The untranslatable Gerard Reve

ReveOne of the great figures of postwar European literature died last weekend. But no one outside the Netherlands and a few Belgian provinces even noticed.

His name was Gerard Reve (the photo at left, dated 1965, is from the Dutch National Archive), and the book that made him famous in 1947 was De Avonden (The Evenings), a sort of Dutch Catcher in the Rye. Only, by my inexpert reckoning, both funnier and sadder.

Reve’s humor was very much one of language and place and time, which explains why his passing wasn’t an international event. Authors from a small country with a small language don’t break out internationally unless they’re easily translatable, which usually means they deal with big, bold themes in clear, simple language.

“His style was in a certain sense his downfall,” said Dutch writer Harry Mulisch when the newspaper de Volkskrant asked for his verdict on Reve. “There had to be something funny in every sentence. Fifteen years from now there will be a new generation in the Netherlands, and they won’t understand that any more. It is untranslatable. It’s not for nothing that he never broke through abroad.”

Mulisch, whose books The Assault and The Discovery of Heaven have broken through in a reasonably big way in places where people don’t speak Dutch, was nastier than he really needed to be: “I think the appreciation of Reve’s work will soon end,” he declared. But he had a point about the untranslatability. English-language authors can be idiosyncratic and playful in their language and still achieve global success. That’s partly because there are English-speaking countries all over the world, partly because once you’ve had a big bestseller in the U.S. or U.K., the Germans and Swedes and such are likely to translate it even if the translating is hard.

It doesn’t work that way if you’re Dutch. The one piece of Reve’s oeuvre to have any sort of global impact was the 1983 movie version of his book The Fourth Man, directed by Paul Verhoeven of Robocop, Basic Instinct, Total Recall, and Showgirls fame/infamy. I guess you could call it a homoerotic thriller, and I think it was the then-still-daring subject matter, plus the campy way in which it was presented and the great camera work by Jan de Bont — and thus not Reve’s sparkling Dutch dialogue — that made it a modest international hit. I seem to remember a movie theater in the Village showing it every Friday and Saturday night at midnight for a couple years in the mid-1980s. It took over from Rocky Horror.

Reve, who was 82, was buried today in Machelen-aan-de-Leie in Belgium, where he had lived for years. The service was held in the village Catholic church: Reve had converted to Catholicism in 1966. He was a gay, Catholic conservative long before anybody had heard of Andrew Sullivan. But Sullivan is blessed with the good fortune of having English as a first language. So even people in Holland know who he is.

3 thoughts on “The untranslatable Gerard Reve

  1. I would like to draw your attention to the fact that “Parents worry” (by… I forgot) is a masterful translation of “bezorgde ouders” (I read the english first, and then the dutch original really didn’t add that much). By the way, Reve did write in English, and for me, a German, Dutch and English are stylistically not far apart.

  2. I translated Gerard Reve’s A circus boy (Een circusjongen, 1975) and posted three chapters on my website. Reve’s archaic use of language makes translation an arduous task indeed. But I think his themes are not typically Dutch. Nor are they very much tied to a specific era.

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