This week we explore the subject of Dickinson in translation and her international reputation by focusing on the early and relatively unknown work of Dutch novelist, poet and essayist Simon Vestdijk (1898-1971), with a reflection from Dickinson’s current German translator Gunhild Kübler. We came to this work when we stumbled on the arresting portrait of Dickinson by the Dutch artist Jedi Noordegraaf, featured here. Drawn by its whimsical intensity and the deep appreciation of Dickinson’s life and work it expresses, we contacted Jedi to find out what drew him to Dickinson and how he learned about her work. You can read that interview in “This Week in Biography.” This led us to explore the difficult art of poetic translation and how Dickinson’s work fares in other languages and cultures.
In the course of our conversation with Jedi, we learned that Dickinson was popularized in the Netherlands by Simon Vestdijk, the eminent Dutch writer and poet who translated and wrote about Dickinson and other American writers. Following this lead, we discovered a long essay Vestidijk wrote and published in a Dutch journal in 1932-33, twenty years before Thomas Johnson brought out his Complete Poems in 1955. Working from the regularized collections of poems published by Mabel Todd and Thomas Higginson and Martha Bianchi’s small edited collection, The Single Hound (1914) and her Complete Poems (1924), Vestdijk perceived Dickinson’s poetic brilliance and modernist innovations and publicized his appreciation just at the time her reputation was consolidating internationally. We will dip into Vestdijk’s essay and sample his insightful readings of a kindred poetic spirit who “has hardly been afforded the place she deserves, a place among the great originals of world literature, who can still have some significance for us.”
“Words Could Satisfy the Heart”
The Springfield Republican, September 20, 1862
Progress of the War, page 1
“We are in the heat and fury of the great struggle. The rebellion, having gathered all its strength for a last effort before our new armies could be brought into the field, has sent its invading legions northward and westward to subjugate the loyal people of the Union on their own soil. This impudent purpose has been formally avowed by the rebel congress, and the entire armed force of the South has been gathered into the two invading columns for the effort.”
Courage and Cheerfulness, page 2
“There is no cheaper way of doing good than by cultivating a cheerful, hopeful spirit. It is a virtue that brings its own reward, and unlike certain other virtues, the reward comes at once, without delay. We have only to gather the roses instead of the thorns in the garden of life; both are always there.”
Lamartine’s Abstract Woman, page 6
“Lamartine thus describes her: ‘Woman, with weaker passions than man, is superior to him in soul. The Gauls attributed to her an additional sense—the divine sense. They were right; nature has given women two painful heavenly gifts which distinguish them, and often raise them above human nature—compassion and enthusiasm. By compassion they devote themselves, by enthusiasm they exalt themselves. What more does heroism require? They have more heart and more imagination than man.’”
Poetry, page 6: “Words” [by Charles Swain, from Poems, Roberts Brothers, 1871. Charles Swain (4 January 1801 – 22 September 1874) was an English poet and engraver]
Books, Authors and Art, page 7
“A collection of second-rate witticisms is the dreariest of all dull reading. Articles that, occurring singly in the corner of a journal, may excite a good-natured smile, when presented collectively as a volume are ignored by the busy, repelled by the thoughtful, and only welcome by the frivolous and idle. Laughter, to be beneficent and healthful, should be the ripple on the surface of an onward-flowing stream, not the succession of circles made by dropping pebbles in a pond.”
The Hampshire Gazette, September 23, 1862
Literary: Review of Our Little Ones in Heaven, page 1 [probably edited by Walter Aimwell (1822-1859), Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1858, perhaps reissued. See Hathi Trust. But we also find: Our Little Ones in Heaven: A Collection of Thoughts in Prose and Verse edited with Intro by the Late Rev. Henry Robbins, M.A. London: Sampson Low, Son, and Co. Ludgate Hill. 1858. Shows how popular this subject was!]
“This is a judicious selection of poetry and prose written upon the subject of infant deaths. There are in it words of consolation and sympathy for the mourner that will command it to the bereaved and the afflicted.”
International News, page 2
“The average number of suicides in France is nearly three thousand a year. Official statistics show that in the thirty-two years from 1827 to 1858 inclusive, upwards of ninety-two thousand persons killed themselves.”
Harper’s Monthly, September 1862
The Language and Poetry of Smoke, page 499
“The language of smoke is far more varied than is generally imagined, and its poetry rich and plentiful. Although we usually connect the idea of smoke with that of evanescence, it is symbolical of life and activity, and its universality presents very many curious points of interest to the inquirer. There is no habit or custom known to humanity that has ever exhibited such tenacity of life, and has opposed such powerful resistance to the attacks of its opponents as that of smoking."
“My letter to the World”
From what we can tell, Dickinson did some translation from Latin in the course of her studies and studied German for a while until her instructor left. She also read some texts in translation. In his list of her reading, Jack Capps includes, for example, Cervantes, Don Quixote, George Sand, Mauprat and Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. And though she avidly consumed writing about foreign places in journals and newspapers, she didn’t engage much with translation into other languages as a literary form as did, for instance, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of her role models. Still, she depicts herself writing “my letter to the World,” (F519, J441), not just Amherst, New England or the USA.
Indeed, Dickinson’s work has made its way around the globe. In his survey of Dickinson translations and her reception internationally, Domhnall Mitchell dates the earliest known translation to 1898 when four poems appeared in German in the Illinois Staats-Zeitung. Immediately after the publication of The Single Hound in 1914, several poems appeared in Spanish translated by the poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1956. While Mitchell doesn’t mention Simon Vestdijk’s translations or essay of 1932, he notes that Dickinson’s international reputation solidified by the 1930s with the publication of Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s Complete Poems and Conrad Aiken’s Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson, both in 1924.
We will talk more about the complicated politics of translation in the Poems section. Here, we share with you our interview with Jedi Noordegraaf, a Dutch illustrator and graphic designer who works under the name Studio Vandaar and whose haunting rendition of Dickinson started us on this journey of searching for the poet in far-away places.
White Heat: Where did you get the inspiration for your beautiful and detailed portrait of Emily Dickinson?
Jedi Noordegraaf: My inspiration started with an idea to make a series of portraits of people that I admire. I wanted to make portraits that illustrate the essence of someone’s work and life. I started with the portrait of Emily Dickinson, since she is of one of the greatest poets for me. For me, the essence of Emily is: a rich inner world, hidden from the outside world, full of life, plants and birds. Of course, this relates to her life in reclusive isolation.
WH: Are you familiar with her poetry, her letters, her life, and if so, how did you learn about her?
JN: Yes, I am familiar with most of her work and became more familiar with her life while doing research for the portrait. It started for me when I was 20 years old and came across a little book of poems in a second-hand bookshop in my hometown Ede. I was immediately visually attracted by the special use of dashes and capital letters. Her poems are punctual and crisp – I love that. That's why they have a certain incomprehensibility, a kind of mysticism: you can interpret them in many ways. After that first booklet, I collected most of her work.
WH: What is your favorite poem of hers and why?
Growth of Man – like Growth of Nature –
Gravitates within –
Atmosphere, and Sun endorse it –
But it stir – alone –
Each – its difficult Ideal
Must achieve – Itself –
Through the solitary prowess
Of a Silent Life –
Effort – is the sole condition –
Patience of Itself –
Patience of opposing forces –
And intact Belief –
Looking on – is the Department
Of its Audience –
But Transaction – is assisted
By no Countenance – (F790A, J750, 1863)
For me, this poem is about growth that happens in silence. That is quit a truthful observation, I think, and I recognize it in my own life. I start my day in silence; reading some poetry or texts from a prayer book. Simply: being with God, being quiet, think things over. Emily Dickinson's poems often express the joy about art, imagination, nature, and human relationships, but in her poetic world there is also room for suffering and the struggle to evade, face, overcome, and wrest meaning from it. I think in “modern western society” there is great lack of space for suffering. I notice that we are completely focused on the happy and positive things in life, and hide the difficult things we all are experiencing. But it is not always summer, it is also autumn and winter.
In a way, Emily Dickinson’s descriptions show some sort of “mindfulness.” Dickinson used her solitude to live her real self. Her own life was silent and for a long time Dickinson lived in solitude in Amherst. In this society of entertainment, fulfilling our dreams, experiencing & consuming all the things we want, Emily helps me to stand still, and to stay in touch with myself and the things that matter to me.
WH: Elements of the portrait look like flowers she collected in her Herbarium. Are you familiar with that work and how has in influenced your view of Dickinson?
JN: Yes, I know she had an Herbarium. In a way, I think she started her “writing Poetry” with collecting flowers. From there, she started to observe nature. From her gardening, she developed her aesthetic sensibility, and her vision of the relationship between art and nature. The gardener's intimate understanding of horticulture helped to shape Emily’s choice of metaphors for every experience: love and hate, wickedness and virtue, death and immortality.
WH: You also picture the Homestead in the portrait. Have you visited and if so, how did that experience influence your imagery?
JN: Sadly not; that’s on my bucket-list if I will visit the USA someday.
WH: How is Dickinson regarded in the Netherlands? Do your friends, family, colleagues know about her work and if so, what do they think of it?
JN: Emily Dickinson is made known in Holland by Simon Vestdijk (1898-1971), one of the greatest writers of the Netherlands. All her poems were translated by translator Peter Verstegen, together with commentaries [Poems 1 and 2, 2005 and 2007; Collected Poems 2011]. Willem Wilmink (1936-2003), a poet himself, translated some poems as well but did that with a more personal interpretation. Some friends & family love her poetry also, some don’t, some even don’t know her.
WH: How does Dickinson speak to you as an artist in the 21st century? What specifically about her work or life resonates with you?
JN: I like the mysticism in her life and poetry. Another connection is that as an illustrator, I’m also working mostly “alone,” in solitude. She, like me, also is a wrestler. She went off the beaten path, and for me as an illustrator, I’m always searching for a concept that is new, a different “angle” or perspective.
Like Emily, I have the same desire for silence and nature. I need silence to come into a flow of creativity. I live near the national park “de hoge veluwe” [in the province of Gelderland near the cities of Ede, Wageningen, Arnhem, and Apeldoorn]; for me it’s essential to walk or ride on my bike through nature once in a while.
WH: Please tell us a bit about yourself.
JN: Jedi Noordegraaf has been working as illustrator since 2009, operating under the name Studio Vandaar. His illustrations can be described as layered and conceptual with a rich color palette. The starting point for an illustration is always the text. The purpose is to express the essence of the article so that the message is extra powerful. Jedi’s specialty is drawing editorial illustrations for various magazines as well as covers. In addition, he also works on the visual identity of products or organizations. He worked for: the beer label Tongval (illustrations, graphic design & website), the Canvas Blanco band (illustrations & formatting) and the book Desert Fathers (illustrations & visual identity), chosen to be the best Theological Book of 2015!
In the name of the Bee
And of the Butterfly –
And of the Breeze – Amen!
At first sight, this small poem (written in the year 1858 according to editor R. W. Franklin), impresses us as a merry little text, delightful and inoffensive. Yet its very last word has a blasphemous sting. It shows that this little poem is a parody of the ritual formula proceeding each and every Christian service: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen” in accordance with the dogma of the Christian Trinity.
The trinity of Bee, Butterfly and Breeze, however, is an invention of the poet. She asserts it at the end of her poem with a proud “Amen,” clearly stating that she is celebrating here her secular service of spring and nature as she often does in her poems. In this way, she turns her back on that powerful image of “our father in heaven," propagated by her Calvinistic church, the service which she abhorred since early childhood.
The acoustic glue of Dickinson’s Trinity of Spring is a threefold alliteration, which has to be preserved in the German translation. Yet this is impossible: Bee and Breeze indeed have a German equivalent in “Biene” und “Brise.” But Butterfly is the German “Schmetterling” and cannot be replaced, for example, by the German word “Butterblume” (Engl. buttercup). For Dickinson’s Bee symbolizes the love and potency of the Father, her Butterfly alludes to the metamorphosis of the resurrected Son, and the Breeze refers to the Pentecostal blowing of the Holy Spirit. That is why “Butterblume” (in spite of its beautiful double alliteration) cannot replace Butterfly. Translation means negotiating and weighing gains and losses. To gain an additional B-alliteration here can never make up for the loss of the symbolic aura of Dickinson's butterfly.
Im Namen der Biene –
Und des Schmetterlings –
Und der Brise – Amen!
bio: Gunhild Kübler, born in 1944, studied German and English literature in Heidelberg, Berlin and Zurich. She earned her doctorate with Peter von Matt. Subsequently, she worked as a literary critic for the Swiss radio and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. She was the editor of Weltwoche and writes today for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on Sunday. From 1990 to 2006 Gunhild Kübler was also a member of the critics' team of the program "Literaturclub" by Schweizer Fernsehen. She lives in Zurich. In 2015, she published the first complete German edition of Emily Dickinson's 1800 poems, Emily Dickinson: Sämtliche Gedichte.
Vestdijk, Simon. “On the Poet Emily Dickinson.” Trans. Peter Tydell (2002). Forum 5 and 6, 1932/3.
Hampshire Gazette, September 23, 1862
Harper's Monthly, September 1862
Springfield Republican, September 20, 1862
Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1966.147-88.
Mitchell, Domhnall. “Translation and International Reception.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 343-350.