Maarten H. Rijkens : I always get my sin

First a word of warning: if you don’t speak Dutch then there are various things in this text which you won’t understand – but there again, neither would you understand very much of the book I’m writing about!

I was recently given a present of a somewhat amusing little book going by the name of I always get my sin. It’s the sort of book you can get through in about an hour if you read slowly, although I expect most people just flick through it, reading bits here and there. I wasn’t intending to write anything about it, as I didn’t really think it was worth the trouble, but I somehow found myself writing anyway and eventually decided that I’d pretty well written a blog post so I might as well publish it.

(details below)

The author, one Maarten H. Rijkens, has seemingly spent much of his life travelling abroad with other Dutchmen, including politicians, diplomats and business leaders, while keeping notes of some of the ridiculous English they sometimes come out with. He finally published his findings in book form in 2006, and by last year it had already been reprinted 49(!) times. I’m sure he’s done very nicely indeed out of it. While there are some reasonably amusing examples of Dutch English here and there (the title mistake being one of the better ones, although “How do you do, and how do you do your wife?” isn’t bad either!), most of them are just bad grammar – the sort of thing which a teacher would certainly point out to a student, and which every English speaker is used to hearing all the time, all over the world, wherever people do their best to speak the language – but which isn’t necessarily particularly funny.

The nice thing about the Dutch when they try to speak English is generally their amazing over-confidence in their own linguistic abilities. Whereas an Englishman with a very basic level of French would think twice about standing up and giving a speech in that language to a room full of government officials or academics, a Dutchman suffers from no such inhibitions. And due to some variation of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the lower the abilities of the person in question, the more confident he or she seems to be that their English will be found impressive rather than just ridiculous – not to mention hilarious. How on earth anyone can literally translate such expressions as “alle gekheid op een stokje”, “ik wil niet met de deur in huis vallen” or “hij viel met z’n neus in de boter”, and imagine that they still make sense in English, is quite beyond me. Many of the examples in the book were just this: Dutch proverbs and expressions translated literally into English. Sometimes they sound a bit strange but make reasonable sense, sometimes they make no sense at all, and just occasionally they sound funny enough to make me laugh out loud.

So why is this book so popular? When P. came across it in the toilet of some family members in Belgium he’d found it so hilarious that he couldn’t put it down, and they’d decided to send it to me as a present. A lot of Dutch speakers must have had similar experiences in bookshops before buying enough copies (mostly, I imagine, as presents) to reach 49 reprints. I’m pretty certain that what most people like about this book is the schadenfreude of seeing others make mistakes in English which they would never make, the amusement of seeing their over-confident fellow Dutch speakers make fools of themselves and the comforting knowledge that their English is so much better. How embarrassing it must be, then, for meneer Rijkens, when it’s pointed out to him, as I’m sure it must have been by now, that his own level of proficiency in English isn’t quite as high as he seems to think it is. The point is that the book is actually filled with examples of Dutch proverbs and expressions which have been translated literally and happen to end up as grammatically perfect and totally normal English which means exactly the same as the original! He seems convinced that this cannot possibly happen, and that every literal translation must necessarily sound ridiculous, but any native English speaker (not to mention Google) could have told him that “you are sticking your head in the sand”, “we should keep an eye on the time” and “it quickly petered out” are perfectly normal everyday English and mean exactly the same as their Dutch equivalents. I fear that meneer Rijkens has fallen a little bit through the basket…

The book contains as an appendix the poem The Chaos (1922) by Dutch writer Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870 – 1946), which demonstrates very effectively just how illogical and totally unphonetic the English language is. Reading this made me wonder, not for the first time, how any foreigners ever manage to learn English. There are good things to be said about the language, first and foremost the fact that English grammar is relatively simple, at least in the early stages of learning and using the language, and that you can get away with knowing very little grammar and still make yourself understood. On the other hand, if the de facto international language had been chosen by some sort of rational selection procedure rather than by historical accident, then the almost total lack of any relationship between the way something is written and how it’s pronounced would have been more than enough to immediately disqualify English for the position!

An afterword is devoted to the way the Dutch often completely misinterpret what English people say, due to their complete ignorance of English understatement and exaggerated politeness, and their more general inability to understand the subtleties of English humour. There is a wonderful collection of things the English often come out with, along with an explanation of what they really mean, and what a Dutchman generally thinks they mean – which is invariably a literal interpretation and the exact opposite of the truth. Just to give a few examples:

  • “(Very) interesting” = “I do not agree at all” / “I do not believe you”
  • “With the greatest respect…” = “I think you are wrong (or a fool)”
  • “(That’s) not bad” = “That’s good or very good”
  • “I’m sure it’s my fault” = “It’s your fault!”
  • “That is an original point of view” = “You must be crazy!”

The author is exaggerating a bit for comic effect (I’m starting to understand why some of my Dutch-speaking friends always interpret my use of the word “interesting” as something totally negative!), but it can’t be denied that there’s a lot of truth in all this. So, an amusing little book, but also one from which a lot of Dutch people could learn a thing or two!



author Maarten H. Rijkens
title I always get my sin
first published 2005
this edition 2014
language Nederlands, English
publisher / version read Prometheus Amsterdam
ISBN 978-90-446-1505-0
read 18/05/2015 – 03/06/2015


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