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Slauerhoff Competition – An Analysis

January 28, 2009

By Holland Park Press

On the 28th of January it is National Poetry Day in The Netherlands and Flanders. This year the theme is Across the Border, therefore it is a very appropriate occasion on which to announce the winner of our Translation Competition.


The task was to translate the poem Woninglooze by JJ Slauerhoff, one of the most esteemed Dutch poets.


Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (1898-1936) was not constrained by his country’s borders. The poet who declared that ‘his poems were his only home’ was a restless man, a poète maudit.


He used many of his poems to cast a critical eye on society and established a notorious reputation through his controversial essays. In spite of this, he was never short of many trusted friends as he didn’t take himself too seriously.


The Netherlands quickly became too confined, too narrow-minded for him.

Despite having a poor constitution he enlisted himself as a doctor on a ship bound for the former Dutch Indies. Immediately, during his first voyage he had to endure asthmatic attacks, an ailment originating in his youth, as well as a bleeding stomach ulcer.


Even so, when he was at sea he longed to be on the shore and while being on land he could not wait to get back to sea; a tragic and torn life during which he was on a lifelong quest to find his muse.

He continued with his travels, to the Dutch Indies, the Far East, Latin-America and Africa, in search of ‘Beauty and Soul’, as he was now convinced that they were fighting a losing battle. For a few years he practised as a GP in Tangier hoping that this would improve his health.


He even married the glamorous danseuse Darja Collin. This was to be the only truly happy period in Slauerhoff’s life; even so, the marriage soon fell apart.


Slauerhoff died of neglected tuberculosis just three months after the publication of his last poetry collection: From an Honest Seaman’s Grave (Een eerlijk zeemansgraf).


He was the almost the same age as Arthur Rimbaud, a poet whom he greatly admired. From an Honest Seaman’s Grave was published with a blue cover depicting a sailing boat, quite appropriate considering that his poems travelled across the seas like a Flying Dutchman.


Apart from being a poet, Slauerhoff also liked to translate, but always on his own terms, so he did not think twice about reducing a long poem to just one stanza.


Now I must admit, most of these poems were translated from Chinese, so there is a distinct lack of people who can testify to the quality of this work. Actually, Slauerhoff really just created a new poem inspired by the original; he was foremost a poet, translating was just a sideline.


Translating poems from Dutch cannot be compared to translating poems from Chinese. For most Dutch people, English is their second language and hence they can compare and check the poems in both languages. We have to remember that the Slauerhoff Translation competition was not about writing a poem but about translating a poem.


This is the Dutch Text, it may not mean much if you cannot read Dutch. I only wish you could hear someone recite it; even if you do not speak the language at all, hearing a poem often gives you a grasp of its essence.



Alleen in mijn gedichten kan ik wonen,
Nooit vond ik ergens anders onderdak;
Voor de eigen haard gevoelde ik nooit een zwak,
Een tent werd door den stormwind meegenomen.

Alleen in mijn gedichten kan ik wonen.
Zoolang ik weet dat ik in wildernis,
In steppen, stad en woud dat onderkomen
Kan vinden, deert mij geen bekommernis.

Het zal lang duren, maar de tijd zal komen
Dat vóór den nacht mij de oude kracht ontbreekt
En tevergeefs om zachte woorden smeekt,
Waarmee ’k weleer kon bouwen, en de aarde
Mij bergen moet en ik mij neerbuig naar de
Plek waar mijn graf in ’t donker openbreekt.

At first glance this poem reminds you of a sonnet. It consists of fourteen lines and after the eighth line a volta, or a dramatic change, is invoked: death makes its entrance and the rhyme is no longer regular.


The rhyming scheme and rhythm do not follow that of a traditional sonnet. Slauerhoff only makes sparse use of lines in iambic pentameter and doesn’t hesitate to use rather tentative rhyme, such as ‘ontbreekt’ and ‘openbreekt’.


Towards the end of the poem he almost throws rhyme out of the window. It was with the translation of the closing stanza, especially the last three lines, that most of the translators ran into problems. 


Slauerhoff had a healthy disdain for poetic conventions, even when writing what seems to be a sonnet. He displayed this attitude in his poems as well as in his daily life. No other Dutch poet has written more widely about the friction between the free-spirited artist and the citizen shackled down by the conventions of society.


When he came across someone who criticised his work by pointing out: ‘But Jan, this is not proper Dutch!’ he simply retorted: ‘In that case it must be Slauerhoff’s Dutch.’ (see p. 408 in Slauerhoff, A Biography by Wim Hazeu)


Often you find almost jarring lines in a Slauerhoff poem, for example the fourth line in Woninglooze and the last three lines of this poem which I pointed out earlier. The rhythm seems to falter, but this is all done intentionally. He tries to put the reader on the wrong foot; content and form work hand in hand at this point.


Woninglooze comes straight from the heart. He did not long for a fixed abode, indeed he found it very difficult to settle down. Even a tent, essentially a transient shelter, did not give him any solace, and in any case it was carried away by the stormy wind. These lines form a metaphor for his own restlessness and urge to travel, and yet this causes him no anxiety.


The last six lines, in foreboding, express his feeling that the time will come when he will have lost the strength to pen down his feelings. He knows that he will disappear into his grave, and with him the poet, the ships’ doctor, the restless globetrotter, the man who could only live through his poems, but luckily his poems live on.


We received entries from all corners of the Earth, but especially from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and The Netherlands and a very beautiful translation was sent from France.


At a first glance Woninglooze looks quite straightforward, yet the opening lines: ‘Only in my poems am I at home/No other shelter did I ever find’ are now iconic lines in Dutch literature.

The crux of this poem is about the position of an artist, a poet in this case, in society. Slauerhoff embodies his poetry until separated from it by death.
Intriguingly, this seemingly uncomplicated poem managed to present numerous hurdles for translators.


On the whole this poem favoured people for whom English is their mother tongue, but nonetheless there were some lovely contributions from native Dutch speakers.

To translate the title, Homeless or Houseless were chosen by most translators. However as one of the participants pointed out, ‘homeless’, although a correct literal translation of Woninglooze, has a different connotation in English, namely of someone who lives out on the street.


The poet in the meanwhile is not without a home, it is just that he can only feel at home in his poems; he certainly doesn’t sleep out in the open under a bridge. That is really why we admired the alternative title Without a home, introduced by one of the entries, and why we prefer the more American houseless over homeless.

As with the title, the translation of the body of the text could be divided into two schools of thought. One group interpreted the heart of the poem freely in English. One young translator went so far as to produce a prose-poem: the form was not adhered to but the meaning was faithfully reproduced. This was really following Slauerhoff’s own approach but not quite the intention of the competition.

The other group strived to match as closely as possible to the rhyme, contents, sound and rhythm of the original poem, which is of course what a great translation is all about. Actually, when you read a translated poem and you say: ‘Yes that’s it!’ then it ticks all the boxes set out in the previous sentence. Sadly, it is only a select group who can experience this joy as they are the ones who can read the poem in both languages.


None of the entries managed to reproduce the rhyming scheme completely, although one entry came very close, but unfortunately the choice of title: Homeless is more and the opening line: ‘Only in my poems can I live best’ let this entry down.

We certainly found gems. This is a lovely translation from one of the entries:

En tevergeefs om zachte woorden smeekt
And vainly begs to raise the tender words

I must admit, this line comes from the winning entry. Caroline Smith managed, apart from two instances, to reproduce the rhyming scheme without this having an adverse effect on reproducing the meaning of the poem.


Whenever the translation was complicated for reasons of rhythm or rhyme she stayed very close to the original, and in places she produced a very pleasing solution, for example in the translation of the eighth line shown above. She also followed the rhythm very closely.


Perhaps there is a lack of punctuation, but I consider this a coincidence as Slauerhoff himself was rather careless about this issue. So in short, Caroline Smith was most successful in staying close to the original text.

A special mention should go to Joke Beltman, from The Netherlands. She too reproduced the original text admirably but her choice of title proved to be decisive, as well as the lovely translation from Caroline Smith which produced: ‘And vainly begs to raise the tender words’, a line not out of place in a classic English poem.

Another special mention goes to Vagabond, a translation by John Hunt Peacock. This was a good translation but unfortunately not the winning one because he resorted to using ‘me’ three times in the last stanza to keep with the rhyming scheme.

In this article you can read the winning translation, which clearly proves that Slauerhoff is certainly not dead, he lives on through his poems.


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