Americanizing Words and Witches - Tor/Forge Blog


Americanizing Words and Witches

HEXWritten by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

So I wrote a book a few years ago and it became hugely successful in my home country of The Netherlands. And in half of Belgium. That’s because half of Belgium speaks Dutch.

The problem with being Dutch is that only about 23 million people in the world speak your language. There are more people in Shanghai than there are people who speak Dutch. Think about it. If you meet a random person at any given place in the world, chances are higher that they’re from a single city than that they share your mother tongue. Sounds pretty lonely, huh? And still, we’re the seventh happiest country in the world, according to the World Happiness Report. Maybe there’s a link.

But when you’re a writer and words are your weapons, you want to expand beyond such borders. When I was twelve I knew I was going to be a writer. My goal was world domination. Now, at thirty-two, the motivation has changed (slightly), but not the desire: I still want to touch the lives of as many readers as I can. Whether you’re Mexican, Bulgarian or Vietnamese, I want to make you smile. Or cry. Or feel scared shitless.

Then IT happened. My agents sold the English languages rights of the book that had become so successful in my home country to publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. “World domination!” this Dutch boy cheered. Since translation in popular American fiction is a relatively recent thing, it’s pretty rare for writers from such small language areas as mine to have a novel out in the US. I immediately realized I was facing a wholly new dilemma. The book had—quiver, Americans—a Dutch setting.

Now, on first glance, there seems nothing wrong with that. The utter Dutchness of the book, which is about a modern-day town haunted by a seventeenth-century witch, is one of its strengths, I think. I don’t mean “Dutchness” in the sense that the witch is smoking pot or is behind some Amsterdam red-framed window—I’m talking about the secular nature of Dutch small-town communities and the down-to-earthness of its people. If a sane person sees a seventeenth-century disfigured witch appear in a corner of the living room, he runs for his life. If a Dutch person sees a seventeenth-century disfigured witch appear in a corner of the living room, he hangs a dishcloth over her face, sits on the couch and reads the paper. And maybe sacrifices a peacock.

I love the fresh perspective that comes with reading fiction from different cultures. Being Dutch, 90% of the books I read come from abroad. Sometimes I even want to be taught about these cultures. The Kite Runner gave me a much more nuanced view about Afghanistan than Fox News. Murakami taught me more about Japanese customs than any sushi restaurant I’ll ever visit.

But there’s a limit to what I want to be taught. Some books I just want to read for the fun of it. The thrill. Or the scare. And I realized my novel, HEX, was such a book. My favorite comment from Dutch and Belgian readers is that it makes them sleep with the lights on. I have literally hundreds of those, and just imagine the silly grin on my face whenever I read through them. I could care less about what the story taught them about social values in communities or the depravity of mankind, as long as it gave them nightmares. Some literary critics will probably shoot me for this statement, but to them I say, come and get me.

To thoroughly scare readers, you have to create a perfect sense of familiarity in a story and then rip it to pieces as soon as they’re hooked. And here’s where the Dutch setting becomes problematic. If I’d read a horror story set in, say, rural Azerbeidzjan, I’d be worrying all the time about what the place actually looks like, what’s the norm for these people, what are they scared of and oh, by the way, how do you even pronounce their names? Bang! Familiarity gone, and a missed opportunity to make me scream at night. I imagined it would be the same for American readers when they read about a Dutch setting. I mean, how do you actually pronounce Olde Heuvelt?

So I decided to Americanize the book. Some people told me I was selling my soul, but hey, I am the writer, and selling one’s soul actually comes with the genre. For me, it was an exciting creative challenge. I had a book that I loved, I had characters that I loved, and here I had the opportunity to relive it all, without having to face the horrors of a sequel. Instead, I could create an enhanced version, a HEX 2.0 if you will, with all new rich and layered details, culturally specific legends and superstitions, and without ever losing touch with the Dutch elements of the original. Katherine Van Wyler, the original Dutch seventeenth-century witch, came to the new land on one of Peter Stuyvesant’s early ships. The rural town of Beek became the Dutch trapper’s colony of New Beeck, later renamed Black Spring. The Dutch characters became Americans, but with the down-to-earth quality of the Dutch. The dishcloth stayed. So did the peacock. And the public flogging of minors, a common and fun tradition we celebrate annually in many a small town in The Netherlands.

I can’t wait to find out if it worked. If American readers start telling me they had to leave the lights on, I’ll grin some more. That’s my world domination. And I won’t pay the electric bill.

Buy HEX today:
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | iBooks | Indiebound | Powell’s

Find out more about Thomas Olde Heuvelt on Twitter at @Thomas_Novelist and on his website.

17 thoughts on “Americanizing Words and Witches

  1. I’m currently reading an advanced reader copy, and let me be the first to tell you, its working. I’m not done yet, but I am getting pretty spooked by it. My wife won’t let me keep the lights on at night, but I have pushed my reading schedule a little earlier in the day to give myself a night time buffer. I’m excited to finish it.

  2. Congratulations on the American book deal. It’s very interesting to read about your decision to localise the book for an American market, and your excitement at the possibilities created by this process is palpable. At the same time, my curiosity was piqued by the process – you mention the notion of familiarity, and talk about how important the sense of place is. How easy would it be for a Dutch writer to transpose a story to a US setting? So I would love for there to have been at least one mention above of your translator, Nancy Forest-Flier, and in a perfect world, to hear much more about her role in that transposition. Is there any chance we could have a follow-up article along those lines?

    1. Thanks, Ian. You’re right – you need a good sense of place to set a book in a certain area, and if it’s in the real world, it needs to be accurate. I lived in Ottawa for a while and have been to that part of the US many times, both for fun and research. So I felt confident to use it. The town is completely fictional, but the region is very real. On that same not, I wouldn’t dare to set a book in Louisiana, for instance, as I haven’t traveled much of the south yet.

      Nancy did a fantastic job in translating the book. But I actually rewrote it before it went in translation. When Nancy was done, I edited the translation in my own voice, as I always do with my English fiction. (That’s the upshot of being Dutch: we all speak English.) Both with Nancy and Liz Gorinsky, who edited the book, we hit many cultural differences that I simply had now been aware of. Like this scene where the witch, who just randomly appears wherever she wants, accidentally pops up in a cavity wall. Those walls are common in old Dutch houses. The poor woman who inhabits the place finds out as her Dachshund keeps throwing itself against the wall in a fit. Alas – that’s apparently not the way houses are built in Upstate New York, so we changed it into a broom closet. Which, of course, has its own contextual charm…

  3. This is one of the saddest entries I ever read, and the most depressing reaction to the American market possible. He is such a good writer.
    Much as I love American SF & F, the world is a larger place, and the American market should get used to it. If that kind of “refining” is the price for being read by the American audience, it might be too high. I had thought, with all this talk about diversity, that these “Americanizations” of European or other non-American stories and tropes were a thing of the past. Imagine Liu Cixin had done the same thing.

    Marc Fabian Erdl

    1. I have to agree — I’d much prefer to read an English translation of the original story. I love reading books written by people from different cultures as it allows me a window into different worlds, and as I’m not American an American setting doesn’t make it more attractive — or any more familiar. Back in the good old days before the Web I spent years trying to work out if Chinos were trousers or shoes…

    2. I totally understand your sentiments, Marc and Dramlin. Even so, I had a lot of fun taking it on. Cixin’s novels are much more embedded in Chinese culture than mine is in Dutch, so in his case – as with other more literary novels – it wouldn’t work. However, in popular fiction mass market, it’s a reality that it has an influence. It’s the same in the movies. Take “The Ring” for example – the Japanese original has reached a bit of a cult status among US fans, but the US remake was the big blockbuster. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I really enjoyed that remake – I thought it was creepy as hell. The Japanese version didn’t work for me personally. (With the Swedish original of “Let the Right One In”, I felt exactly opposite – so it just depends on the case, I guess).

      It is also kind of telling that to each of the foreign language markets that bought HEX – France, Brazil, China, Turkey, many more – my agents offered both the Dutch and the US version. So far, they all took the US version.

      Thanks for the compliment, by the way!

  4. Congratulations on the book deal.

    Deciding to re-set your book like that is interesting. It sounds like you enjoyed it as an artistic exercise, and I hope it succeeds as well as you hope. But from your description of your reasoning behind it, it almost sounds like you don’t have faith in your readers or your scene-setting/world-building descriptions to give your readers that sense of familiarity that you want. It’s just a very odd thing to read about a perceived need to make a setting familiar before you rip it away . . . on a Science Fiction and Fantasy publisher’s blog, where people are always creating the familiar in the strange and the finding the strange in the familiar. And frankly, America is varied enough in culture and climate, that I’ve rarely read much in the way of American novels where the setting and situation felt familiar to me. It’s not just the past that is a foreign country, it’s the lives of others. It seems that a base of familiarity is a lost cause.

    From a literary perspective, people talk about finding the universal in the unique particulars, but there’s also the fact that The Turn of the Screw absolutely terrified me without there being any familiarity to me about the situation of being a Governess in turn of the century England.

    Ghost stories aren’t my favorite genre, but I’d love to read Hex and Hex 2.0 beside each other, to see how the two different works of art compare. The idea seems very 21st century, in a way . . . remixing.

  5. Congratulations on the book deal, Thomas.
    Looking forward to read this book. Just one question, is there an original English translation of the story being sold in the states or available for download (NOOK reader)? I personally would like to read that.

    1. Hi Sean – do you mean a translation of the original story with the Dutch setting? No, that’s not available, as it doesn’t exist, I’m afraid! But I think you’ll like the new version too – it’s still totally ‘me’.

  6. Hello

    It’s very interesting to read about your decision. I can´t wait for the translation
    to brazilian-portuguese; probably using your “Version 2.0” as basis, right?

    Cheers from Rio

  7. As a Canadian, I’m fairly used to being marginalised in favour of the larger American market. I’m wondering how readers in other English speaking countries like England and Australia feel about the decision to essentially favour American culture in rewriting the story?

    I think the commenter above made an excellent point about readers of SFF generally being able to handle unfamiliar settings without difficulty. I appreciate that you are happy to have your book published more widely, but hopefully in the future you will have a bit more faith both in yourself and in your readers.

  8. Thomas, my Hubby and I are reading your book together – me an American, him a Canadian. You did SUCH an amazing job with changing this to an American scene. I thought you were an American author at first because the lingo and feel of it was so right. It won’t keep me up at night (not much does though, as a horror lover), but I am in LOVE with your book. It’s AMAZING. 😀

    1. Oh, and I should mention my Husband’s Grandparents are all Dutch immigrants to Canada, so he’s loving all the Dutch elements. 😀

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