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Shakespeare in Dutch

Every year on 27 April, the holiday of King’s Day, or Koningsdag is held in the Netherlands in order to celebrate the birthday of the reigning monarch of the House of Orange, which is currently King Willem-Alexander. To show their pride in the royal family, the Dutch people don orange clothes and decorate their streets, and even pets with the colour orange. In Amsterdam, events such as street markets, children’s games, and carnivals are held.

Anna Kerr
Dutch translation title page

The first complete Dutch translation of Shakespeare’s works was also published in Amsterdam, between the years 1778-1782. The man we have to thank for this first Dutch edition and translation of Shakespeare is Albrecht Borchers. Borchers was born in 1741, and operated out of Amsterdam as a publisher and bookseller of controversial “patriotic” pamphlets. The “patriots” were a radical political faction inspired by Enlightenment ideals who wished to democratize the Republic. Because of their opposition to the monarchy, they were also known as the “Anti-Orangists”.

At this time, only non-conformists in religion or Anti-Orangists such as Albrecht Borchers took an interest in English poetry and drama. Many Dutch critics at the time were content to adopt French attitudes towards English drama; Justus van Efffen, for example, described Shakespeare as ‘irrational’ (Macbeth) and ‘barbaric’ (Othello). For Albrecht Borchers to publish Shakespeare’s work was therefore a risk; he must have believed, however, there was a growing interest that justified this publication.

For the first three volumes of this collection, Borchers enlisted the help of a group of anonymous translators who he knew from various literary societies. These translators used the German edition published by Johann Eschenburg from 1775-1782 in order to translate Shakespeare’s works into Dutch, and though these volumes remain loyal to the characters, mood and essence of Shakespeare, there were enough errors that for the last two volumes Borchers turned to a different translator, Bernard Brunius.

Brunius was born in 1747 and lost his father, a country parson in the Dutch Reformed Church, at the age of 1. Brunius’ family afterwards moved to Amsterdam, and at the age of 18 Brunius attended the University of Franeker. It is unknown, however, how Brunius acquired his English skills, or what happened to him in the intervening years after his studies, except that he eventually found himself in the Amsterdam workhouse as a result of unpaid debts. On the advice of the Workhouse regent Brunius translated the novels of Lawrence Sterne from English into Dutch from 1778-9, perhaps in the hope of paying off his debts, which may be what brought him to the attention of Borchers.

Brunius carried out the translation of volumes 4 and 5 of Shakespeare’s works, beginning the fourth volume with a preface that criticized his previous translators for relying too much on Eschenburg’s German translation. Brunius instead likely used the English language edition published in Dublin in 1771, and only used Eschenburg’s version to double-check his findings. Brunius’ translation was, as a whole, much more successful than his predecessors; he was able to capture the lyricism, emotional rhetoric, and dialogue of the original text, even finding Dutch counterparts for Shakespeare’s many puns.

Unfortunately, the story of the first Dutch translation of Shakespeare does not have a happy ending for either Brunius or Borchers. Bernard Brunius passed away only three years later, in 1785, at the early age of 38 in the Amsterdam workhouse where he once again found himself as a result of ‘disorderly conduct’. Albrecht Borchers, equally, had an unhappy fate. In 1787 the Anti-Orangists were defeated by a Prussian army and forced into exile, and though Borchers was not involved in this battle, he was not able to escape its consequences. On the 20th of January 1790 Borchers was taken into custody, and made to ‘stand on display with a letter on his breast’ before finally being sentenced to 15 years in exile. His crime appears to have been the printing of “patriotic” literature during his time as a publisher.

Though this is an unfortunate and unhappy ending for both Brunius and Borchers, the history of this first Dutch translation nevertheless reminds us of the political and sometimes revolutionary nature of Shakespeare. Borchers was undoubtedly a man of strong conviction for risking profit and personal safety by printing the materials which he did, which included the works of an English playwright, William Shakespeare. Dutch translation Hamlet 

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