Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Irreparable Loss and Exorbitant Gain: On Translating Agaat

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Irreparable Loss and Exorbitant Gain: On Translating Agaat

Article excerpt


This essay attempts an after-the-fact reflection on the process of translating a complex literary text, Marlene van Niekerk's Agaat. Central to the essay is the question of whether a translation should "foreignise" or "domesticate" the text, or as Umberto Eco puts it: "should a translation lead the reader to understand the linguistic and cultural universe of the source text, or transform the original by adapting it to the reader's cultural and linguistic universe?" Although it is impossible to opt for either of these positions exclusively, this essay inclines towards the former, and attempts to demonstrate from the translation of Agaat both the difficulties of negotiating a transition between two cultures, and its rewards. If much of the original culture is inevitably Iost, especially where the language is itself strongly culture-specific, the translation may also gain something by its immersion in the receiving culture, establishing revitalising links with a whole new context.


Hierdie essay poog om ex post facto te bespiegel oor die vertaal van 'n komplekse literere teks, Marlene van Niekerk se Agaat. 'n Sentrale vraag in die essay is of 'n vertaling moet poog om die teks getrou te hou aan die oorspronklike kulturele konteks of om dit toeganklik te maak in terme van die gasheerkultuur. Alhoewel dit onmoontlik is om uitsluitlik die een of ander van hierdie benaderings te aanvaar, neig hierdie essay na die eersgenoemde opsie, en poog om uit die vertaling van Agaat beide die probleme en die belonings van hierdie soort interkulturele onderhandeling te demonstreer. Terwyl veel van die oorspronklike kultuur onafwendbaar verlore raak, veral waar die taal 'n sterk weerspieeling van kulturele norme is, is daar tog ook baat te vind, deurdat die vertaling deur die omgang met die gasheerkultuur vrugbaar kan skakel met 'n heel nuwe konteks.


I came to the business of translating Agaat somewhat naively, as a relative newcomer: I had translated a children's book years ago and, more recently, two of Marlene van Niekerk's short stories, but never anything approaching the scope and complexity of Agaat. It was probably a case of fools rushing in; more experienced translators had been approached, and had declined--I have no idea for what reason, but conceivably through being daunted by the sheer magnitude of the task.

Part of my naivety, some might say arrogance, in approaching the translation was my almost total innocence of any preconceptions about translation: in other words, I'd read hardly any of the many volumes of theoretical writings on the subject of translation. Having recently emerged, not to say escaped, from an academic career, I was aware of the perils of the "undertheorised" paper, which is conference speak for a submission relying on native wit rather than the recitation of the current shibboleths. Thus, in deciding to approach Agaat without any particular theory in place, I was not proceeding in ignorance as much as in obstinacy.

Of course, we all know that pleading no theory is itself implicitly a theory, and if I had to make explicit my crypto-theory here, it would run something like this: a translation is a licensed trespass upon a rich but relatively unknown territory, upon which the translator has to report back to people to whom the territory is not only unknown but foreign. The translator, to continue this somewhat ad hoc analogy, may not have explored this particular tract of land, but he is intimately acquainted with the territory, its flora and fauna, its inhabitants and their habits and peculiarities. He must give as accurate an account of this territory as he can, to enable his audience to understand something of this territory in their own terms but without losing the sense of foreignness. If all countries looked the same, nobody would travel.

Even this theory, such as it is, was not a preconception or an abstract notion: it evolved itself from almost the first day I engaged with Agaat. …

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