Into the Open Sea: Translating The Alphabet of Birds

Translated from the Afrikaans by S.J. Naudé (And Other Stories, 2015)

In an essay about novelist J.M. Coetzee, Monica Popescu writes of a certain kind of cosmopolitan literature that is "born translated—readily imbued with the values and literary codes that appeal to a global readership." Not many works of literature written in Afrikaans have had the reputation of traveling easily, of instant transnational appeal, of swiftly becoming household items in the homes of readers across the (Western) world in (particularly English) translation. Which is not to deny that there is a handful of Afrikaans authors whose works have, over decades, successfully made their way into numerous languages and cultural spheres. Obvious examples are André Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, and Karel Schoeman and, in the post-Apartheid era, Antjie Krog and Marlene van Niekerk.


In South Africa, everything is politics. It is impossible to reflect on the translation of literary work from Afrikaans to English without first becoming entangled in at least the rudiments of some of the language and literary politics in South Africa during and after Apartheid. (This essay does not, however, make reference to literatures in South African languages other than Afrikaans and English. These literatures, for various historical reasons, are regrettably small and play a limited role in the local literary system.)

Afrikaans is a young language, one of very few—modern Hebrew being another example—to be standardised in the twentieth century (i.e. between 1914 and 1925). Its surprisingly rich literature developed over a reasonably short period of time. It was forged largely during the Apartheid era, and it flourished in those years, in part due to the disproportionate institutional support for and promotion of Afrikaans culture.

Ironically, as Afrikaans literature was flourishing, the attempts by the National Party government in South Africa to co-opt Afrikaans in its race-driven nationalist project, which was becoming increasingly reviled internationally, started harming the fledgling Afrikaans cultural sphere in ways that, in the long run, would prove to be nigh fatal. Given the increasingly close association of the language with those who devised and enforced the policies of Apartheid, a certain kind of taint started clinging to Afrikaans cultural production. From the perspective of the international intellectual elites, works written in Afrikaans increasingly appeared contaminated by default.

Now, South Africa wasn't Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia; authors weren't pressured into writing anything resembling anti-Semitic propaganda or Soviet production novels. It is so that, in early Afrikaans "farm novels," presenting rural life as idyllic entailed airbrushing black characters (particularly farm labourers) out of the picture. And, certainly, over the years, as political turbulence increased, some Afrikaans authors played it safe, carefully steering away from overtly political themes. However, opposition to Apartheid policies was, to varying degrees, apparent from the work of the majority of Afrikaans authors (not all of whom were white, of course). The risks of writing about political themes in South Africa during the Apartheid era are well documented. Censorship was alive and well, warping the cultural sphere and chilling the imagination. And if some authors were careful, others were far less so. The latter, such as Brink and Breytenbach, although attracting the unwelcome attention of the South African authorities (Breytenbach was imprisoned for high treason), accumulated the greatest amount of international intellectual capital. The less careful one was, the greater the personal risks became in South Africa, and the greater the rewards were elsewhere. But whatever the political sentiments of one's work, writing only in Afrikaans necessarily restricted one to a small regional readership. Unless one was satisfied with being restricted to one's immediate audience, one therefore had to be translated into English, or write in both Afrikaans and English, like Brink.

During the 1970s and 80s particularly, South African novelists—and this applied to those writing either in English or Afrikaans—were increasingly expected to make certain gestures in order to be viewed as serious writers outside the country. Suggesting that such gestures were "expected," does not, of course, mean that writers, particularly black writers, did not feel compelled to write about the burning political issues of the time. Or that works written in service of the political ideals of the time might not have been deeply felt. Authors often simply had no choice, psychologically and morally, but to speak out. Politically charged writing was, however, starting to crowd out everything else. Modernist sensibilities and the portrayal of subtle feeling were not high on the agenda. One's political colours, i.e. one's opposition to Apartheid, had to be clearly on display in the text. If you were an Afrikaans writer, the gesture was expected to be more pronounced, and the scrutiny was greater. If an Afrikaans author's works were to have a chance of overcoming suspicion in the international sphere, he would repeatedly have to prove his dissident political credentials in a kind of ritual self-cleansing. This appeared to be virtually the only possible mode of engagement with the world at large.

Another dynamic that played a role in shaping the South African literary scene was the attitude of many white English-speaking South Africans toward Afrikaners. Although the former were generally as conservative about racial matters as Afrikaners during the Apartheid years, they tended to dress up as moral outrage an underlying frustration at being the largest white English-speaking group in the world that did not hold political power, and their resulting cultural chauvinism toward Afrikaners. These attitudes spilt over into the literary world—English readers would rarely engage with Afrikaans literature.

The burdens and constraints imposed on South African authors by history were to a degree lifted by democratisation. A broader spectrum of themes and modes of writing became possible. A different—less imprisoned—kind of South African literature was born. Many of the forces that used to deform public life and the life of the imagination in South Africa have fallen away or faded.


So where does all of this leave an author writing in Afrikaans today in a democratic South Africa?

One cannot, of course, blame a language for the acts of (some of) its speakers. If languages in whose name oppression, colonisation, or political crimes had been perpetrated were forever tainted, poetry should no longer be written in either English or most continental European languages. Afrikaans is fast shedding its political baggage. It has survived Apartheid, even though it has lost an enormous amount of ground as a public language. Afrikaans does still carry in it some sediment of its historical appropriation by the nationalists. But it has also been liberated. And it remains the mother tongue of millions of white and "coloured" (mixed race) people, as well as hundreds of thousands of black South Africans.

And so it has proven to be remarkably resilient, Afrikaans. Despite there being almost no form of institutional support for local authors, a strong, vibrant post-Apartheid Afrikaans literature has been developing over the last two decades here in the far south, at the edge of the world. Afrikaans literature has been wrestling with and casting off the shackles of the past, engaging with local and global themes alike, often in impressive and surprising and formally innovative ways.

Traces of a provincial cultural chauvinism towards things Afrikaans are still encountered in South Africa, even when the rest of the world has moved on. And so, a lingering mini-Apartheid exists: English and Afrikaans literatures are two quite separate scenes in South Africa. Afrikaans readers tend to be widely read in South African literature written in English. It is however exceedingly rare to find English readers who have an interest in Afrikaans literature. Even when it is translated into English, it is a hard sell.

So, a readers' market that is small to start with is further divided. As is the case elsewhere in the world, the rising prominence of visual and social media has been coinciding with the decline of the book's special cultural status. Afrikaans literature has, however, always had a supportive market, more so than local literature written in English. Serious literature, in particular, has many more readers in Afrikaans than in English. Those who write in English in South Africa today are in an unenviable position. They are lucky if they get noticed and reviewed at all in the English press. Local English readers tend to aspire to literature written beyond the borders of this country, the latter (still!) being experienced by some white English-speaking South Africans as a far-flung province of the Anglo-American world. Many English-speaking readers keep their gazes turned northward, oblivious to what is happening around them. Because of this—and because of the concomitant stubborn traces of threadbare cultural chauvinism toward Afrikaans—one's best chance, as an author writing in Afrikaans, of reaching a wider audience, is by aiming for publication outside South Africa, by reaching out to readers beyond the English readership in South Africa. More sophisticated English-language reading markets outside South Africa, unfettered by provincial prejudices, and with their broad appetites for what might be new and surprising, are in fact more accessible for an Afrikaans author.


So why would one choose to write in Afrikaans, particularly if the medium of English provides a direct route to a far greater number of potential readers outside South Africa's borders?

Educated speakers of Afrikaans are almost universally fluent in English. I grew up speaking and being schooled in Afrikaans, but then spent the great majority of my adult life outside South Africa, first studying at British and American universities, and then practising as a lawyer in New York and London. During this time, I hardly ever spoke or wrote in Afrikaans, although I continued to read Afrikaans literature. Afrikaans was ultimately reduced to a few ghost movements of the tongue, then became like a code silently pulsing under the skin. But it turned out it had remained preserved, like an ancient mosquito in amber. When I started writing years later, the stone simply cracked open and the Afrikaans resurfaced intact. It was, it turned out, the language that demands to be written in: the language of one's mother, embedded in the bones. It has proven impossible to escape.

There is, of course, something perverse and exhilarating about refusing to be understood, about seeking out the margins. About turning one's back on the rules governing the accumulation of capital (whether symbolic, intellectual, or monetary). Writing in Afrikaans is in that sense perhaps perverse. A kind of refusal. A bid for disappearance, even. On the one hand, the world one is writing about is quite far removed from the worlds of most potential Afrikaans readers and hence sets one apart from those readers. On the other hand, those who may have naturally connected with the sensibilities of the work, had it been written in English, cannot access it.

The stories in The Alphabet of Birds shift between several countries. Only two are entirely set within South Africa. They often tend to turn away from the physical and social landscapes of South Africa. This would not be a novelty in many other literatures—European authors' work, in particular, often spans different countries, or is set outside the author's country of birth. South African literature (in whichever language) rarely used to be set outside South Africa (although this has been changing over the last few years). Often, the characters in my work are neither South African nor Afrikaans-speaking, so that dialogue necessarily becomes an approximation, in Afrikaans, of a register and tone in another language. The story "A Master from Germany" is set in London, Berlin, Bavaria, and Cape Town; "War, Blossoms" in suburban South Africa, London, Japan, and Vietnam; "The Noise Machine" in Milan and South Africa; "Mother's Quartet" in Johannesburg, rural South Africa, Phoenix, London, and Dubai; "VNLS" mainly in France and Lesotho. In a bid for authenticity, bits of German, French, and Italian thread through some stories.

Because the milieus and (sub)cultural contexts of the stories are often foreign to Afrikaans (or South African) readers, the language also has to bend around various textures that are relatively unfamiliar to Afrikaans vocabulary and idiom. The underground Berlin clubs in "The Master of Germany" and the labyrinthine drug-induced impressions of London by a character in "Mother's Quartet" are not, for instance, realms that Afrikaans has really ventured into before. Perhaps this means that these stories are more easily translated than works that are deeply rooted in the South African landscape. Maybe the stories were straining at the Afrikaans chain anyway, more naturally gravitating towards English, which has for a long time been comfortably adapting to a great variety of textures.

And so, the bid for disappearance is ultimately eclipsed by the conflicting urge to engage with the world beyond the relatively isolated Afrikaans one, which necessarily requires translation.

Not having to consult an author naturally gave me extensive freedom as a translator. Even so, the translation remained quite faithful to the Afrikaans. As I have explained above, achieving a decent level of equivalence generally did not seem too hard, but a number of changes were nevertheless made. Occasionally, sentences were merged or reshuffled for purposes of rhythm and flow. In particular, the last sentence of "Mother's Quartet," which more explicitly spelled out the violence against the protagonist that would ensue, was deleted—the English text somehow called for a subtler ending. In "A Master from Germany" some of the phrases and sentences that are in German in the Afrikaans text were translated into English in the English version. Whereas German is accessible for Afrikaans readers due to the language's recent Germanic roots, it would have presented more of a stumbling block for many English and American readers. To the extent German phrases and lines of dialogue were retained, English explanations were embedded in the text.

Given that the English edition is to be published in South Africa, the UK, and US, it was also necessary to navigate between South African, British, and American English. The South African usage was usually retained for local flavour, except where it would be confusing for a British or American reader. For instance, the story "Van" was originally called "Die mobile" in Afrikaans, referring to the mobile clinic that features in the story (an English word having been embedded in the Afrikaans title). To a British reader, this would, however, have sounded like a mobile phone. Actual mobile phones, wherever they were referred to in the text, were called "cellphones," in accordance with South African English usage. This corresponded with American usage and would, the thinking was, also be intelligible to British readers. The South African term "SMS" was retained, instead of "text message," but "bakkie" (used in both Afrikaans and South African English) was substituted by "pickup truck" which is both American and British. The word "lift" (South African and British usage) was chosen over "elevator," even though it could potentially confuse an American reader, to avoid sounding artificial or overly formal in South African and British English.


The translation I performed here was a subsequent one. Given the tension between Afrikaans on the one hand and the settings of my writing on the other, and given my sense that English is somehow simultaneously present, is there a way to push the two language worlds closer together in future? Perhaps the answer is to engage in a process of writing near-simultaneously in both languages. Something along these lines already started happening when I wrote The Alphabet of Birds. Dialogue, for instance, was initially written in English and then translated into Afrikaans—I had been away from South Africa for so long that I simply no longer knew how people spoke. Then I translated the stories into English after publication. But what is more, English was already present when I was originally writing in Afrikaans, a sort of parallel stream in my mind, or a running commentary. Maybe one shouldn't think of the process as writing in one language first and then performing a translation, but as two languages, and two worlds, occupying the same space and time. Superimposed on each other. A double exposure.

And thus one may live a sort of double life in writing, in which the route between the national and the transnational is kept open for endless journeys back and forth. A life that allows one to be in two worlds (almost) simultaneously. On the one hand, there is the secret life: writing in Afrikaans, caught between the various strange (and sometimes wearying) forces of history, prejudice, and belonging (or not belonging). And then there is the second life—freer, but more exposed—made possible by rendering what one is writing in English.

It does present risks, the above approach. Hearing sentences in the second language as one is writing them in the first, may push one towards making different choices in the latter, in terms of syntax, vocabulary, as well as idiom. It may result in the loss of richness and singularity in both languages, pushing them too close together. But it could conceivably have a different effect too, mutually enriching rather than impoverishing—two languages resisting each other, clashing and grinding and shooting off in opposite directions.


And so I have just been published in English and outside South Africa for the first time. My debut collection is published by a small but energetic—and fiercely independent—UK publishing house. Short stories, particularly in translation, are not usually an easy sell. I have no idea whether my work will be well received or garner any significant interest. But it does, at least, feel as if one is venturing into the open sea, as opposed to remaining moored in the hidden harbour that is Afrikaans. The seclusion of the harbour has its benefits, but I am excited by the smell of the high seas.