"Its survival is my survival'': Imke van Heerden in conversation with translator Jameson Maluleke

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Jameson, you are a translator by profession. What is it about the act of translation that you find appealing?

For me, translation is both a profession and a passion. Creativity in translation is like Kentucky Fried Chicken: a source of finger lickin’ goodness! Above all, translation overwhelms me with pride in that it transforms me into a link in a chain, a kind of bridge which allows for a free flow of new ideas and literary wealth between languages.

Where did you receive your training?

I am proud to say that I am “die volle Kovsie” – I belong to and study at one of the leading lights of the world, an academy with a rich intellectual and research tradition, an institution destined to spearhead reconciliation, nation building and the healing of wounds in our beloved country, that is, the University of the Free State! I am completing my doctorate in Linguistics (Translation) by researching the history of the Xitsonga Bible translation. I spend almost three-quarters of my time reading and writing.

You translated Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country into Xitsonga. Why did you choose to translate this particular book?

The project was my own initiative, a humble contribution to the enrichment and consolidation of the Xitsonga language and its literature. The translation is entitled Rila, Tiko Ro Rhandzeka Swongahsi and was first published by Shuter and Shooter Publishers in Pietermaritzburg in 1997. It has been prescribed in high schools where, I hope, it has led to the cross-pollination of ideas, opening the eyes of thousands of Xitsonga-speaking students.

Cry, the Beloved Country contains everything my people need to know about liberalism, generosity of spirit and tolerance of others. Through this translation, I also hoped to consolidate Xitsonga-speakers’ faith in liberalism.

Have you translated other works into Xitsonga?

Apart from Cry, the Beloved Country I have translated numerous documents and extracts from English into Xitsonga. I have recently translated Xitsonga Made Easy, a manual for those who want to learn our mother tongue. At the moment I am also translating Rooted in Jesus, a course in Christian discipleship.

Is there a market for books translated into African languages?

There is indeed an untapped market for such books. Despite our positive attitude towards English, the majority of Africans are not so fluent in this language. Millions of our people are ethnolinguists, that is, “own language” fanatics who would prefer to read literature written in their mother tongue.

The survival of your mother tongue is very important to you. Why?

Xitsonga is the language of my ancestors which my mom kindly bequeathed through the umbilical cord and breastfeeding. It is my identity book, a symbol of my pride. I cannot call myself an African without my language. For this reason, its survival is my survival. The more it develops, the more my identity is consolidated.

I feel so strongly about my mother tongue that I would be happy to see it spoken by more than 48 million people in South Africa.

Will Xitsonga survive globalisation?

While Xitsonga, as a “minority” African language, is still struggling to expand its conceptual dimensions, English, as a global language, is a gold mine of countless gold nuggets in the shape of vocabulary, grammatical aspects, idioms, etc. As a language of conquest, a cultural giant and an industry in its own right, English continues to threaten the survival of regional languages such as Xitsonga.

Mother-tongue speakers should always strive to develop, nurture and promote the language of their forefathers by means of words and deeds. In doing so, they will be building a firewall against the threat posed by globalisation. Xitsonga speakers are fortunate in that they have an advantage of high territorial concentration, particularly in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Gauteng, where they peacefully speak Xitsonga without much outside interference.

How, practically speaking, can one go about promoting one’s mother tongue?

The government should instil linguistic pride in the hearts of the millions of South Africans who speak a variety of languages. This could be one of the best protective measures. You might have realised that some South Africans, particularly young African professionals, have distanced themselves from their vernaculars. Some have been dubbed “coconuts” in that they have embraced English as their own language.

The government should insist that indigenous languages be used as medium of instruction from Grade R up to university level. These languages should also be used by MPs in the Houses of Parliament. It is wrong for businessmen/-women and politicians to think that one sounds educated only if one speaks English. The electronic media are doing a sterling job by broadcasting in all nine official languages. The print media, on the other hand, still have to wake up to the new South Africa’s call for newspaper and magazine publications in languages other than Afrikaans and English.

Are there adequate funds to support the translation of texts into African languages?

Translation is now a recognised academic discipline. Institutions such as the University of Free State, Unisa and Durban University of Technology, to mention but a few, offer training/studies in translation. As such, any South African can have adequate access to such training.

The Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB), as well as the Department of Arts and Culture, support the translation of texts into African languages. South Africans are fortunate to have companies and organisations ready to assist ambitious students in their quest for knowledge. Therefore I would advise anyone interested in translation studies to apply for funding from various companies and institutions. I do, however, think that this is still not enough. Financial assistance should also be available at centres of higher learning aimed specifically at recruiting more students into the translation field.

A liberal organisation, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, has generously enabled my doctoral studies. God willing, it may continue to offer me both financial and moral support if my studies continue to yield positive results.

Please give an example of the most difficult sentence you've had to translate from English into Xitsonga and tell us how you succeeded.

Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much. (Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country, 72)

This passage lies at the heart and is the essence of Paton’s classic novel. Herein lies the gem that is Cry, the Beloved Country. It is this moving passage that has endowed the famous novel with its title.

My problem here was not a matter of semantics but a contextual one. I had to translate the passage (and, of course, the whole text) in such a way that it would be equally eloquent to the Xitsonga reader – particularly a reader not well versed in South Africa’s racial problems of the past. If I could not succeed here, the whole project would fail. For this reason, I had to use a number of translation strategies: fluency, evaluation, the comparison of source and target texts, judging the cultural and descriptive equivalents of both texts, simultaneously avoiding reproduction or literal translation by reducing, deleting and/or combining words. The following passage is the harvest of my laborious efforts:

Rila, tiko lero rhandzeka swonghasi, rilela n’wna loyi a nga ta va mudya-ndzhaka wa ku chava ka hina. Endla leswaku a nga yi rhandzi misava. A nga hlekeleli loko mati ya pfuta hi lexikarhi ka tintitho ta yena, hambi ku ri ku yima a miyela ngopfu loko leri pelaka ri tshuwkisa phunga hi ndzilo. A nga nyanyuki ngopfu loko tinyenyana ta tiko ra ka vona ti yimbelela, kumbe a rhandza ngopfu ntshava kumbe nkova wo karhi, hikuva ripfalo ri ta n’wi dyeleta hinkwaswo loko a tinyiketa ngopfu.

In conclusion, is there a future for literary translation from and into African languages?

The future and survival of literary translation from and into African languages are in the hands of Africans, by and large, researchers in the field and, in particular, authors and readers. These groups have a sacred duty to treasure and jealously guard the gem that is literary translation. If they don’t, nobody will.


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