Guido Golüke, who lives in Koekange, the Netherlands, about two hours from Amsterdam by train, and who translated my novel The Treatment into Dutch, said, “For example, look at the phrase ‘pick-and-roll’ in your book.” We were sitting in one of Amsterdam’s innumerable “brown cafes,” named for their dark wood paneling and dark wood furniture, this one (as smoke-laced and Dommelsch-drenched as the rest of them) on the edge of the city’s infamous Red Light District, and Mr. Golüke was telling me and my wife—yelling at me and my wife, really, because of the din of boisterous student conversation that surrounded us—about how the Internet has magically eased some of the translator’s most difficult tasks: rendering argot, cultural references, idioms, and offhand regionalisms in another language.
“I went on the Internet and looked for ‘basketball’ and soon found myself at the Websoit [sic] of the Utah Jazz professional NBA team,” Mr. Golüke shouted. He smiled very broadly when he said the words “Utah Jazz,” and I suddenly saw how oxymoronic they were, as New York Cornhuskers would be, or Missoula Sea Urchins. Detroit Tigers is already quite a stretch. Mr. Golüke is a short man, in his late 40s, I’d say, with close-cropped, grizzled hair—a cyclist who evidently thinks little of riding the 1,000 miles between St. Petersburg and Warsaw in 10 days. He lived in England for 10 years and speaks English fluently and with a wonderful cockney-slanted Dutch accent: thus “Websoit.” He usually translates far bigger fry—Rushdie and Cormac McCarthy, for example—than me. “I entered ‘pick-and-roll,’ and soon there was a diagram showing me exactly what the strategy was. Then I recognized it as a football [i.e., soccer] maneuver, and I knew the British phrase for it, ‘one-and-one,’ and there is an exact Dutch equivalent, and so I had it, in a very short toim.”
Here are some floaters in The Treatment that Mr. Golüke found more difficult to identify: “tract house” (“A detached house of any sort here is generally quoit dignifoid,” he said), “windowpane acid,” “Chapter Eleven,” “Brigadoon,” “Paul Stuart,” “Charlie McCarthy,” the Christmas carol phrase “Heav’n and Nature,” “Island girls”—i.e., young Caribbean nannies in New York. (His e-mail to me about this phrase says, “After I visited various soits on the Web, my screen was pestered for days with deep blue propositions.”)
The whole process, and discussing it, made me realize what a vast and complicated idiomatic, allusive terrain any given language is. It’s an entire planet, actually, and its richness casts very serious doubt on the contention that gorillas and chimps are capable of anything even remotely resembling human speech. And I was reminded that American English is a particularly bendable and expandable and inventive writing instrument.
This warm satisfaction with my native language was balanced by jealousy of Holland’s literary culture. As our stops at Amsterdam’s numerous bookstores had evidenced, the Dutch, at least the cosmopolitan Dutch, are serious about books. John Irving is a rock star in the Netherlands. England is so close and the Dutch read and speak English so well that they often buy British editions of British and American books rather than waiting for them to be translated. Sometimes the editions in English are even reviewed in Dutch in local newspapers. My Dutch publisher, Emille Brugman, who was on painkillers for a dislocated shoulder he had suffered as a result of trying to carry too many books during a literary foraging trip to Paris, told us at dinner one night that Atlas is doing very well right now because of De Eeuw van Mijn Vader (My Father’s Century), by Geert Mak, which has sold 300,000 copies in Holland, the population of which is only 16 million. This is like selling 4 million or 5 million copies of a book in America— “Crichton numbers,” we call this kind of statistic at Random House. Plus the Dutch government directly and regularly subsidizes writers, and in the case of De Behandeling, it paid half of Mr. Golüke’s translation fee.
Yet more evidence of rich literary life: I had three interviews, one for a morning radio show, very relaxed, very informal. The host would translate a few sentences into Dutch when my English got too colloquial. My novel is about a tyrannical Cuban Catholic psychoanalyst named Ernesto Morales and his hapless young schoolteacher patient, Jake Singer, and my interrogator wanted to talk about whether I thought it was true that Freud was dead. The other two interviews were with print journalists. One found Dr. Morales “crude and offensive.” I’m not sure I can’t wait to see that interview translated. The other was a seasoned cultural reporter, who also wanted to know if I thought Freud was dead. But they had all read my book with flattering care— I could tell from their other questions and from the numerous Post-Its sticking out from the pages of the books they had with them.
And consider the fact that my publisher had brought me over there in the first place. I mean, De Behandeling (I do love to write the title) probably had a first print run of 56 books. I can’t imagine that its revenues will ever defray the cost of my air fare and four nights at the Amabassade. That’s the hotel where all the writers stay, the one where they ask you to sign a copy of your book before you leave. Leave from a front door facing the Herengracht Canal and a cobblestone street, along which serious, almost grim bicyclists speed, carrying every kind of bag and knapsack and duffel—all of them no doubt crammed with books.