The Vondel Translation Prize – a bi-annual prize established by the Society of Authors – has been awarded to the American translator David McKay, the translator of Stefan Hertmans’ novel Oorlog en Turpentijn / War and Turpentine. It’s set during before, during and after the First World War, in Flanders and is based on the wartime notebooks of Hertmans’ artist grandfather. It’s a family saga, a war novel, a mystery, a story of lost passion and of how drawing and painting can communicate in even the most blighted existence. The prize will be awarded on 1 March 2018 at the Society of Authors in London, and I’ll be there. Why? Because I helped David with the wartime aspects of the novel.
Out of the blue in autumn 2014, just when I was settling in to a term at Oxford as a Visiting Fellow at the Bodleian, I got an email from the Expertisecentrum Literair Vertalen (Literary Translation Centre) at Utrecht University. They wanted to me to mentor David in translating First World War vocabulary for Hertmans’ novel. As I then had a teaching post at Ghent University, I was also able to give a little back-up with the local geography, as much of the novel is set in Ghent.
This was a fascinating experience. David sent me paragraphs, then chapters, that he wanted to me check and polish, and eventually I went through the whole book for him, pointing out the blips and snags that could be improved. We had long email conversations about the euphony we needed to find for this or that word, and we ironed out small but important matters to do with the way a door is hung, and the topography of Ghent’s canals. David talks more about this in an article he wrote for a translators’ journal: McKay article
The English edition of Hertmans’ novel was chosen by the New York Times as one of the best books of 2016, and was no. 1 on The Independent‘s list of Best Translated Fiction for 2017. It is a marvellous modern retelling of the war, with the authority of historical fact at its roots. War and Turpentine was published in 2016 by Harvill Secker in London, with the financial support of Flanders Literature, and by Pantheon Books in the USA and Text in Australia.