Pioneering study explores circulation of Flemish novels abroad


Novels by Flemish authors are being translated into more and more languages, an increase that’s partly been fuelled by the international appeal of local children’s literature

From Arabic to Zulu

University of Leuven researcher Jack McMartin breaks the bad news early on in his PhD – only a fraction of Flemish novels are translated and those translations rarely are commercial successes.

For his PhD paper, McMartin (pictured) analysed the international circulation of Flemish books – the first time this has been done. The project emerged out of the ‘Circulation of Dutch Literature’ network, a research programme that studies the international dissemination of Dutch literature through translations and adaptations.

Not only is Dutch a small language globally speaking; Flemish authors also have to compete with the dominance of publishers in the Netherlands, McMartin told Flanders Today. The result is that the number of local book titles translated every year has remained stagnant at between 100 and 150 over the last two decades.

The good news, however, is that Flemish authors are being translated into more and more languages – from 33 in 1998, to 44 in 2018. Over those two decades, Flemish books were translated into 81 different languages in total.

“Flemish authors mostly find their way to the German, English and French-speaking worlds,” says McMartin, who’s originally from the US but has lived in Flanders for 13 years. “These languages accounted for almost half of the translations out of Dutch, with German as a strong first.” Spanish, Italian, Danish and Chinese make up the chief other target languages, with a long list of other languages – from Arabic to Zulu – further down the list.

From Flanders to China

McMartin also discovered that children’s literature accounted for a large share of the translations, namely 42%. He says that Chinese publishers in particular have recently begun to embrace Flemish children’s authors and illustrators. “Flanders has a long and strong tradition in children’s literature and the genre’s visual nature makes it easier to promote and cheaper to translate,” McMartin explains.

And international interest is likely to grow even further in the coming years, McMartin says, given that young adult fiction author Bart Moeyaert recently won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award – considered the Nobel Prize for children’s literature.

McMartin’s research revealed that Flemish fiction writers account for a third of the translations – with Dimitri Verhulst, best-known for De helaasheid der dingen (The Misfortunates), the most popular contemporary novelist. Annelies Verbeke’s debut Slaap! (Sleep!) offers another example of another international bestseller that won plaudits far outside country borders.

But the most translated book of the last two decades is a 1933 classic – Kaas (Cheese) by Willem Elsschot. “The story of the failure of a bumbling, overly ambitious businessman still resonates today – think of all the failed dotcommers in Silicon Valley,” McMartin says, pointing to Hugo Claus and Louis Paul Boon as two other long-dead, literary giants that continue to attract attention.

For his PhD research, McMartin also deep-dived into the unexpected triumph of Oorlog en terpentijn (War and Turpentine) by Stefan Hertmans, now available in 30 languages. After a slow start, the book rose to global fame after rave reviews from The Guardian – a “future classic” – and The New York Times – one of the “10 Best Books of 2016”.

“Apart from its undeniable literary quality, the book came out at the right time, with First World War commemorations just beginning,” McMartin explains. “It also benefited from the network of Hertmans’ wife Sigrid Bousset, former director of the Passa Porta international house of literature in Brussels, as the reviewer of The Guardian had been a writer-in-residence at Passa Porta. The book business is clearly a people business as well.”

War and Turpentine also benefited from the spotlight shone on it at the prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair, where Flanders and the Netherlands were the Guest of Honour in 2016. “Many Flemish authors profited from the so-called ‘Frankfurt effect’ – the increase in attention from publishers worldwide in the run-up to and during the fair,” McMartin explains.

From French to English

The German book fair’s focus on literature from the region was a major accomplishment of Flanders Literature, the department of the Flemish Literature Fund that promotes Flemish literature internationally. Since 2007, they have been working on expanding the international circulation of Flemish books, in part by putting their money where their mouth is. In 2006 for instance, about a fifth of translations of Flemish books received financial support from the department. Today four in five translated titles do.

Still, not everyone needs a translator. There are also self-translating authors like Paul Verhaeghen and Chika Unigwe, who work both in English and Dutch. “Flanders has a strong tradition in self-translation, but in the past French was the second language of choice. Now it is English,” McMartin says.

Having successfully defended his PhD in June, McMartin has already moved on to a new topic and is currently exploring the literary exchanges between Flanders and Hungary as part of a postdoctoral research project. But he’s also itching to try his hand at literary translations.

“It is important to acknowledge the writerly craft of translators and their role as cultural ambassadors,” he says. “Without translators, books from Flanders would never travel.”

5 reading tips

An English Anthology
Leonard Nolens • translated by Paul Vincent
A selection of poems by Leonard Nolens, whose work reminds of some of the greatest European poets of the 20th century like Rilke and Neruda.

Brecht Evens • translated by Laura Watkinson and Michele Hutchison
An unsettling graphic novel in beautiful watercolours about a little girl and her imaginary feline companion that takes readers on a voyage into the shadowy corners of the human psyche.

We and Me
Saskia De Coster • translated by Nancy Forest-Flier
Portrait of an upper-class world full of dramas large and small, as well as intriguing characters that are portrayed with equal amounts of psychological insight and compassion. 

Intimations of Death
Felix Timmermans • translated by Paul Vincent
Early stories by Felix Timmermans (1886-1947) who is famous for his “rural novels”, psychological horror tales that nod at Edgar Allan Poe and reveal the writer’s morbid side.

Against Elections. The Case for Democracy
David Van Reybrouck • translated by Liz Waters
This influential manifesto proposes an ancient remedy to revitalise our democracy and ensure that citizens again start to participate in the social structures that shape their lives.

Photo by Rob Stevens