Book review /Foreign Publishing/Translation

My Favorite Job Ever

Translating my sister’s novel!

Elisabeth Khan
Aug 3, 2020 · 5 min read
Christine Van den Hove reading at her book launch in Antwerp in 2019 (copyright @kartonnen dozen)

My sister Christine had her first novel, Colombe, published in Belgium last November. The story is set in the Pyrenees, a mountainous region that straddles the French-Spanish border, and the book is written in Dutch. One reviewer described it as “a pastorale with a twist,” and that’s a pretty apt description.

I’m incredibly proud of my talented younger sister, who also writes poetry and short stories! Actually, Colombe is the second novel she completed, but her previous book had not yet found a publisher at the time. (The response was usually something like, “Highly accomplished but not sufficiently commercial for us.”) However, several publishing houses in Belgium and the Netherlands are currently reviewing it. Publishers really do look at your manuscript differently once you manage to have one book published!

I’m working on the English translation of Colombe, and it’s both an honor and a great pleasure for me. Noëlle Michel, a French national accredited in literary translation from Dutch and English, is in charge of the French version.

In 2012, Christine moved from the Belgian port city of Antwerp (population over one million) to “her” mountain, where she has less than two dozen “neighbors.” It’s a dreamy place, especially for someone who prizes solitude and communion with Nature (for a taste of it, follow the link at the bottom of this story.) Her minuscule hamlet was also the inspiration for Colombe.

The novel consists of four parts, each narrated in first person by one of the main characters: the sheep farmer Michel, his wife Colombe, and her childhood friend Amparo. The time frame is mainly the second half of the 19th century, 1838–1924. Both the narration and the dialogue reflect the taciturn ways of the mountain people, most of whom are barely literate. Their tales are told in scant but impactful words. The surroundings are sketched out in bold strokes, to great effect. Notwithstanding the simplicity of the language, it is undoubtedly a literary novel. In an interview, Christine named “forgiveness” as the main theme of the novel.

One interesting aspect of the book is that, despite its historical setting, it touches on several “contemporary” topics. The theme of same-sex attraction between women, for instance, is developed, delicately, in keeping with the mores of the era. And there’s even an influenza pandemic, which actually happened in France in 1889–1890. When the book came out, our current pandemic was, of course, nowhere on the horizon.

Christine feeding an orphaned lamb (copyright C. Van den Hove)

In the book, Michel’s main occupation is sheepherding, a subject Christine happens to know quite a bit about. For several years, she helped out at a local sheep farm during the lambing season. Amparo’s intriguing life story was inspired by a mysterious signature the author found carved into a baptismal font.

Two girls, Colombe and Amparo, are born in different households on the same day, in an unnamed village of a French-Pyrenean valley. Their fates will be entwined with each other’s and also with that of Michel, a boy who’s leaving behind his abusive family for a fresh start in the mountains on the day of their baptism. All three dramatis personae in turn tell their own side of the story, so that a complete, three-dimensional picture unfolds for the reader.

An excerpt from Part 1: Michel

I put the money on the table and because my knees were buckling, I sat down on a chair without being asked. She looked at me inquiringly and asked if I wanted some water. I shook my head.

“I was wondering,” I said, “if you were considering remarriage. And… if, perhaps, you’d want to marry me?”

She looked at me wide-eyed. The way she stood there, I suddenly realized just how beautiful she was. And my question seemed to me the most ridiculous question ever asked. I immediately regretted it.

An excerpt from Part 2: Colombe

The old folks, however, know the story. The one about the boy who wanted to become a shepherd and hiked up the mountain with three ewes, and who’d sworn an oath that he would return to marry one of the two girls that had just been born, that too on the same day. The part about the oath is not true. Michel admitted that he’d been thinking about these girls, but he’d never told anyone about it. He said that people had just made it up, and eventually he had ended up believing it himself.

An excerpt from Part 3: Amparo

I dreamed about Colombe. She was sitting by the river and she was laughing. I asked if she was laughing at me. She shook her head, but she kept laughing. She hid her face in her slender hands.

When I woke up, I thought about the river. About that afternoon we spent there. Laughing. I’ve never laughed as much since. We were actually rolling on the ground laughing. Why was that again? Oh yes, we were talking about marriage. I said I’d have liked to marry her, if I’d been a man. But she pictured us getting married as two women, each of us carrying a little bouquet. It makes me laugh even now.

As someone familiar with the striking, atmospheric landscape of the area, I can’t help imagining a future movie or Netflix series made of this story. Like Poldark, where the rugged Cornwall coast becomes almost a character in the drama. Now if we could persuade Aidan Turner to take the role of Michel… Stranger things have happened. Just saying.

Interview: Christine Van den Hove over haar debuut (Dutch)

Note: Currently, only the original Dutch version is available in Belgium (Flanders) bookstores. Also from www.bol.com and many other online sources including the British, French, and German Amazon sites. Not yet on amazon.com.

ILLUMINATION

We curate outstanding articles from diverse domains and…