4.1 Fidelity to the original
The first reason for this new translation of Van Gogh’s correspondence is the new transcription,22 which has corrected many misreadings in the previous Dutch and French editions on which The complete letters of Vincent van Gogh of 1958 was based,23 and has restored numerous omissions.24 At the same time there was dissatisfaction with that English translation because it ‘prettified’ Van Gogh’s words and did not accurately reflect what he actually wrote. It failed, in other words, to do justice to his idiosyncratic voice, which was a disservice to both him and the reader. Absolute fidelity to the original is the fundamental principle underlying this new translation. It reproduces Van Gogh’s words as closely as possible, consistent with readability. That in itself was a considerable challenge, for as a translator of one section of the correspondence noted back in 1936, ‘van Gogh’s peculiar style... is all but untranslatable’.25
It would have been utterly unrealistic to expect one translator to work full-time for two or three years on a single project like this, so it was decided to split the job up. The correspondence runs to just under 1 million words, roughly two-thirds written in Dutch and the remainder in French. The most obvious division was three Dutch-English translators and two French-English.
The five translators selected from 59 entrants to an international competition were, in chronological letter order, Diane Webb, John Rudge and Lynne Richards for the letters written in Dutch, and Imogen Forster and Sue Dyson for those in French. Imogen Forster supplied the translation of French passages in the Dutch letters, while Lynne Richards did the same for the Dutch letters from the French period.
Another demand made of the translators was the rigorous avoidance of interpretation. If Van Gogh wrote ‘het’ or ‘il/le’ (‘it’), then ‘it’ it was, not ‘it [the money]’ or ‘the money’ if his meaning was not immediately clear. It would not have been apparent to the recipient of the letter either, so there was no earthly reason to remove any ambiguity for the modern reader. Clarifications, where necessary, will be found in the notes.
The translators supplied their work in batches. The first version was read by the translation editor, Michael Hoyle, (the first versions from the French were first read and commented on by Wouter van der Veen before being passed on to the translation editor) and returned to the translator with suggestions for changes. This second version, was then read by all the editors and emended into the semi-final version, often after long discussions of particularly problematic passages. When that stage had been completed, the translation editor went through all the letters in chronological order to produce the definitive version published here.
In the meantime, a 17,000-entry concordance was compiled to ensure consistency in the translation of specific words that Van Gogh used in differing senses. One such in Dutch was scharrelen, which could mean to potter about, rummage, try out, scramble, bustle, muddle along, struggle on, fiddle around with, mess about with or get along. In French there was nature, which was used variously for natural surroundings, landscape and reality, as was natuur, the Dutch equivalent in those days.
It was decided not to reproduce grammatical errors or spelling mistakes, and some were quietly corrected without drawing attention to them, such as ‘The Langlois bridge’ for Van Gogh’s ‘Pont de l’Anglais’. Nor were antiquated forms of proper names retained, so for example ‘De Gas’ becomes ‘Degas’.
We had to be particularly careful with technical terms and the names of colours. The same is true for descriptions of colours in which it is unclear whether Van Gogh is referring to truly different tones or to a simple mix. It makes a difference if one interprets ‘ocre jaune’ as two related colours or as a description of a particular shade of yellow – the difference being between a notional comma and hyphen. In some cases, the artwork under discussion can provide the answer, but this is sometimes complicated by the fact that pigments have discoloured or disappeared over time. Even when Van Gogh does not give a real title to a work, but only provides a quasi-narrative description of the subject or certain pictorial elements – and it thus remains unclear which picture he is actually talking about – this, too, had to be reflected in the translation. In such cases, the annotations can provide the necessary clarification.
It is a truism that shades of meaning get lost in translation, but needless to say we have tried to keep that to a minimum. A more troublesome area concerns a few specific features of Van Gogh’s use of language. His French was better than that of many foreigners, but it was not his native tongue.26 Some unusual phrasings are due to his Dutch. This occasionally led to idiosyncrasies in spelling, syntax and wording which could not possibly be reflected in the translation. Consequently, no attempt has been made to replicate inconsistencies, errors or un-French French, since the solutions would be arbitrary and result in unnatural English.
There are awkward passages – but they are awkward in the original Dutch or French. Then there are sentences that go on and on, with clause upon clause dangling from every conceivable purchase point, much like an Alexander Calder mobile. They, too, are reproduced as faithfully as possible.
We were also faced with problems that confront every letter translator, namely that the writer uses a variety of styles depending on the addressee, that his or her use of language changes over the years, and that every author has stylistic idiosyncrasies – to name but the most obvious. The variety of letter writers, styles and addressees demands an equal variety of registers in the translation. Gauguin wrote differently from Theo, John Russell differently from the postman Joseph Roulin.
This, then, is neither a literary nor an interpretative translation. Van Gogh wrote what he wrote. All we had to do was translate, not interpret or second-guess, not get in the way of the words. As a translator, though, one inevitably has to make choices out of several possible readings from time to time. In such cases we based our decisions on our knowledge of Van Gogh’s use of language.27
4.2 Spelling, Punctuation and Typography
We have used UK English spelling, but with the verb form -ize where appropriate. Inappropriate lowercase letters in proper names have been corrected. Houses of parliament becomes Houses of Parliament, De Groux becomes Degroux. Proper names are anglicized where appropriate: Michelange becomes Michelangelo; Van der Meer becomes Vermeer. We have used the modern forms of topographical names.
All sentences begin with a capital letter, even if Van Gogh does not use one. We have capitalized the first word and nouns only in the titles of publications and works of art.
Van Gogh was very sparing in his use of punctuation.28 We ourselves have inserted standard commas and full stops in the translation. Questions always end with a question mark, regardless of the punctuation in the source text. An exclamation mark is added at the end of sentences which are obviously exclamatory. Regardless of the usage in the source text, single quotation marks are used, with double quotation marks for quotations within quotations. The punctuation used in the source text has been followed, with the exception of the ampersand sign (&): this has been replaced with ‘and’, with the exception of stock letter combinations like ‘Goupil & Co’.
We have used the standard typographical symbol for the mark of omission separated off from the text with a space on either side, even when Van Gogh uses two or four stops instead of three. Occasionally he uses far more stops, and in those cases we reproduce the number of stops faithfully using full stops and not marks of omission.
Any typographical marks in the source text (for italics, small capitals, etc.) are included in the translated text. Printed letterheads are not reproduced in their entirety. Standard paragraphs always start with a Tab. Paragraphs and lines separated from the preceding text by a blank line, letter dates, salutation, closing formula and signature, start flush with the left margin.
4.2.4 Other decisions
Abbreviations in the source text which have no English equivalents have been translated in full. ‘Uw liefh. broer’, in other words, has been rendered as ‘Your loving brother’ and ‘gd bould’ as ‘Grand Boulevard’. Stock letter combinations, such as Messrs G&Cie, J.P.S., C.M., have remained unchanged.
Words and phrases in foreign languages (Dutch, French) are translated into English with the exception of titles of publications and Latin words. The titles of newspapers, magazines, poems, books and magazine articles are cited in the language used by Van Gogh.
The names of works of art are often arbitrary, and can be translated into English as they stand, although in accordance with Van Gogh’s use of capital letters in the source text. (When Van Gogh refers to works of art by the subject depicted this is treated as normal text and translated without any modifications.) We did not place quotation marks around the titles of paintings or books unless Van Gogh does so. Similarly, they were not italicized if there are no italics in the source text. Allusions and implicit (even if unintentional) references to literary or biblical texts have been translated as they stand. Translations of poetry do not always rhyme, since giving primacy to rhyme can sometimes distort meaning.
We have used the King James version for quotations from the Dutch or French versions of the Bible. One problem with Van Gogh’s quotations from the Bible is that he often departs from the biblical text, sometimes quite drastically. These deviations are reflected in the translation. There are also a great many instances of him ‘internalizing’ the words of others and making them his own. In the midst of a freight-load of pious citations, he writes: ‘de wereld gaat voorbij en al haare heerlijkheid,’ which corresponds to : 1 John 2:17: ‘And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof.’ However, Van Gogh uses the word ‘heerlijkheid,’ meaning ‘glory,’ rather than the Dutch term, which would have been ‘begeerlijkheid.’29
Some of these deviations from the English and French versions of the Bible may be the result of ‘retranslations.’ An example is the use of the word ‘gently’ in a reference to Psalm 23 in an English quotation. This word does not appear in the King James edition, but rather originates in Vincent’s own translation of the psalm as he knew it in Dutch, where it does indeed include the word ‘zachtkens’, meaning ‘gently’ (letter 69).
We did not expand abbreviations whose meaning is obvious, as in the following passage: ‘The first Monday in Aug. is a holiday here. I went with one of the Germans to Dulwich, an hour and a half outside L., to see the museum there’ (letter 12). The same applies to R. for (Van) Rappard and T. for Tersteeg.
Van Gogh followed French usage and generally did not include the ‘De’ and ‘Van’ of a person’s surname, hence Rappard, not Van Rappard, Iterson, Maupassant etc. On the few occasions where he does include them, we have done so as well.
With thanks to Philip Watson of Thames & Hudson for his penetrating comments on the translations from the French.