A Pond Full of Ink: Annie M.G. Schmidt splashes out in English

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For years David Colmer dreamt of translating the poems of the Netherlands' most celebrated children's author into English and last year he finally got the go ahead. Now Annie M.G. Schmidt’s collection of poems A Pond Full of Ink is available in a new English translation.

It took Annie M.G. Schmidt no more than a day to write a new verse. Translating them required a lot more time. Sometimes David Colmer spent months on one single poem, searching for exactly the right words and the best rhythm.

“The first version could be finished in no time, but then I left the poems for weeks or even months. Only then did I see that clever discoveries I was delighted with at first, were really pretty corny.”

1980s translation
Mr Colmer immediately said yes when the Dutch Publisher Querido asked him to produce an English translation of A Pond Full of Ink, a new selection of Schmidt's best poems. In fact, he was the one who had urged them to undertake the project.

“Annie wanted her poems – which she considered her most important output – to become known abroad. Her son wanted that as well. A Canadian firm had already published them in English in the 1980s, but I wasn’t too impressed with the result. The book is no longer in print.”

David Colmer, an Australian who has lived in the Netherlands for 20 years, is a prizewinning translator of Dutch literature. He knows Annie M.G. Schmidt’s work very well. Three years ago his rendition of the first volume of Jip and Janneke stories was published by Querido. But he first became acquainted with Schmidt’s work years earlier, thanks to his Dutch daughter. “I used to read her all the story books and we listened to many of Schmidt’s songs.”

When he took on the assignment, he agreed on one condition: the publisher was not to mind if he did not translate all the poems that had been selected, for the simple reason that some might turn out to be untranslatable. This turned out not to be the case.

At times he had to change the word order of sentences to get a better flow and so it rhymed. But not every poem lent itself to this. “With long sentences, I could change the order around. If they were very short [...] it was more difficult.”

The meter was also a brain-teaser.

“Annie used many different meters. For example, seven ta-dam, ta-dam, ta-dams in a row. In English that’s a very natural rhythm, a bit like Shakespeare. But if the meter is ta-dam, ta-ta-dam, then it’s more like a limerick and translating it took a lot more thought.”

When translating Annie M.G. Schmidt’s verses into English, Mr Colmer made them more contemporary. Some of the poems date from the 1950s. However, he made the conscious decision not to go too far.

“I replaced old-fashioned words like ‘goodness gracious’ with more modern terminology. But at times pompousness was appropriate. Especially if it’s about posh ladies and kings. In any case, I never use texting lingo. So Pluk never says things like 'totally awesome'.”


More about Annie M.G. Schmidt's Jip & Janneke

• Annie M.G. Schmidt died in 1995, aged 84.