It’s that time of year again. The Netherlands has been plunged into sub-zero temperatures for the past couple of weeks and for almost as lon...

I’m dreaming of a white… Elfstedentocht!

It’s that time of year again. The Netherlands has been plunged into sub-zero temperatures for the past couple of weeks and for almost as long, the whole nation has been excitedly speculating about whether that famous Dutch ice-skating marathon, the Elfstedentocht, will actually be able to take place this year. Just a small patch of ice a few centimetres thick is enough to take over all the newspapers and television schedules. And given the choice between a white Christmas and an Elfstedentocht, I’m sure most people here would go for the latter. You see, although the rest of the world probably doesn’t realise this, the Dutch simply love winter and all it brings. However, this is a source of many a headache for translators…

Let’s start with skating. Almost on a par with cycling, this is something that just about every Dutch man, woman and child can do, and any immigrant wanting to fit in with the locals really should learn. But keeping your balance on a couple of thin metal strips is the least of the translator’s worries when faced with words like Elfstedentocht – Eleven Cities Tour just doesn’t have the same ring to it – and klunen – walking on surfaces other than ice with skates on. The translator really needs to get creative to translate that one simple word without getting too bogged down in descriptions. Or how about koek-en-zopie? The Van Dale dictionary defines this as a “refreshments stall”, but the translator doesn’t get off so lightly. This isn’t just any old refreshments stall, but one found near any outdoor skating rinks, frozen lakes, etc., usually selling cakes filled with a marzipan-like substance (koek), pea soup and hot drinks to warm the skaters up. But even if you manage to find a word that covers all of that, you probably still haven’t covered zopie, a mixture of dark beer, rum, cinnamon and cloves that was the tipple of choice for skaters in the 18th and 19th centuries.

1963 Elfstedentocht

Even if there’s too much snow for skating, the Dutch still know how to have fun. Skiing is a hugely popular pastime, far more so than in England at any rate. Whereas back home, skiing is often seen as something rich people do, almost half of the country seems to nip off down to the Alps for a week of skiing here. In fact, op de wintersport gaan is almost as much a permanent fixture in the calendar as those two weeks in the sun every summer. And those who stay at home can always have a go at inzepen. I was recently offered a demonstration of this phenomenon and luckily, before I accepted, Wikipedia informed me that it has nothing to do with soap as the name might suggest, but rather rubbing someone else’s face with a lot of snow! Not only cold and unpleasant, but also another tricky one for the translator!

As for me, I’m more of a spring person, so will be glad when all this snow and ice has gone. And no I haven’t learned to skate yet. But the thaw’s due to set in on Sunday so it looks like I’m off the hook for another year…

By Alison Copeland

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