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Dutch and Flemish

The Dutch language is spoken in both the Netherlands and in the northern part of Belgium (Flanders). ‘Flemish’ is sometimes used as a shorthand to describe the variant of Dutch used in Belgium.

People are often confused about whether Flemish is a separate language, not least because Flemish people commonly refer to their language as Vlaams rather than Nederlands and Dutch people are fond of telling foreigners that whatever Flemings speak, it’s certainly not the same language as they use.

For all that, the language spoken in both the Netherlands and the northern part of Belgium is the same: Dutch (Nederlands). Nevertheless, the two variations have distinctive ‘flavours’, just as the English used in Edinburgh sounds different to that spoken in London. The analogy with Scotland and England can be extended further. Just as Scotland has its own legal system and hence its own words for public officials and so on, Belgium and the Netherlands have been separate, independent countries for over 170 years (barring the occasional occupation) and have evolved different terminology for many aspects of public life.

So perhaps the analogy between US and UK English would be more apt. That’s certainly true as far as everyday vocabulary is concerned: there are plenty of equivalents in the Dutch-Flemish relationship to Churchill’s old joke about Britain and America being divided by a common language. Not least the fact that people from the smaller region in the relationship are more likely to understand their larger cousins than vice versa. Just as Brits know what ‘sidewalk’ means but Americans misunderstand ‘pavement’, Flemings know that Dutch people call the refrigerator a ‘koelkast’, but the Dutch look blank when they hear the word ‘frigo’.

Once again, however, the comparison only goes so far. There are plenty of differences between UK and US English spelling, for instance, whereas the Belgian and Dutch governments get together every so many years to publish a ‘Green Book’ of official spellings that, in theory at least, have to be used in both countries.

It is undeniable, meanwhile, that at everyday level the two forms of Dutch are growing apart rather than closer. As far as Belgium is concerned, this is often attributed to the appearance of new Flemish commercial TV stations. For decades, Flemish viewers were limited to a couple of state channels. If they didn’t fancy the often rather worthy output on offer, the only other television available in their own language came from north of the border. As a result, Flemings were regularly exposed to the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands, which had a low-level impact on speech patterns similar to that of Australian soap operas on English teenagers.

Since the advent of Flemish commercial channels, Dutch-speaking Belgians have more or less stopped tuning in to their neighbours with the result that, barely a decade or so later, Dutch soap operas are now subtitled when rebroadcast in Flanders, as viewers complain that they can’t understand all that Ollands. Then again, Flemish broadcasters also regularly subtitle Flemings whose accents they consider too thick for their compatriots to decipher.

What does all this mean for translators and their customers? As far as translators are concerned, it depends on the subject area. For the most part, it makes no difference whether the original text was written by a Fleming or a Dutch person. But there can be pitfalls: in the financial field, for instance, the same Dutch word or phrase sometimes means something different in Belgium and the Netherlands. Just as ‘tabling an issue’ means one thing when used at a British meeting and the precise opposite in the US.

The difference from the customer’s point of view is far more important when it comes to translating into Dutch. If the text is aimed at a Flemish audience, it is advisable to have it translated by a Flemish translator. And a Dutch translator where the target readership is in the Netherlands. As a rule of thumb, ask yourself this: allowing for spelling, would it make any difference if your English text had been written by a British author or an American one? In the case of scientific papers, say, it might not be important. But for a piece of advertising copy, the consequences of using a ‘non-local’ author could be significant.

The ITI Dutch Network will be happy to advise you further on these issues, so feel free to mail us.

Peter Debrabandere gave an excellent presentation on the subject of Belgian Dutch at the Network’s 2005 Weekend Workshop in Antwerp. If you’d like to read it, you can download a PDF copy.

Ted Alkins