Creating My beautiful death: We speak to Riana Barnard, Eben Venter, Luke Stubbs and Lynda Gilfillan

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My beautiful death
Ek stamel ek sterwe

1. When did Tafelberg decide to bring out an English translation of Eben Venter’s Ek stamel ek sterwe?

Riana Barnard: In January 2006. Eben and I had often discussed the possibility of eventually translating the novel, but we needed to find the right translator. It was a real learning curve and quite an adventure. Things finally fell into place when I received the manuscript of Horrelpoot, Eben’s latest book. Eben had just then read Luke Stubbs’s proof translation of Ek stamel, ek sterwe and was very satisfied with the result. When Horrelpoot was accepted for publication we both realised that it would be ideal to publish Horrelpoot and the English translation of Ek stamel, ek sterwe simultaneously. Luckily Luke was available full-time to revise and perfect the translation and thus we were able to meet all the publishing deadlines.

2. Why was it published now, ten years after the Afrikaans novel was first released? Was it due to its relevance to the HIV/Aids pandemic? Because good literature should be available for all to read. Or is there another reason?

RB: Our main aim was and remains to publish literature of a high standard, but also to reach and appeal to a wider readership. All South Africans should have access to important or challenging texts originally written in Afrikaans, specifically those individuals who cannot read or write in Afrikaans.

3. How does Tafelberg go about selecting a suitable translator for a text? And how long did it take to create the “perfect” translation with the same literary value as the original?

RB: Finding skilled translators who deliver excellent translations of our publications is always on the agenda of a publishing house such as Tafelberg. There always is a need to find new translators. They need to have specific skills – it is not a case of finding the right words, but also of translating the style and rhetorical strategies of the original. In the case of My Beautiful Death, I suggested a few names to Eben. He requested proof translation from a few translators and finally chose Luke’s. Thereafter it was a simple formality to commission Luke to do the translation. He was well aware of the demands of the industry and wasn’t intimidated or put off by the punishing schedule. His passion and dedication to the project was critical to its success. After reading Luke’s exploratory translation, Eben was keen to work closely with Luke as translator.

Eben Venter: After two translations of Ek Stamel turned out to be stillborn I eventually followed up a suggestion by my publisher and started working with Luke Stubbs. From the start his trial translations of the text felt right. He exhibited an understanding of my sort of Afrikaans, and had a turn of phrase that suited my writing style.

Is there such a thing as a perfect translation? Marquez’s earthy, hot-blooded South American Spanish perfectly rendered by what sort of English? The question here is whether the heart and soul of the original story is retained, as it is now all dressed up in an English outfit. In the case of My Beautiful Death the heart of my story has been captured, and I can still hear my voice when I read the English text.

Luke Stubbs: There’s no perfect translation – and trying to achieve one can become quite a burden in the translating process, especially with a text like ESES, which came with an "untranslatable" tag. The best hope is for good balance and a measure of integrity – somehow negotiating the space between the original text and the target readership(s) in a way that remains true to the author’s intention and allows the new audience to enter into the "strangeness" of a translated world without its being totally inaccessible or contrived; and with the new text reading as good, fluent English, but not utterly betraying the nuances and flavours of the original. Perhaps one could see it as mediating between the various realities of the author’s language and world and the world of the new language. There’s a sense in which the translator’s task is a "priestly" or "shamanistic" mediatory role.

Lynda Gilfillan: This is an elusive beast. As George Steiner observes, literary translation involves more than the mere transfer of linguistic information, since it also engages the imaginative originality of the translator. In this sense, then, the only “good” translation is probably a “bad” translation.

Eben’s form of Afrikaans writing holds its secrets close to its bosom – and in doing so, it offers unique challenges to the translator (which Luke was certainly able to meet, most of the time). However, some words and phrases entirely elude the translator’s art: “tannie Dinges” (“Tannie Thingy” doesn’t quite cut it), and “baas van die plaas”, so rich with cultural and historical resonance, are phrases that stubbornly refuse to surrender their secrets to a foreign language; and then there’s the campness of a phrase such as “Sy’s so contrived, weet jy" (p 55), which is –inevitably – lost in the banality of “He is so contrived, you know.” (MBD p 56).


4. How much input did Eben have in the translating process?

EV: The hard work was done by Luke, but my input was substantial. His every word and phrase was measured against the original. Did he convey my intention? Would the character have said something in that way? What is the best way to render this utterly untranslatable Afrikaans song in English? I wanted the English not to grate the ears of its readers. I wanted it to be a proper English text.

Luke’s final draft arrived in Prince Albert together with him, the translator, and for an entire week, night and day, we revised, reworked, rephrased. With him in front of the computer screen and me with Ek Stamel, searching myself for the thoughts I had thought when creating the first text.

LS: Besides our working together on the text, Eben also provided a stimulating theoretical introduction to the process – Nabokov on his translation of Eugene Onegin and Cesare Pavese … Pavese says somewhere: “To translate well, one must fall in love with the verbal material of the work and feel it being reborn into the native tongue with the urgency of a second creation …” Reworking the final draft together in Prince Albert, weighing and measuring every word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, was also an essential part of the process. On reflection, I’d say that this part of the process is key in trying to produce contemporary fiction in translation at the same time – it contributes significantly to finding that "balance" and giving the translation an "integrity" as a "second creation".

5. Ek stamel ek sterwe has been declared one of the ten best novels in the Afrikaans literary canon and was reissued as part of Tafelberg’s Klassiek/Classic Series in July 2005. What are Tafelberg’s hopes for the English translation?

RB: A publisher has one basic desire with all the books that he/she publishes, namely that it find appreciative readers and subsequently become part of a larger debate about life and literature. Novels should entertain or enrich – perhaps both. In the case of an English translation from Afrikaans there is, of course, also one’s wish that it will help establish Afrikaans literature within a larger (world) context.

6. There seems to be an emerging trend of releasing new novels and their translations simultaneously. Why has this trend developed in publishing?

RB: Economic concerns are the consideration. It is far more cost-effective to release an original text and its translation simultaneously because the publishing process is so labour intensive. Any expenditure on the marketing of books (which includes the time the publicity department spends setting up publicity events) is actually an investment in a particular writer. To be truly successful a publisher must have a long-term plan for every writer because in the end it is the author who becomes the brand, not any single novel he or she writes. To return to the crux of the question, if money is spent, for example, on a nation-wide publicity tour, it becomes far cheaper to market a novel and its translation simultaneously. In most instances the original ends up selling far better than the translation, so a measure of cross-subsidisation occurs: sales of the book in the original language end up helping to finance the translation. It also gives the publisher the perfect opportunity to build the author in a new market. So I think this trend is based almost entirely on practical considerations.


7. Is there an effort being made to create a South African literary canon which is representative of all 11 official South African languages – Afrikaans and English, isiXhosa and SeSotho etc – or is South African literature still divided by language (eg an Afrikaans canon versus an English canon)?

RB: A publishing company cannot be held exclusively responsible for the development of a national reading culture, especially not in all 11 official languages. This ideal (of a South African literary canon) cannot and will not be achieved unless all the publishing houses and the government work closely together. This also implies the need to formulate a comprehensive language policy, to firmly protect copyright and to support and develop writers writing in all our country’s official languages. It is a mammoth task. Publishing a book is a futile exercise if the book does not find an appreciative readership. Booksellers also have to be prepared to keep a stock of all these books and this they can do only if there is a demand for those books. For this to happen we require eager readers reading in all 11 official languages. Publishing houses cannot single-handedly create these markets. This is part of a more complex process which involves many role-players, including educators. Of course this ideal does form a fundamental part of our strategic planning and we never lose sight of it, but unfortunately the results of our efforts are not always immediately apparent. There is still a long way to go.

8. Were any changes or updates made to the novel?

EB: The Jude character in Ek Stamel is an ambiguous one. In the Afrikaans Jude is mostly referred to as "she". I’ve always wanted the book to be about, amongst other things, a terminal death, and not, in the first instance, about a gay relationship and HIV/AIDS. That was my reasoning when I wrote Ek Stamel. Even so, the "male" Jude did not ring true with a lot of readers.

In My Beautiful Death the gender of Jude is masculine throughout. I listened to my readers and I trusted the universality of the story. Jude can be either male or female, and he/she still is; the journey of Konstant up to the most beautiful moment of his life is clearly marked out.

LS: The most significant change was making Jude male, which seemed to come naturally as the translation developed. To start with, Jude was female in the first English drafts, but there was an inner necessity in the text that simply demanded that Jude become male.

LG: One change especially interested me: the switch in gender of the character Jude from female in Ek Stamel to male in My Beautiful Death. The initial sexual indeterminacy of the Jude character in Ek Stamel teases the reader’s interest, and the author’s fairly prolonged disguise of Jude’s gender constitutes an interesting subtext on the persistence of homophobia (incidentally, the novel was published in 1996, the year of the new Constitution, which forbids discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation).

In Ek Stamel, in the scene where Konstant first meets Jude, the latter is presented as sexually ambiguous. Konstant wonders: “En wat, as ek mag vra, is jy van geslag? Dis onmoontlik om vas te stel: dubbelslagter, hartesmelter, djy’s Djude, nè?” (p 47). Jude’s gender is eventually revealed a good many pages on (p 54): “Sy laat nooit toe dat ons gespreksmateriaal opdroog …” – the tension is broken as the reader is “reassured” that Konstant’s lover is a woman.

However, in the English translation the tension around the issue of Jude’s gender is broken earlier than in Ek Stamel. In My Beautiful Death, Stubbs’s creative translation of Konstant’s bewilderment: “It’s impossible to decide: doublegender, heartbender” (though something is inevitably lost in the translation, “so it’s Djude, then?” (p 48) is followed by the use of the pronoun “he” almost immediately afterwards. I couldn’t help feeling that Eben had confidently decided to “out” the gay relationship in a way that he seemed reluctant to do in the Afrikaans version published ten years earlier.


9. The English translation has been on the shelves for several months now. How has it been received by critics and the reading public?

RB: Selling local English titles to South African readers is really difficult. About 60 percent of all books sold in bookstores are imports from London or New York and the cream of all world literature is available in English on the shelves. In other words, My Beautiful Death has to compete with the very best literature in the world and an overwhelming choice of titles. Under the circumstances we haven’t done badly and the initial responses to the book from readers and reviewers have been very favourable. We have actually sold almost half of the print run. Afrikaans novels also have to compete with the best, but it remains essentially a niche market. It is therefore unreasonable to compare, for example, sales of Horrelpoot with those of My Beautiful Death.

EB: I have had excellent feedback from non-South African English-speaking readers. That kind of feedback counts, as it was intended as a proper English text, and one with universal appeal. Michiel Heyns (Sunday Independent) has given it a strong review, and the Fair Lady reviewer was complimentary too.

LS: A few readers have commented on how moving they found the final section – in particular the death scene with which the book ends.

LG: Towards the end of 2006 I sat in on a UCT creative writing seminar discussion of My Beautiful Death, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Students remarked on the authenticity of the writing, and noted that they were unaware during their reading that the work was in fact a translation. Sadly, however, I don’t think that the book has had the attention from English-speaking readers that it deserves. In my experience many of these readers still opt for British or American writing in preference to South African novels – and they are the poorer for it.


10. Why was the title My beautiful death chosen?

RB: No better title was brought to the table. We did consider a number of possibilities, but no other title struck a chord with our marketing personnel or the booksellers we approached.

EB: The alliterative sound of Ek Stamel Ek Sterwe was impossible to capture in English. Try all the variations and see for yourself! Eventually I stumbled on this title, which had overtones of My Beautiful Laundrette and all the other millions of "beautifuls" that have been used in titles. It captured the end goal of Konstant Wasserman’s journey, and when I see it on the shelf now, it sounds intriguing.

LS: Finding the right title isn’t just a translation exercise – there’re marketing and other factors to consider as well. The final choice of My beautiful death initially came as a surprise, and felt a bit awkward, but has since grown on me. I think it captures the ironies and paradoxes of the book pretty well – which for me are located in the way Konstant’s struggle "to get the hell out of here" (away from the family farm and all it represents) to make a life of his own becomes a struggle to let go of life, to "prepare for my death".

LG: The title My beautiful death does not have the same resonance as Ek stamel ek sterwe. For what it’s worth, here is an email I wrote to Eben on the subject while I was editing the novel:

Even though you have made it clear that the title has been agreed upon by yourself and Tafelberg, I still have a niggling doubt. My Beautiful Death is, I feel, a bit too glib. It doesn't capture the richness of the original. I hate to irritate you, but would you mind at least considering the following:

The word "stumble" occurs 3 times in the text. Sound-wise, it approximates "stamel" and "sterwe", and it would be wonderful to echo the original title, which is so effective. I thought I'd play around a bit, and share these with you:

"I stutter, I stumble"
"Stricken, I stumble".


My Beautiful Death
Eben Venter
ISBN-10: 0-624-04425-4
ISBN-13: 978-0-624-04425-3
276 pp
Click here to buy this book now.

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