Dutch, English, both...
September 19, 2008 4:23 AM   Subscribe

Walking down the street one day in Amsterdam, you encounter an art-thing (sculpture/installation) that's broadcasting audio. The audio includes spoken poems. Would you expect these poems to be in Dutch? Would you feel alienated if they were in English, or if some were in English and some in Dutch?

(And if there were a paper handout available for people who cared, with the texts in both languages, would that affect your opinion?)

Next summer I'll be making three temporary installations like this -- one each in Vienna, Munich and Amsterdam. I've visited each of these cities and I know that many people in each city (especially younger generations) speak beautiful English. But for the Vienna and Munich installations, I know I want the spoken language in the audio to be German.

For the Amsterdam installation, I don't have a clear sense of whether English would be fine or alienating. My main concerns: I want the installation to feel inviting to people of all ages, and I'm focused more on permanent inhabitants of each city than on any tourists who happen to be around. "Permanent inhabitants" does include expats from other countries, which I know are a larger percentage of Amsterdam than of Munich or Vienna. I know my audience on mefi skews young and obviously skews non-Dutch, but I'm sure there are people here who have better, deeper knowledge of the Netherlands than I do.
posted by kalapierson to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I only speak English, so listening to something in another language probably wouldn't appeal to me. How about reciting in Dutch, then English, then Dutch, etc?
posted by Solomon at 4:37 AM on September 19, 2008

as a 42 year old dutchman i would prefer the audio to be in dutch, it feels less artsy when one encounters such a thing in the street, but it would also highly depend on the poems, their form and content, could you enlighten us a bit more wrt the poetry ?

and: if i may suggest a poet: Gerrit Achterberg is my favourite, although he's more focused on the countryside and the city of The Hague.
My favourite album of poetry is Vergeetboek, very mature, very well-written, pure poetry.
posted by Substrata at 4:37 AM on September 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

As a point of comparison, there is a big vertically scrolling sign in Schipol airport, as you go up to the departures floor, that has odd poetry on it, in English. But I guess that's clearly an international context.

Doing it in Dutch will shut out a lot of resident aliens - seems a lot of foreigners living there get by with English. But yeah, if you want it inclusive for locals I guess Dutch is the way to go.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:01 AM on September 19, 2008

Oh, what about this? I think it could be cute, but depends on what exactly your thing is... Have the English read by someone with a heavy and distinct Dutch accent, and vice versa...
posted by Meatbomb at 5:03 AM on September 19, 2008

As a visitor who doesn't speak Dutch, I'd be really sad to find that it had defaulted to English to accommodate the visitor/expat (and facilitate those with English) rather than being oriented towards the actual place and its language. A little of both would be best, in terms of inclusion.

(I've encountered the problem of not understanding any audio in a museum in Hungary, with oral histories, and was quite happy to listen to the Hungarian audio and get the meaning from a translated text nearby.)
posted by carbide at 5:04 AM on September 19, 2008

It depends on your audience and location. Art aficionados or tourists in the city center would have no trouble understanding English. That will be different in one of the suburbs or with people having a more casual attitude towards art. Your choice of poetry has influence too: strong rhythms, good reading will be appreciated more easily, especcially when the language isn't understood. Don't let the message be your only criterium when selecting poems.
posted by Psychnic at 5:24 AM on September 19, 2008

Response by poster: Good point that it could depend on the nature of the poems. I don't want to load the thread with a lot of details, but basically: the three installations are each connected to an existing (permanent) outdoor stone sculpture, and the audio is like the voice of the stone / what ideas might be stored in the stone. A variety of poets from each country are going to write new poems on that idea, to be recorded for me to use in making the audio. And this would be a 'serious' rather than 'light' feel because each sculpture is a memorial.

I was thinking that in the Netherlands a majority of the poets I find would naturally write in Dutch, and a few might naturally write in English or both (especially as I'm interested in getting as broad a spectrum as I can, and as Meatbomb points out English is sort of a common-denominator in Amsterdam for people not originally born there).
posted by kalapierson at 5:31 AM on September 19, 2008

I just moved back from the Netherlands (and spoke little Dutch). While it is true that English is very widely used and understood, more so than in most other European countries, many galleries had plaques only in Dutch. Although some contemporary art I saw of say, British artists, had dual language materials.

Choose what sounds best, and worry later about which language that actually is.
posted by wingless_angel at 5:44 AM on September 19, 2008

kalapierson, given the additional detail, I think it really would be cool, and a sort of salute to the local culture, if the parts you do include in English are clearly coming from a Dutch native speaker (maybe read by the original poet?
posted by Meatbomb at 5:46 AM on September 19, 2008

Best answer: As a native Dutchman, and a poetry lover, I would prefer to hear poetry in Dutch --- and for several completely different reasons.

Firstly, English already is the language of a whole lot of popular culture in the Netherlands. Turn on the television, and you'll hear American. Turn on the radio, and the pop music played will have English lyrics. Angry Dutch youth will rap in broken English --- because the clips on TV taught them to do so. Watch a commercial, and most often a marketer will have used an English phrase for a completely normal Dutch expression. For some reason this is still regarded as cool --- though I think it is the uttermost expression of lazy thinking.

So, using English poetry may express the idea it is possible to use the language in a better way --- yet may it no be so it'll also blend in too much with the ways English is used in all those others fields?

Though our English may be good, the general knowledge about literature isn't --- in either language.

I gather the question is if any such 'narrowcasted' poem will be recognized as a poem. And with Dutch poetry this will be the case --- it's easier for a Dutch audience to recognize that something special is happening; so their reactions to the event will at least be more honest.
posted by ijsbrand at 6:25 AM on September 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Though our English may be good, the general knowledge about literature isn't --- in either language.

This is the trap for many Americans. The average European, especially the Dutch, speak very good English, but it is very limited in vocabularly. Slang, idioms, and words beyond the 200 or so basic ones are not so well understood. English Poetry might therefore be completely impenetrable even among those Dutchmen who speak "good" English.

I have been told by more than one Dutchmen that Belgians (from Flanders not Wallonia) generally write and speak "better" Dutch. Apparently Belgians routinely win spelling, grammar, and writing contests in Holland.

So maybe Dutch spoken by a Belgian?
posted by three blind mice at 7:22 AM on September 19, 2008

Though I do not speak Dutch, I wouldn't want to visit Europe and then hear things spoken in English. It would feel as if I'm being pandered to, and as if the Dutch didn't have enough pride in their own language. In other words, what carbide said.
posted by desjardins at 8:17 AM on September 19, 2008

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