Flemish novel in the spotlight at Tokyo literature festival


Arts Flanders Japan is reaping the benefits of a decade of training translators as another Flemish novelist finds a new market this year

Carving a niche

A Flemish novel is about to make its Japanese debut. Slaap! (Sleep!) by author Annelies Verbeke has been translated into Japanese and is being released during the European Literature Festival, which kicks off today in Tokyo.

Verbeke first published the book in 2003, which is a clue to how few Dutch-language books are translated into Japanese. The novel was in fact chosen with great care through a co-operative effort of a number of partners, including Arts Flanders Japan.

While the Japanese book market is “huge,” according to Arts Flanders Japan director Bernard Catrysse, only 8% are translations. “And 80% of that is translated from English,” he says. “It is an enormous challenge for Flemish and Dutch literature to carve out their own niche in this market.”

Which is why the European Literature Festival, launched last year, is so important to Flanders. One of the initiators, Arts Flanders Japan has been able to not only get Verbeke’s novel translated and on the Japanese market, but also bring her to the festival as a guest speaker.

Countering the trend

“The promotion of the Dutch language has  been a key activity from the launch of our foundation in 1975,” says Catrysse. “In 2010, we organised our first translation seminar in Osaka around the work of Tom Lanoye. The following year, we did the same with the work of Annelies Verbeke. The authors were present on both occasions, as were experienced translators and coaches.”

The seminars, peopled by Japanese speakers of Dutch – of which there are few – are paying off. Besides a short story anthology, three novels by Flemish authors have been translated: Dinsdag (Tuesday) by Elvis Peeters, Monte-Carlo by Peter Terrin and Slaap!.

Translators from Dutch to Japanese are, of course, scarce, notes Catrysse. “By coaching and guiding a new ream of literary translators for nearly 10 years now, we are trying to structurally counter the book-selling trends and better respond to the needs of this market.”

The Japanese are used to a very imaginary language, tend to mix magic and reality and also apply different meanings to silence

- Bernard Catrysse

Translating into Japanese – from any language – is notoriously difficult. “The Japanese language is embedded in a culture that was isolated from the rest of the world for more than two centuries,” explains Catrysse, “and the impact on the language can be felt still today.”

The Japanese language, he continues, “functions according to a code that is quite different from European and also from most other languages, and so requires a special mindset. The Japanese are used to a very imaginary language, tend to mix magic and reality and also apply different meanings and weight to silence. Japanese translators have to distance themselves from that mindset and make themselves familiar with a more western mindset so they can grasp humour, irony, sarcasm and the like.”

Arts Flanders Japan, based in Tokyo, works to build diplomatic relationships with Japanese governments, organisations and the public through the world of arts and culture. It collaborates with members of the European Cultural Institutes Network, member states cultural representatives and the EU delegation in Tokyo on the European Literature Festival.

Photo: Getty Images