Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Imposing Eliot: On Translating Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Imposing Eliot: On Translating Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk

Article excerpt


Amongst the contributions to the special edition of the Journal of Literary Studies/ Tydskdf vir literatuurwetenskap on the oeuvre of Marlene van Niekerk (Volume 25(3) September, 2009), the task of translating her works into English was discussed. This article adopts a critical focus on four instances of the presence of T.S. Eliot's poetry in the translation of her novel Agaat (2004) for the South African English-speaking reader by Michiel Heyns (2006).


Die spesiale uitgawe van die Journal of Literary Studies/Tydskryf vir literatuurwetenskap 25(3), September 2009 oor die oeuvre van Marlene van Niekerk bevat onder andere artikels oor die taak om haar werke in Engels te vertaal. Hierdie artikel werp 'n kritiese fokus op vier gevalle van die voorkoms van T.S Eliot se gedigte in Michiel Heyns (2006) se vertaling van van Niekerk se roman Agaat (2004) vir die Suid-Afrikaanse Engelssprekende leser.


The art of translation invokes a semantic, syntactic, and allusive problematic so varied and wide that, in a work as detailed and as textured as Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk, not to mention as long--718 pages in Afrikaans and 692 in English--the translation into English by Michiel Heyns evokes admiration. Heyns (2009: 124-125) notes his inexperience and "naivety" in the practice of translation, but if there were any "arrogance" on his part, it is the sort of courageous self-belief for which readers of the novel would find it difficult not to be grateful. In a discussion with the author and Leon de Kock in 2007, Heyns stated that the translation was "'mainly for a South African audience", and, with some amusement, noted that "if there is to be a British edition ... then perhaps that is the time to start worrying about the word 'vlei"' (de Kock 2009: 140). Indeed, "vlei" may be adequately explained in a glossary, as it is here, and it would, one conjectures, constitute a relatively minor concern for the reader of the later British edition, which, rather boldly, undertook the more significant alterations, including the change of the title of the novel to The Way of the Women, and the removal of the stress marks (Heyns 2009: 126).

But it is Heyns's (2009: 124-125) self-deprecation, as well as the evident pleasure and enjoyment which he experienced when undertaking his task (de Kock 2009: 147), that--and one hopes that one is not misinterpreting these sentiments--may permit a space to be opened for commenting upon his work. if so, the following brief discussion is certainly not in the cause of proposing any revisions. Rather, this marginal inquiry endeavours to deepen the important task of widening the understanding and feel for literature in translation, literature that is, at once, foreign and exotic, and yet that also is able to lead its readers "through the unknown", and paradoxically, "remembered gate" ("Little Gidding"). In addition, the dialogue which Heyns conducted with the author throughout the process might suggest that he would not take too unkindly to that dialogue being overheard and continued with and amongst those who have read his translation with a pleasure and enjoyment akin to his own, and yet might occasionally also have experienced some reservations. And it is one particular area of reservation that this brief article addresses.

Instructive Eliot

In Afrikaans, the tactility of the gutturals, particularly the voiced g, which is close to the aspirated Greek guttural x (transliterated as ch) or the German ch as in "auch", and the liquid r, the pronunciation of which is supplemented with the quality of an aspirated dental, and, in addition, when combined with the voiced labial b to form br, may also constitute a particular feature of a regional Western Cape accent, (1) are reasonably close to being "untranslatable" into many but not into all English dialects (2) as sound--examples of the former include the g both in the title of the novel, Agaat (2004), and also in the word "brug", and an example of the latter is the br in the word "brug". …

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