Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Cracking the Code: Translation as Transgression in Triomf

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Cracking the Code: Translation as Transgression in Triomf

Article excerpt


This article has been braided from two main strands: first, my arguments probe the conditions that pertain to the project of literary translation in South African letters, both in the light of my own research into and observations of conditions in the field, and my own experience as a working translator, a participant in a domain that I regard as extraordinarily rich but also highly problematic. Second, the argument considers aspects of my own translation of Marlene van Niekerk's paradigm-busting novel, Triomf (1994, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c, 2004), as a case history which serves as possible corroboration of my arguments in the first part.


Hierdie artikel bestaan uit twee gedeeltes: In die eerste plek stel ek deur my argumente ondersoek in na die projek van literere vertaling in die Suid-Afrikaanse letterkunde. Die argumente word toegelig deur my eie navorsing oor en waarnemings van die toestande in die veld, asook my eie ervaring as aktiewe vertaler en deelnemer in 'n domein wat ha my mening buitengewone skatte oplewer maar ook hoogs problematies is. Tweedens werp die argumente lig op aspekte van my eie vertaling van Marlene van Niekerk se roman, Triomf (1994, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c, 2004). Hierdie roman speel klaar met bestaande paradigmas en kan moontlik my argumente in die eerste gedeelte van die artikel bekragtig.

1 Translating in the Seam

If writing in South Africa has historically been a vexed occupation, (2) then literary translation, too, has proved to be a hazardous engagement, a tightrope walk over a scene of daunting difference and blunt incommensurability. Translation, at some level, assumes that experience--if experience is the substrate of literature--is prior to, or at least adjacent to, or constitutive of, language (as language is arguably constitutive of experience); if this is the case, it follows that divergent languages should equally well be able to express the substrate of experience, or re-create it, through translation, in translation's guise as a mechanism of transferring or recasting meaning from one language to another. To some extent, this view lies behind Walter Benjamin's fabulously appealing notion that there is higher-order "pure language" that exists between the lines of all the Babelesque "ordinary" languages, or mere operational languages, and that all such languages, including the original text in a situation of translation, are really engaged in the act of trying to approximate this higher-order register, this "pure" expression of the experiential substrate. (3) So, in this way of seeing things, the translated text and the source text are to some extent equal contenders for an elusive, ever-beckoning goal of "pure" expression. In this view, a writer's sense of experience, her reshaping of the phenomenal world into an imagined world via the coding of one language--the "source" language--can just as well be recast in another language, the "target" language. Both languages, in this view, are engaged in the act of approximating a higher ideal of expression, in Benjamin's terms. This is a theory that appeals to the perfectionist in me, and it accords with that sense, when writing, that one is engaged, a la Derrida, in a process of perpetual displacement, of using language as a trace, forever tracking the darting, fleet-footed, impossibly elusive prey of thought and being. However, taking a view of the South African literary topography, there are two immediate problems with the proposition that all languages are interchangeable, Babelesque currencies scattered and all awry beneath the superior god of metalanguage. The first problem is presented by the case of literary expression--writing or orature--in which the experience relayed through language is integrally defined and captured by irreducibly localised expression, sui generis, giving it an ultra-thin translatability yield. The second is a literary scene, such as that in South Africa, in which the "translation" of experience itself, not just the literary representation of that "translation" of experience, the mute difficulty of that project--recasting perceived and reimagined experience about others and otherness in a language other than that in which it arose--across different value systems, incommensurably divergent cultures, unevenly aligned epistemologies, opposing cosmologies and inconsistent worldviews, has historically been the core matter of the writing project itself. …

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