14 August 2023
Paul Vincent - 40 years of translating
Paul Frank Vincent (1942-) is an award winning translator of Dutch and German texts into English; in 2016 he and John Irons won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize for 100 Dutch-Language Poems (London, 2015; YC.2017.a.3500). His career spanned many decades, but now he is retiring from translation at the age of 81. That is proof of his passion for languages, literature and translations, especially German, French and Dutch, all of which he studied at Cambridge. His choice for languages was influenced by his father who had fought in the Second World War on the continent, from where he brought back French and German songs. They fascinated the young Paul. He read translations of Grimm fairy tales as well as English classics such as Black Beauty.
Paul Vincent could have chosen to study German or French and he did indeed study these languages for a while when he realised that not many students did Dutch, so he switched. His decision proved the correct one when Paul came back from a holiday in the Netherlands with a desire to know more about the meaning of “strange letter combinations” in vowels such as ‘au’ (similar to ‘cow’) and ‘ui’ (not found in English).
For 22 years Vincent taught Dutch language and literature, including translation, at Bedford College and later at University College London (UCL), before taking the plunge into freelance translation in 1989. His teaching experience served him well, although finding work as a translator was and is not easy. Like every starting translator he had to accept what was on offer. That first offer was a jackpot: The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch, one of the Big Three in Dutch literature. Not the easiest of novels if you ask me, but Paul pulled it off.
Front cover of Harry Mulisch, The Discovery of Heaven, translated by Paul Vincent. (London, 1998) H.2000/2442
Works by Dutch and Flemish authors, both still alive and long dead followed. Vincent has quite a wide ranging repertoire: from Louis Paul Boon, Guido Gezelle, Louis Couperus to Katrien Hemmerechts, Tom Lanoye and Silvio Alberto (Tip) Marugg. He prefers the big beasts of Dutch literature, such as Harry Mulisch and Willem Frederik Hermans. He has translated fiction, poetry and the odd non-fiction work.
Harry Mulisch, Siegfried, translated by Paul Vincent. (London, 2003) Nov.2003/1794
Vincent’s favourite project was translating one of Mulisch’s later novels, Siegfried (2001). Translating is a puzzle; the easy bit is that there is an original text, the hard part is turning the original in an acceptable text. A good translator is able to find the middle-ground between staying true to the original text and making sure the text makes sense in the target language. If you then find word plays, such as anagrams in the text, that poses an additional challenge. Paul struggled with the anagram the protagonist made of the name Hitler, but found an elegant solution by using his first name as well.
The anagram in Dutch reads: Helrit, Relhit (ride to hell, riot hit).
In English it reads: I, dart of hell, Half Riot-Led.
Anagram in Dutch from Harry Mulisch, Siegfried (Amsterdam, 2001) YA.2002.a.19603
The anagram of Hitler’s name in English.
Vincent translates poetry, too. He has tackled 17th-Century poets Joost van den Vondel , P.C. Hooft , Gerbrand Bredero, the 19th-century writer De Schoolmeester (‘The Schoolmaster’, pen name of Gerrit van de Linde), Guido Gezelle and many others. His last poetry project was Mei (May) by Herman Gorter (Nijmegen, 2021; YF.2022.a.18897; you can read the original Dutch text here).
Herman Gorter, May, translated by Paul Vincent. (Nijmegen, 2021) YF.2022.a.18897
The Translations Database of the Dutch Foundation for Literature lists 125 titles translated by or contributed to by Paul Vincent. The database lists every Dutch title that has been translated into a foreign language. The organisation that runs it is responsible for the promotion of the quality and diversity of literature in the Netherlands and abroad. Its counterpart in Flanders is the Flemish Literary Fund.
Banner New Dutch Writing
Banner Flip through Flanders
Over the space of his long career Paul built a large library, containing literary works and works on translation. He has very kindly donated some 200 books to the British Library which we didn’t yet have. This is a welcome chance to fill some gaps in our collections, for which I would like to thank Paul very much, indeed! They will soon appear on our catalogue with a note about their provenance, so anyone who reads them knows they came from him.
F.E.J. Malherbe, Zuidafrikaanse Letterkunde (Pretoria, 1968) Awaiting shelfmark.
Happy retirement, Paul, and thank you!
Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections