N.P. Van Wyk Louw through the eyes of Adam Small

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This article is a revised version of the 2016 N.P. Van Wyk Louw Memorial Lecture presented at the invitation of the University of Johannesburg.

Adam Small had enduring admiration for the Afrikaans poet N.P. Van Wyk Louw from his first collection of essays Die eerste steen? (The first stone?, 1961) until his last column in The Cape Times, a Cape Town daily, published shortly before his death. He regarded Louw as an exceptional thinker, “one of the greatest thinkers in the world” and the Afrikaans language’s “noblest mind”. His early admiration resulted in a collection of translations of Louw’s poetry, entitled Oh wide and sad land (1975), in which he introduced the doyen of Afrikaans poetry to a broader, English-speaking readership. Small’s translations comprise a selection from Louw’s collections from Alleenspraak (Soliloquy, 1936) to Tristia, including extracts from Die dieper reg (The deeper right, 1942), Raka (1941) and Die pluimsaad waai ver (The plumed seed blows far, 1972). These translations represent Small’s personal canon of Louw’s poetry but also suggest, to some degree, the ideas, the subject matter and poetic craftsmanship that appealed to him. In his afterword entitled “Towards cultural understanding” Small relies on two of Louw’s essay collections, Lojale verset (Loyal resistance, 1939) and Liberale nasionalisme (Liberal nationalism, 1958), from two quite distinct periods in the Louw’s development as a poet-philosopher. Small formulates this broader aim with his collection as follows:

This book is intended to be more than merely a book of Afrikaans verse in translation. It wishes more than anything else to be a contribution towards alleviating what I consider to be one of the maladies of our South African tradition: a lack of truly cultural – I stress truly cultural — communication between English and Afrikaans in the country. (Small 1975a)

Further illustrations of the affinity that Small felt for Louw are his frequent referencing of him in his various speeches, writings and poetry, for instance in his last collection, Klawerjas (2013 – the title refers to a popular South African card game akin to “klaverjas” or “klaberjass”), he again directly references Louw. Small even quotes from a letter Louw sent to him on receiving a gift copy of Die eerste steen?. Such is the bond Small felt with Louw that this letter is printed on the inside covers of this collection.

A point of departure for Small is that Louw is not recognised across all sectors of South Africa as one of its key thinkers and primary poets, since many people who “live in English” do not have access to his thinking or writing. Louw’s preferred language of communication and creative expression was Afrikaans. Small’s translations into English therefore serve as an introduction to and mediation of this key Afrikaans cultural figure. The article discusses these acts of translation and cultural mediation.

When Small raised the possibility of “cultural communication” in the early 1970s the subject field of “cultural mediation” barely existed. Even if somewhat fuzzy, the concept is widely recognised and its methodologies practiced in many societies today, especially with reference to the exchange of knowledge across social boundaries, be it in the arts or with respect to social and scientific phenomena. In multicultural countries like Canada, cultural mediation is regarded as “the process of building bridges between the cultural and social realms, and the building of new relationships between the political, cultural and public spheres” (Culture pour tous s.j.). Cultural mediation serves as a way of breaking down barriers through exposure, interaction and involvement. Translation may be regarded as one such strategy to disseminate information and knowledge across language barriers.

Theoretically, the article is informed by perspectives on translation and cultural mediation put forward by Paul Ricoeur, Susan Bassnett, Claude Boisson, Samuel Kolawole and Adewuni Salawu, and Kate Sturge. The act of translation connects two different parties and two different worlds: the writer as a stranger and the reader as the recipient of a translated work (Ricoeur; Sturge). The translator may even be seen as the writer’s “representative” in a new cultural context, making texts that would have been limited to a monolingual context available to a different, wider world (Sturge). Translation is a form of intellectual construction in which the translator filters, reorganises and even fictionalises the original; translators therefore become cultural mediators with intercultural competencies (Bassnett).

The article initially undertakes a brief close reading of Louw’s poem “Nietzsche”, published in 1937, followed by an analysis of Small’s translations of it, the first in the collection Oh wide and sad land in 1972 and the second in his last newspaper column in 2016. It is found that although Small presents a fairly faithful translation of the poem in 1972 he distorts somewhat aspects of the poem, thereby not achieving the multiplicity of meaning suggested by the original. In his second attempt Small recreates the original in a process known as “déverbalisation” (Boisson) where the context of the original is grasped but not rendered faithfully with the underlying meanings translated into the target text. Both translations fulfil Small’s intended purpose of introducing Louw to a broader, non-Afrikaans reading public, although along different routes: the first as an example of the faithfulness approach, the second as an example of the interpretation approach.

The second section of the article discusses Small’s afterword in Oh wide and sad land in which he introduces Louw’s “cultural philosophy”. Small’s perspective is that cultural identity in South Africa functions as “a fixation of dispositions”, “a static disposition”, i.e. a way of “categorizing men” rather than opening up the possibilities of “communication between men”. Such an approach leads towards “misunderstanding” with the youth imbibing “this separationist view of culture”. He argues for an approach that “hints at” “tolerance”, “compassion”, “love of a realistic kind”, “a humanity, which stand a chance of really coping with a multi-racial, multi-coloured, multi-cultural South Africa”. He therefore attempts to draw on “the very lucid mind” of Louw and his concept of culture. Although he recognises that Louw exhibits “the same hesitancy as Afrikanerdom at large” he displays an understanding that “one’s culture is a way towards understanding and living with other men, including men of another culture”; “one’s culture […] is not a closed circle, holding one inside, but an open circle, or half circle.”

It is found that as a cultural mediator, Small in his eagerness to introduce Louw to English-speaking South Africans, and in one instance, to young black South African students, may be reconstructing Louw’s position. He overemphasises Louw’s late perspectives on culture while underemphasising his political views that favoured a form of political separation between white and coloured South Africans on the one hand and black South Africans on the other. A sympathetic Small sees in Louw’s approach to cultural relations “a deep rejection of blood” – as a sign of seeking out a common inherent humanity. The article contradicts Small’s perspective and points out that Louw’s earlier views on Afrikaner culture clearly drew on the “pure blood” nationalist politics of the 1930s.

The image that Small cultivates of Louw is that of an authority committed to rational intellectual discourse. Small’s third instance of cultural mediation is his commentary on contemporary social and political issues. One instance is highlighted, namely his view that Louw would have responded positively to Stellenbosch University’s Council’s broadening of its language policy, changing the position of Afrikaans as medium of instruction. Small’s positive view was countered by several commentators, including Louw’s son.

The article concludes that Small’s cultural mediation is informed by his admiration of Louw. Although Louw was certainly an important South African thinker and poet, Small may be overstating his global position; similarly, by underemphasising Louw’s political views in favour of his positive late-cultural views he may be reconstructing his position. Small’s favourable view may be influenced by the interests they shared in philosophy and an approach to intellectual exchange that privileges the spiritual rather than the material.

Keywords: Afrikaner identity; cultural mediation; cultural translation; Louw, N.P. Van Wyk; Small, Adam

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: N.P. Van Wyk Louw deur die oë van Adam Small

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