Monday, 20 April 2009

King Arthur's castle

Having been car-less for a while, I've recently been experiencing the joys of Dutch motoring again: those interminable waits at row upon row of traffic lights, those dodgy moments when some wannabe Michael Schumacher cuts you up in the early evening rush, and those occasions when roads are closed off at the drop of a hat for a pack of lycra-clad cyclists, leaving you to drive miles out of your way.

To take my mind off the stress on a trip to Sittard today, as is my wont, I started amusing myself with place-names. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was flabbergasted when DSM suddenly changed the name of their massive chemical plant in Geleen to ‘Chemelot’ a few years ago. Some bright sparks at DSM's communicatiebureau must have thought they’d hit on a real winner here. What’s more, their paymasters at DSM must have given their blessing to this misplaced brainwave. When I googled the word, I came across this PR blurb written by DSM:

In de nieuwe naam Chemelot klinkt niet toevallig de echo door van Camelot, de legendarische stad van koning Arthur. Zoals ooit de ridders van de Ronde Tafel uitzwierven, zo vinden nieuwe technologieën en producten vanuit Geleen hun weg over de wereld. Made in Chemelot, de chemiestad waar fantasie werkelijkheid wordt...

Not only is the analogy - comparing chemicals to the knights of the round table - plainly barmy, the first syllable doesn’t actually rhyme, but a lot of Dutch people wouldn’t get that either. But then I’ve never understood why they call a tram, a ‘trem’.
The name-change reminded me of a similar cosmetic makeover in the UK (shortly after the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in America) when the name of the Windscale nuclear processing plant in the north of England became Sellafield overnight in1981. In the wake of bad publicity, British Nuclear Fuels decided to try and banish the bad memories by giving it a different name and, needless to say, it barely changed a thing.

A mile or so further on my journey this afternoon, I reached the turn off to Einighausen, a small village on the outskirts of Sittard, which has curiously kept its German spelling, unlike the names of the vast majority of settlements in Limburg that have been 'Dutchified'. The explanation seems to be that it once belonged to the Duchy of Jülich (but that was before Napoleonic times) and by some quirk of fate seems to have kept its German spelling.

To round things off, this evening I was at Rolduc Abbey in Kerkrade (NL). Rolduc is a shortened version of Rode-le-Duc, nothing more than a direct translation into French of the German, 'Herzogenrath', which more appropriately applies to the town immediately across the border in Germany rather than the abbey, which in popular parlance would have been called Kloosterrade (Dutch) or Klosterrath (German), in order to distinguish it from the neighbouring settlements of Herzogenrath (D) and Kerkrade (Kirchrath in German). I've never managed to find out why and when the French term was adopted in a location where French has never been spoken. Any suggestions?

Friday, 10 April 2009

In Europe

I’m currently in the middle of reading Geert Mak’s In Europe, in which he gives us a fascinating insight into the Europe of the twentieth century. Mak had previously caught my eye with his ‘biography’ of Amsterdam, subtitled The Brief Life of a City, but since I’m not a big fan of the Dutch capital, it was never on my wish-list of reads. However, Mak’s In Europe, published in the original Dutch in 2004 and translated into English by Sam Garrett in 2007, captured my imagination. In 1999, on the brink of the millennium, Mak journeys across the continent in pursuit of the vestiges of the places and events that left their stamp on the course of Europe in the twentieth century: the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of National Socialism, etc. For myself, who has more than a passing interest in geography and history, the book is real eye-opener because Mak is one of those people who not only has a terrific understanding of time and place, he is able to put it down in writing so persuasively. It must have been a mammoth project involving huge amounts of desk research and planning. His compelling interpretation of events is interspersed with anecdotal evidence of eyewitnesses, including, for example, some of the last surviving veterans of the Great War. Mak is an affable travelling companion and is thankfully not one of those Dutch authors who is quick to venture an uninvited opinion.

In the wake of the book's success, the VPRO recently broadcast the series
In Europa, each episode of which, covering the periods dealt with in the book, is narrated by Mak. These can be watched (in Dutch) on the In Europa website, itself is a mine of information on European issues past and present.

So, a good read, one which has been partly achieved (in English) as a result of Sam Garrett’s excellent translation. As a translator one can become overly critical about use of vocabulary, sentence construction and tone of voice, but so far I’m sold. Working in the business, I have good days and bad days, but in this instance – even allowing for editors - I can only marvel at the almost seamless consistency of the English. Well done Mr Garrett! Maybe, when I’m finished with In Europe, I will move on to Amsterdam.

Monday, 6 April 2009


“Mobbing,” or more precisely “Stop Mobbing!” were the words that caught my attention on the front page of my morning newspaper, NRC Next, as it dropped through the letterbox some while ago. It was so obviously an English word, I thought, and I eagerly flicked through the pages to find the article it referred to. Bullebakken op de werkvloer. The item was about workplace bullying. A recent survey carried out by TNO into employment conditions in the workplace had revealed that no less than 11% of employees in the Netherlands had at one time felt that they had been subjected to bullying by their bosses or colleagues. The article went on: “Dit heet mobbing. Naar het Engelse woord mob, meute”
That was new to me. I’d never heard of the term “to mob" ever being used in this context before, so I naturally assumed it was Dunglish (defined in Wikipedia as a combination of Dutch and English, a name for Dutch English, the Dutch speaker's version of the English language). “Mobbing” was obviously a word that someone had latched on to and thought would be a good word to use (probably because “bully” was too difficult to comprehend). Then I followed the link to the stopmobbing website, the mouthpiece of a stichting whose laudable aims are to protect the rights of everyone to respect and fair treatment in the workplace. My curiosity having been aroused, I browsed the site for further references and came across this definition:
Mobbing: Een Engelse term, afgeleid van 'The Mob': 'de maffia'; 'de meute' die zich tegen het individu keert. Mobbing is elke vorm van systematisch vijandig gedrag op de werkvloer dat gericht is tegen één specifieke medewerker. Dit kan zich uiten in pesten, morele intimidatie, seksuele intimidatie, racisme of discriminatie.
I still wasn’t convinced by the authenticity of the definition, at least in an English context. It couldn’t have been more Dunglish, I thought, even if they’d tried harder. So I googled the word “mobbing” in the expectation that it would only appear on Dutch URLs. I was wrong on that score - there was an even a mobbing-usa site (“Emotional abuse in the workplace”) and an Australian workplacemobbing site (where they also talked about “stalking”, but more about that another time).
However, I was still certain that this was a word that had entered the English word by stealth, so I continued my investigations. Eventually I found the culprit who even claimed that he had “introduced the phenomenon” (he has a lot to answer for!). The following text was written on the site of a Swedish academic called Heinz Leymann:
“…in recent years, a workplace-related psychosocial problem has been discovered, the existence and extent of which was not known earlier. This phenomenon has been referred to as "mobbing", "ganging up on someone", "bullying" or "psychological terror". In this type of conflict, the victim is subjected to a systematic, stigmatizing process and encroachment of his or her civil rights. If it lasts a number of years, it may ultimately lead to ejection from the labour market when the individual in question is unable to find employment due to mental injury sustained at the former work place. I introduced this phenomenon in 1984…”
So, it was a Swede!
Further research confirmed my own belief that the word or concept had been invented, not by an English-speaking person, but by a non-native. The Wikipedia site put the word and its definition into its right context:
“Though the English word mob denotes a group, mobbing has been adopted as a generic term for all forms of bullying in Scandinavia and German speaking parts of Europe and can be used interchangeably. However, in the English speaking world, mobbing denotes, more specifically a "ganging up" by others to harass and intimidate.”
Yes, “to mob” is an English word, but no, surprisingly perhaps, it doesn’t only have negative connotations.
For example: “the Beatles were mobbed by fans as they arrived in America for the first time”, “the Hollywood superstar, Brad Pitt was mobbed by adoring fans as he arrived at the premiere”, and (see photo above) “Federico Macheda was mobbed by his teammates as he scored a last-gasp winner against Villa”.
Hardly emotional intimidation….
Yes, English speakers may gang up on their fellow workers, they may send scabs to Coventry and give them the cold shoulder, browbeat and victimise them, but one thing they most certainly don’t do is mob them into psychological submission. We leave that to foreigners….
So next time, use your own word instead of pinching one of ours and bastardising its meaning