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15 July 2019
African voices from the past speak again

(Published - 15 July 2019)

Eighteen months ago, celebrated South African author  Antjie Krog arrived at the offices of Oxford University Press (OUP) in Cape Town with an idea that was sure to shake the literary world.

Krog , who works at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), had been working with a group of translators to breathe new life into novels and poetry written in indigenous languages up to 105 years ago.

Among the books are a love story set in what is now KwaZulu-Natal in the 1850s, a Xhosa “courtroom drama” in which twins battle over an inheritance in the Eastern Cape in the 1820s, two kings who go to war in Limpopo in the 1880s, and a Sesotho tale of a merciless monster who eats everyone except one pregnant woman.

There are four other books, including an anthology of poetry.

The eight books are now hot off the press under the name Africa Pulse, and will be hitting the shelves soon.

Krog , who initiated the project through her work in the Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities Research at UWC, told the Sunday Times this week: “For nearly a decade there has been intense activity in translating Afrikaans literary texts into English, which not only contributed to a broader South African literature but often gave a ‘second life’ to some books.”

The eureka moment arrived at a two-day colloquium in Lesotho on the translated novels of a famous Basotho author from the early 20th century, Thomas Mofolo, which brought home the importance of translating literary works from African languages.

“The scholar Alexia Vasillatos showed how the French translation of Mofolo’s Sotho novel Chaka reached French writers like Leopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire. They created the term ‘negritude’ and from there the concept returned to Steve Biko, who initiated Black Consciousness,” said  Krog .

Nakanjani Sibiya, who translated the Zulu novel Asikha Ndawo Bakithi into English as Home is Nowhere, said that the books were chosen on literary merit. “It is critical to keep the beauty of the original text because these are creative works that are not about everyday conversational language. It should not sound like a translation when you read it,” he said.

The language becomes a window into a different time, and through the characters, said Sibiya, “we get a window on to the struggles of black people at that time”.

Sibiya normally translates from English to Zulu, so this was a first — and enriching — experience for him.

OUP MD Steve Cilliers said he was initially worried the project would attract criticism. “It gave us pause for thought: our literature publishing strategy is about expanding our indigenous languages list, yet this was the opposite and we wondered if it was potentially controversial,” he said.

“But then we realised the merit in making African language classics accessible to a new audience.”

It was often through literature, he said, that “you get a deeper insight into a culture rather than through reading something that is dry and encyclopaedic”.

Cilliers was further inspired by a conversation with world-renowned Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who writes primarily in Gikuyu but has had many of his works translated.

“The success of his works has been through the translations, which are seen as incredibly powerful tools for expanding access to his works but at the same time showing a deep recognition of the vernacular and mother tongue,” he said.

Cilliers was also bolstered by a young black audience at a recent literary event who said they were excited about the series, which would give them “access to a broader African tradition”.

The translation process was painstaking. “African languages are richly idiomatic and use metaphorical language in ways that English doesn’t comfortably mirror,” said Cilliers. “The challenge was to capture the essence of these amazing texts in English in a way that still does justice to the text.”

 Krog  said the translators were interviewed during and after the process, and agreed that the “biggest thrill” was knowing they would have access to all the other classic texts in languages they do not speak.

During workshops, “translators would call out some of the most exquisite imagery: ‘lightning like klipspringers’ or the young girl who is ‘purer than the moon washed by clouds’ and is ‘coated with the colostrum of ancestral cows’. There is also the lover who rises with the morning star to stir up a mixture of herbs: ‘wild asparagus and palm fronds’.”

This article appeared in the Sunday Times on June 23, 2019. It is used with permission.