Poetry: Voorbij de Laatste Stad – Gerrit Achterberg

I like to dabble with translating – in fact, somewhere within I still dream of making money as a translator, somehow. So, I usually take an opportunity to translate something between English and Dutch. I even do it ‘the wrong way around’: it is said you should always translate to your native language. I usually end up translating to English instead. I’d like to think I’m even not half bad :P (better than Google Translate at least, har har).

A friend of mine asked me to translate the following poem for him, from Dutch into English. It’s very beautiful by one of the highest-acclaimed Dutch poets of the last century, Gerrit Achterberg.

Oddly, when I looked at my previous attempt at translating a poem (Melopee by Paul van Ostaijen), I noticed just how bloody similar the two poems are. Read for yourself, it’s kinda spooky.

Anyway, here goes. As with Melopee I’ve put a technical explanation of what I did and why below the fold. Enjoy!

Voorbij de Laatste Stad – Gerrit Achterberg

Aan het roer dien avond stond het hart
en scheepte maan en bossen bij zich in
en zeilend over spiegeling
van al wat geleden had
voer ik met wind en schemering
om boeg en tuig voorbij de laatste stad

Beyond the Final Town – Gerrit Achterberg

At helm that evening Heart stood strong
embarking moon and woods with him on board
and sailing ‘cross reflection of
all things that grief had known
I steered with wind and dusk that streamed
round bow and rig beyond the final town

Vertaling/translation: Marcel Volker

(technical background below the fold)


The metre is iambic, and given that the rhyming nor the length of the verses is not very strict, I decided to keep fairly strict to iambi in English, as that seemed to be the ‘backbone’ of the poem, in a way.

A simple example of this is the ‘version 0.1’ or ‘Google Translate’ translation of the last line, which started life as ‘… past the last city’ which is truly atrocious but obviously acts as a scaffold for later changes, of which ‘beyond the final town’ keeps the metre as well as the meaning.

Part because of metre, part because I for some reason did not like the translation ‘the heart’ from ‘het hart’, I changed it to just ‘heart’, then added a capital to keep the stress that the article adds in the Dutch.


The style is fairly straightforward, the strongest ‘presence’ is that of the nautical terms (roer, inschepen, zeilend, voer, wind, boeg, tuig), which I therefore all preserved (as helm, embarked, sailing, steered [not to use “sailing” twice; steer felt more appropriate at the second instance], wind, bow and rig [shortened from rigging to preserve the short Dutch ‘boeg en tuig’ which also look and sound similar; actually tuig itself is also shortened, from ‘tuigage’]). Similarly I kept the allusions to the night (avond, maan, schemering to evening, moon and dusk).


There is no ‘hard’ rhyming in the Dutch. There are however words that ‘sound the same’ in lines 1, 4 and 6: hart, had & stad, as well as in lines 2, 3 and 5: bij zich in, spiegeling & schemering. Given the shortness of the original lines and the straightforward language, I found I could not preserve this ‘association’, as none of the English translations sound alike nor are there straightforward synonyms (heart and town, for instance, and reflection and dusk).

For lines 1, 4 and 6 I therefore settled for words that, in English, are visually alike: strong, known, and town, to preserve this coherence.

For lines 2, 3 and 5 also this was not feasible in a straight translation. I therefore ‘ditched’ line 2 altogether, but added the two syllables ‘that streamed’ to the end of line 5; they have no equivalent in the Dutch original. ‘Streamed’ however introduces an otherwise non-existent association with line 3’s ‘reflection’, as both (can) pertain to light. At the same time ‘stream’ may pertain to water, and then fits in with the general theme of the poem. Finally, it may pertain to the wind, of earlier in line 5.

All in all I think this addition helps keep the English translation together a lot better, after losing some coherence in the direct translation (by necessity).


Of course, I kept the enjambment running from line 5 into line 6, which was fairly straightforward.

5 thoughts on “Poetry: Voorbij de Laatste Stad – Gerrit Achterberg

  1. Beautiful poem in Dutch and horrible in English. Please don’t ever do that again.

  2. Sorry about that :p. I will probably keep trying though, practice makes perfect :).

    Do you want to give it a go? It’s always difficult translating these borderline grammatical, non-rhyming, free-flowing poems.

  3. I won’t go into the English version, but rather point out that you got the original poem wrong… the 5th sentence ‘voer ik met wind en schemering’ should read: voer het met wind en schemering. The poem is not written in the I-form. Subject of the poem is the heart.

  4. Hmmm… can I blame the Interwebs? Pretty sure I did a straightforward COPY-PASTE from somewhere.


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