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533 Days: A Conversation with Laura Watkinson

In 533 Days, noted Dutch poet and novelist Cees Nooteboom reflects on the life of the mind through a reexamination of books, music, art, travel, and gardening. In this Q&A, we talk with the book’s translator Laura Watkinson about her career as a translator, the joys of translation, and her own resonance with Noteboom’s travels.

Can you tell us about your career as a translator? What attracted you to the art of translation?

LW: I’ve always loved learning languages, ever since I was a little girl and read the list of foreign expressions in the back of the dictionary we had at home. Later, I studied languages and literature at university, and going into translation felt like a natural move. It also helps that it’s a portable career, one that you can take anywhere, and that has allowed me to live and work in different countries. It’s creative, too, and I enjoy the fun and challenge of working with words while, as a translator, not being responsible for coming up with a plot or structure. That focus appealed to me.

In 533 Days, Nooteboom covers topics ranging from the death of David Bowie to the threat of a disintegrating Europe. Which passage was the most challenging to translate, and what was your favorite?

LW: Each passage has its own challenges. Some are particularly challenging in terms of the background research that needs to be done. For example, if a section has quotes that were originally in English, I need to track down those English quotes, which can prove something of a distraction. I can find myself becoming absorbed in the material that I’m researching, and I might spend quite some time reading around to find out more about the context. In terms of the translation, I may progress by only a couple of sentences within a few hours on such occasions, but learning more about the people and situations who have inspired Cees is one of the most fascinating parts of the process.

I enjoy the variety of subjects that come up in the book and the way they combine to present a picture of this period in the author’s life, so it’s tricky to pick a favorite passage. That said, translating Cees’s words about his interactions with the various characters in his garden, from the insects, lizards, and tortoises to the plants, was a highlight of this book for me.

Do you resonate with Nooteboom’s reflections on books, music, art, and travel?

LW: Absolutely. Whenever I first read one of Cees’s books, I come away with a list of material to add to my reading pile, and I know that it’s going to include gems. Our experiences with books, art, and travel have a certain overlap, so there’s familiarity and recognition there. When I was translating Cees’s books about Berlin and Venice, I revisited both cities and saw the places I knew in a different way because of Cees’s reactions to them. Treading in his footsteps and comparing our experiences, seeing what had caught his attention and had missed mine, added depth to my own feelings about those locations. When it comes to musical tastes, we’re not quite as close, but I do understand Cees’s experiences of listening to and being carried away by music. Most of all, I love his wry and gentle humor and his close observations of nature.

You are an award-winning translator of Dutch, Italian, and German. Can you tell us about your experience teaching—what is a commonly asked question from your students about your work?

LW: I’ve taught English as a Foreign Language and a number of language and translation courses in university departments, and I’ve been a freelance literary translator for around twenty years now. I don’t teach as much these days, but I still take part in and lead occasional workshops with peers and emerging translators. These usually involve all the participants translating and then discussing the same short passage, and people are often surprised to see just how different the various translations of the same passage can be. The questions that aspiring translators ask are not only about the craft of translation, but also about the more practical aspects of the job. How do contracts work? How do you get the translation done? What’s your daily routine like as a translator? I’m a bit of a productivity nerd, so I find those questions interesting as well.

Yale University Press will publish 533 Days in paperback in April 2023. For those who have not yet read 533 Days, why would you recommend the book?

LW: From Brecht and Frisch to village festivals and moths and prickly pears, this book explores many captivating subjects, and I think anyone who is passionate about the world and what’s in it will find Cees’s accounts engaging and easy to identify with. This is a beautifully written book of short passages that reveal a lot about Cees Nooteboom as a man and a writer, while also offering opportunity for reflection about our own engagement with the people and things around us. For me, it was a joy to read and to translate.

Cees Nooteboom is a poet, novelist, and travel writer who has received numerous prestigious awards, including the Pegasus Prize and the Aristeion Prize. Laura Watkinson is an award-winning translator of Dutch, Italian, and German who has translated several works by Nooteboom, including Venice: The Lion, the City and the Water. Both Nooteboom and Watkinson live in Amsterdam.

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