Interview with Dutch wordsmith (and author) Gaston Dorren

EXCLUSIVE  INTERVIEW

Lyda Ruijter
The interviewer

Gaston Dorren
The interviewee

Gaston Dorren, a Netherlands-based writer and linguist, has published three Dutch books on language. One of these was published in English as Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, and translated into several other languages. He has contributed to popular linguistics magazines in the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain, Norway and Switzerland. He recently published "Talking Gibberish" on aeon.co. Gaston speaks English, German, Spanish and poor French and reads several more languages. He blogs at languagewriter.com.

Lingo 1


Lyda Ruijter, also born in the Netherlands, graduated from the University of Utrecht, with a Masters in Sociology where her areas of study were family therapy, criminology, methodology and statistics. She worked as the Field director for a government study on victims of crimes and Regional Coordinator for the organization Humanitas. Lyda came to the U.S. to study and graduated with a Ph.D .in Linguistics, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She worked in various academic positions in the departments of Linguistics, Education, and English both in the United States and Malaysia.

 

Lyda: When did you become interested in languages as an object of study?

Gaston: I think it all began when I was learned English, French, German and Latin at school. Only then did I realize that Limburgish, the vernacular we spoke in our region, the southern Dutch province of Limburg, was a language in its own right, not just some sort of informal Dutch. It was an epiphany to me that Limburgish, like English and French and the rest, had grammar rules, vocab and sounds substantially different from Dutch. I'd never stopped to think about that before. It was learning other languages that opened my eyes. Or my ears, rather.

 

Lyda: Did your upbringing play a role in developing your language interests?

Gaston: I'm sure it did. My mother is quite finicky about using le mot juste, both in Dutch and in Limburgish. My father was a French teacher, (which explains the choice of my name Gaston), my first girlfriend was German and most of the TV shows I watched, like The 6 Million Dollar Man and M*A*S*H, were in English, with Dutch subtitles.

 

Lyda: Did you become aware of the language of the elite by growing up in the upper-class?

Gaston: Certainly not; I'm from the "middlest" middle-class background imaginable. The only elitist family thing that I can remember dates to well before I was born: When my father went to a teachers training college at the age of 17 to become a teacher, my grandfather would write him letters in French. In my granddad's childhood, around 1900, French was still the elite language in our part of Limburg, and as an adult he wasn't above a bit of snobbery.

 

Lyda: You are the author of 'Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages', published in the US two years ago. It's a linguistic travelogue that takes the reader through Europe, examining sixty languages. How did you plan the book? Describe for our readers the experience of writing such a book.

Gaston: It actually grew very organically, out of some purely recreational writing. Feeling that these first few pieces were quite promising, I wondered what their common denominator might be, and I settled on this 'languages of Europe' theme, which proved to be highly inspiring. The book was first published in Dutch and got excellent reviews. I then decided to be reckless and have it translated into English at my own risk and expense. That has worked out wonderfully, because thanks to my agent Caroline Dawnay and the very perceptive publisher Mark Ellingham at Profile Books, it became something of a bestseller in Britain. Other editions, including the American one, have also done very satisfactorily. There are seven different language editions now. The main gaps are, much to my distress, Italian and French. I would really love to see Lingo published in those two languages. There is a wonderful Spanish edition, so Lingo in a Romance language is definitely possible!

 

Lyda: Could you explain to our readers the influence of powerful personalities on the development of languages. In your book, you describe how often one particular person with a strong dedication saved a language from extinction, or promoted a certain variety of a language. Did you notice the politics behind the choices for promoting one language or language variety over another one?

Gaston: Yeah, it's true that, with hindsight, many languages owe a lot to one or two persons. Perhaps they fought for its recognition or their books had a strong impact on the standard language. Martin Luther has been important for German, Dante for Italian. These are household names, but further to the East, there are all these 'fathers of the mother tongues' that most Western Europeans and Americans haven't heard about. Some of those may indeed have saved their language from extinction or at least marginalization. For instance, in Lingo I tell the story of the Slovak linguist and nationalist Ľudovít Štúr. Despite his efforts, Slovak didn't attain an official status until the breakup of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and it was only after Slovakia broke away from Czechoslovakia that the language really came into its own. These things work both ways: just like Slovak was in need of a country in order to flower, so Slovakia was in need of a language to claim nationhood. I'm simplifying things here, but nationalism and 'languagehood' are often considered to go together, especially in Europe. I'm not so sure that's a good thing. Nation and language make for a heady mix, even a toxic mix. Catalonia is the latest example of the tensions this can create, and similar conflicts have occurred all over Europe.

 

Lyda: What project are you working on now?

Gaston: I'm working on a book which is due out in late 2018, about the most widely-spoken languages in the world, from English, Mandarin and Spanish to somewhat lesser-known languages such as Tamil, Swahili and Vietnamese. Even though English is today's world language, only one in eight or so people in the world can speak it with any degree of fluency. This book will be about most of the other seven. As in Lingo, every chapter will have its own angle. For the one about Vietnamese, for instance, I'm actually trying to learn the language, and I'm going to spend a few weeks there soon. The chapter on French will be about the strong emphasis on la Norme and about Paris's dislike for minority languages. Article 2 of the Constitution says that "La langue de la République est le français", a legal fiction used to repress minorities' cultural rights. A self-confident nation that likes its citizens free and diverse would never make such an authoritarian claim. Oh boy – this is not a smart move to find a French publisher, is it?

 

Lyda: Since we're both Dutch, I can ask you whether you believe that the more laissez-faire cultural style in the Netherlands has allowed for less standardization, less push from the powers-that-be to conform to one language standard, and more acceptance of varieties in the language.

Gaston: I believe the Dutch situation is more or less like that in English: there is a standard, but except in spelling, considerable variation is tolerated today, both regional and in levels of formality. What is peculiar about the linguistic culture of the Netherlands is the tendency to be lackadaisical about the future of the language. Universities are fast becoming English-only areas. As a result, the future elites will not be able to explain their fields of expertise to laypeople - that is to people like you me, because we're all laypeople in most fields. We may well lose the Dutch vocabulary for whole areas of human knowledge and endeavor. I may not lose sleep over it – I mean, climate change is worse – but I would consider it a great cultural loss.

 

Lyda: Since your travels and your language observations are so closely tied, do you consider yourself a linguist, or a geographer or what?

Gaston: I'm a linguist, but my type of linguistics requires a lot of historical and geographical knowledge. As it happens, one of my future projects will indeed concern itself with geography - with borders, to be exact. But I'd rather not elaborate at this stage.

 

Lyda: I've been particularly impressed by the style of the writing. You must have a very good translator for English. I'm very curious to read the Dutch version to see how some of the passages were written by you in the original.

Gaston: Thank you! Yes, Alison Edwards did an excellent job. So did most of the translators into other languages, by the way. It has been an absolute joy working with most of them, not only because they're such dedicated professionals, but also because having this book about languages translated into, say, Spanish or German has forced me to look at some languages afresh, from the perspective of these particular target languages. I've even been giving talks to translators in several countries about this aspect of Lingo.

 

Lyda: Anything else you'd like to add?

Gaston: One relevant fun fact is that I performed as a singer-songwriter for seven or eight years. I think it taught me the importance of drawing in an audience. The experience has definitely changed my writing, made it more personal and I hope more engaging. It has also taught me how to give talks. I used to be terrible at them, and now they're one of my favorite things to do.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.


Interview with British wordsmith (and poet) Annie Freud

Annie freud portraitOur current guest, Annie Freud is a distinguished British poet and one of the members of the Freud lineage to gain fame for their intellectual achievements. She is the daughter of painter Lucian Freud, the maternal granddaughter of sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, and the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud. [1]

 Freud was educated at the Lycée Français in London and then studied English and European Literature at Warwick University. Since 1975, she has worked intermittently as a tapestry artist and embroiderer, in addition to publishing works of poetry : The Mirabelles, 2010 and The Remains, 2015. 

 

A.F. Book 2 A.F. Book 3

                                                             

"Freud's poems are chaotic, hectic and witty; are a romp through London, its melancholy and beauty; are a sumptuous tumble through love, appetites and desire." (The Poetry Archive.)

 

Jean-Paul cropped

Our interviewer, Jean-Paul Deshayes, was a certified English teacher and teacher-trainer at the IUFM (Institut Universitaire de Formation des Maîtres), having also taught French in London for 10 years at high-school and university levels. Jean-Paul now pursues a career as translator for the magazine media. Although retired, he engages in diverse activities: exchanges with other translators, assorted reading, DIY and martial arts, as well as trips to London with his English wife to visit their daughter and granddaughter. He regards translation (from and into English) as a particularly stimulating intellectual Bourgogne exercise and devotes himself to it both professionally and for his personal pleasure. Dedicated to poetry in all its forms, he likes  Robert Browning, Robert Frost and the English romantic poets in equal measure. By coincidence, South Bourgogne, where he resides is the birthplace of Lamartine, whose magnificent poem, “The Lake” he likes to read regularly.

 

Mr. Deshayes conducted this interview in English and then translated the questions and answers into French. French translation.

 

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J-P D. : Your very first collection, "The Best Man That Ever Was", won an award and you were described as  "a new voice" in poetry. Do you find that it is a fitting description?

 

A.F. : Although it is not exactly comfortable for me to comment on my own work, when I return to The Best Man That Ever Was, my first collection, I find that it has a sprightliness and irrepressibility that makes me smile.


J-P D.
 : 
Poetry has come rather late in your life. Would you say then that it was a hidden or dormant calling? Did you ever suspect that it was in you, just waiting to be awakened by the right opportunity?

A.F. : The desire to write poetry was repressed rather than hidden. In some sense it still is. Often I can't seem to write anything at all … I don't seem able to allow myself the pleasure of writing. And then suddenly I have a lucky streak and write a lot very fast. 

There are many more poems I'm longing to write but I have to wait like a cat for a mouse to come out of his hole in the wall . . . Then BANG! I try not to think too much about these things because I don't want to get into the habit of having fixed ideas about how I work.

Being a late-comer to writing poetry has some advantages. Sometimes it seems that I have a lifetime of stored material and poems that are 'ready to go' like fast food.

I have made different kinds of art all my life – acting, painting, embroidery, tapestry, film scripts – but I often drew back, censored myself and was not as productive as I could have been. By the time I was writing and reading my poems to live audiences something in me changed and could not be put back into the can. I am grateful to the many people who have encouraged me and helped me to change my life.

J-P D. : What did you do before you became a "full-time poet" if I may use that phrase? 

A.F. : I do not describe myself as a full-time poet because that's not how it works for me. I don't write every day or try to. But as a writer and artist, I am a hunter/gatherer/beachcomber, always on the look-out for an intriguing word or expression, something dropped or half-buried, a piece of porcelain, an expression that someone has used, something broken, a bird or an animal, some words on a piece of paper, a place name, an unexpected colour or story. If it connects with something in my life then I will keep it until I am ready - or better still - not ready in a way that stimulates me. 

I have worked as a teacher in many different settings, and have held positions of influence in public sector institutions. I have also made embroideries on clothes for celebrities.

 

J-P D. : Do you consider that writing poetry is a radical break with your original activities, which were basically practical ones, or is that connection still there?

A.F. : Writing poetry and having it published was a radical break for me because it changed how I felt about myself. I stopped hiding from my talent. I stopped comparing myself to other people quite so much. I found I was inhabiting a wonderful new world. 

It was a radical break for me in other ways. For so long I had lacked purpose. When I discovered that people found my poems entertaining it was like finding a new drug. Performing was a total thrill and it still is.

When my first collection was published I was still making embroideries professionally but I found I had to put that aside for a few years and make myself become more single-minded. Now, with the publication of my third collection I feel free to do what I like – and more ambitious and willing to work as hard as I can. It's wonderful.

I have discovered that I can, and need to work in diverse ways with different materials - writing, drawing and painting – but with the same degree of application and commitment. These different activities are always feeding each other, giving me the freedom I need to pursue my desire. Now that I have passed my mid-sixties, I have to look after my health quite carefully.
 

J-P D. : What does it mean to you to be a poet? Do you think of yourself primarily as a poet? Is the writing of poetry something that is a great satisfaction to you, something that is truly fulfilling? 

A.F. : The idea that someone is sitting reading my poems is tremendously exciting to me. It is a kind of relationship. Knowing that the actions, sights, thoughts, visions and feelings I have put into my poems are occupying someone else's mind, and are being changed and reinterpreted by that A.F. Billy Collinsperson, simply amazes me. This is what being a poet means for me but I never think of that when I'm composing a poem. I love to talk about these things with other poets. Billy Collins (pictured left), the celebrated American poet, writes brilliantly about the relationship between himself, the poet and the reader.

The joy of composition is not easy to explain. It is like being in a landscape in which all the elements and objects are clamouring for you to observe them and to make sure that everyone sees them in their true light. Some you discard, some you keep.

I find writing poems tremendously enjoyable. When I've written something I'm pleased with, I'm like a hunter coming down the mountain carrying my prey on my shoulder.

J-P D. : Do you see poetry as a creative art and if so what makes it so distinct from other creative arts? Do you find that – at the moment anyway – it is the most adequate medium in which to express yourself?

A.F. :  What makes poetry so distinctive from the other creative arts is that its raw materials are the same as those you would use to buy a bar of chocolate from a shop. As such, it is the most democratic of all the arts. And yet,  in spite of this commonplace aspect, the influence of the great poems which compose the literary canon, is so powerful and universal that it is without bounds.

 

J-P D. : You have produced beautiful illustrations for your new collection, The Remains. Did you feel that they were a necessary complement and, if so, in what way? 

A.F. :  The images in The Remains are integral to the poems, not as a key to their meaning but more to do with showing who I am and what interests and excites me. It was a way of being more serious about my work and paradoxically freer and more light-hearted.


J-P D. : Do you feel that poetry has a purpose? Does it just aim at making us look at the world and at people in a different way?

I think that the purpose of poetry is to enlarge and enrich our experience of life and the possibilities it offers. I also believe that metaphor is necessary to the understanding of all things. Without it we are doomed.

J-P D. : I have noticed that many of your poems are inspired by flowers or plants, or fruit (mirabelles) or vegetables (aubergines) or amusing anecdotes (like "A Memorable Omelette") and nor devoid of humour. What are your sources of inspiration, your favourite subjects? Are there any themes you feel strongly attracted to as a poet? 

A.F. :  I like to write about things that I handle and that are familiar to me. An important part of any relationship are the words that someone you love has spoken to you because they offer the unique gift of enlightenment. These things find their way into my poems. If they are funny that makes them more valuable. Regarding "A Memorable Omelette" : the egg as a subject and image is present in a number of my poems. Another recurring image is that of the lake.

J-P D. :  How do the "right" words come to you? Do they come easily or do you have to do a lot of painstaking rewriting? Are there any poems that you would like to rewrite or alter in places? 

A.F. :  I find I usually start with two or three words that resonate. Sometimes they produce a sort of instant culture, sometimes it is just me trying too hard. Then I look elsewhere.

Often I'll find something I've abandoned that has some new unexpected appeal and find that it has possibilities. Then I'm happy to do the work. I have found that feeling hatred for your 'subject matter' can be very useful and perhaps even necessary to the making of a poem.

J-P D. : You went to the Lycée Français in London. Could you tell us about those school years? Were they formative in your life as a teenager?

A.F. : The Lycée Français in London offered a rigorous but not an intellectually stimulating education as nothing was open to discussion and everything was learnt by heart. But learning texts by heart was itself extremely useful and I'm grateful for it.

J-P D. : On page 45 of THE REMAINS, under "My chosen subject is:"  you start with Baudelaire and end with a quote from that great poet. Did his poetry influence you? Yet, whereas his form is very classical, yours seems to be ever changing and sometimes even unconventional. 

A.F. : Baudelaire's poems are some of those I love most above all others. I experience Les Fleurs du Mal as a kind of lesson for every aspect of life as well as admiring them for their formal perfection and extraordinary beauty and boldness. My favourite is Les Correspondances.


J-P D. : When listening to Dylan Thomas or Robert Frost (or others) reading their poems aloud, what is striking is how differently we perceive those poems. Do you think that poetry is meant to be read out loud first and foremost?

A.F. Dylan Thomas A.F. Robert Frost
    Thomas               Frost   


A.F. : I think that hearing poetry read aloud is very necessary to its survival as an art form and an essential and entertaining way of becoming aware of new talent. But I also advocate the discipline of close reading where the reader becomes closely acquainted with a poem and begins to assess its importance and its relationship to the past.

J-P D. : If you could only give one piece of advice to an aspiring poet, what would it be?

A.F. : I would advise an aspiring poet to see lots of films, read widely across all genres, paint and draw, learn a foreign language, play a musical instrument and make strong friendships with other poets.

 

[1] By coincidence, the linguist of the month interviewed soon after the present interview appeared on our sister-blog, Le-mot-juste-en-anglais.com, was the translator Anthea Bell, who translated Sigmund Freud's "The Psychopathology of Everyday Life"  from German into English.
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Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.