintessential Flemish scene, the medieval step-gabled guild houses that line the quays in the historic center of Ghent.
Oude Huizen Aan De Kade by Augusta Peaux
Old Houses on the Quays version by Anne Kennedy
As light-shy owls stare into the sun,
so these gray house fronts stare,
drowsing through the day like old birds.
But come the night, sharp of beak and claw,
they cleave the winter sky
which shrinks above the icy saffron plain.
Thus ospreys overshadow water,
dark, hulking beasts.
Looking for something that might capture the experiences of my parents, my mother living in Ghent under Nazi occupation, my father arriving with the British army at Liberation, I turned to the section covering World War II. Here is, in part, the poem that gave the collection its title.
Na De Bevrijding by J. C. Bloem
After Liberation version by Seamus Heaney
To have lived it through and now be free to give
Utterance, body and soul – to wake and know
Every time that it’s gone and gone for good, the thing
That nearly broke you –
Is worth it all, the five years on the rack,
The fighting back, the being resigned, and not
One of the unborn will appreciate
Freedom like this ever.
Turning tides, their regularities!
What is the heart, that it ever was afraid,
Knowing as it must spring’s release,
Shining heart, heart constant as a tide.
Is life that death springs from.
And complaint is wrong, the slightest complaint at all,
Now that the waving rye crop skirts the ruins.
The generational divide here is poignant between those who will never complain again and the yet unborn, my generation, who would not appreciate our freedom in the same way, in fact take it for granted.
I find that whenever I turn to this book it offers up a little gift. When my mother died I found this, from Martinus Nijhoff’s Aan Een Graf (At a Grave) version by Desmond Egan:
“I stand at your grave as you did once by my cot.
Mother, have no fear that because of this buried
handful of ashes I would reject the flame.”
And in Plaats en Datum (Place and Date) by Leonard Nolens, version by Michael O’Loughlin, I found the words that best express my relationship to my mother’s country:
“Ik ben in Vlaanderen geboren voor altijd
Maar niet in Vlaanderen stond mijn oudste wieg.”
“I was born once and for all in Flanders
But Flanders is not where my first cradle was.”
Of course, as with any cultural encounter project, all did not necessarily go smoothly. Perhaps there was a little volatility in the air between the Flemish translators and the Irish poets. Van de Kamp hints at it ever so tactfully in his introduction:
“We liked the Irish look at Dutch poetry, but it made our Dutch eyes squint a bit.”
So though himself not a poet, Van de Kamp found it necessary to include some of his own English versions in the collection, sometimes on the same page as the Irish poet’s!
And lest you think Flemish poetry is all gloomy canals and thoughts of death I’ll leave you with this little gem.
Archeologische Vondst by Willem M. Roggeman
Archaeological Find version by Gabriel Rosenstock
An archaeologist recently
got it totally arse-ways.
In the Nevada wastes
he dug up
the radioactive remains
of a roulette wheel,
which conclusively proved
that Las Vegas really did exist.
The poor fucker was obviously
digging in the wrong direction
and accidentally discovered in the sand
the last remnants of the future.
Though come to think of it, that’s pretty gloomy too!