A casual conversation between Of Cops & Robbers author Mike Nicol and Jaco Botha, who translated the novel into the Afrikaans as Dieners & Donners.
It was in the dead of summer when Umuzi publisher Fourie Botha contacted me and enquired if I would be interested in translating Mike Nicol’s latest crime thriller into Afrikaans. He mentioned a price and I said yes – what can I say, I needed the money.
Thing is, when the manuscript arrived and I started reading, I was immediately taken by it.
They come down the street in a baby-shit yellow Ford Granada, going slowly, checking out the houses. A whisper of exhaust smoking from the tailpipe. A growl like the pipe is rusted, holed somewhere near the box.
Four men in the car, all wearing sunglasses. The driver’s got on racing gloves, olive-coloured racing gloves. The thing about him, his face’s huge and red, he’s known as the Fisherman.
Like receiving a good book to review, I was truly thankful when I was given a good novel to translate.
Making a long story – one of many late nights – short, the book recently appeared.
So, on a dark and stormy night, Mike Nicol and I started chatting over e-mail about our respective journeys with this book. I, the translator in the wilderness, the one with the thousand-yard stare. He, the crime author who breaks all the rules, the guy who writes with a swagger in his step.
This is how it played out.
Mike: Got to ask right off, Jaco, have you done much translating, and really why you would even want to do this? Seems to me a particularly difficult way to earn a living. But before you answer that I think it’s only fair to give readers those first two paragraphs in Afrikaans. I reckon you caught the scene:
Hulle kom in die straat opgery in ‘n babakakgeel Ford Granada, stadig, verspied die omgewing soos hulle ry. ’n Fluistering van uitlaatgas. ‘n Gegrom deur ‘n gat uit die verroeste dieptes van die uitlaatpyp.
Vier mans in die motor, almal dra donkerbrille. Die bestuurder dra renjaerhandskoene, olyfkleurige renjaerhandskoene. Die ding van hom, sy gesig is enorm en rooi – hy is bekend as die Visserman.
Jaco: Thanks Mike. Well, I am what is loosely referred to as a literary whore. I have written for television and film, proposals, ads, couple of books; if the price is right, I even write love letters on demand. Translation, not so much, couple of fertiliser ads and of course, Of Cops & Robbers. If this goes well, I might just turn it into a racket.
So, where did this story start for you?
Mike: Okay, before I answer that ... You know how it is when you sit down to write a novel you have no idea of how long it will be or how long it will take. Seems to me that when you sit down to translate you’ve got this moerse number of pages you have to work through. That’s bloody daunting. Doesn’t it put you off faced with all that? What do you do? X number of pages a day?
Jaco: Most important thing is, I don’t read the book beforehand – I read and translate page by page – the faster I translate, the faster I get to know what happens next. So, it is a reward system. Think it worked out on about 6 to 7 pages a day – could only work nights on it because of other projects – had a three-month deadline for the 378-odd pages. Interesting thing, you need more words and syllables to tell the same story in Afrikaans – the translation came in at about 384 pages.
In some cases, I translated it first and then rewrote it to give it more of an Afrikaans twang.
Mike: Which is to me the interesting thing, the rewriting. Okay you’re reworking your own writing, but don’t you have an itch sometimes to rework the original. To say, hang on, I can do better than this. Or this works better in Afrikaans?
Jaco: Mike, I’m not telling where, but here and there I’ve used a bit of creative license. I think when translating, your task is to channel the spirit of the writer, the essence of the text, and to accomplish that, you sometimes need to stray.
You're a very inspirational writer.
Mike: You ask where did the story start? That’s a helluva question. Partly it started with the Smit murders – I’ve long been fascinated with how and why they were killed back in 1978. You remember he was a young NP parliamentarian who may or may not have had some dirt on Dr Gold, or other cabinet members. Dirt that related to gold bullion in Switzerland possibly being hoarded there for a government in exile or for personal gain. There were lots of rumours. So that was the one starter. Another was some of the stuff going on in politics at the time, all that bent top-cop stuff when Jackie Selebi was on the line for a host of corruption charges. Then I wanted to put two bright young things into a story: voilá – the sharp lawyer with the gambling habit, Vicki Kahn, and the surfer dude with a side trade in doobie, Fish Pescado. So given this background, strikes me that although you’re working from English into Afrikaans at least the culture is familiar. You know the scene, how we talk and what sort of characters inhabit our land. Was this a help in the translation?
Jaco: Yes, many of the characters are truly recognisable and that made things easier. It’s also a tale of surfing and smuggled rhino horn, boobs, splif and bad asses with big guns. It’s the South African dream, man. Sometimes a shattered dream, but a dream nevertheless.
So yes, I think with bringing in things like the old CCB, the Robert Smit murders, boykies braaiing on beaches, the whole Cape Town scene, you have burrowed into an important South African and, yes, Afrikaans state of consciousness – the mythological mother lode, so to speak.
Unlike writing, translation is unfortunately something one has to perform sober, or relatively sober. I think you got the better end of things.
What are your thoughts on writing under the influence?
Mike: Doesn’t work for me. I gotta come to this business bright and chirpy first thing in the morning or it doesn’t work at all. I know it’s a great tradition for writers to be drunk or stoned. For example: John Cheever: “The excitement of alcohol and the excitement of fantasy are very similar.” Or Hemingway: “What else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky?” I grew up reading the beat generation and they were famously drugged most of the time but to get where I’ve got to go I have to be stone cold sober. Or cold stone sober as one of the characters puts it in the book. What about you? Would you buy doob from Fish?
Jaco: I certainly would, if it’s good stuff. I agree with you that writing productively takes sobriety and self-discipline, but when in the conceptual phase, or stuck in sticky patch of the narrative, a bit of green surely helps to see more colours, more ideas, more possibilities. It just opens up the box, loosens up the soil, so to speak.
Strange how people associate authors with their main characters – how do you relate to Fish?
Mike: I’m the spitting image for one thing. Can surf at least as well. Shoot more or less with the same precision. Like Castle milk stout. Yeah, you could say we’re alter egos.
Jaco: And speaking of characters, from the surfers and bergies to the security police and broederbonders, there is a hyper-realistic authenticity to your description of diverse cultural worlds.
Have you experienced these worlds?
Mike: The easy part of that answer is about the surfers and the bergies. I lived in Muizenberg (as you know much of the story is set there) for a long time – in the ghetto where the houses are right on the street, so bergies are very much part of day, and night. Things can get a bit hectic with bergies but they are also a great source of invention. Their use of language I found constantly inspiring for one thing. Their stories were extraordinarily creative. Often if we got into a hand-out situation I would pay according to the story. Some of them may have twigged to this. Anyhow we lived in Muizenberg so that I could surf (I don’t any longer for all sorts of reasons from needing to stay out of the sun for skin issues to being poep scared of waves which seem to get bigger as I got older). But in those days surfing was ever so lekker and I thought it was time to put that stuff into a book.
As for the security police – no, I was fortunate to get through the 1970s and 1980s as a journalist without tangling with those really scary men. But of course they (and the Broederbonders) were the background to our lives. You could see their hand in everything, well, that’s how it seemed. And as we were living in a police state this kind of stuff makes an impact, don’t you reckon?
Jaco: Yeah, I was too young to really be on the bad side of apartheid – I lived in Lala Land where milk was delivered to our doorstep and I rode on the back of our black domestic worker who protected me against parental punishment.
At university I clashed a bit with the broederbonders who still ruled Stellenbosch at the time – their distilled words, homes with dark wood furniture, their precious language and culture. Today we’re cool – some of them play a mean rubber.
In my work as TV director I have braaied with the guys who according to bush lore took out Samora Machel telling about how lucky Mbeki is that they were called off – the hit was already set up when the talks with the ANC began. Strange thing is, in my mind, I prefer them to the old broeders, they are more real – if you are not at war with them, they are relatively good guys, family men, people you can rely on during a crisis, guys who can tell a good joke.
People in the know will tell you that a lot of the old MI guys are now working for SARS, a lot of the old CCB guys for Mo. If you need rhino horn to buy a bit of goodwill from a Chinese general you can always relay on the boykies from Rhoodies Rugby Club to source it for you. It’s a can of worms nobody wants to open, and nobody should, you’ll just get fucked up – it’s the kind of honest truth that can only be revealed through fiction.
And that’s what the book brought out for me – we are all to a certain degree both cops and robbers – dieners and donners – the society we live in today is more free, maybe more just, but also lekker vrot hoor. Maybe it is because so many people got away with murder that so many still do.
If I had suffered for the struggle, I would have been truly disappointed in the result – during the Mandela years we had so much potential to form a better society, better than the Yanks in any case – but that’s just the way the world goes – the new broeders are brothers.
Mike: Funny how that happens, isn’t it? Just to get back to the cultural thing for a moment. When I’ve dealt with other translators there’ve been lots of questions about SA and what the slang means etc. With this Afrikaans edition it’s the first time I can read a translation. I remember thinking in the beginning, as long as he gets the rhythm right that’s all that matters. Obviously, it’s not but you know what I mean. I felt that as long as it sounded right – which it does – then I was happy. Was that an issue for you in any way?
Jaco: No, Mike, it’s pure rock & roll, no doubt about it, with maybe a twang of Tom Waits and spatter of AK47 fire. I would say it reminded me of a film treatment – shooting from the hip, cutting to the chase, getting to the point with just a bit of a swagger in the step.
Have you written for film before?
Mike: Uh-uh. Wouldn’t know where to start. It seems a deeply mysterious process. All those different writers getting involved. It’s much better alone in the dungeon.
Jaco: Anyhow, back to the novel, loved to translate it, but it wasn’t easy to maintain the authenticity of the voice, while still translating it into more or less acceptable Afrikaans. Especially maintaining the rhythm and lingo during the surfing scenes was quite a challenge.
Surfers Corner, Muizenberg, met ’n woelige see. Golwe: diep oseaan, stormbranders, meter en ’n half, twee meter hoog, donner in, tuimel regs. Genoeg slaankrag om jou te laat hyg in die tuimel, ’n oomblik se ekstase op die gesig geskryf.
Vis Pescado en Daro Attilane in duikpakke skop op hul langplanke tot tussen die agterste branders, voel die see sleur en pols soos hul deur die witwaters breek. Hulle veg deur die deinings en trôe, tot anderkant die stoot van die pieke, lywe wat pyn.
I think surfing is possibly more of a Soutie thing – gee vir ‘n Boer eerder ‘n bakkie as ‘n surfboard – some terms like “booties” and “point break” just don’t have culturally compatible Afrikaans equivalents.
Mike: Wragtig! I never thought of that ... But then it would be a Soutie thing wouldn’t it. Maybe we should just peel off this one right here and now.
Jaco: Probably the most difficult part of the entire translation process for me was when I received the first proofed manuscript. The proofreader – although a very competent Afrikaans practitioner – unfortunately didn’t have a feel for it. A lot of the vibe got lost.
I called out to the Almighty and then shortly after that called the publisher. This startling voice-of-our-time could surely not be sacrificed for the sake of conventionalism and grammatical prudence. We really desperately need a bit of that sexy in Afrikaans.
Fortunately, the damage was undone through the appointment of an alternative proofreader.
Mike, in my mind you’re the best damn thing that happened to Afrikaans since Breytenbach stopped writing. How do you feel about that?
Mike: No, man, Jaco, I can’t answer a question like that. Languages need and grow through their own writers – my theory at any rate. I’m sure translations do influence things but not to that degree. Well, let me put it this way, after reading Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass in translation I realised that different sorts of sentences were possible in English. Sentences that I had not encountered in my reading of English first-language writers. So I’m sure there is cross-pollination.
Jaco: Mike, I don’t want to fuck up the sales figures for you, but I have to tell you, this is a really well written book. Beneath all the action and the satisfaction, there is a cynical, unique, clever, nuanced literary voice at work. What do you have to say about that?
Mike: Kind of you to say so, Jaco. But I’m not going to admit to the cynical, unique, clever, nuanced literary voice. That’s for others to decide. My intention was to write a novel that could be read on the beach or in an airport. Now Afrikaans has a long-standing tradition of commercial fiction, was this of benefit to you as you translated?
Jaco: Yeah, I think Afrikaans had a popular fiction injection through the translation of authors like Heinz G Konsalik in the 60s and 70s. In the 80s people like Dalene Matthee got Afrikaans readers reading and on the crime fiction side, Deon Meyer has set new standards for Afrikaans book sales. I think if you’re Dan Brown or Mike Nicol, when you do a popular genre well, when you’re a good storyteller, people will buy your books and read it no matter what language it was written in.
You have captured something of the spirit of our time in the pace and mood of your book and I am glad that some of that can now also be found in translation by the readers of my tribe.