Sunday, March 28, 2010

My interactions with TSF

I tried to volunteer as an interpreter for Doctors Without Borders before the companion organization existed. Translators Without Borders, known by its French acronym, TSF, has been looking for people for a couple of months now. I first heard about them after the Haitian earthquake.

I wrote to them and asked for the test. I explained my strengths and what I could do. I thought I would take their Spanish test and be ready to help during the next disaster in the Spanish speaking world. They wrote back and asked me to comment on the process, as it was in the beta stages.

The link came for the Spanish test, but only French tests were available. After a few days of vacillating, I went to the library, got some dictionaries and went for it. Two weeks of nothing went by. Finally, I got a response on the screening platform that said basically, "Thank you, and we will call if we need you."

I wrote to them 3 times for clarification asking if I was now a member, but I never heard from them again. After the Chilean quake, I took one of their Spanish tests. I suppose they rate everyone's exam, then rank them, keeping everybody available in case something happens that necessitates going all the way to the bottom of the list.

The test taking will continue. It's a good way to stay in practice. Also, the opportunity may arise to help out. As translators and interpreters, we are supposed to serve others and help them communicate. I had hoped for the additional bonus of being able to list membership on my resume.

Now, there are even Dutch tests. I looked over beginnings of these texts. I'm not there yet, but I might try a Dutch to English test when I'm done with the book.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reading Transition

When I was learning Spanish, my friend Xavier made a suggestion. He said I should try reading a book without the dictionary. He suggested that I just read a book straight through, then read it again. He said that the second time through, I would pick up a lot of words from context.

He was right.

For De eeuw van mijn vader, his idea was out of the question. Before I started reading it, I had watched some Dutch TV and studied 5 chapters in a Dutch language text book that was old enough for a tourist's arrival to be described as what happens when you get off the boat. As it happened, it was more useful than I thought. De eeuw starts with a description of the harbor and the sailmaking business.

Reading this book was all dictionary work for a long time. I also listened to a lot of Dutch but understood almost nothing.

Still, I'm planning to try Xavier's idea on this book. I read a few pages of Chapter 8 doing that, but I went back again with the dictionary. I'll try it with one chapter.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Chapter 12 brought a lot of my frustration to the surface. It's one of the longest chapters at over 40 pages. There are parts of it I didn't understand very well, which is something I hate to admit after this long.

The name of the chapter means literally, "Little powder box." An image search yields pictures of compacts. It comes from the reunification of Catrinus Mak and his daughter, Tineke. He says, "Jij bent poederdoosje, de nieuwe jongste dochter van Job na alle ellende." I can't quite figure out what he meant by that. "You've been... using makeup, in a little box (Referring to the small spaces of camp life), ground down, You look nice, the new youngest daughter of Job after all the misery." Maybe the first part is an idiom, where the three words mean something apart from what they mean literally. If you're a Dutch speaker, please clarify this in the comments.

As I mentioned before, I'm always looking for another job. There are three that I'm up for now, and I'll tell about two of them. One is being a trilingual salesman for machinery company. The other is translating car repair manuals into Spanish. Any of them would be fine, but potential employers have a way of getting hot, then evaporating. Also, many outsource their recruiting functions to other companies, and the links aren't always connected. More frustration came from New Mexico. I had been scheduled to interpret a trial next week, but a plea agreement was reached. I really wanted the trial, but was dreading it a bit, because my part was to interpret for a key witness. Such assignments can be difficult.

Anyway, this past week was frustrating. It bothers me that I don't understand the title of this chapter. It is also bothersome that this post is like posts I don't like on other blogs, in that it is too long.

This chapter is the last one that describes the war years. The thirties and the war take up almost half of the book.

Geert Mak looks at turning points in the war. For the Axis, it was one victory after another. In June of 1942, there was Midway. Then, in November of 1942, Rommel was stopped at El Alamein. Guadalcanal was in the same year. From there, Mak goes back to the weekend of Dec. 6 and 7, 1941. Hitler's armies were stopped in Russia, and it started to become apparent that this was it for the Germans.

What Mak pointed out next cleared up something I have sort of wondered about for a long time. In his presentation on the Holocaust, Barry Spanjaard said something he still couldn't believe after 40 years: The Nazi train system placed a higher priority on Jews going to concentration camps than on soldiers going to the front. Mak points out that the Final Solution meeting, held just after the reversal in the Soviet Union, meant that Hitler was exchanging one dream for another. He knew the war was over for the Germans, but he would live out the dream of extermination instead.

Mak draws a contrast between the German leadership in both World Wars. In the first, the generals saw what had changed and started looking for peace. In the second, Hitler condemned Germany to a fight to the very end.

After a long analysis of the German situation, Mak moves on to his family. His father was in Burma, building the death railway. As a minister, that meant one funeral after another. He kept a notebook that survives. It has columns for the name, cause of death, date, burial site, etc. When the war ended, the situation was chaotic, more so for the Dutch. While the other prisoners left right away, the last Dutch prisoners didn't leave until October, 1946.

Catrinus Mak made his way back to his family, but everything was different. After the war, the independence movement shifted into high gear. The Japanese troops were placed under new management, and protected the former prisoners. They also released medicine to the prisoners, which they had been hoarding during the war. One of the Mak children snuck back to their old house and found it trashed, with a bunch of Japanese pin-ups on the walls.

The children had grown up a lot and changed. They went from being sheltered rich kids to self-reliant people who had been through war. While rebellion among the Mak siblings isn't mentioned, Catrinus wrote that he was bothered by adolescents in the camp standing around and smoking. Also, many of them hadn't been to school during the war, and they were free in many ways. The Mak family remained close, in spite of the fact that they were apart for so many years.

From reading this, I would surmise that a major dilemma for the Dutch was authority without power. Their military had been steamrolled at home and in the colony. Naive postwar rulers at home thought that old possessions could be retaken easily. Whether those in charge looked silly at the time was subjective, but their impotence and incompetence had been brutally proven as fact. The Dutch were not protected by Dutch troops. After the Japanese left, that fell to British units, particularly Ghurkas.

Some of Geert Mak's bias comes through as he describes his father's trip to, "The dim, Reformed Netherlands." While stuck in Burma, Catrinus Mak had become something of a third culture kid. At the first Reformed Synod in Batavia, he met with his friend and colleague, Jo Verkuyl, who explained Indonesian nationalism. Catrinus went on to write a series of articles for a church related paper in the Netherlands. Once he arrived there, he thought people really didn't get it, though he liked visiting the family.

The chapter ends with two trips. Almost 50 years later his siblings went back to Medan, and looked around at the old church and their camp. They felt triumphant for having survived it. The camp was still there, with even the wall intact. It was lived in by Indonesian families.

Geert Mak went to Thailand, where he was dismayed to find that the atmosphere was much too festive. "Board the original Death Railway Train, for a one hour journey to Nam Tok. Don't hesitate! Join our Death Railway Tour!"

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

100 Years of Stylitude

When you're learning a new language, a new author or speaker is jarring. One thing that makes De eeuw van mijn vader so difficult is the abundance of authors. Geert "Big" Mak quotes extensively from various family members, other historians, and contemporary news accounts. The sources he quotes from vary in style due to the fact that they are from different people in different eras. He also varies his own style. When writing about events, the sentences are short and clear. When writing about ideas, his sentences get extremely long, and his vocabulary becomes very dense.

In terms of content, a couple of loose ends come to mind that didn't quite fit in my chapter summaries. First, Mak describes the death of Hendrikus Colijn in the rudest terms. He was forever the accomodator, even after the occupation was under way. He wrote against resistance and died in Germany in 1944. Also, I would like to have seen the death of Kaiser Wilhelm mentioned. He died in June of 1940, in the recently occupied Netherlands. I wonder how the Germans handled it and what effect it had on the Dutch.

I am now on page 337, in the middle of a long chapter.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Dutch Pancake, California Style

When I bake, I like to make things healthy. At the GF's house, we used a traditional recipe for a Dutch pancake in an iron skillet. We used whole wheat pastry flour instead of white flour. Whole wheat flour is often too thick, but whole wheat pastry flour is finer and approximates the texture of the white stuff.

Instead of powdered sugar, we cooked organic turbinado sugar with chopped pears and walnuts. Then the topping was poured over it. Sugar that isn't so refined has more flavor, and you can use less.

There was some disagreement over the butter. She preferred the salted butter we used, but I think it would have been better with unsalted butter.

If you make this pancake, give credit where credit is due. Also, call it by its proper name: Henry Hudson Goes to Hollywood.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Gewoon tabee en wegwezen

Chapter 11 gets its title from an interview with an old camp inmate, remembering many years later how things were. "It was the usual farewell and gone away," he said. The deaths went on and on. In this short chapter, Geert Mak looks at a number of social trends and camp life. It is the last chapter that ends with commentary by his brother, Hans. Rather than treat this chapter chronologically, I'll look at it in terms of issues that stick out.


In the Dutch context, there were incredible efforts made to avoid assimilation. That is why two of the Mak siblings were parked in Holland in 1939. The Indische jongens were considered a problem. They needed to be more European, whether they had ever been to Europe or not.

The camps stripped away the urban European context, which had been transplanted to Asia. Those who did the best at survival were the ones who knew the land the best. Mak recounts the story of one person who escaped a camp and sat out the war as a hermit who ate well. Most escapes ended in capture and death.

Having been to Dutch festivals, I wonder how much assimilation took place. So far, I haven't seen a Dutch festival without a majority of food stalls serving Indonesian food. There are lots of Indos who speak Dutch. There are many forlorn Dutch people dressed in tropical garb. The Dutch language is home for all Dutch speakers, but the Netherlands is not.

Still, everyone at the Dutch festivals gets along. There are visitors from Europe, people who came in the war years, and various Dutch speaking ethnicities. There are also many Americans of Dutch descent, whose ancestors came here before 1900 and Abraham Kuyper, and even long before 1800, when the Dutch East Indies were colonized.

Camp Life

I always thought that among the prisoners, there was a lot of solidarity. I was surprised that Catrinus Mak's notebook said that he was, "Tired of the gossip, tired of backbiting..." Although there were deaths left and right, the pettiness of day to day living went on.


Apparently, there are plenty of Atheists in foxholes and similar places. Not a very high percentage of people went to church in the camps. Catrinus Mak spent more time preaching to the English and Australians than the Dutch, as secularization in the Netherlands was well under way.

He most likely survived camp life, because he kept his old job as a minister. In other words, unlike the businessmen, he kept his identity. He teamed up with a Catholic priest, and they went around doing funerals and services.

The majority of their audience brings us to the next issue.


The chapter opens with a preprinted postcard, made by the Imperial Japanese Army. It tells about how nice camp life is in English. Below the printed text, Catrinus has written a note, also in English. The card is apparently intended for people in the Netherlands. All of this makes me wonder: How and when did he learn English? As those who have studied and learned languages know, there are big differences between studying a language, understanding it, and being able to express yourself in it, which he does well. Also, why would he write in English to Dutch speaking people?

Japanese Management

In going over the death toll, Geert Mak takes up the question of whether or not the Japanese intentionally killed off their prisoners. He comes down on the side that they did not. From reading this however, one cannot conclude that the Japanese were interested in anyone's health, even their own. Although there were notes on the Japanese side about excessive camp deaths, neither food rations nor rest times went up.

The Japanese were not the Germans, but their prison camps were still prison camps. It appears as though the Japanese were mainly interested in keeping the Bangkok-Rangoon rail line open, and things just got out of hand, as they often do in wars.

The War's End

Hans Mak recounts how the war ended. It seemed like it would never end, then it did. The Indos were the first to know. Jubilation started, then the red and white flags. Then the Dutch flag came out, and the Japanese were just standing around. The war was over.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Review of Another Book

A good summary of what happened to the Dutch Indos, also known as the Indo Europeans, can be found here.

When the trailer for the movie from the Dutch East Indies Heritage Project is ready, it will be on this blog.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Pagina driehonderd!

I just made to page 300! Wow!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Reality sets in.

Reading history on your own makes you draw many parallels.

For example, many American commentators liken this time to the 1930s. They look ahead to another time like the prosperous 1950s. None of them recall that the 1940s were ten years long and somewhat problematic.