David McKay was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for his translation of Stefan Hertman’s War and Turpentine.
Words Without Borders (WWB): What drew you to the work of your writer?
David McKay: I like the fact that Stefan grapples with big questions—What can the European cultural tradition mean to us today? Is it possible to learn from history? What does it mean for art to be authentic?—but always in the context of embodied human lives and situations, rich in sensory and emotional detail. The vivid immediacy of his scenes of early twentieth-century life, the mixture of familiarity and alienness, is perhaps what most astounded me. His evocations of the past seem all the more real because he acknowledges the practical and philosophical difficulties inherent in trying to know the past at all. I also admire the fact that Stefan knowingly skirts the borders of sentimentality in order to express profound emotion—this is an impressive risk to take in the Dutch-language literary climate, where nihilism, shock value, and indiscriminate irony are often taken as signs of literary excellence. There are plenty of shocking moments in Stefan’s work, and some irony too, but none of that slick, self-satisfied nihilism. I also love Stefan’s prose style, the way it combines lyricism with the texture of human subjectivity—parts of the book reminded me of one of my favorite English-language memoirs, Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood.
WWB: What was unique about this translation compared to others you’d done?
David McKay: Although I had translated a lot of short stories, poems, novellas, genre fiction, and literary nonfiction, this was the first full-length literary novel that I took on. In fact, it’s still the only one I’ve done on my own; since then, I’ve done a new joint translation of the Dutch classic Max Havelaar with the illustrious Ina Rilke, and right now I’m working on a major English-language anthology of Frisian literature with the dream team of Michele Hutchison, Paul Vincent, Susan Massotty, and David Colmer. Hertmans’s next novel, The Convert, still lies ahead of me.
War and Turpentine presented a couple of unique challenges. For one thing, I had to understand exactly what was going on in the war scenes and get the vocabulary of life in the trenches just right. Beyond that, there’s so much great English-language writing about the First World War (Sassoon, Hemingway, Graves, Blunden, etc.) that I felt the need to immerse myself in that body of work, so that War and Turpentine would really speak to the English-language tradition. Fortunately, I had a head start, because I had been working on Geert Buelens’s Everything to Nothing, an amazing history of the Great War from the point of view of Europe’s poets. Once I had a little bit of a feel for the literary language and the “trench talk” of the period, I had to figure out how to integrate it with the style of the war section in War and Turpentine. It was a fascinating and very nerve-wracking process.
WWB: What are you reading now, or which writers from the language and literary tradition you translate do you think readers ought to pay attention to as potential future MBI winners?
David McKay: In a literary culture that values writers like Rilke, Tranströmer, and Mary Oliver, I think it would be crazy to leave the work of the Dutch poet Vasalis untranslated. To find out more, contact me and take a look at my translations in upcoming issues of The High Window and MPT Magazine. I’d also love to do a book of Frisian folktales! As far as novels go, I think the early twentieth-century author Arthur van Schendel is underappreciated even in the Netherlands (not a lot of Dutch readers read their own classics), and there’s a wonderful eighteenth-century Dutch novel by Betje Wolff en Aagje Deken, Sara Burgerhart, like Austen and Dangerous Liaisons with a pinch of Dickens. (Order now and I’ll throw in a few zombies . . .) Of course, Wolff & Deken won’t be winning the MBI in the foreseeable future!
My living author of choice is probably Astrid Roemer—it’s shocking that her Surinamese trilogy, written in the 1990s, still hasn’t been translated. Oek de Jong’s Pier and Ocean is an outstanding Bildungsroman, and I highly recommend Nelleke Noordervliet’s sweeping historical and philosophical novel of the Dutch Golden Age, Free Man. Right now, I’m mainly reading other books from the MBI and BTBA (Best Translated Book Awards) longlists, to research the competition but mainly to savor top-notch translations of great literature. (Besides, I have a soft spot for Icelandic and Japanese novels . . .)