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Interview with Marjolijn de Jager - American literary translator

The following interview was conducted by Skype between Los Angeles CA and Stamford, Connecticut.

Marjolijn   Jonathan

Marjolijn de Jager -
the interviewee      



    Jonathan Goldberg
- the interviewer

Initials JJG

Marjolijn connecticut
Connecticut in fall   California in fall


JG: You were born in Indonesia, which at that time was the Dutch East Indies [1]. What brought your parents there?


Marjolijn map

Marjolijn: We are talking about MANY generations back, on my father’s side at least 5 generations back to the mid-nineteenth century; on my mother’s maternal side at least 3 generations back.

JG:: So your mother language was Dutch? Were you schooled in Dutch?

Marjolijn: I was born on Borneo where my father worked in the Royal Dutch Oil fields. In March of 1942 when the Japanese invaded the then Marjolijn SurvivalDutch East Indies we were living on Java. (The book Song of Survival: Women Interned, written by Helen Colijn, which tells the story of the British missionary, Margaret Dryburg, takes place in one of the camps on Sumatra.)  The Japanese incarcerated all non-Indonesians into camps of women and children only (boys until the age of 10) and men’s camps. Women were made to work in the banana plantations, herding swine, or digging pits; children were to tend the vegetable gardens, the produce of which went to the Japanese commander’s house. Education was strictly forbidden.

My mother, at great risk, had decided she didn’t want an illiterate child and began to teach me and a small group (4, 5?) of other children with a stick in the sand, as there weren’t any paper, pencils, or books. She was not a teacher but simply improvised, taking things a step further when we appeared to be ready to move on. Miraculously, all but one of us entered 4th grade after the war was over. When we arrived in Melbourne I was 9 years old and very warmly dealt with at St. Michael’s Anglican school. I did end up repeating 4th grade in Amsterdam a year later because the material taught in Melbourne and in Amsterdam was too different and, of course, I had not had any Dutch history at all.

JG: Having been a survivor of WW2 at a young age, did you feel a special affinity to Anne Frank.

Marjolijn AnneFrankMarjolijn: Yes, to some extent but much of that was also due to my not having any friends in Amsterdam yet and to our being so close in age, that is to say the age I was when reading her diary and the age she was when writing it. In real time, born in 1929, she was 7 years older than I.  She seemed like a far-flung friend to me. My diary was similar to hers in that it talked about school and school friends and such. When I read through it a few years later I found it self-absorbed and I destroyed it, as I have done with every other diary I ever kept for any length of time, stopping that activity definitively when I was in my thirties.

JG: You completed B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. studies in the USA. What were your majors? What was the subject of your doctoral thesis?

  Marjolijn NCMarjolijn: B.A. from Hunter College in NYC with a major in French and a minor in Classical Greek. M.A. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with a major in French and a minor in Spanish. Ph.D. from the same university with a major in French Literature, a 1st minor in Spanish Literature and a 2nd minor (required) in Comparative Literature. My doctoral dissertation was a stylistic study of one of the books (“Les Feux”) of Agrippa d’Aubigné’s [2] lengthy epic Les Tragiques, concerning the Huguenots [3] and their suffering at the hands of the Catholic Church.

JG: You taught summer courses at New York University for 10 years. Tell our readers about that.

Marjolijn: I began teaching Literary Translation (French to English) in NYU’s SCPS program, which as an elective course was then offered for ten weeks only in the summer. If I am not mistaken all the courses are taught on-line these days and I must confess that I am happy I was still able to teach this face-to-face! The students were completing many required courses in specific areas (Legal, Medical, Commercial translation) and this was one of the few they could choose as an elective.

JG: You have a long list of honors and awards. Which one gave you the most satisfaction?

Marjolijn: The African Literature Association  has been and still is the most important professional organization to which I belong. For me it has been an education from the beginning in areas of literature and cultures of which I knew (and still do) all too little. After my membership of almost 28 years it has also become a community of friends for me, which I cherish. Receiving the Distinguished Membership Award from the ALA for my translations of Francophone African literature in particular was a crowning touch coming from an immensely respected and extraordinary organization. 

JG: You were invited to be translator-in-residence at the Villa Gillet in Lyon. [4] Tell our readers a little about that.

Marjolijn: I found out that one could apply if working on a French or Francophone project of interest to them, so I did with Ken Bugul’s Riwan ou le Chemin de sable (1999). In September 2007 I spent an intensely satisfying month there, finishing about half the text and in the interim getting to know Lyon in many of its marvelous culturally rich aspects. Unfortunately, no publisher was ever found for the translation and I had to abandon the project when other (paying!) work came around.

JG: You first visited Africa in 1986 and subsequently made several visits to West Africa in the 1990s. What took you there?

Marjolijn_West_AFricaMarjolijn: The purpose of my first visit was to visit my son, who had volunteered for the Peace Corps in Togo. Subsequent visits were to Togo, Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana. On two such occasions I went on grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and on two others for African Literature Association Conferences. I did research in those countries, with the assistance of my husband who was a professional photographer and who videographed subjects of interest. He filmed one 75-minute documentary that I presented at an ALA Conference.


JG: Explain the connection between your family’s colonial background and your interest in Africa

Marjolijn: I have been an activist all my life and have always despised colonialism, so that having the ability to use my professional activities to bring the voices of some African writers to an English readership was, and remains, very much a political action for me, in addition to the love I bring to these texts, of course.

JG: Can you name an African author whose works you admire and have translated, and whom you have come to know personally.

Marjolijn : Werewere Liking, Marjoloijn Werewereoriginally from Cameroon, has been living in Côte d’Ivoire for most of her adult life. She established the Village KI-YI M'Bock (signifying "ultimate knowledge" in Bassa, Liking's native language) in 1985 then on the periphery of the city of Abidjan. (The Village KI-YI can be found on-line in many different entries.) Its purpose is to protect and maintain traditional Pan-African culture in all its forms, ranging from theater, dance, music (both instrumental and vocal), the plastic arts, costume design to performances and classes for adolescents. Liking is a truly Renaissance person in that she is equally gifted in almost all of these arts herself. In addition she is a really fine painter and playwright and an exceptional novelist. Of her novels I have translated three: The Amputated Marjolijn LoveMemory (The Feminist Press, 2007), It Shall Be of Jasper and Coral (Journal of a Misovire), and Love-Across-a-Hundred-Lives (University of Virginia Press, CARAF, 2000). Although I admire and love all of them, my personal favorite is Love-Across-a-Hundred-Lives for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is the amazing character of the grandmother who weaves in and out of the narrative, spreading her wisdom (literally) across the ages.

Thanks to a great extent to the ALA and to university departments of African Studies and African Literature, among others, African literature and African writers individually have finally gained some of the prestige, recognition and attention that must be paid to them in the West. We need to get away from the Euro-centered world and these works are among some of the finest guides to get us there.

JG: Of all the works you have translated, can you mention any particular one to which you feel a special affinity.

Marjolijn: One of my own favorite translations is The Bridgetower Sonata, written by Emmanuel Dongala. (Schaffner Press, Inc.),  published this year. See also: [5]

MJ - Bridgewater.jpg MJ - Emmanuel Dongala     MJ - M de J & Emmanuel

Both Emmanuel Dongala and I attended a small launching event at the French Consulate in New York, on October 13, 2021.

JG: Tell us about your work over the past few years?

For the past several years in my work as a translator, it has been a true privilege to be able to continue my focus on Francophone African literature. An increasing number of wonderful books, both fiction and non-fiction, have come my way. In fiction there are five important novels:

Congo Inc. Bismarck’s Testament by In Koli Jean Bofane. Published by Indiana University Press: 2018, Global African Voices Series, it was on the Short List for Best Translated Book Award (Fiction) 2019. 

MJ - Congo  Inc. MJ - In-koli-jean-bofane
  In Koli Jean Bofane


The Bone Seekers by Tahar Djaout. Published by Dialogos / Lavender Ink: 2018.

MJ - The Bone Seekers MJ - Tahar Djaout

An Algerian journalist, poet, and novelist, Tahar Djaout was attacked on May 26, 1993, as he was leaving his home in Bainem, Algeria. He lay in a coma for a week and died on June 2. He was assassinated by the Armed Islamic Group because he opposed fanaticism of any kind. One of his attackers stated that he was killed because he "wielded a fearsome pen that could have an effect on Islamic sectors."

“If you speak you die, and if you remain silent, you die. So, speak and die.” Tahar Djaout

Timothy SchaffnerI am especially indebted to Timothy Schaffner of Schaffner Press for giving me the opportunity to collaborate with him and his wonderful team on three books so far, while I am putting the finishing touches on a fourth and look forward to our working together on a fifth in 2022. This has been, and continues to be, an amazing and profoundly rewarding partnership. I am truly honored to be able to add my translations to his very impressive list of publications! (  

Below are the three translations that Schaffner Press has published so far:

For a Long Time, Afraid of the Night by Yasmine Ghata (2019). Also available as an audio-book.      

MJ - For a Long Time Afraid of the Night MJ - Yasmine Ghata

 In the middle of the night in early April 1994, Arsène, an eight-year old Rwandan boy, flees his village as shouts and gunshots draw near. Carrying only a battered suitcase of his father's, hastily packed with a few essential items by his grandmother--who along with the rest of his family and the entire village will be massacred that night--he runs into the wilderness and wanders alone and afraid through unspeakable horrors.

I read excerpts from For a Long Time, Afraid of the Night at a PEN Translation Committee event.


The Mediterranean Wall by Louis-Philippe Dalembert (July 2021).

MJ - LOuis-Philippw Dalembert

The Mediterranean Wall has been given the French Voices Annual Grand Prize. The award is sponsored by the Cultural Services division of the French Embassy in the U.S. in recognition of “the quality of both the original work and the translation” and epitomizes “the many facets of a vibrant French literary scene.” The annual Grand Prize winners – one each for fiction and non-fiction – receive $10,000, shared by publisher (60%) and translator (40%).

The last two titles are both shortlisted for the Albertine Prize, a reader’s choice award for French books in English translation:

  MJ _ Albertine Short List  

The third book is The Bridgetower Sonata: Sonata Mulattica, mentioned above.

I have also translated several non-fiction books from Dutch:  Black Shame: African Soldiers in Europe, 1914-1922, by Dick van Galen Last, Camp Life Is Paradise for Freddy by Fred Lanzing, Personal Reflections of a Psychoanalyst by Hendrika Freud, and Invisible Years by Daphne Geismar

Marjolijn de Jager's contact details :
(203) 322-0706, [email protected]


[1] Marjoijn VOCThanks to its hardy navigators – whom we sometimes tend to forget – the tiny royalty of the Netherlands was able to carve out (and to preserve until the 20th century) a vast colonial empire in Asia and in the Americas. In the East this enterprise was the achievement of a commercial company, the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (the VOC), created by the Dutch Republic of the Seven United Provinces in 1602. The VOC also maintained a monopoly over Japan’s commerce with the West. Before being dissolved in 1799, the VOC was the instrument of Batavian capitalism and imperialism over two centuries. Subsequently, the colony of the East Indies was managed as a separate entity. Its defense was ensured by a private army of mercenaries, and it was independent of the Dutch metropolitan forces. The poet Arthur Rimbaud signed up to serve in the East Marjolin Arthur_RimbaudIndies, and after undergoing basic training in Den Helder (in Zeeland), he was sent to Java. He took very poorly to military life; he was quick to desert and returned to Europe by working on a cargo ship. That fleeting experience in the Far East must certainly have been a revelation for the young man from the Ardennes.


[2] Aubigné (Agrippa d'),1551-1630. « French poet, born close to Pons, in Saintonge (a former French province) a childhood friend of King Henry the Fourth, who remained an avowed Protestant all his life. Extremely precocious, he could read Latin, Greek and Hebrew before the age of eight years. (Dictionnaire des littératures, published under the direction of Philippe Van Tieghem. Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1968, pp. 258-259).

Marjolijn Aggripa   

Agrippa d'Aubigné lived and died in the Maison de la Rive, Hotel de ville Street, Geneva.

He was the grandfather of Françoise d'Aubigné, Marquess of Maintenon, second wife of King Louis XIV

[3] A deformation of the German word Eidgenossen (name of the Genevan partisans of the confederation opposing the Duke of Savoie), which the French Catholics ended up using (originally pejoratively) to refer to Calvin Protestants in France. The wars of religion opposed the Papists and the Huguenots. French synonym: parpaillot(ote).


Marjoiljn Villa Gillet[4] La Villa Gillet, located in the Cerisaie Park at 25, rue Chazière, Lyon, aspires to be a laboratory of ideas. Artists and thinkers meet there periodically to contemplate together the problems of the contemporary world. The building was constructed in 1912, designed by the architect Joseph Folléa for the Gillet family, rich local industrialists. In May each year, the Assises internationales du Roman are held there. It is worth noting that since 2011 the Villa Gillet organises "Walls & Bridges – Transatlantic Insights" in New York. This festival is designed to facilitate a dialogue between French and American thinkers and artists.


[5] For an interview with the author Emmanuel Dongala, click here.  

From LIMELIGHT by Harriet Cunningham on 23 July 2021:

“You know the legend. The Bridgetower Sonata, or “Sonata Mulattica”, as it appears on the composer’s original manuscript, is better known as Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in A, Op. 47, The Kreutzer. As the story goes, Beethoven and his new friend, a young, mixed race violin whizz called George Polgreen Bridgetower, gave the first performance of the work together, playing from a score on which the ink was still wet. But weeks later, Beethoven dropped the original dedicatee in favour of the more influential (and more white) virtuoso, Rodolphe Kreutzer.”


Additional reading:

Literary Translation by Marjolijn de Jager, Ph.D. 

Paradise Road (1997 film)

Marjolijn - Paradise Road




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