Poetry: Melopee – Paul van Ostaijen

Poetry? Why?

Have you gone SOFT Marcel?

Well… my dear friend Iki sent me a set of photos of our weekend in Belgium this January. On one of them I thought I recognised a few lines by my favourite Dutch(-language) poet: Paul van Ostaijen.

‘Onder de maan schuift de lange rivier / Over de lange rivier’

Which is just so in the style of van Ostaijen. Indeed it was – which made me really smug for having recognised him based on just a line and a half :p – and it turns out to be his last poem; a calm, dispassionate, impressionist discription of his life. It’s not so long so I tried my hand at a translation for Iki whose Dutch isn’t as good as her Swedish – and I actually think I didn’t do too bad a job.

So, I’m publishing it here and now. Ah, the joys of vanity.

Melopee – Paul van Ostaijen

Onder de maan schuift de lange rivier
Over de lange rivier schuift moede de maan
Onder de maan op de lange rivier schuift de kano naar zee

Langs het hoogriet
langs de laagwei
schuift de kano naar zee
schuift met de schuivende maan de kano naar zee
Zo zijn ze gezellen naar zee de kano de maan en de man
Waarom schuiven de maan en de man getweeën gedwee naar de zee

Mélopée – Paul van Ostaijen

Under the moon the long river slides
Over the long river the moon sleepily slides
Under the moon on the long river the canoe slides to sea

Past the high reed
past the low pasture
slides the canoe to sea
slides with the sliding moon the canoe to sea
So to sea they are companions the canoe the moon and the man
Why do the two the moon and the man meekly slide to sea

Vertaling/translation: Marcel Volker

(technical background below the fold)

The title

refers to a type of monotonous chant, but the word itself originates from French. Since it has no direct English translation and the word is rather uncommon in Dutch, I decided not to use ‘recitative’ but rather to convert it to its French equivalent, assuming that English readers are more familiar with French than Dutch, and so preserving the exotic/archaic feel of the word.


I simply tried to preserve the soft, calm character with simple short words, and I tried to keep, without literally translating, the alliterations and repeating sounds. Hence for instance, in line 2 ‘schuift moede de maan’ became ‘the moon sleepily slides’ which is still an alliteration but on different words, albeit this way I kept them at the end of the line.

Lines 9 and 10

I’m quite happy about the last two lines, where I managed to preserve alliteration (‘zo zijn ze gezellen naar zee’) and repeating sounds ‘de kano de maan en de man‘ in the next-to-last line as ‘so to sea’ ‘companions the canoe’ and ‘the canoe the moon and the man’, and similarly ‘de maan en de man‘ / ‘ getweeën gedwee naar de zee‘ was preserved as ‘do the two the moon’ and ‘the moon and the man meakly’ as well as the ‘bonus’ alliteration ‘slide to sea’.

Lines 7 and 8

The biggest decision was with lines 7 and 8, which van Ostaijen starts with the verb, slide. This is the natural order of words in Dutch grammar but starting with it also emphasises the sliding, before mentioning the canoe and all else. I kept this word order instead of opting for something more natural but less evocative, in my opinion, than ‘the canoe slides to sea / the canoe slides with the sliding moon to sea’ because that to me just sounds too clunky.

2 thoughts on “Poetry: Melopee – Paul van Ostaijen

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Poetry: Melopee – Paul van Ostaijen « Same shit, different blog -- Topsy.com

  2. Pingback: Paul van Ostaijen - Melopee | Neerlandes para todos

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