Translation and the Literary Canon

While working on the DLIT project’s database of Dutch to Romanian translations, I was surprised to notice that some of the most translated Dutch writers into Romanian were not necessarily, say, the “Big Three” (neither Reve nor Hermans have been translated into Romanian yet), but rather names that would less likely come to mind when thinking of representative Dutch writers. This made me curious to what extent the Dutch translations into Romanian reflect the Dutch literary canon and, as a thought experiment, what would a Dutch literary canon look like if only based on the Dutch literary translations into Romanian. 

Over the past 25 years, two main attempts have been made to establish a Dutch literary canon. The first modern Dutch literary canon was compiled in 2002 by the Maatschappij der Nederlandse Letterkunde and comprises the literary works of about 100 literary authors in the Dutch language speaking area. The second, referred to as the Canon van de Vlaams-Nederlandse literatuur was put together by KANTL in 2015, encompasses 51 titles and is aimed at bringing a more in depth focus on Flemish-Dutch literature. These are the two versions of the canon that I will henceforth be referring to.

The Dutch to Romanian translations database shows that there are little over 105 writers from a Dutch-speaking area that have been made accessible to Romanian readers with a full-book of their own, excluding those contained within anthologies or poetry magazines. It is also important to add that referring to it as the whole Dutch speaking area is somewhat of a stretch since none of the translated works belong to a Dutch writer born outside of The Netherlands or Belgium. Moreover, not even the North-South divide is very well represented in translation as only less than twenty of the translated writers are Flemish.

If the Dutch literary translations into Romanian Canon were to be based on the writers with the most reissued books (assuming that this would be a sign of their popularity), Cees Nooteboom would supercede Multatuli in this hypothetical canon. Nooteboom is the writer with the highest number of books translated into Romanian, and has the most reissues (four reissues for his book Het volgende verhaal). He would then be closely followed by Huizinga whose book Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen has been reprinted four times, while his Homo Ludens has had three reissues. Other books that have been republished multiple times are Het dagboek van Anne Frank (three times) Couperus’ Iskander (twice) and Annelies Verbeke’s Slaap (twice).

Name of the writer

Nr. of translated books

Titles of the translated books

1. Louis Couperus


De komediantenIskanderVan oude mensen, de dingen die voorbij gaan

2. Johan Huizinga


Homo LudensNederland's beschaving in de zeventiende eeuwErasmusHerfsttij der Middeleeuwen

3. Hubert Lampo 


De Madonna van NedermunsterClarissa en de poezenDe komst van Joachim StillerPlato in bezettingstijd

4. Harry Mulisch


SiegfriedDe aanslagDe diamant

5. Cees Noteboom


Het volgende verhaalPhilip en de anderenRituelenParadijs verlorenAllerzielen

6. Paul van Ostaijen


Bezette stadHet sienjaalDe bende van destronk, Groteske verhalen

7. Simon Vestdijk


De koperen tuinDe kellner en de overlevenden,Het vijfde zegel: roman uit het Spanje der InquisitieRumeiland

8. Theun de Vries


Een spook waart door EuropaNieuwe rivierenHagel in het graanHet meisje met het rode haarGoud en schaduw- drie opstellen over Rembrandt en zijn tijd

If, on the other hand, the writers included in this hypothetical canon were to be chosen based on which one of them has more than one work published in a Romanian translation, the database shows that there are eight writers that distinguish themselves by having had more than two books published in Romania (first table) and eight writers with two books to their name in Romanian (second table). An important thing to be mentioned here is the fact that the Dutch and Flemish Literary Funds played a key role in the decision to publish (or not) one or more titles from the same writer. These funds grant the publishing houses subsidies in order to support the spread of Dutch literature, but they can only subsidize two titles from the same author (meaning that the costs for further titles fall entirely on the publishing house). 

Name of the writer

Titles of the translated books

1. Hugo Claus

Het verdriet van BelgiëOmtrent Deedee

2. Hendrik Conscience

De Leeuw van VlaenderenAvondstondenDe boerenkrijgDe geldduivel

3. Arend van Dam

Opschieten, oma!Met opa op avontuur

4. Tonke Dragt

De brief voor de koningGeheimen van het wilde woud

5. Arnon Grunberg

De geschiedenis van mijn kaalheidBlauwe maandagen

6. Hella Haasse

OerogDe tuinen van Bomarzo

7. Loek Koopmans

Drie wijzen uit het OostenHet boompje

8. Herman Teirlinck

Rolande met de blesZelfportret of Het galgemaal

Many of the writers mentioned in the two tables appear in the Dutch Literary Canon too but there are also a few somewhat surprising names. Looking at both tables, Hubert Lampo, Arend van Dam, Loek Koopmans or Theun de Vries are rather unexpected names (from today’s perspective) to be amongst the most translated Dutch writers into Romanian. While Theun de Vries’ presence on the list might be easier to justify given his well-known sympathy for the Communist Party, it would be interesting to know why the other mentioned writers became so popular in Romania – was it to do with the translator or the publishing house being very supportive of his work? Was the decision influenced by the fact that, at the time when he was first translated (in 1977) he had also been translated in Russia, Poland and Czechoslovakia, countries with a similar background at the time? 

What is perhaps most surprising about the second table is that three out of the eight most popular featured writers are children’s literature writers. Translated children’s literature as a literary form seems to have experienced a boom after 1989 and indeed all three of these writers were translated after that point. An important factor that led to more children’s literature on the Romanian market has been the crucial financial support from the Dutch and Flemish Literary Funds, which, in the case of Tonke Dragt’s books, for example, fully subsidized the publishing house in commissioning thr translation into Romanian. What would also be interesting to know is how come translated children’s literature became more popular among Romanian readers? Is there a bigger market for this kind of literature? And if so, does it reflect, for example, a wider international trend or if it has something to do with new ways of parenting or a shift in ideas and concepts about what children should read?

In terms of the forms of literature that has been translated from Dutch into Romanian, novels are by far the most translated. This is also reflected in the two tables. Essays have had much less success. For example, there are only a handful of non-fiction books translated into Romanian, among which the most recent one is Rutger Bregman’s De meeste mensen deugen niet. As for poetry, although most of that which has been published into Romanian comprises scattered collections published in magazines or anthologies, there are also a few writers that have had a collection of their own reach the Romanian market. Paul Van Ostaijen is, as the first table shows, by far the most translated poet, with two such collections, followed by Eugene van Itterbeek. The genre that seems to have had the least success in Romanian translations is dramaturgy, with the only integral translated work being Vondel’s Gysbreght van Aemstel.

So far, if we are to judge this canon by these two tables, it would not only be rather monotonous when it comes to the forms of literature represented but it would also resemble its Dutch and Flemish counterpart in terms of the kinds of writers represented, insofar as they are mostly male and almost exclusively white writers. But could such a canon be more representative if we were to include more books from the writers who have been translated at least once already?

Literature written by women

Regarding gender representation, a canon composed of Dutch to Romanian literary translations wouldn’t be very diverse, since there are only 24 female writers that have been translated into Romanian. Aside from established names like Tonke Dragt, Etty Hillesum, Marga Minco, Connie Palmen, Annet Schaap, Ida Simons or Annelies Verbeke, there are quite a few women writers that are less popular in their home countries who have also been translated, such as Jotie T’Hoofd, Gerry Velema-Drent, Evelien Jagtman or Brigitte Minne. The women writers are especially well represented in translated children’s literature (nine out of 24 woman writers are authors of children’s literature) and psychology books (Collette de Bruin, Geertje van Egmond). 

Queer literature

Queer literature has had a difficult time making its way on the Romanian book market and Dutch queer literature is no exception. Homosexual relationships had been criminalised in Romania during the Socialist Republic of Romania under Article 200, a law passed by the government of Ceaușescu in 1986 and not repealed until 2001. This goes some way to explaining why literature containing queer themes displays some of the most obvious effects of the pre-‘89 censorship. As a result, the only queer writer whose book has been translated into Romanian so far is Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, although the book itself does not necessarily stand out as a queer themed one.

Post-colonial literature

Post-colonial themes from the Dutch literature have been made available to the Romanian readers through the translations of Max Havelaar, Hella Haasse’s Oeroeg and Madelon H. Székely Lulofs’ Rubber. However, as mentioned before, no writers from the wider Dutch speaking area (which includes former colonies in the Caribbean and Suriname) have been translated into Romanian. This means that a canon of Dutch to Romanian translations would have to completely exclude these writers from its list. While the lack of queer Dutch literature translations has something to do with the Romanian context, and particularly the residual effects of Article 200, the lack of translated post-colonial literature is more to do with there being far fewer books of this sort within the existing Dutch canon, which itself relates to the way The Low Lands have dealt with their own colonial past, the way this kind of literature is produced and promoted in The Netherlands and the effort invested in making it visible.

The discussion about a canon composed of translations from Dutch into Romanian, although fictional, underlines the role of a few crucial actors and institutions in promoting a more inclusive and representative literature and emphasises the responsibility that comes with it in terms of bringing more visibility to particular writers. Those “crucial actors” are, of course, the publishing houses and the translators (of whom Gheorghe Nicolaescu and H. R. Radian undoubtly stand out with the most translated books to their names), but also, the Dutch and Flemish Literary Funds which played an indispensable role in funding and supporting the production and wide spreading of many of the above mentioned books. Their financial support and encouragement of publishing houses to translate certain books has greatly influenced the decisions of which books publishing houses are willing take a risk translating.

(Cătălina Oșlobanu)