Translations of Paul van Ostaijen’s work

Translations of Paul van Ostaijen

As not everyone in this world can understand the Dutch language, it was a good idea to translate some of the work written by the Belgian poet Paul van Ostaijen. This makes the work of this abstract poet more accessible.

Paul van Ostaijen

Image source: Wikipedia

Who was Paul van Ostaijen?

Paul van Ostaijen was born on 22 February 1896 in Antwerp (Belgium). Never make the wrong assumption that Belgium is a part of The Netherlands. Belgium gained independence in 1830, sixty years before Van Ostaijen was born. Yes, the two countries share the same language, although the Dutch language is spoken in the department Vlaanderen (Flemish Region) is referred to as Flemish and is different at some points. That doesn’t matter when it comes to this introduction of Van Ostaijen.


Part of his descent was Dutch, to make it more clear. Van Ostaijen was born from a marriage between a Dutch father and a Flemish mother. Due to this marriage, he held the Dutch nationality until he was 22. Then he was given the Belgian nationality.

The young Paul van Ostaijen was a troublemaker. He was expelled from school because he was in the possession of forbidden literature. Not soon after, he was again expelled from another school. This made him decide he wanted to work instead of studying. His first job was as a desk clerk at Antwerp’s city hall.

“Bond Zonder Verzegeld Papier” (“Bond Without Sealed Paper”)

In 1916 he formed the artistic movement “Bond Zonder Verzegeld Papier” (Bond Without Sealed Paper” or “Alliance Without Sealed Paper”), together with Paul Joostens, Floris Jespers, Oscar Jespers and Jef Van Hoof. During that period he began to write poems. These poems were later combined into the collections entitled “Avondlast, ik heb mijn venster” (“Evening burden, I have my window”) and “Stemming” (“Mood”).  At that time, he was well-known amongst artists, intellectuals and bohémiens. He was described as Mister 1830 by Maurice Gilliams (a Belgian writer). This was because he acted out as a dandy. It was probably because he saw an English movie.

During the First World War, he made efforts to position himself as a leftwing activist, by writing for a newspaper. He did this anonymously. Later he was convicted because he insulted people such as a cardinal. Because Antwerp was at that time occupied by the Germans, he didn’t have to go to jail. The Germans prevented this for some unknown reason. Because he felt the need to flee Belgium, he decided to exile in Berlin. This was because the locals weren’t finished with him and his accusations against numerous people.

Spartacist uprising

In Berlin, he was a witness of the Spartacist uprising (1919). This was an attempt by the Communist Party to take over the government. They wanted the same kind of revolution that took place in 1917 in the Soviet Union. The plans didn’t succeed. He was greatly affected by this and it was the cause of a mental breakdown.


In 1921 he decided to move back to Belgium, where he was granted amnesty. After his military service in 1922, he opened an art gallery (1925) in Brussels. This wasn’t a success. After a year, the gallery closed its doors. During the last years of his life, Van Ostaijen suffered from tuberculosis He died because of this disease on 8 November 1928.

Image source: Wikipedia

His work

Pure sound poetry without ulterior motives. That was what the last years of his life were all about. During his whole life – well, when he wrote poetry – the focus was on the abstract form of poetry. His work is still loved by many people who speak the Dutch language.


Onder de maan schuift de lange rivier
Over de lange rivier schuift moede de maan
Onder de maan op de lange rivier schuift de kano naar zee
Langs het hoogriet
langs de laagwei
schuift de kano naar zee
schuift met de schuivende maan de kano naar zee
Zo zijn ze gezellen naar zee de kano de maan en de man
Waarom schuiven de maan en de man getweeën gedwee naar de zee

–Paul van Ostaijen


Beneath the moon slides the long river
Above the river, the tired moon slides
Under the moon on the long river, a canoe slides to the sea
Along the tall reeds
Along the low meadow
the canoe slides towards the sea
slide with the sliding moon the canoe to the sea
Thus they are companions going to the sea the canoe the moon and the man
Why do the moon and the man slide side by side meekly to the sea

— Paul van Ostaijen (translation: Harm Jagerman)


Er moeten witte hoeven achter de zoom staan
van de blauwe velden langs de maan
‘s avonds hoort gij aan de verre steenwegen
dan hoort gij alles stille waan
van verre maanfonteinen zijpelt plots water
– gij hoort plots het zijpelen
van avondlik water –
de paarden drinken haastig
en hinniken
dan hoort men weer hun draven stalwaarts

— Paul van Ostaijen

Evening Sounds

There have white hooves behind the outskirts
the blue fields along the moon
in the evening you can hear in the distance on the stone roads the sounds of
then you hear a silent delusion
from distant moon fountains water drops
– You suddenly hear the sound of water dropping
water of the evening
the horses drink hastily
and nicker
then they trot to the stable

— Paul van Ostaijen (translation by Harm Jagerman)

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