Why It Took So Long to Translate a Dutch Classic

When it was published in 1947, Gerard Reve’s The Evenings was considered shocking for its portrayal of youth in a postwar Netherlands. Now beloved in its home country, the novel is arriving stateside for the first time.

The cover of the English translation of Gerard Reve's The Evenings (Pushkin Press)

The Dutch novelist Gerard Reve led a scandal-filled career. In 1966, he converted to Catholicism while being one of the Netherlands’ first openly gay writers. That same year, he was prosecuted for blasphemy: The trial concerned a passage from his book Nearer to Thee wherein God manifests himself as a donkey, only for the narrator to have sex with it—three times. But Reve’s first big controversy came much earlier in 1947, when he published what is widely considered the greatest Dutch novel of the 20th century, De avonden, or The Evenings. After being labeled as “untranslatable” for years, the novel is now being published stateside for the first time, in English, roughly 70 years after its initial release.

Set at the end of 1946, The Evenings concerns Frits, a 23-year-old office worker living with his parents in Amsterdam, and how he spends the 10 evenings leading up to New Year’s Day. In terms of plot, that’s it, yet the book was considered shocking upon its release. Following World War II, there was a widespread belief that “the youth had the future,” Reve’s late-career editor Victor Schiferli told me. “These were the years of rebuilding the nation, and it was not considered a good thing to be negative about this.” But Reve was. He quietly attacked Dutch society by cataloguing it intimately and indiscriminately, and by portraying the outer tedium and inner frustrations of the Netherlands’s post-war youth.

The English translation of The Evenings has brought renewed attention to what made the novel an unlikely classic—and to its reputation for being “too Dutch” to resonate with a non-native audience. As Sam Garrett, whose translation will be published in the U.S. on January 31, told me, “People often asked me, when they heard I was working on the book: ‘Oh, how can you translate De avonden? It’s so specifically Dutch.’” That claim, of course, raises the question of what it means to be Dutch in the first place. Critics often cite a number of qualities that account for The Evenings’ national specificity: Reve’s sense of humor, mundane references to local culture, the religious dimensions of the Dutch language, and of course the historical context. These elements—along with some practical roadblocks—contributed to the myth of the book’s untranslatability for decades. Now, that myth has effectively shattered.

In The Evenings, Reve captured the disaffection of Dutch youth through Frits’s grotesque dreams, his ability to joke about anything (even war casualties), and his constant intermingling of the sacred and profane. The novel opens by announcing Frits, with comic grandeur, as “the hero of this story.” He checks his watch early in the morning before drifting into a dream where six men carry a coffin with a cracked, sagging bottom. A hand then emerges from the crack and reaches for one of the men’s throats. “If I scream,” thinks Frits, “the whole thing will fall to the floor… there’s nothing I can do.” The book continues as it begins: with a mixture of clock-watching banality, cryptic symbolism, and ironic bombast. And it’s captivating.

Much of the book’s comedy comes from Frits’s stately tone, and how he applies it to everyday, and sometimes inappropriate, subjects. To wield Dutch, Reve believed a writer needed to absorb the Statenbijbel, the Netherlands’ equivalent of the King James Bible, that was published in 1637. “That language,” Reve said, “that dialect, is what has become Dutch.” The Statenbijbel helped to unify the various dialects of the Dutch Republic into one language, and so too helped in unifying the Netherlands as a whole. In the late 1940s, this style would’ve seemed highly formal, almost parliamentary, but the biblical echoes would not have been lost on Reve’s audience. Which is why it was subtly sacrilegious for Reve to use that tone—in the then very Christian Netherlands—to describe Frits wandering home drunk or examining himself naked in a mirror.

What goes unsaid also plays a key role in The Evenings. World War II is arguably the book’s center, but it is an absent center, one perpetually talked around, and only mentioned a couple of times in passing. Frits’s obsessive attention to detail and abstract ruminations often act as distractions from the war’s after-effects. Late in the novel, Frits’s mother accidentally buys fruit juice rather than wine, leading to a monologue often considered one of the most beautiful ever composed in Dutch. Frits pleads to God, listing all his parents’ little foibles: His father “hears little [and] what he hears is not worth mentioning,” his mother “makes oliebollen,” Dutch pastries, “with the wrong pieces of apple.” He then tearfully proclaims their “immeasurable goodness” and expresses his concern for them as “death approaches and the grave yawns.” But they will not even have the dignity of a grave; they’ll have an urn as “we pay for that in weekly installments.” The book’s tragedy lies in Frits’s flippant attitude toward the world and in the way time takes on a renewed poignancy. “Let us make sure our time is well spent,” Frits says earlier in the novel, while seeming to waste his time on trivialities. Yet, in the aftermath of a war, there is something quietly life-affirming in having time to waste. “I am alive,” Frits announces to his toy rabbit on New Year’s morning, “whatever ordeals are yet to come, I am alive.”

To get a deeper sense of The Evenings’s literary appeal and its trickiness as a translation project, I spoke with someone who had tried to translate it a couple of years ago. Lydia Davis, an acclaimed translator and one of the most original short-fiction writers working today, first came across the novel in 2014. Described by her Dutch friends as “boring, very Dutch, and funny,” The Evenings appealed to Davis in part because of its “tight structure.” She was also drawn to Reve’s portrayal of family life, particularly the relationship between Frits’s parents. “So much of the conversation between an older, long-married couple is just like this: mundane, sympathetic, but often absurd,” she said.

Reve’s nuanced style is his substance—and that nuance is, in part, where Lydia Davis’s translation faltered. A self-described “novice” of the Dutch language—despite her (still ongoing) work translating the stories of the writer A. L. Snijders—Davis’s approach to The Evenings was pragmatic. She had two Dutch friends, both writers, vetting her work for mistakes. A major publisher was interested, but wanted Davis to apply for “approved translator” status with the Dutch Foundation for Literature, which would make her eligible for grants. That’s where the project stumbled. A sample of Davis’s work was sent to two readers. “One thought it was good, the other did not,” she said. “Both found mistakes and misinterpretations.” She didn’t get approval, and so the work was halted.

Davis sent me a sample of her draft. To a non-Dutch speaker, its variations compared to the translation now being published, seem slight (she says “early morning” instead of “early morning hours,” “tomorrow” instead of “Monday”). But this is the problem. “Although on the surface,” Davis told me, “[The Evenings] does not appear to be so hard [to translate]—the action is concrete and repetitive, the vocabulary limited—there are stylistic subtleties that I would not be equal to.” This isn’t a slight on Davis’s ability; the difficulty of capturing Reve’s style in another language has an almost mythic status among his native readers.

There are cultural, linguistic, and more practical reasons Reve’s novel took so long to be translated into English—but none as insurmountable as commonly believed. “It may well be typically Dutch to call someone or something ‘too Dutch’ to be successful abroad,” joked Edwin Praat, a lecturer at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and the author of a recent book about Reve and his public image. “For me, if I were to point at any ‘Dutchness’ in the novel, it would be the characteristic humor. This blend of sarcasm, cynicism, irony, and directness can be used in our country in order to distance oneself from another person, but also to tighten the special bond one has with another person.” In the Netherlands, however, Reve’s humor is also considered idiosyncratic and has its own name: “Evenings humor.”

Even in a more general sense, The Evenings isn’t quite as Dutch as many people insist. Ask natives about the national character of the Netherlands, and you will likely get responses such as “tolerant,” “pragmatic,” or “plain-spoken.” Those are the cliches, some of which are self-perpetuated. However, Reve’s Frits is none of these: His bizarre obsession with baldness, and the strange, discriminatory theories about it with which he tortures his balding friends and relatives, parodies the bigotry that so marked the Nazi regime. Further, Frits is thoroughly impractical and prone to grandiloquent observations.

The novel’s connection to a particular time in its native country shouldn’t hurt its accessibility, either. “De avonden catches a very specific cultural [and] historical moment in the Netherlands,” Henriette Louwerse, a senior lecturer in Dutch at the University of Sheffield, told me of the book’s postwar setting. But it’s also a moment that has passed. “Dutch readers of under 25/30 are as removed from that particular mood as my British students,” she said.

An additional obstacle to translation may have actually been the book’s author. “Reve himself—and later, his estate—watched over the English-language rights very closely,” Garrett told me. “He guarded his work jealously, and during his lifetime an English-language translation of The Evenings never received his fiat.” Not long after the novel was published, Reve abandoned his mother tongue and spent years trying to write in English, but never found the audience he had hoped for (he did, ironically, become an acclaimed translator of English-language plays). Reve, at least as far as his biographer Nop Maas is aware, never planned to translate The Evenings himself. Over time, his feelings toward the book changed. The model for Frits’s parents were Reve’s own, and, in later life, he found his depiction of them uncomfortable. He even wrote a comic poem comparing the book to cholera. Why push for translating a book you no longer care for?

Still, Maas told me that Reve never actually stood in the way of an English version of De avonden. Barring an unfinished version in the early ’50s, the only other significant attempt to bring Reve into English was Paul Vincent’s 1986 translation. According to Maas, Reve himself claimed contracts had been signed; according to Vincent, the work was a passion project that near perpetually remained in a drawer. Still, Reve was critical of portions that he read: “Translate the spirit rather than the letter,” he told Vincent. Reve specifically started writing in English looking for international recognition, but his very knowledge of the language allowed him to appraise English renderings of his work. As Garrett told me, Reve “must have held strong opinions about our English language… [it] must have meant a great deal to him.” If Reve himself could not succeed in English, what hope did anyone else have of satisfying him? And after the author’s death, his estate, which appears to have a difficult reputation and a penchant for lawsuits, did not help matters much (in 2010, they attempted to ban the third volume of Maas’s Reve biography).

Seventy years later, these obstacles have been overcome, and the success of Garrett’s translation dispels much of the “untranslatabililty” myth. The Evenings has received rave reviews since its U.K. release last November, and is now on to its sixth printing there. “It’s precisely Reve’s artful rendering of specifics,” Garrett told me, “that makes The Evenings universally recognizable.” Frits’s hilariously grandiose meditations on everyday details and occurrences make everything seem equally alien, Dutch or otherwise. Of course there will be elements specific to Dutch culture, but that’s precisely what makes world literature so wonderful: It is a chance to glimpse something new.

Throughout his life, Reve railed against much of Dutch society; that society would later come to cherish him. Is there a greater symbol of tolerance than turning an establishment antagonist into its emblem? Even if not, that says more about the Netherlands than about De avonden. Dutch culture shaped Reve, and Reve helped shape Dutch culture. His voice is both singular and tethered to his homeland. “I first read De avonden in 1983,” Garrett told me, “and felt an immediate shock of recognition. A young man, disenfranchised, bored, sardonic and ashamed of his parents, but also ashamed of being ashamed of his parents. Is there an intelligent young person alive who doesn’t recognize that?” Thankfully, English speakers now have a chance to see if they do, too. And in a time of increased divisions, recognizing the universal—even an impish, adolescent universal—in the unfamiliar is more important than ever. Translation helps us do that. As does Gerard Reve.