Hugo Claus

Hugo Claus (Claes 2011: 1) is known as one of the most versatile artists of the Low Countries in the post-war era. He wrote poems, song lyrics, novels, short stories, monographs, essays, reviews, plays, librettos, scenarios, film novels, translations and theatre adaptations. He was a director for theatre, film and television, he painted, drew, made collages and designed book covers. For almost sixty years, he dominated current affairs as a public figure and his private life was also widely known to the public. Because of this diversity, he was enormously popular in Flanders and the Netherlands. He also made an art of fantasising and fabulating about every aspect of his life and career, which keeps the element of play and diversity fascinating. How much of this diverse image is conveyed in the Slovak context and which aspects of the life of Hugo Claus are conveyed to the Slovak public through translations, discussions and reviews.

Slovak translations of his works

Firstly, here’s an overview of the Slovak translations of Hugo Claus known to us. Based on Engelbrecht & Maňáková (2006) and the recently launched and thus more up-to-date online database of the reception of Flemish and Dutch literature on the website of the Department of Germanic Studies, Low Countries and Scandinavian Studies of the Faculty of Arts at the Comenius University in Bratislava (online available at www. we first find the poem message of the people (prevolanie k obyvateľstvu) from 1962 in a contribution in the magazine Revue svetovej literatúry on Flemish poetry in translation by the poet Peter Štilicha (RSL 2/1979). In the same year, translator Irena Matiašovská published a block of Flemish short stories featuring Hubert Lampo, Jos Vandeloo and Čierný cisár (De zwarte keizer) by Hugo Claus. The last known translation dates exactly from 35 years ago, when Slovenský spisovateľ publishing house published Úžas (The Wonder) in 1983 in translation by Júlia Májeková. We find an excerpt in translation in a 1998 theme issue of Flemish literature in Revue svetovej literatúry, edited by Paul van den Heuvel, Adam Bžoch and Jana Rakšányiová, who translated an excerpt from De geruchten (Fámy). Finally, in Revue svetovej literatúry the poems De zon (from: 'The Lion', in collected poems, 2004) as Slnko and Niet (from: Poems 1948-1993) as Nie were translated by Andrea Stredná, a student of Dutch language and literature, in the very last issue of the journal Revue svetovej literatúry (RSL 4/2018, p. 92) in a theme issue with a block of Bulgarian and Flemish translations, the choice of authors compiled by Benjamin Bossaert.

We can already see that of the author's diverse oeuvre, at least poems, a short story and a novel are available in translation. It is remarkable that Claus, as a representative of Flemish literature except for his novel, appears no less than three times in the Revue svetovej literatúry, a renowned journal that is/was solely focused on world literature in translation and thus gives various literary traditions a voice in Slovak translation, including the lesser-known literatures. What image of Hugo Claus does this lead to in these journals about the writer and his work?

Hugo Claus' legacy and image in Slovakia

Peter Štilicha (curriculum vitae, online), a poet who studied French and Slovak at Faculty of Arts at Comenius University in Bratislava, wrote the introduction to both the Flemish poems and the three selected short stories in Revue svetovej literatúry in 1979. He refers to modern Flemish poetry as a "nástojčivejší hlas (an ever-increasing sound)" and to the short stories which are under the spell of the then popular magic realism, a key concept in Flemish literature as "medzi snom a skutočnosťou (between dream and reality)".  Štilicha did not speak Dutch or translate from Dutch, but we know that he was familiar with the French tradition and reputation of Claus, as evidenced by the novels he mentioned without the original name in Dutch. The Slovak titles Poľovačka na kačice (1951) and Muž s čistými rukami (1956) refer to the French translations La chasse aux canards (The duck hunt), a translation of De Metsiers, and L'homme aux mains vides (The man with empty hands), a translation of De Koele minnaar. Among Claus' poetry, Štilicha emphasises him as a "Prvolezec", a pioneer, who in the 1950s, as an experimental poet, changed the face of Flemish poetry forever. He also mentions the international group of painters COBRA with whom Claus identified and emphasises in both contributions, including the short stories, the author's versatility, his exceptionality (he speaks of wunderkind Claus) or his art of provocation (his "Enfant terrible") and in his short stories he links his predilection for symbols to the other authors of Magic Realism. The direction of the engagement in Claus' poems is illustrated by choosing the poem "Bericht aan de bevolking" (Prevolanie k obyvateľstvu), a characteristic poem that he recited in 1962 during the Cold War and provoked by connecting the threat of the atomic bomb with the prayer Our Father. It is also interesting here that Štilicha connects Claus's work Hondsdagen with the work of the same name by the Slovak writer Dušan Mitana but notes that the warmth of Hondsdagen in Mitana's work comes across more spontaneously and naturally, while in Claus's it is more socially rooted. He admires not only the humour but also the author's versatility of characterisation.

In 1983, the year when Claus wrote his magnum opus Het verdriet van België, Júlia Májeková translated his novel De verwondering as Úžas. This novel is presented as a model of the author's virtuosity with images of the grotesque and the absurd, aesthetic blending of genres and the remnants of fascism in Belgium. The book's back cover shows him as one of the most versatile and extreme writers of Dutch literature, and thus points to the novel's qualities rather than to the national Belgian or Flemish context, as he invites to be read by the more fastidious and more practiced reader. This point is also reflected in a review by Ján Sedlák in Slovenské pohľady (1984: 131-133). Sedlák translated Polish, Russian and sporadically French literature and therefore can hardly be familiar with the Dutch or Flemish tradition in which the novel could be situated. On the other hand, he also highlights Claus's painting career and then links his penchant for detailed description to the tradition of the French Nouveau novel, of which Claus was also called a supporter by Dutch-language literary critics. Even though he praises the scenic and realistic images, he ends the review on a negative note, namely that he experienced reading the novel several times as "úmorne, priam nervovo zaťažujúce (tiring, nerve-wracking)" (Sedlák 1984: 132). He therefore concludes that this book should be read several times, but he is not sure whether this will give the reader satisfaction in deciphering and understanding the style. Unfortunately, Sedlák thereby ignores the author's own reading warning that this is a book for advanced and demanding readers, because the intertextuality and the multifaceted aesthetics, psychologisation and narrative perspectives in this novel demand an open and trained reading attitude, which this reviewer does not take into account.

In a special 1998 issue of Revue svetovej literatúry (number four that year), which focuses on Belgian literature, 10 French-language and 12 Flemish authors are chosen. Of course, Hugo Claus cannot be missing from this list. Herbert van Uffelen (1998: 104-108), head of the department of Low Countries Studies in Vienna, writes an accompanying text about the place and position of Dutch and Flemish literature to put the texts in context. Hugo Claus is also mentioned here. He portrays Claus as the most important Flemish prose writer, author, poet and theatre maker as a commentator on reality, who creates new myths in the process. At the same time, he points out his use of intertextuality and classical mythology (especially the Oediposmyth) and the description of an atmosphere of sin, which prevailed in this period in the aftermath of the paedophilia affair around Marc Dutroux.

In the latest issue (RSL 2018/4), no broader context is outlined about Hugo Claus, but this text did appear in Slovak to frame the broader context of the concept of Flemish literature and to explain the history of Hugo Claus' translations to the magazine's readers. 

However, in the case of Hugo Claus we can see that his translations, even though he is a Flemish writer, are mainly seen in the light of his work as a painter and his international connection with the Parisian milieu and COBRA, but also literary more general qualities are highlighted which are not characterised as typically Flemish or Dutch. Yet, certainly in the case of De verwondering (Úžas), some prior knowledge of Flemish history plays a role in interpreting this novel, which may be pushed into the background by its difficult structure. Anyway, Jana Rakšányiová (1998: 123) points out his status as a child prodigy in her description of Hugo Claus and concludes with this characterisation: dynamism, sense of experimentation, playfulness and innovation (dynamika, experimentovanie, hravosť a inovácia). And this is precisely what Flemish literature, and in this case Hugo Claus in Slovak translation, can offer to readers.

(Benjamin Bossaert)


Bossaert, Benjamin. 2015. Belgické, flámske a holandské literárne lasagne. In: Revue Svetovej literatúry,. 51, nr.  3 (2015), p. 2-4
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Claus, Hugo. 1979. Čierný cisár. Translated by Irena Matiašovská. In: Revue svetovej literatúry, 15, nr. 4, p.  81-83.
Claus, Hugo. 1983. Úžas. Translated by Júlia Májeková. Bratislava: Slovenský spisovateľ.
Claus, Hugo. 1998. Fámy. Translated by Jana Rakšányiová. In: Revue svetovej literatúry, 34, nr. 4, p. 122-127.
Claus, Hugo. 2018. Básne. Translated by Andrea Stredná. In: Revue svetovej literatúry, 54, nr. 4, p. 92.
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Uffelen, Herbert van. Slovo je otáčací stôl. Translated by Jana Rakšányiová. In: Revue svetovej literatúry, 34, nr. 4, pp. 104-108.