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Behind the scenes: Translating Mondrian’s letters

March 1, 2022

by Leo Jansen

Letter from Piet Mondrian to his American friend Harry Holtzman, 13 January 1938, detail. RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History, Piet Mondrian Archive. (Transcript below)

Piet Mondrian wrote his letters in three languages: Dutch – his native tongue –, French and English. The online edition of Mondrian’s complete correspondence which is under preparation is meant to serve an international audience of researchers and other interested parties. That is why in The Mondrian Papers – besides the original versions – all letters written in Dutch and French are also offered in English. In addition, all annotations and comments are published in English in this edition. To date, fewer than three per cent of Mondrian’s letters have been published in translation! Thus the edition project contains a substantial sub-project: providing translations from Dutch and French into English. A job that presents its own, unique challenges.

Mondrian’s Dutch
Roughly half of the approximately 1700 letters that remain are written in Dutch. Mondrian’s native language skills were excellent, despite the fact that he only had eight years of primary education. In his letters, the way he expresses himself tends to be direct, straightforward, and to the point. His language is polished but devoid of embellishment, bombast, or aesthetic refinement. Here and there an archaic expression is used, but to the contemporary reader, his letters are still pleasantly readable. Generally speaking, translating these letters presents few challenges. It primarily comes down to being consistent in the translation of recurring words and phrases; some of the nuances or variations Mondrian uses do not have an exact English counterpart.

Special attention is required by the (important!) passages in which Mondrian expresses his ideas on art. He has developed his own, unique jargon, and where these subjects are concerned, his letters overlap with his theoretical writings. Often, translation options are determined by the context in which a term is used. A keyword such as ‘beelden’ (which roughly means: creating a form to visualize an idea or thought) cannot always be translated the same way. It also interferes with terms such as ‘plastic’ and ‘express’, to name but a few. It is therefore important to be extremely precise and nuanced and, not least and once again, to be consistent.

Mondrian and foreign languages
It is not known whether Mondrian was taught foreign languages in school. If so, then it would most probably have been French, at the time the second most important language in the Netherlands (much like English is nowadays). It is clear that he considered mastering the two foremost foreign languages, French and English, important. Around 1900, he received lessons in English from his pupil Hannah Crabb, in exchange for drawing lessons. During his years in Laren, he practised his French with the help of the exiled Belgian artist Nico Eekman, while also being involved for some time with Willy Wentholt, a French teacher at an Amsterdam grammar school. His letters, to Wentholt among others, also contain a few references to French novels he was reading. In Paris in the twenties, he practised his French by conversing in the language with his friend Rinus Ritsema van Eck. Mondrian was obviously quite active in schooling himself.

Of course, reading in a foreign language is one thing; speaking and writing, the active language skills, demand rather more knowledge and practice. How this panned out in Mondrian’s case can be partly deduced from his letters. Let us first consider his French. Of his first Parisian years, from early 1912 until July 1914, few letters in French remain, but enough to conclude that he is still very much tied to Dutch wording and sentence structure. At the same time, he sometimes uses complex verb tenses, which indicates that he is deliberately aiming for a high language register – resulting in inevitable mistakes. During his later, long-term stay in Paris (1919-1938), his French, as is to be expected, becomes more fluent and natural. He still makes the occasional mistake conjugating adjectives and verbs, and his sentence structure is at times rather un-French; perhaps partly because he still met rather a lot of Dutchmen with whom he continued to correspond in his native tongue.

With English, he fares less well. He only starts using it from 1938 onwards, when he flees Paris and goes to London and from there on to New York. Some native speakers of English with whom he had been previously corresponding, he preferred to write in French. The many mistakes in wording and sentence structure which appear in his English letters from 1938, clearly show the influence of both Dutch as well as French. Sometimes the result is positively comical, such as the universal truth ‘One never knows what goes to happenen’. (See facsimile at top and transcript below.) Dutch readers will recognize this as what is nowadays jokingly referred to as Dunglish (with apologies to our foreign readers). But before we poke fun at him for making these mistakes, we should bear in mind that prior to this, Mondrian had hardly been able to practise his English and was well over sixty when he found himself having to master the language.

Dear Holtzman,
This morning I got your nice let-
ter and sending. It is very nice of you to
think of me. I thank you again for your
good help.
Yesterday my two pictures for that exhi-
bition here came ready (just I was inter-
rupted by people who came to give me
a box for putting in the gasmasque…..
Life is a “drole” thing! One never knows
what goes happenen. I don’t think one is
fearing danger now here.

Translating Mondrian
Because of the differences in Mondrian’s level of command of these three languages, translating each requires a different approach. As said, translating his Dutch is the least complicated – apart from the previously mentioned problems – and is more or less straightforward. Generally speaking, it can be approached just like any other ‘normal’ text. The same cannot be said of his French. The imperfections in his French language skills are characteristic and we wish to present Mondrian’s letters in English as faithfully as possible. However, imitating mistakes and idiosyncrasies in translation hardly produces a satisfactory outcome. It results in unnatural English, besides it being entirely random how omitted accents, erroneous conjugations, and the incorrect use of the subjonctif or the futur du passé should be conveyed. The translator would have to make up English language mistakes that more or less mimic the ones in French. For that reason, we always translate the letters into English according to the (unequivocally clear) intention with which Mondrian wrote them. The idiosyncrasies of Mondrian’s language use can be re-read in the original text, which is, after all, published as well.

Mondrian’s letters in English require yet another approach. It could be said that, despite their oddities, they do not require translation because they already are in English. Given the fact that they will only become relevant at a later stage of the Mondrian Edition project, we are still contemplating what approach to take. Partly because of the parallelism with the other languages, we might offer a slightly edited text alongside the original one (including oddities); a kind of ‘rephrasing’ – which is basically what the translations from Dutch and French are as well.

Translating is a profession
As Dutch editors of Mondrian’s texts we are able to determine the idiosyncrasies of his language, but translating is not our field of expertise. We leave that in the hands of professional translators, who, in addition, are native speakers of English. Before starting this translation project, we discussed with them at length what characterises the letters, and what specific aspects we want to do justice to. The translated letters are reviewed by an editor before we get to see them. We discuss the result and communicate our feedback to translator and editor, after which a second round follows. Sometimes even a third round is needed. If it is, it almost always concerns important nuances of essential passages – and those usually involve Mondrian’s ideas on art. The translator and editor both keep a list of chosen options for recurring words and phrases, to safeguard consistency as much as possible.
It is a demanding process, which involves a great deal of consultation between all concerned.

Therefore, it is not only the research for this edition but also the translation of Mondrian’s letters that is a prime example of teamwork.