In the name of the other - poetry in self-translation

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This lecture was given at the Literarischen Colloquium (2008) in Berlyn: “Wie es ist, sich selbst zu übersetzen”. Other sessions included discussions about the self-translations of Hannah Arendt, Vladimir Nabokov and Samuel Beckett. Nabokov, for example, wrote an English version of a Russian experience, and then translated it back into Russian. The concept of the colloquium was formulated by Marie Luise Knott. My English text was translated during this lecture.

Hierdie bydrae is tydens ’n Literarischen Colloquium (2008) in Berlyn gelewer: “Wie es ist, sich selbst zu übersetzen”. Ander sessies het die selfvertalings van Hannah Arendt, Vladimir Nabokov en Samuel Beckett bekyk. Nabokov het byvoorbeeld ’n Engelse weergawe van ’n Russiese ervaring beskryf en hierdie Engelse weergawe toe terug na Russies vertaal. Die konsep van die colloquium is geformuleer deur Marie Luise Knott. My Engelse teks is vertaal terwyl ek gepraat het.

The language I write in is called Afrikaans. Afrikaans, named after the continent on which it is spoken, is one of the few languages that came into being at the beginning of the twentieth century. Afrikaners, the people I come from, not only lost the imperial war against the British in 1901, but saw nearly a quarter of its population dying in concentration camps. When they returned to their burnt-down farms and towns, they used the language Afrikaans, also called kitchen Dutch because it originated among the imported slaves, to build the Afrikaner nation. The Afrikaner came into political power in 1948 and formalised apartheid with a series of laws and violent oppression (also against those who spoke Afrikaans but were not white). The language was protected by those in power and enormous structures were built around it so that by the mid-1930s it could deliver a literature powerful enough to culminate in the '60s with some internationally acclaimed writers such as André P Brink and Breyten Breytenbach. It is in this language that I began to write and publish from a young age.

By the end of the 1980s, after six poetry volumes and 15 years of writing in Afrikaans, people started to translate my work into English for the first time, because of my political involvement. The works of Afrikaners were often translated; some translators specialised in translations from Afrikaans.

After initially being pleased to be translated, I became more and more surprised at what was chosen for translation: mostly easier poems, mostly simple political outcries, and little of the more complex political, feminist or outspoken sexual work. Furthermore, when I read these poems they sounded so overwhelmingly English that I felt no relationship with them at all and could not read them aloud. They felt to have been written by somebody else. They felt too English and English was not how I wanted to sound. I wanted to sound Afrikaans, but in English. I wanted the reader/listener to be aware all the time that he or she was busy with somebody that is not English, somebody coming from another sensibility, another loyalty, another culture.

After 1990, when the liberation movements were unbanned and Nelson Mandela was released, our new constitution recognised all 11 main spoken languages in the country as official languages. Where Afrikaans had to share space only with English as the other official language, it now had to share resources with ten others. Afrikaans, although internally strong, officially lost nearly all its power. Afrikaners themselves, although financially strong, also lost all their former political power. With it, the interest in Afrikaans literature also vanished – despite the fascinating and powerful voices of Afrikaans speakers of colour. It seemed as if nobody else except Afrikaans speakers cared what was being said or written in Afrikaans.

But – and this is important: within English a new South African literature was being formed for the first time. Writers from all backgrounds, languages and cultures started to come together in English. Those writing in Zulu, Sepedi or Afrikaans simply became voiceless in the cul de sacs their languages had become in a country where people were desperate to find one another after so many years of being kept apart. To stay in your language meant to stay apart.

This was the time I started to translate myself. I did so because:

  1. I wanted to be and become part of the new South Africanness that was being formed.
  2. There were no translators walking around looking for Afrikaans poets to translate.
  3. I wanted to control what was being translated and how I was being presented.
  4. Despite wanting to be part of the new, I wanted to make it clear where I was coming from. I didn’t come from nowhere: I carry a past with me. I do not want to become English, but stay Afrikaans within a new South African milieu which happens to be English. In English I wanted to other myself.

Initially it seemed possible and simple to do it that way. It allowed me to function fully in Afrikaans and make use of all the mighty registers available to me, while the translation allowed me to become part of my country. I also made it my business to translate actively the poetry from the other indigenous languages such as Zulu, Xhosa, Venda and Sesotho into Afrikaans and English.

At the same time a very good Dutch translator developed an interest in my work and slowly, over ten years, he created an audience for me in the Netherlands that is currently bigger than my readership in South Africa.

Initially I acted as a pure translator into English and had to look up a lot of words in the dictionary and had to get people to look at the grammar and spelling. I avoided translating poems that rhyme. I stuck closely to the Afrikaans.

The keeping of the original Afrikaans bone structure had three functions: first, it maintained that I was “the other”; I was not one of those writing in English. By carrying the bones of my origin I could stay the other. Second, it said that I did not intimately know the literature and literary tones and references of the literature into which I released a poem, thus the poem could not be summarily judged or evaluated by the conventions of that literature. Third, it signalled that the reader/listener should be prepared to open herself up to a new and strange rhythm and content. This language within a language often had an invigorating function within the new language as it flaunted its distance in opposing fashions.

But as my English improved through my working and functioning within a more or less English-speaking community, I became dissatisfied with the parts of the Afrikaans poems that did not work well in English, so I started to make changes. I rewrote, I used other rhymes, I started to make use of English poems and English echoes so that the translated poems often became new poems. I became more and more aware of the difference between translation and what was described as self-translation. One’s “loyalty” as a translator lies to the work as it stands – one’s skills and creativity should be used to do justice to the existing text but within the new translation. The moment I translate my own poem, I feel no loyalty to the old text, because it existed, it was there, it was leading its own life, but my loyalty, my skill and creativity are directed to the new text, the new process and the new life of this poem.

How could I do it in a culture with which I was not familiar? I kept the bone structure of the Afrikaans poem, while at the same time beginning to trust the creative instinct also in a foreign language. So my ear, which I previously trusted only within Afrikaans, I started to trust more and more also in English. I also often gave poetry readings in which I put forward this English sound with its Afrikaans timbre. So I allowed myself to work creatively, not as a translator, but as making a new poem out of the old one. Or to quote Gian Mario Villalta:

[T]he genesis of a work cannot be separated from the language in which it takes place. The hypothesis that there is a repeatable creative process in the two languages leads to the revelation of the obvious connection of themes, figures, concepts, settings but the hiding of that which is truly important: the articulation of a world/language/subject in which the creative process unfolds.

In other words the second creative process became more important than staying faithful to the first.

I closely watched the one or two writers who were known to write and publish in both Afrikaans and English. Some of the critics pointed out how their texts and descriptions had become more generalised and less and less culturally specific, which removed much of the wonderful colour that once was part of their writing. So in the beginning I worked from finished and published poems and knew that the inner poetic voice had finished and poetically logically said what it wanted to say.

In Country of my Skull, my book on the South African Truth Commission, there was one chapter that I wrote directly in English: the chapter about Winnie Mandela. It became the chapter that always received the most criticism in terms of moral judgement and I have often wondered whether it would have become a different chapter if I had written it in Afrikaans first.

Finally, let me spell out some of the problems a poet translating herself from an unimportant language into a newly constituted literature within an expanding First World language.

The main problem is that one’s route to readership and scholarship start to go more and more through English. This means that one receives many requests for poems and contributions in English. The poems I still write originally in Afrikaans. I cannot do otherwise. The poetic inner life comes to life only in my mother tongue. But then there is not enough time, or any good reason, to work and work on the poem until I am satisfied. So I would use this rough unfinished poem and begin to translate. I would work hard on the translation, but the solution to solving structural and content problems are now worked out directly in English. Afterwards I would sometimes translate that back into Afrikaans and then rechange the English, but more and more I find that I have captured something in English that I simply cannot find a good Afrikaans translation for, which means that for me the English poem is better than the Afrikaans one. I am terrified of this, because I do not know enough of English literature to be truly original in it. Yet how valid is it to battle to sound Afrikaans while one is beginning to think more and more in English anyway? This also means that I have to keep my Afrikaans from deteriorating by reading a lot of Dutch. I have to say, though, that my stay here in Germany has brought back my language to me in such full force that I have found myself again writing and finishing poems in Afrikaans.

The accompanying problem, of course, is that other translators work from the English poem and not from the original Afrikaans one. So the quality of the English one is of overriding importance. I would send a newly translated English poem to Germany to be translated into German. In the meantime I would work at the Afrikaans original, and carry the changes over to the English version, so that finally the German version differs from both the English and the Afrikaans.

The second problem is that this translation takes an enormous amount of time. Where other people would write a new poem, I would be translating. One’s output is eventually smaller than that of somebody who can continuously work in her own language.

The third problem is that one no longer forms a consistency in one’s own language. One is not busy in that language, acting and reacting. With whom is one now in conversation? Who are the echoes in one’s work?

Fourthly, there is also a hostility in the new language that the formerly powerful and racist language now spews through its writers, many of them very good, into the new literature. The question posed by writers formerly banned and oppressed by Afrikaner authorities is, of course: Why would these Afrikaner writers who had never before bothered to be in English, now suddenly be interested to exist in English?

In conclusion: While working on this paper for tonight, I have actually come to realise that my translation efforts have become an untenable mess. I am in despair. Entangled and incoherent. And yet, from my postcolonial post-modern morass I do not see any route back to being only in Afrikaans again.

Let me provide some examples of what I have been talking about:



How the words “grond”, “ondergronds” etc do not work in English but find an equivalent in German.



under orders from my ancestors you were occupied
had I language I could write for you were land my land

but me you never wanted
no matter how I stretched to lie down
in rustling blue gums
in cattle lowering horns into Diepvlei
rippling the quivering jowls drink
in silky tassels in dripping gum
in thorn trees that have slid down into emptiness

me you never wanted
me you could never endure
time and again you shook me off
you rolled me out
land, slowly I became nameless in my mouth

now you are fought over
negotiated divided paddocked sold stolen mortgaged
I want to go underground with you land
land that would not have me
land that never belonged to me

land that I love more fruitlessly than before


Grund (translated by Sofia Pick)

onder bevele van my voorgeslagte was jy besit
Unter dem Befehl von meinen Vorfahren wurdest du besetzt

had ek taal kon ek skryf want jy was grond my grond
hätte ich Sprache könnte ich schreiben denn du wärst Grund mein Grund

maar my wou jy nooit
aber mich wolltest du nie
hoe ek ook al strek om my neer te lê
wie sehr ich mich auch streckte nieder zu liegen
in ruisende blou bloekoms
in rauschenden blauen Eukalyptus
in bees wat horings sak in Diepvlei
in Biestern die ihre Hörner senken in Diepvlei
rimpelend drink die trillende keelvel
plätschernd trinken die zitternden Kehlen
in tafsytossels in leksels gom
in Taftquasten im leckenden Gummi
in doringbome afgegly na die leegtes
in Dornenbäumen abgeglitten ins Leere

mý wou jy nooit
mich wolltest du nie
my verduur kon jy nooit
mich vertragen konntest du nie
keer op keer skud jy my af
ein übers andre Mal schütteltest du mich ab
rol jy my uit
rolltest du mich aus
grond, ek word langsaam naamloos in die mond
Grund, ich wurde langsam namenlos im Mund

nou word geveg om jou
Jetzt wird gekämpft um dich
beding verdeel verkamp verkoop versteel verpand
bedingt verteilt abgeweidet verkauft gestohlen verpfändet
ek wil ondergronds gaan met jou grond
ich will in den Untergrund gehn mit dir Grund

grond wat my nie wou hê nie
Grund, der mich nicht wollte haben
grond wat nooit aan my behoort het nie
Grund, der mir nie gehörte

grond wat ek vergeefser as vroeër liefhet
Grund, den ich vergeblicher als früher lieb habe



How self-translation provides the space to take liberties which an official translator dare not take.





A poem which I started in Afrikaans at Lavigny, but wanted to write in the required guest book. The Afrikaans stayed in the rough version, and a lot of work went into the English. For Verweerskrif I started to work on the Afrikaans, but still feel that the English poem is better.


die blikbul van lavigny

van borsspiere bult is hy uitgeput. sy lyf
van onverganklik jonkwees gedaan
sy verwende borskas sak diep tussen
sy pote in as hy die blonde koringveld

opwaarts swiep in ’n vaag-onthoude snak
van geluk – wanneer laas is sy sjarme
metafories betas? roerloos roes sy
bal. sy lieste ril beskermend teen soet vergane

geilheid vas. wat moet word van hierdie
on-ejakulerende jagse bul? sy horing hang. sy
stert tril nog om solitêre swier maar sy lyf is
een opgehoopte dom vrag vrees...hy weet die groot

inmekaarstort kom en druk sy kwylbek vir
oulaas vrypostig tussen persblou pruime in.


bronze bull of Lavigny

the upright stance is wearing him down
the forever-young torso is getting to him
his over-indulged chest is slipping in between
his legs as he drags the blonde fields uphill in

a remembered act of bliss – his hide skinned
by seasons of poets feeling him up for metaphors
his balls rust forth, his thighs shuffle
protectively around the sweet decomposing

chamber of lust. what is he to do now – this
sad solitary bull? his tail sprained. one horn
gone. his body has become one dumb
eroding dump of fear among the trees. he

knows the great collapse is here and pushes his dry
derelict snout up among the mauve pertblue plums



Note the problems around alliteration and self-made words.


Weder Familie noch Freunde

Heut nacht spricht alles
durch die Toten
zu mir
dein brüchig Bündel von Gebein
mein Liebster allerlängst geliebt
liegt einsam sehnsuchtsvoll gebettet irgendwo verloren
und ganz mager
ich bin so grausam wach
heut nacht
von mir so wenig ist geworden
du bist alles was ich hatte auf der Welt
geliebter Totling
es ist allein und kalt da hinter meinen Rippen
Afrika hat mich alles aufgeben lassen
es ist so dunkel
es ist so öde
geliebter sanfter Spötter
aus mir ist wenig nur geworden
ich bin am Boden runter
auf meine letzte Haut

(Übersetzung: Sophia Pick)


Different endings. Working on the English version the Yeats ending of “searing from the marrowbone” felt wonderfully apt, while there was nothing similar in Afrikaans. In the second example the English poem ends a stanza earlier. “To the hilt” seemed final enough and a translation of the last stanza sentimentalised the poem for me, while I like the last stanza very much in the Afrikaans poem.



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