Amenra Worship: Translating Scripture from the Church of Ra
For me, like quite a few others I imagine, Amenra’s De Doorn will almost certainly be in the top 10 albums of the year, and it is a strong contender for that sweet, sweet #1 slot. So rather than gush over this masterpiece (if you want that, go read a review at virtually any metal site), I figured I could help reveal some of the serious poetry in the lyrics of this album for all the non-Dutch speakers out there—basically everyone.
Translating anything is an inexact process, even for someone who’s a native speaker of both the original and translated language. Translating artistic works like novels and poetry poses an additional challenge because of the metaphorical language used in the original work. For De Doorn, Amenra has released an official English translation that is sometimes literal, but will abandon this in order to maintain a rhyme scheme in English or re-interpret the meaning behind the original Dutch lyrics. Additionally, the original work is written entirely in sentence fragments, which leaves some of the intended meaning ambiguous. As a language nerd this is fascinating to me; as a translator, it is somewhere between irritating and REEEE-inducing.
Given the above hedge, I’ve done my best to try and explain why certain phrases were translated the way they are in Amenra’s English version and what the meaning behind the translation is. So if you’re already a stan for this album like I am, bow your head and let’s do some Amenra worship. Since the entire song is 8 minutes long, I’m picking apart just some of my favorite verses from De Doorn’s lead single “De Evenmens.”
The title: De evenmens. Wij zijn even mens.
Here is lead singer Colin van Eeckhout’s explanation of the title:
‘Even’ means something like “for now”, ‘mens’ means human. So “human for now”, in a poetic way. And “we zijn even mens” literally means “we are human only for now.”
Basically, even in Dutch is an adverb that describes a current, temporary state of affairs, but the duration is unspecified. Depending on context it can also be translated as “for a few minutes,” “for the moment,” “for a while,” etc.
This song was originally performed in Ghent as part of a ritual where the community wrote down their unacknowledged losses and these were burned as the band played. In this case, the title most likely refers to the immediate feeling of being human in that shared moment as their personal pains and sufferings were set alight.
The Dutch lyrics start with a common refrain in the song, met hart en ziel (lit. with heart and soul). This is used kind of idiomatically in Dutch to express a person’s complete feelings/beliefs or total dedication to something. This verse uses fairly broad language, but fits with the idea that De Evenmens refers to individuals in the community gathering their private suffering and writing it on paper to offer up as part of a ritual, as was done while Amenra played in Ghent. However, it could also be a more general statement about coping with feelings of unacknowledged loss by choosing to face them in order to come to terms with the emotions.
“Ashes to ashes” is a standard idiom in Dutch, like in English, though the first line in Dutch doesn’t use either of the two most typical ways of saying it (as tot as – “ashes to ashes” and the biblical stof zijt gij – “dust art thou”). A more literal translation of zie hoe ik de asse would be “see how I [am], ashes”, which I imagine was written this way to rhyme with the third line in Dutch.
This verse furthers the theme of collectively reflecting on our personal, private suffering as it is burned “to ashes”, looking to find ways to internalize that as a form of catharsis. Regardless of its connection to the Ghent ritual, this echoes the overall theme of the song.
This is my favorite verse of the song. Kilte literally means chill, but when I first heard this song it seemed to refer to ‘coldness of emotion’ (as in unfeeling), which kilte is also used to describe. However, Colin’s translation of “chilled to the bones” brings forth imagery of bleakness and isolation instead of emotional unavailability. To me, he is describing the harrowing feeling of being stuck with your own secret, unshared misery, that excoriates the narrator like a crown of thorns.
These are only a handful of the 18 total verses in this song, but I think they demonstrate the serious poetic intent behind the lyrics, and I recommend reading the English lyrics if you are a fan of Amenra or this album in particular. Though listening to music in an unspoken foreign language is familiar to most underground metal fans, knowing the amount of thought that was put into the decision to record this album in Dutch and the amount of effort spent on the word choice of both the Dutch and English versions, De Doorn is one album whose lyrics you don’t want to sleep on.
P.S. If you’re curious how to say my vowel-salad of a username, you can hear Colin deliver it spoken-word style at 3:32.