A daughter of Africa: Writing through the apartheid years, a review

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A daughter of Africa: Writing through the apartheid years
Author: Elsa Joubert
Translator: Irene Wainwright
Kindle (2017), available on Amazon.com

In 2002, Elsa Joubert was listed as one of the 100 best authors on the African continent. She is, however, not that well known outside the Afrikaans-speaking community of South Africa, despite English translations of her novels, such as To die at sunset (1963), The last Sunday (1983), The four friends and other tales from Africa (1987), Isobelle’s journey (1998) and, especially, the novel which earned her a place among the chosen hundred, The long journey of Poppie Nongena; that is, until Irene M Wainwright took the courageous decision to translate the two volumes of Joubert’s autobiography, A lion on the landing: Memories of youth (Hemel & See, 2014) and A daughter of Africa: Writing through the apartheid years (Kindle, 2017).

Irene Wainwright hails from Los Angeles, where she was awarded a Lifetime Award as Outstanding Employee in the department of neurosurgery at the University of California. Her qualifications in the scientific field (she holds a PhD in biology from the University of California, Riverside, and several degrees from South African universities) do not, however, provide the key to her choice of author; rather, it can be found in her knowledge of one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, Afrikaans. The story behind the translation of Joubert’s autobiography is worth relating, and is also in keeping with current interest in the biography of the translator and the translation process, which for too long has been a performance without a stage, in the words of Robert Wechsler. Elsa Joubert was one of Wainwright’s prescribed authors (in the original Afrikaans) in a South African high school; many decades later, at the University of California, Los Angeles, she read The long journey of Poppie Nongena (in the original Afrikaans) as part of a course on apartheid literature. As a student of the internationally recognised scholar and translator UCLA Professor Michael Heim, she decided to translate Elsa Joubert for an assignment, and found Joubert’s first autobiography, ‘n Wonderlike geweld, in the library. The assignment evolved into a translation of the integral text with the enthusiastic support of Professor Heim.

All good translators (and Wainwright is a very good – an excellent – translator) are also good literary critics, because to rewrite a text in another language, into another culture, they have to understand every nuanced meaning intended for both source and target audiences. The translation of the second volume of the autobiography provided particular challenges, such as understanding the nuances of the more sophisticated language used for dealing with complex issues, such as segregationist politics and the role of the engaged author in South African society. The first challenge was thus lexicographic in nature; it was met by using a range of available dictionaries, and by consulting Elsa Joubert herself. Her collaboration is a compliment in itself, as the author had refused several proposed translations of at least two of her novels (To die at sunset and The long journey of Poppie Nongena, eventually translated by her husband Klaas Steytler and by Elsa Joubert respectively). The first paragraph of the novel is a case in point: author and translator worked on it at length, and the result is that “it captures not only the feeling of the moment but also how she approached all the courageous undertakings of her life: a conscious placing of herself in challenging situations and enjoying whatever fate brings as its reward” (Wainwright, in an interview with the reviewer).

Like book ends, the first and last paragraphs had to be particularly solid. One word in the last paragraph was a challenge: Elsa calls the young spring buds on the trees “manteltjies” (“Soms is daar ‘n ry manteltjies wat oopgaan”). Wainwright told the reviewer, “It made no sense to talk about cloaks or capes because the metaphor is lost in these English words. Eventually I realised I had to include the word ‘bud’ so the reader knows what in the world she is talking about. So my sentence became, ‘Sometimes there is a row of little hooded buds opening up.’ And it continues: ‘Directly from the saturated, dark bark, the delicate, soft points force their way out, at their most fragile and lovely when they unfold and catch the sun in their tiny arteries.’ My heart melts when I read that lovely metaphor for the vulnerability of the hope of renewal even in our darkest moments.”

The narrative voice, that of a very young girl who falls in love with a Kenyan of Indian origin in 1948 in chapter 1 (“The Nile”), and which, in chapter 11 (“Dove”), has become that of an elderly lady who has to say farewell to her beloved husband Klaas Steytler, who is dying, is the main reason to read this extraordinary account of half a century of events in South Africa seen through the eyes of an author in the making. What Joubert has achieved, is to chronicle what she experienced with the voice of the girl or woman she was at the time. Of course, this makes the task of the translator all the more daunting, which is complicated even more by the diary style of the autobiography.

The translation required an extensive amount of background reading, verifying facts and the South African public’s reaction to political issues. In an interview with the reviewer, Wainwright made an important observation about the changing, gradually aging voice of the narrator: “I had to beware of not imposing my voice; I wanted it to be Elsa’s voice as closely as I could make it without reverting to Afrikaans. She herself portrays her change in voice as time went on and I wanted to be sensitive to that.” Wainwright also prefaced the 2017 translation, highlighting the sacred moments of unison when Joubert ventures into her element, the African bush, and seeks to make a connection with the indigenous people. Joubert has a passion for Africa that even she admits to have been a driving force throughout her life and her writings. But, on another level, “she would like all the people of Africa of whatever origin, nationality or race to consider themselves equally African. I think she chose the title of this translation, A daughter of Africa, precisely to make that statement. She describes a moment of epiphany for her on a trip to Madagascar by herself (chapter 3.7). She is travelling in a bus packed with inhabitants of the island when an incident sparks the realisation that she is fundamentally connected to the young mother sitting beside her with her baby: they have both borne children and nurtured them. Later, Elsa wrote a short story called “Daughters of Africa”, in which she portrayed an Afrikaner woman coming to that same revelation while attending a women’s conference in Johannesburg. Most of the participants land up in the indoor swimming pool – a kind of baptismal event signifying a 'rebirth of consciousness'. Her autobiography details her efforts to support various authors of colour, and she clearly considers them as fellow writers. She and they all contribute to an understanding of their world which is the world of Africa."

South African publishers are often loath to publish English translations of Afrikaans literary texts; Wainwright argues convincingly that the book is important for a broader readership than just those people who can read Afrikaans. “This account is an honest portrayal of various groups of people living in South Africa during and after apartheid.” Elsa scrupulously considers both the positives and negatives of people from all groups with insight and empathy. How different this approach is than most news reporting, where slanted facts are often presented together with quick judgment. I hope that this book will bring to those outside the Afrikaner fold a deeper understanding not only of Afrikaners, but of all the peoples in South Africa. After all, it was Elsa’s intent with all her writings to close the gaps between people. As she puts it: “If only we were free to do it, we could be like drops of quicksilver that run towards each other and meld into one, but there are obstructions between people that are so solidly built that they form impenetrable walls” (chapter 10.6).

In this respect, even though apartheid and its aftermath are history now, and many would like to forget they ever existed, an honest appraisal continues to be highly relevant so that we can deal responsibly with other clashes of culture, religion and race in Africa and around the world. That is why translating this book into a more universally understood language is so important. We can all learn from this kind of truth-seeking approach. Amazon’s Kindle edition, modestly priced, is thus aimed at reaching as many readers as possible. Wainwright also chose not to restrict sharing, for the same reason. Joubert’s famous novel, Poppie Nongena, in the English translation (1980), is still read at universities in the United States; her autobiography is a valuable accompaniment, which, until now, was simply not available to those who didn’t speak Afrikaans.

A daughter of Africa will appeal to various categories of readers. Those who relish travel descriptions will enjoy Joubert’s intertextual references to her travel books, which have not been translated into English. Wainright’s translation thus provides the only English translation (be it an abridged one) of the journeys Joubert undertook, often alone and with limited means at her disposal. These trips were not just explorations into the unknown, but courageous, individual efforts to visit neighbouring countries, including the islands, which for all intents and purposes had disappeared from the inward-looking South African maps of the time. It is almost unbelievable for a modern-day South African, who considers Mauritius as a honeymoon destination and Madagascar as the playground of 4x4 enthusiasts who turn their adventures into documentaries for the local TV channels, to read about Joubert’s tribulations as a traveller in the 1960s. Her impressions are valuable for anyone interested in that part of the world, because she is also a novelist. All travel descriptions are valuable sources of information, especially at an important point in their history. Joubert visited Mauritius a few years before the island became independent; she also met and befriended Marcelle Lagesse, a writer of historical novels, almost forgotten by modern-day Mauritians (see 3.9, “Ana Paula”). Before Wainwright’s English translation, Joubert’s cameo description of Lagesse was only available to Afrikaans readers. Joubert’s early travels belong to the same category as that of post-revolutionary French travellers who crossed the Atlantic in the hope of finding answers to France’s social and political questions. Joubert’s travels, aimed at finding answers to South Africa’s problems and making “enlightened, humane decisions” (3.7), are the equivalent of Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la démocratie en Amérique.

Some of Joubert’s travels were undertaken with her husband, the journalist and novelist Klaas Steytler. At a time when few individuals were exploring South Africa’s neighbouring countries, they went to Mozambique, always comparing South Africa’s future with that of the Belgian Congo and the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola, and wondering whether terrorists would also be called freedom fighters in South Africa one day (3.10, “Paddleboat on the Zambezi”). Joubert has lived a long and interesting life: she has travelled much and met many writers. Some of her comments remind the modern reader of the insights of Alain de Botton, especially about the art of travel, as in 3.14, “Monomotapa”:

Something is shed from you when you travel alone. You become raw. A connection is built up slowly between you and the people and things around you. You become part of something new but also familiar. You grow into others. From this springs the concept of a “second journey”. When you are with fellow travellers – in this case, Klaas and Maxie – there are too many conversations, always safe; you are never an individual who hurls herself into the unknown. Then the travel book becomes to a large extent a travel “report”.

Her travel descriptions became the Baedekers of a new Afrikaans generation of intelligent travellers.

Joubert is a journalist as well as a writer; an avid reader, she quotes many titles. Wainwright decided to keep the Afrikaans (or, in certain cases, African language) title or word and to provide an English translation (for example, “Die maan / The moon”, 3.6). There is also a useful glossary providing supplementary information on the terms indicated, with an asterisk on first mention (it does not contain the names of the writers mentioned in the text). Wainwright translates every Afrikaans literary title, many of which have not appeared in English (see 3.13, “Ingrid”), sometimes literally, sometimes creatively: Mensalleen, meaning “One alone”, becomes Merely human). Author PG du Plessis’s Siener in die suburbs, meaning “Seer in the suburbs”, becomes Visionary in the suburbs (4.7, “Bonga”). Then, of course, there are the translational “finds”, such as the description of Madagascar as a “cast-off part of Africa” (3.7), in keeping with Joubert’s discovery of this forgotten island. This text is not just multilingual (the source text is Afrikaans, with smatterings of English, Portuguese, Spanish and African languages); there are also various registers, the most salient being the dialogues between Joubert and her domestic workers (one of whom would inspire the story of Poppie Nongena). Although there are mostly gains in this translation, there is also occasional loss, especially when it comes to finding an equivalent for certain registers: when Sophie, the domestic worker, exclaims, “Oof, what is the missus doing now?” (3.9, “Ana Paula”), it sounds almost British working-class. Wainwright retains the Afrikaans way of addressing elderly people as Mom and Dad, followed by their surname, as in “Ma Steytler” (3.17, “Bram Fischer”). Another typically Afrikaans word in nationalistic circles is “volk”, translated as “people” throughout the text. It is a difficult word to translate, perhaps because it is also a keyword. Leaving it as is would have evoked uncalled-for associations with German, whereas “people” for a more conservative South African has a more leftist ring to it. Translation has to make peace with being the art of compromise at times. In 4.3 (“Pappa”), the translator’s retention of the diminutives “Pappa” and “Mamma” in the chapter dealing with her father’s passing is apt and moving, and a good rendition of Elsa the daughter’s state of mind. After his death, Joubert discovers a novel her father wrote in 1916, written in what was then a new language, Afrikaans.

Writers’ autobiographies provide insight into the mysterious creative process, the context in which a text is written, or possible triggers (a historic event or impressions garnered in the course of a journey or while covering a story, as in the case of Elsa Joubert, who also provided copy for newspapers and magazines). A case in point is the trigger for To die at sunset (English translation by Joubert’s husband, Klaas Steytler; see 3.9 and 3.15), providing literary researchers with the story on how the Afrikaans title of the novel was coined by Marcelle Lagesse and honed by Joubert. Here, the reader is able to view political and other events from the viewpoint of a white South African woman who incarnates the truth that travel opens the mind. Her moral and religious convictions eventually lead to the discovery of her calling as a writer, and penning the book she was probably born for, The long journey of Poppie Nongena. Although there are many accounts of the apartheid period, what Joubert achieved is nothing less than a Proustian feat: she was able to displace herself to the 1950s and 1960s, preserving the innocence or naivety of the young woman she was at the time.

The volume also provides cameos of other writers who would be familiar to readers interested in Afrikaans and South African literature, such as André Brink, Ingrid Jonker and the generation of the Sestigers (the 1960s generation), who travelled to Europe and especially France to escape the stifling atmosphere of 1960s South Africa, and came back with Afrikaans translations of European and French classics and the influence of the literary movements they had experienced. Through Joubert’s encounters with black South African writers, the reader becomes aware of the different choices they made during the same period, pertaining to the choice of [local] subject matter and language: in the case of the black South African writers, English instead of an African language. The reader who keeps abreast with current events in South Africa will know about a widespread movement which developed out of the 2016 “Fees must fall” student action for free education. “Afrikaans must fall” is aimed at replacing the remaining double and parallel medium language policies (instruction in English and Afrikaans) at South African universities with one medium of instruction, that is, English. One of the key themes in both volumes of the autobiography is Joubert’s love for her mother tongue, Afrikaans, without which her oeuvre would not have existed. This text highlights a key African viewpoint which seems not to have changed in the course of the past 50 years, that is, that blackness, and not language, is considered a distinguishing aspect of identity, and that English is the unifying factor between the various African ethnic groups. Conversely, for Afrikaners, as for the Flemish, language is identity and, even more so, nationhood. The exchanges between the latter, recorded by Joubert, are still pertinent to the current language debate.

Although many of the writers referred to in this autobiography will be unknown to readers outside South Africa, the descriptions are lively enough to provide characters participating in a certain period of history and literature, such as Joubert’s reference to the Rabies (3.8). On the other hand, American theatre audiences will be interested in Joubert’s encounter with Athol Fugard, the dramatist and actor who spent many years in San Francisco (3.8).

Volume 2 covers the period 1948 to 2007, and thus provides readers and researchers with personal impressions of journeys to countries with particular meaning to the author, as well as particular political events, such as the Sharpeville and Soweto uprisings. Many of her trips, whether undertaken alone or in a group, took place at turning points in history. Her poignant description of a destroyed post-war Berlin and her encounter with a German boy who has lost everything is juxtaposed to a second, ulterior visit to the newly rebuilt Berlin; she compares the photographs of Aryan-reserved park benches in the Dachau Museum with similar restrictions in South Africa (4.2, “Berlin”):

It strikes me like a blow in my stomach; the Afrikaans equivalent, Slegs vir blankes (“Only for whites”). Will we also react like this? Will we also throw ourselves into a paroxysm of materialism, one day, one day when our government is overthrown and the Afrikaners are shattered into nothing? It’s a day that will have to come to our country. Everybody knows it must come.

In a little-known documentary entitled Daughters of de Beauvoir, female authors commented that the value of the regular instalments of the French feminist’s memoirs resided for them in the first day-to-day account of how a female writer organises her day. Joubert is not a feminist writer, but rather (and increasingly so) an engaged writer, but her husband and children always came first. This uncommon combination of political activism and maternal convictions also makes for interesting reading. Chapters such as 3.12 (“School concert”) are important in this regard, also because of the juxtaposition between the normal activities in the Joubert household and events in the townships, which she would record in The long journey of Poppie Nongena. As in the case of Beauvoir, the autobiography also describes the tension between parents and children because of differing political viewpoints. As the text is based on Joubert’s diaries, her quotes of comments by her father and mother, especially on the themes of her books, ring particularly true, as in the last paragraph of Chapter 4.1 (“The reservoir”):

My father is smoking a cigarette on the stoep. He sees I am tired and overwrought. He tells me to come and sit with him. He wants to know what I am busy writing. Do I have something to show him? Immediately he brings composure to my mind. I tell him I am working on a story that I heard when we were in Mozambique, about a half-caste man who is not accepted by the Portuguese. I have sent to Lisbon for reference books.

“That same theme again,” says my father. “Why not something pleasant?”

Some things have changed drastically since the writing of this autobiography, others not. In 3.15 (“In the wake of captain”), Joubert laments the fact that Afrikaans people don’t buy [enough] books; during a trip to Argentina, she would once again draw the comparison between Argentineans queuing at a book fair and the difficulty of keeping an Afrikaans book store viable in a large city like Cape Town.

Daughter of Africa also tells another story in the background, one of the great love stories of the Afrikaans literary world, that of Elsa Joubert and Klaas Steytler. Joubert was greatly affected by the death of her husband, and her autobiography became a means to carry on living and to remember their shared existence.

Literary translation opens a window on a foreign language and culture. In the case of Irene Wainwright’s English translation of Reisiger / A daughter of Africa, the long-term contribution could be much more important. The Afrikaans language, Joubert’s instrument of literary creation, is under siege and in the process of being dispensed with as a university language of instruction, signalling the eventual loss of its higher functions. It may be that this translation will one day be the only way to access the autobiography of a courageous writer who, in 2002, was considered one of the best writers on the African continent. It may be that Joubert’s oeuvre will one day be known only through translations such as this one.

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