Interview / South America / Suriname / Translator / Writer

In Conversation with Surinamese-Dutch Writer Karin Amatmoekrim and Translator Sarah Timmer Harvey

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Karin Amatmoekrim is a Surinamese-Dutch writer and essayist, who has six books to her name (to date)—including Het knipperleven (Uitgeverij 521, 2004), De man van veel (Prometheus, 2013), and Tenzij de vader (Prometheus, 2016)—and writes regularly for Dutch newspapers.

Her Instagram bio instructs us (and herself?) to “write like a motherfucker” and I think it’s safe to say she does just that; she’s currently at work on another two books.

Sarah Timmer Harvey is an Australia-born Dutch to English translator currently based in Brooklyn. They translated Karin’s short story chapbook Reconstruction into English for Strangers Press, although her other literary translations include work by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and is working on a full-length novel by Jente Posthuma.

Here, we discuss the absence of Surinamese literature in translation, what Karin and Sarah are both working on right now, and how Sarah came to translate Reconstruction.


Lauren Cocking: Why is translation important to you, either as a practice or generally speaking?

Sarah Timmer Harvey: For me, reading is about connection. Through a text, the writer invites the reader into their thoughtscape, to connect with their imagination in a specific place, time, or feeling. And there is arguably no closer reader than a translator.

I love the feeling of being able to fully immerse myself in someone else’s language and way of experiencing the world and then, through translation, share that feeling and space with new readers. The pandemic has been very isolating for so many people in different ways, but for me, translating and reading translated literature has given me an opportunity to reconnect to the wider world, to the voices and places beyond my immediate surroundings, the city and country where I live. Right now, that’s what feels important to me.

LC: And how did you get into translating from Dutch to English?

STH: I’m originally from Australia, but I lived in the Netherlands for 14 years and consider it as much my home as Australia or America, where I live now.

While living in the Netherlands, I really got into reading Dutch fiction and poetry and I occasionally translated things for pleasure or for my work, but it wasn’t until I went to grad school in the US that I began to take an interest in literary translation as a career.

I started an MFA in Fiction, which had always been a dream of mine, and it just so happened that the program I got into offered a dual track in literary translation. I signed up for translation courses, thinking it would be a good way of keeping my connection to the Dutch literary landscape alive while in America. But as I continued to study with some truly great literary translators like Edith Grossman and Matvei Yankelevich, my passion for it ended up superseding my interest in writing fiction.

While I still write occasionally, I tend to get far more excited about translating the work of talented Dutch-language writers than I do about my own fiction.

LC: And Karin, you were born in Paramaribo but I know you’ve lived in the Netherlands for many years now. If you know, what’s the literary scene like in Suriname?

Karin Amatmoekrim: It’s quite lively, to be honest. Considering there are so few people in the whole of the country (it’s a population of less than half a million) you’d be surprised to see how many of them write either poetry or fiction. Most of them are self published because Surinam does not have a publisher or printing house that supports literature. The best Surinamese writers are published in the Netherlands, which makes their books way too expensive for the Surinamese market, by the way. But that’s another discussion.

LC: Sarah translated Karin’s short story chapbook Reconstruction. How did you end up collaborating on this project?

STH: I’ve admired Karin and her work from afar for many years. I saw her many years ago on a Dutch TV show about Dutch identity, and her incredibly sharp and witty speech about Zwarte Piet and Dutch culture prompted me to read her writing, which I loved.

A few years later, I was honoured to be asked to translate some of her short stories into English. I did the first couple of drafts alone, with some great input from my mentor, Nancy Forest-Flier, and then reached out to Karin.

We corresponded a few times over the months and Karin was incredibly gracious, open and helpful during the translation process, particularly later in the editing phase, when we experimented with restructuring one of the stories to make it work better in English.

LC: What was it that you felt needed altering to make the story work better in English?

STH: Without giving too much away, the story that we restructured contains a rape scene. It was written in a style which worked very well in the original Dutch, with the narrative voice directly challenging the reader for “witnessing” the act, but the translation wasn’t landing. In English, that directness was almost too confronting and it almost took away from Karin’s very important message. Ultimately, Nathan Hamilton (our editor at Strangers Press) and I found the solution lay in reordering, rather than removing, parts of the text. Karin was very cool about us doing that and now I think that the translation works just as well as the original. 

KA: We went back and forth with the translation a few times. Sarah is an amazing translator and I’ve been happy with her suggestions every time.

LC: Sarah, I’ve read about your almost bodily, instinctual approach to translating poetry. How did you approach translating Reconstruction?

STH: The approach I take to translating always depends on the text and my connection to style and subject matter. In Reconstruction, Karin’s stories travel from the Bijlmer district in Amsterdam to Suriname and even imagined worlds. Depending on the story, the narrative shifts from being straightforward to quite surreal.

In translating them, I think I took the most time trying to make sure I was understanding and replicating Karin’s imagery and accurately conveying the cultural subtext in each of the stories. I also invested a lot more time in researching for this collection than I usually do, which absolutely enriched the experience of translating Karin’s work.

LC: Absolutely. Karin, you’re one of the few (perhaps the only) Surinamese writer I’ve found in English translation. Why do you think Surinamese literature is so under-translated?

KA: Tough question. I think maybe it has something to do with the lack of interest from abroad. I mean, most foreign publishers are ultimately interested in best sellers. And there are not that many Dutch-Surinamese authors that write best sellers, unfortunately. This might have something to do with their stories not being considered to be ‘universal’ enough, I don’t know.

Also, the Dutch Foundation for Literature has some influence in this matter. They can support the translations if they find the author’s work interesting or important enough. I’m happy that they stand behind my work.

LC: Absolutely. Sarah, can you see yourself working on more Surinamese literature in the future?

STH: There is no question that I’d like to see more Surinamese literature in translation. Dutch-language literature in translation should reflect the true diversity of Dutch-language writers and it’s always been important to me to champion that through my work.

It’s unbelievable that Reconstruction was the first time Karin’s work had been translated into English, when she has already published five novels in the Netherlands and won awards for her writing. So many elements and themes in Karin’s writing resonate with me and I would jump at the opportunity to translate more of her work.

At the same time, when it comes to Surinamese literature, I would really love to see more translations from translators with a Surinamese or Caribbean background being commissioned and published and I can absolutely see myself doing as much as I can to support that.

LC: I’ve actually had pushback for including Suriname as part of Latin American for the purposes of my blog. Karin, do you feel Latin American or do you see Suriname as part of Latin America?

KA: In a way, yes. It’s only because we don’t speak French, Portuguese, or Spanish that Surinam is not officially considered Latin America. But it sits right there on the continent, so it’s inevitable that there are Latin American influences. However, I feel Surinam is culturally more Caribbean than Latin American. The Creole or African influence on our culture is pivotal.

LC: Yeah, this question of identity is one that crops up often in your work, from what I’ve read. In fact, The University of Leiden website—[where Karin was writer-in-residence]—states that your novels ask the following question: “Can we escape from the identities that are imposed upon us by ourselves and others?” What do you feel are the identities imposed on you by yourself and others?

KA: I always wonder about who people are and how they behave in relation to others. We try and be our most authentic selves but we often find we can never escape the gaze of the other. For me, it’s a fragmentation of identities of woman of colour, migrant, intellectual, woman, mother—and the idea of that specific identity in the eyes of others.

I mean, in the West, people tend to think of a migrant in a certain way. What does that mean for me, as a migrant? What assumptions of me do I have to battle when confronted with that idea? Do I have to battle them, or is there a way for me to be unaffected by them?

LC: Absolutely. I wonder, what are you both working on at the moment?

STH: Right now, I’m in Upstate New York, only two hours from the city, but after spending the last year and a half primarily inside my apartment in Brooklyn, it feels like a different world!

When I get back to work, I’ve got a few interesting projects on the go but what I’m most excited about is finalising my translation of Jente Posthuma’s second novel, What I’d Rather Not Think About. Scribe just bought the rights for the UK, US, and Australia. Jente is hugely talented and I’m really excited that English-language readers will finally have the opportunity to read her work.

LC: And Karin?

KA: I’m working on two books at the moment: my PhD thesis, which is a biography of Anil Ramdas, a Surinamese-Dutch essay writer. And a book called The Other, which is a historical investigation into how this idea of the black and coloured person as “the other” was constructed. They’re both to be published in February 2022. After that, I’ll work on an extensive history of Surinam.

LC: Hopefully that’ll all be available in English soon, for non-Dutch speakers like myself! What are you both reading right now?

KA: I have no time to read for fun, haha. I’m reading everything that has something to do with what I’m currently writing. This week it’s been Hannah Arendt’s biography, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Goldenberg’s The Curse of Ham and Ramdas’ De beroepsherinneraar, to name a few.

STH: I’ve just started a collection of Grace Paley’s short stories, poems, and essays and I’m really enjoying that, especially her essays. There are still so many American writers and thinkers I’m discovering that weren’t a part of my education or vocabulary before I moved here.

In terms of translation, I also just re-read Little Eyes by Samantha Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell. A friend had raved about it, and I attempted to read it during the early part of the pandemic, but I don’t think I was able to fully appreciate its creepy intensity at the time. I’m so glad I went back to it again recently because it’s an incredible novel; Schweblin is a master of clever transitions and McDowell’s translation is flawless.  

This interview was conducted over email and edited slightly for length and clarity. Please note that while I used the “Suriname” spelling throughout, Karin used “Surinam” in her answers. I’ve left those instances unchanged. Header photo of Karin Amatmoekrim (left) is © Jeroen Hofman and photo of Sarah Timmer Harvey (right) is © D. Timmer.

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