February 2020 marked the beginning of a collaborative translation project on an excerpt from Fikry El Azzouzi’s De Beloning. The project saw the coming together of three universities which are home to the last remaining Dutch language departments in the UK: The University of Sheffield, The University of Nottingham and the University College London. Three universities, twenty-one students and one book extract to translate from Dutch to English, the project aimed to promote cultural exports from Flanders while providing students an opportunity to gain real, hands-on experience in translation. Despite the unexpected curveball of the Coronavirus outbreak, a complete commitment to the task prevailed. Here’s how we got on!
Aan de slag – Getting going!
Phase one consisted of being split into groups that mixed students from the three universities, introducing ourselves to one another (virtually!) and then getting to grips with the source text – award-winning author and playwright Fikry El Azzouzi’s latest novel, De Beloning (The Reward in English). The coming-of-age story of Zakaria, a Flemish-Moroccan youngster who constantly fights to be seen as the former instead of the latter, De Beloning revolves around themes of loss, identity, family and society. With cultural tension between the Belgian setting and the main characters’ Moroccan roots and the witty satire that kicks life into the dialogue, this 2019 novel was a great challenge for us final year Dutch students. Many of us spent time working or studying in Flanders and the Netherlands last year developing both our linguistic and cultural knowledge, and this project posed an exciting combination of the two. So, full of anticipation, we wielded our book copies and began page turning.
Teamwork makes the translation work…
After reading De Beloning and then being assigned a section of the text to translate per group, each of us set to work on completing an individual translation. Standard translation practice applied, the ultimate aim being to preserve the precise meaning of the source text as much as possible. Of course, this is easier said than done. Cultural factors, the plot, the nature of the characters and their relationships with one another, as well as El Azzouzi’s lively writing style all had to be taken into account with every translated word, sentence and paragraph. Even punctuation mattered – would we add a comma there? Would this be better as two sentences instead of one? Every translation task involves a lot of difficult decision-making and so we were especially fortunate to have professional translators Jonathan Reeder and Alice Tetley-Paul on hand, who kindly offered advice and assistance as we began to work collaboratively within our teams. We discussed our initial translations and any striking differences between them, and gradually worked towards creating a combined team translation. Sentence by sentence, we battled to create the best collaborative effort possible by fending off the over-literal, the awkward, or the (luckily few) occasions where we had simply got it wrong. After much debate and deliberation, as well as the occasional “phone a friend”-style query to Alice or Jonathan, each group submitted a final translation of their section.
A world-wide webcam conference
On Wednesday 18th March, all of this hard work culminated in the form of a video conference with Fikry, Jonathan, Alice, all of us students and our lecturers. Covid-19 may have prevented us from assembling in Sheffield as planned, but it did not prevent us from discussing the project via webcam! Minor technical issues aside, the video conference proved highly productive as we began working through any queries that arose in each group’s section. Many of these were important to other groups too – a particular word choice made in one section might also need to be made in another. One of the main examples of this was the words “mama” and “papa” which appear frequently, especially at the beginning of the text, where young siblings converse in their family home. “Mum” and “dad” felt too stiff while “mummy” and “daddy” proved too juvenile – it felt like we were stuck between a rock and a hard place until Alice suggested actually keeping the words the same in the English translation. Although they perhaps seemed a bit hooty-tooty to our English ears, it was universally voted the best solution – the main reason being that it maintained the Belgian setting of the novel. We were keen not to “over Anglicise” the text where culture and national identity are notably crucial themes.
And thus the project progressed – from one mind, to five, to more like twenty-five, our team spirit grew and our translations improved. It was great to have the opportunity to exchange ideas and hear new perspectives, and we felt especially lucky to have the author there to approve our suggestions and offer alternatives. Each section therefore became a part of something bigger and ensuring consistency and continuity became a new priority in our work.
The sections were then combined to form one entire excerpt in English – it’s really satisfying to see a final version that reflects all of our blood, sweat and tears (or all of the digging through dictionaries, head-scratching and web-searching). The last step was to recruit a small editorial team consisting of two of the students from the project, John Cairns (Sheffield) and Emily Green (Nottingham) who were then tasked with making any final changes with the help of Jonathan and Alice. And just like that, the project was complete!
Thank you to the Dutch Language Union and Flanders Literature for making the Dutch Translation Project possible. Thank you to our tutors, Christine Sas (UCL), Bram Mertens (Nottingham) and coordinator Henriette Louwerse (Sheffield). And of course a huge thank you to Fikry El Azzouzi, Alice Tetley-Paul and Jonathan Reeder. May this project continue for a long time, so that more students can benefit from real-world translation experience, great literature and wonderful community spirit.