Thursday, May 20, 2010

Het Einde

Here are some final thoughts about this project.

The Most Important Thing I Learned: That in every human circumstance, pettiness reigns supreme. In the camps on the Burma Railway, Catrinus Mak tallied the casualties of death and disease, but went so far as to complain about gossip and backbiting.

My Favorite Part: The description of the air race.

What The Book Made Me Want to Do: I would like to visit Schiedam and Medan. In both cases, I would like to look at whatever old buildings are left. I think it would be interesting to see what's left of colonial days in Indonesia.

The "Whatever Happened To" Moment: In the 60s, the Mak's sailmaking business had another brief life as a sporting goods store. They sold to recreational boaters.

I have another blog starting on June 5th. It's a corporate complaint site. You can find it here. It will last for a year.

Read it if: You want to see more from the same author.

Skip it if: You want to see more of the same subject matter.

Thank you everyone. I'm grateful that so many of you read it. You can write to me at my yahoo address. It begins with mextravlr.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

My Linguistic Progress and Advice to Language Learners

I had a short conversation in Dutch at work recently. I can't really speak Dutch, but I'm well prepared for it. I can understand a lot of what I hear on podcasts.

Reading is easier than it was at the beginning, but it's still daunting. I read Chapter 14 Xavier's way. That is, I read it straight through, then read it again. It worked well, but I went back to the dictionary for the rest of the book. It was good I finished that way, because the last chapters had some dense discussions of Reformed politics.

I looked at the Dutch to English test on TSF, but I decided not to take it. For now, Dutch will remain a hobby. I will keep going back to it and improve over time. I took their test in French because there was an urgent need right after the earthquake. Also, I'm good at high register material, which is most of what TSF appears to deal with.

My approach to learning languages has varied. In Spanish I talked a lot at the outset. In Portuguese, I did a lot of listening first, mainly to news programs. I talked to my relatives about current events, but I remember the blank look on their faces when my great-uncle asked me for a pen, and I didn't know what he was talking about. Before the trip to Portugal, I had also been to church in that language. Back in the 80s, I studied it and had some short conversations with old relatives here.

I have thought of improving at French and actually learning to speak it, but 3 closely related languages starts to become irritating. It's easy to see why scholars ignored Romance languages for so long and stuck to Latin.

If I were ever faced with a trip to Holland, I would watch a lot more TV to understand what people say to each other.

If you're wondering about how to learn Dutch, think of your goals first. If you want to speak the language, emphasize watching TV and listening to the radio. Try to avoid the news and listen to programs that feature people talking to each other. I read that the gulf between written and spoken language in Dutch is greater than it is in English. Even so, reading works such as plays, along with works featuring dialog can help. If you're interested in a book, get a dictionary and start reading. Reading helps a lot in learning a language, but bear in mind that it is not central to speaking. If reading is your goal, start with a few lessons, then read whatever material you find of interest. From there, the possibilities are limitless.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Notes for the Marketing Department

As you get ready to sell My Father's Century, bear in mind that there are two sets of messages to go out. They will tell people why they should read it and why they would want want to read it. Of course, there will be some overlap.

Why You Should Read My Father's Century

1. It has a lot of European history that is not well known here. The history of the Dutch East Indies is even less well known.

2. Maybe you have Dutch ancestry. You could reconnect with your roots and learn about what's happened since your ancestors left.

3. It portrays WWII as it was for most of the people who were there. It was a hideous defeat for nearly everyone. Most places were occupied at one time. Those that weren't were bombed. Here in America, the war is viewed as a great spark for upward mobility and an improved economy. The stories of our dead and wounded are lost. I remember thinking about this a few months ago at Ft. Rosecrans. A huge wave of WWII vets was buried there in 1960. They were about 40 years old. I wonder what they went through and why they didn't live very long.

4. This book will help Americans break through old polemics and think of things differently. For example, not every war is about stopping the next Hitler, as conservatives tend to think. Similarly, not every war is Vietnam, as liberals tend to think.

5. This book makes Europe a real place with real problems. The majority here views Europe through very distorted lenses. Snarky liberals, led by Bill Maher, want to do everything, "That makes sense, just like Europe." While America and Europe can learn from each other, adopting everything from there wholesale is a bad idea. For liberals, Europe begins and ends in France. They love it there, but while they sit in cafes and solve the world's problems, they never wonder about those who pour their coffee. For conservatives, Europe is another country: the old Soviet Union. Therefore, everything from there is bad. Mak's view of the Dutch experience is nuanced and balanced. It is needed here.

Why You Would Want to read My Father's Century

1. It's an interesting memoir centered on others. It is not self-centered at all. Too much of the memoir genre is navel gazing.

2. Numbers. Anyone in business would want to know about the Netherlands. It is ranked 16th in nominal GDP in the world.

3. Now is a good time to look again at the 20th Century. The nostalgia pieces have come and gone, and we have some distance.

4. The Netherlands and Indonesia are interesting places.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Notes for the Translator

You've got what looks like a great assignment. You'll probably be part of a team. I hope that in this case, the word "Team" isn't what it often is in business: A euphemism for "Hornet's nest." If you're working alone, I hope you get to go back and forth with Big Mak. I don't know his comfort level with speaking English, but he appears to understand it very well. He quotes from many excellent sources, including Barbara Ehrenreich's then ten year-old commentaries about the yuppies' tenuous place in the economy.

I hope you're able to do a good translation. Translations are often marketing. Books can have different tones in different languages. I wonder about Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd, which I think is best rendered as, "How God Disappeared from Jorwerd." Instead, the English title is watered down to Jorwerd: The Death of the Village in Late Twentieth-Century Europe. The original angry title is now very academic. I think it's fine if the author didn't have a title at the beginning, but if the first one was his title, his point of view has been changed to increase sales.

For the British edition, it might be ok to leave the everything alone. British audiences are familiar with European politics. They have proximity to the Netherlands, and they should have a fair amount of prior knowledge.

For American audiences, be sure to include maps, timelines, and plenty of footnotes explaining acronyms and other things that are not well known here. I remember searching for something that turned out to be a reference to a brand of cookies. Although it's a serious book, memoirs usually have more pictures. A couple of picture sections would make it more accessible to those thumbing through it in the bookstore. Also, you might have to explain Catrinus Mak's postcard in English. An American audience is likely to assume that the original card was in Dutch and written over with Photoshop.

Finally, you should be part of the book's promotional efforts in the US, even if the author speaks English well. I remember catching Octavio Paz and his translator Eliot Weinberger on tour in 1987. I enjoyed watching their interaction. Both translators and authors have stories to tell, and it would be worthwhile to hear about the process.

Saturday, May 1, 2010



I just finished reading De eeuw van mijn vader aka My Father's Century by Geert "Big" Mak. What a ride.

Normally, you can judge a book by its cover. It's called marketing. They're designed that way. In a language other than your own, it's different. It's unlikely that you will have the background knowledge to know what you're getting into. The less you know, the more surprises you get. This also means you're taken places you didn't want to go. It goes beyond new and interesting points of view. Still, I'm in favor of exploring.

I leave this book with Geert Mak looking back at the last century in Spring 1999. At the time, the Balkan wars were raging. Although there was a lot of heated rhetoric at the time, he points out that the last century meant the early death of some 115 million Europeans, 54 million of whom were Russians who died due to internal persecution and famine. He compares the collapse of the Soviet Union to the collapse of Czarist Russia and the Kaiser's Germany, saying that it all happened from within.

He uses statistics to point out that the Dutch in 1999 lived like kings compared to 1899, when his father was born.

Of course, the closing chapter, like many of the others, includes a lot about politics within the Dutch Reformed Church. He spotlights the more liberal groups in the fragmentation process. A lot of what other Christian groups would consider to be basic doctrine was called into question or thrown out. Still, some social activism kept going.

At a one to nine week temporary job I just started, I met a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. I asked him about what I have read and my conclusions. He agreed that there is a Reformed identity that goes beyond the splinter groups, but mentioned that his own branch of the faith is yet another new one.

I can identify the Reformed paradox, but I can't explain why it exists. Everyone looks back to Abraham Kuyper, the great unifier, but new divisions arise all the time. It seems even more strange when you consider that the denomination was never very big to begin with.

My colleague laments that many Reformed people here have moved into megachurches that are, "Just entertainment."

Mak uses his own family to show that the Reformed in the Netherlands are moving away from religion entirely. Each generation moved further away from the whole idea, though in 1999, one person was a Moslem.

The section about Dutch identity was thrilling. I have no stake in the matter, but part of the joy of another language is reading and hearing what's intended for other audiences. After pointing out the decline of religion and other things, he said that, "Civic Religion," was the way to go. He used the American term in English.

I was surprised. Civic religion has declined in the United States to the point where some groups are at the point of deassimilating. Education spending has steadily declined for many years, and consequently, fringe groups who, "Don't believe," in science and other things proven as fact are now more mainstream. Home schooling exacerbates the trend. After news articles about immigration, one often finds hysterical comments about the need to defend our language. Often, they are shot through with spelling errors.

Civic religion has had its measure of success in the US, because it was well thought out at the beginning. While revisionists deride early America as overwhelmingly WASPish, it was diverse for its day. Also, as the percentage of WASPs becomes smaller, comemmorating their contributions may become necessary to carry them forward. They, after all, gave us our civic religion, leaving a framework so that others could be included over time.

The main challenge for the success of civic religion anywhere is transmittal. It still happens in some school settings and in the military, but it does not happen nearly enough.

The book ends on a personal note. Mak looks back at his parents' wedding picture, standing on the steps in 1924. He talks about how he can still see his fathers hands, spotted and veiny, "Like a landscape."

This blog will have two more posts. Next week, I'll take the Dutch to English test for TSF and report where I am linguistically. After that, I'll take a last look at this whole project.