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The Hague 2009 Report

By Bob Symonds

The 2009 ITI Dutch Network Weekend Workshop was held in The Hague during the weekend of 26 to 28 June. The Network holds one annual event, which aims to combine the nitty-gritty part with the more social side of the translation profession. We alternate the venues between the U.K. and the Low Countries and generally attract about equal numbers of British and Dutch participants. Numbers were somewhat down this year in comparison with previous years, but this was perhaps due to the “crunch”, as our regular group of staff translators from Fortis Bank, for example, were noticeably absent. However, there were enough of us to fill a long restaurant table on two successive evenings, so there was sufficient critical mass to ensure the overall success of the event.

The venue was the Corona Hotel, overlooking the lively Buitenhof square, just across the road from the Binnenhof, the seat of the Dutch parliament. Most of the important historical buildings, cafés and restaurants and high quality shops were within easy reach.

We began on the Friday evening with a meal in a traditional Indonesian restaurant, served in a manner not dissimilar to that in Indian restaurants in the U.K. The choice of restaurant was intended as a reminder of the particularly close ties of The Hague with Indonesia – the former Dutch East Indies – as The Hague was the retirement place of choice of the many Dutch and mixed-race people who left Indonesia after that country gained its independence.

The Saturday programme began with a talk by Christian Chartier, senior communications officer to the UN Yugoslavia Tribunal, which is established in The Hague and is now nearing the completion of its task in bringing to justice the perpetrators of war crimes during the wars that marked the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. We were able to experience for ourselves the immensity of the task facing the translators and interpreters when we were asked to translate a witness statement originally given in Serbian by a woman who had been raped in Bosnia. The statement had to be translated into French and English for the tribunal and was not to be edited to make it more ‘literary’. The tribunal created a precedent in making rape a punishable offence as a war crime for the first time.

We were fortunate that Saturday, 27 June was Veterans’ Day in The Hague, which meant that the square had been closed to traffic and we were able to do our translations at café tables, undisturbed by the clanking of passing trams.

The afternoon session began with a fascinating talk by Jenny de Sonneville, an Irish lady who is a senior lecturer in Communication in Science at Leiden University and had previously taught English in several ‘third world’ countries. Jenny titled her presentation ‘A Change of Tongue’, which is the title of a book by the South African Antjie Krog, and stressed the importance of the socio-cultural context for people moving to a new country and having to learn a new language. They often experience a change of identity, but although the new language opens doors for them, they may also feel restricted and unable to express their feelings fully.

After Jenny’s talk we walked along a very smart shopping street and past a royal palace to view the ‘Panorama Mesdag’, which is one the few surviving 19th century panoramas in Europe. They went out of fashion when the cinema became the popular form of entertainment. Hendrik Willem Mesdag was the merchant artist who painted the enormous canvas – a cylinder with a circumference of 120 metres and 14 metres high – with the help of his artist wife and several assistants. As a banker’s son he was able to buy up the building when the operating company went bankrupt and the panorama has been conserved to this day, having only recently been restored. The optical illusion is complete when one enters the panorama from a darkened spiral staircase and is presented with a breathtaking view of the fishing village and seaside resort of Scheveningen as it appeared in 1882.

After a three-hour break to allow people to shop or explore The Hague on their own, the group met up again in the Scheveningen of today, only to find it shrouded in sea mist in sharp contrast to the bright sunshine of the 1882 panorama. However, the venue was an indoor one, the Lemon Grass restaurant, one of a row of eating places on Dr. Lelykade overlooking a lively yacht marina. We were served a number of courses, each accompanied by the prescribed wine, starting with a white and ending with a rich red. No wonder that some of our less inhibited members ended the evening by serenading us with a selection of arias from Carmen.

Sunday morning was devoted to literary translation, beginning with a sweatshop – the participants were divided into groups to produce an agreed version of a selected text. The text chosen was an extract from a novel by one of The Hague’s best-known writers, Louis Couperus, who was active from 1883 to 1923. Couperus formed the subject of the ensuing very lively talk by Dr. Caroline de Westenholz, who founded the Louis Couperus Museum in The Hague in 1994. Caroline’s theme was ‘Couperus in English’, and it seems that Couperus enjoyed greater renown in Britain and America in his own lifetime than he did in his own country, where he was regarded by some people as a pornographer because of the frankness of his themes, and it was only in the 1960s that he came to be fully appreciated in the Netherlands. The morning ended with a final sweatshop in which we worked on texts by authors concerned with the impact of repatriation to the Netherlands on families brought up in the East Indies. Couperus himself spent part of his childhood in the Indies and returned there for a time as a young man.

After lunch we split into two groups for guided city walks led by two very knowledgeable lady guides. We consequently saw many things that we would never have discovered on our own, such as buildings concealing ‘schuilkerken’ (conventicles), where Catholics gathered to worship after Protestantism became the established religion. The two groups met up halfway in a café for welcoming cold drinks before continuing their tours.

Very many thanks to our local ‘reps’, Antoinette Dop and Sterre van Wijk, not only for arranging such an interesting and varied programme, but also for the texts and commentaries and the background notes on The Hague and Couperus, which we were able to take away and study at our leisure.

[Back to The Hague 2009 Workshop page]