How well can one get to know another person by email? I met Walter Van Lerberghe only a few times in person, but we exchanged numerous email messages, mostly relating to our shared volunteer efforts in translating TidBITS into Dutch each week. As such correspondences go, we also diverted on occasion to personal affairs.
On 11-Jul-03, Walter died, causing me to bring up about a megabyte of memories from my hard disk and archived CDs. Despite the sad cause, it was a pleasant job, because Walter’s messages always radiated something sunny. He often hinted at the good life, for example by reminding us that the Belgians are the best beer brewers in the world, and he maintained a good balance between earnestness and humor.
Walter loved to occupy himself with language. He considered it as a pastime to keep active his little gray cells, a phrase made popular by another Belgian, Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot. Walter’s career involved writing brochures for hi-fi equipment, which meant inventing his own words for many technical terms. And Walter didn’t stop at Dutch, French, and English – for their holidays, he and his wife favored Tenerife. Since it’s in the Canary Islands, which belong to Spain, Walter took a course in Spanish.
In 1991, poor health forced him to give up his job, so he spent the extra spare time on his other big hobby: the Macintosh. He became a devoted TidBITS reader, and in 1996 when there was a call for volunteers to translate the newsletter into French, he took the opportunity to combine his two hobbies and to give something back for the consistently high quality of the articles in TidBITS.
It took a bit longer before a Dutch translation of TidBITS came to be, but eventually Jan Vanderwegen and Walter recruited enough other volunteers. In the early days, Walter took much of the work upon himself and encouraged the rest of us to persevere as the team worked out a process. Once we had enough people and a reliable production cycle had crystallized, Walter became our permanent final editor. For a few years he worked on both the French and the Dutch translations, but eventually he had to give up working on the French team.
Walter made demands on himself and on the rest of the team, but he also knew when to ease up. He found absurd the practice of inventing at any price Dutch words for English computer jargon, and he often let us know that he was proud of the quality of TidBITS in Dutch. He preferred to speak about a Dutch "version" rather than a translation. That’s why our capitalization of article titles and subheads differs from the American convention, we have a different punctuation, et cetera.
Walter also did much to make TidBITS better known. Along with telling everyone he knew about TidBITS, he was happy to be interviewed by the Dutch MacFan magazine ("MacFan and TidBITS: that is all you need as a Mac user"). When it became possible to order t-shirts with the TidBITS logo, Walter’s main concern was whether he would receive the shipment in time to wear the t-shirt at his next stay on Tenerife. (He ordered two shirts; whether his wife also lay on the beach wearing the TidBITS logo he never said.)
Walter also cared about making personal connections within the team. On our mailing list, which is meant to discuss translation problems, we once had a spate of funny poems run back and forth, not only generating some smiles among all the serious "work," but also emphasizing our shared love of language. Likewise, our shared interest in the Macintosh was a binding factor. Gradually we became curious about each other, and Walter convinced us that we should someday have dinner together to get to know each other better. Although we never succeeded in getting the whole group together at one time, the tradition of smaller sets of translators meeting from time to time has given us all stronger ties to one another and to TidBITS Dutch.
The title of this article, "My Kingdom for a Mac!", is a paraphrasing of a famous line from Shakespeare’s Richard III, and comes from one of Walter’s early email signatures. As much as five words can, the phrase sums him up in our minds: a song of praise about the Mac, a bit of word play. Walter couldn’t take his Mac with him, but he did leave a kingdom of memories to us.