Willem and I met in cyberspace. In the autumn of 2009 we were both on a website dedicated to the Special Forces Roll of World War II (http://www.specialforcesroh.com). For the first time since delving into my father’s family history, I found someone extremely knowledgeable about SOE, their Dutch agents, even Tobs. I was intrigued.
Growing up and living in the US, there weren't many with whom I could converse about World War II never mind Holland. So meeting Willem was a god-send, especially during the early days of my research. Willem told me he read about Tobs in a book by Eddy de Roever called Zij Sprongen Bij Maanlicht, (They Jumped By Moonlight). It was an interesting coincidence because nine years earlier, I discovered a book by the same author about Tobs’ mission, called Londen Roept Amsterdam (London Calling Amsterdam), which I tracked down and bought on the Internet. Sadly, it was in Dutch and, try as I might, I could not translate a single sentence.
By the end of 2009, Willem and I were exchanging weekly emails. He sent me invaluable documents to help me with my research and offered useful insights. In return, I sent him a copy of Londen Roept Amsterdam. When I jokingly said my copy was collecting dust after years on my bookshelf, Willem kindly offered to help me translate a few chapters.
What started with a "few chapters" turned into the entire book. The book is not an unwieldy tome like War and Peace, even with 47 chapters, the page count was a mere 232 pages. Nevertheless, I stubbornly wanted to understand every detail of Tobs' life, and I did, and it took us a year to complete.
The goal of the weekly exercise, translating one chapter per week, became unmitigated torture. Transposing each page from the book into a Word document when I did not understand the language was sheer lunacy. Forcing my fingers to type what was for me odd jumbles of letters such as "uitbrak”, "kijkt" or "vliegtuig," turned my typing speed into that of a child who is attempting to play chopsticks on the piano for the first time. And each subsequent chapter loomed miserably overhead like a massive migraine.
Once a page was typed out, came the pièce de résistance. It was the absurd finale of this exercise: processing my text through "Google Translate", which was still in Beta and did nothing more than insult my intelligence by spitting out utter drivel, as if to say "You fool, why bother?"
I was determined to persevere and endeavoured to turn each chapter into correct English. Even so, the process got worse: Google translated people's names verbatim, not even trying to put them into some semblance of English. Names such as Major Kas de Graaf became Major Count of Cash; Cor van Paasschen was the Easter Cock. Even the simple name Jan translated to January instead of John. Throw that into a mix of nonsensical phrases, and you break down in frustration or laugh yourself silly. I just cried.
Like a downtrodden schoolgirl who knew her work was abominable, I diligently sent my pathetically translated work to Willem who would send it back corrected and managed to keep me going with his upbeat, positive demeanour. Often, neither Google nor I had a clue whether I was translating a Dutch first name or surname; a Dutch town, city or village; a resistance group or a German word, (of which there were plenty). I was on one very steep learning curve that had more resemblance to a colossal roller coaster with the end of the ride a long way off.
In his own inimitable way, Willem responded with candid humour, “The Dutch language is a disease of the throat, don’t even try to understand it” which offered a little comfort. For an entire year, over the cybernetic airwaves, Willem held my hand through the fourty-seven chapters of the book and, in the end, this cruel exercise was incredibly rewarding.