When I was asked to contribute to The Exile Book of Poetry in Translation: 20 Canadian Poets Take on the World, I knew right away that I wanted to translate the work of the Belgian poet Herman de Coninck. I had two main reasons for this. First, it gave me a chance to engage with a part of my own Flemish heritage head-on. Indeed, in my life I have had very little exposure Belgian literature in general and Flemish poetry in particular. As J.M. Coetzee pointed out in his book of translations of Dutch-language poems Landscape with Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands, “Dutch is a minor language in the sense that is spoken by only some fifteen million people, and its literature is a minor literature in the sense that it is not widely read.” It is not minor, however, in its artistic accomplishments. And that brings me to my second reason for choosing Herman de Coninck. I was already somewhat familiar with, and certainly impressed by, his warm, surprising and magnanimous poetry. He is not only one of the most widely read of modern Belgian poets, but he is one of the most widely read poets in the Dutch language of all time. Despite his enormous popularity in Europe, only one volume of translations of his poems into English exists: The Plural of Happiness: Selected Poems of Herman De Coninck translated by Laure-Anne Bosselaar and Kurt Brown (Oberlin College Press, 2006). Since I’ve been an admirer of de Coninck’s poetry since I first read one of his poems in translation many years ago, I couldn’t ignore this opportunity to share some of his work with a new Canadian audience.
What an exciting undertaking!
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