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Translator's Note: Lava and Sand



There is a lot of loneliness in Dutch poetry, and an especially inconsolable kind is found in the poems of Hester Knibbe. Her poems often juxtapose notions of permanence with a knowledge of the inescapable fragility of human life. Her tone is offhand—direct, self-aware, with nothing of self-advertisement about it—and subject to shifts, breathlessness followed by deliberation, or the other way around. The "I" is almost elided, even as it is narrating. Knibbe's poems are suffused with the awareness that nothing is as it seems. Water and ice signify a certain uneasiness, even a foreboding. Children are likened to fish, they are the stuff of fairy tales, which like dreams upend reality in the most "normal" seeming ways. There is meaning, and menace, in the most ordinary actions. The slippery sense of reality in her poems draws me to them again and again.

Contemporary Dutch poetry is not all that different from contemporary Anglophone verse—the language is usually straightforward and informal—but the Dutch language, despite its linguistic ties to English, is an entirely different beast. Its tremendous compression, so accentuated in the best poems, is usually the greatest difficulty I encounter. Even casual speech can sound weedy and diffuse when rendered into English. And there is a certain cultural austerity reflected in Dutch verse—I find this appealing, but I realize it could easily sound dour or threadbare to the American reader, since our cultural norms are so different. I try to bring the echoes of the original into the translation, since the sense in sound is so important. Inevitably, certain things are lost: in Dutch, the body (lijf) is just one letter away from its corpse (lijk), but this unsettling echo can't be brought over into the English. Luckily, there is enough linguistic congruence between the two languages that some sounds, and their insinuations, can be preserved ( glas / gras—glass / grass is one simple example from the poems here). In translation there's always that balancing act of stepping gradually away from the poem, working increasingly with a newly created version, a kind of in-between life form, while trying to preserve the image of the original. Each part of that process can be both deeply frustrating and tremendously intriguing, and to me there is no better way to appreciate the amazing plasticity of language.—JP


This poem originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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