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How I became a translator: Sam Garrett

Posted 13th Feb 2017

With Dutch postwar classic The Evenings flying off shelves, we caught up with translator Sam Garrett. Sam is the translator behind Herman Koch’s bestselling The Dinner, and is the only person to have twice won the British Society of Authors’ Vondel Prize for Dutch-English translation. Read on as Sam tells us the unusual tale of how he first realised translating would be his vocation.

At times, as a younger translator, I had the guilty sense of having come to this profession as a thief in the night. Many of my colleagues, after all, held degrees in comparative linguistics, in Dutch or English literature. My only academic credentials were – and still are – an aborted journalism major and, finally, a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy. The path that had led me to literary translation was so very different from theirs.

In 1980, after a long series of adventures and misadventures on the road, I found myself living in Amsterdam, in the house that had been squatted and saved from the wrecking ball years earlier by my beloved, my partner for almost forty years now, the mother of my four Dutch children.

For the first few years, as a foreigner from outside what was then still referred to as “the Common Market”, I was not allowed to work in Holland and barely allowed to stay in the country at all. All I could do, once I had tired of endlessly cycling around the city and carrying out consumer comparisons of its pubs and clubs, was read. I began the process of learning Dutch by reading aloud to my beloved from children’s books, with her patiently correcting my pronunciation of the language’s frustratingly frequent diphthongs and explaining cultural references I might have missed. This, supplemented with regular shopping trips to the local street market and my largely one-way conversations in fractured Dutch with the merchants there, was the world’s best introduction to a city, culture and language with which, frankly, I had already fallen in love. Unlike many of my colleagues, it was not that I fashioned myself into a translator, but that this love fashioned a translator out of me.

After two or three years I reached a point where I could actually read fiction and poetry in Dutch. I was working for the Dutch national press agency at the time, as a translator / journalist, but among the first of the gaggle of Dutch classics I devoured was one called De Avonden, by Gerard Reve. It must have been 1983. The novel’s humor – at times wry, at times brutal and socially inappropriate – in combination with its slow, beautiful depiction of a young man at odds with himself, ashamed of his parents and of himself for being ashamed of them, painfully aware of his position in the house of mirrors within which so much of human interaction takes place, came as a revelation. Oh, if only my English-speaking friends could read this!

Thank God no one asked me to translate it at the time; I still had far too much to learn. I would have failed miserably. But the love remained intact. Almost forty years later, after whetting my skills on a roughly equal number of novels and works of non-fiction, the time was ripe. De Avonden, with all its diphthongs and close cultural in-jokes, became The Evenings, it crossed the North Sea and then the Atlantic and, as Frits van Egters muses at the end of the book, “it has been seen… it has not gone unnoticed.” And I, I am free to move on.