Leon de Kock is a writer, critic, teacher, and literary translator of works from Afrikaans into English. His most notable translation is of the novel Triomf by Marlene van Niekerk, first published in 1994, and translated in 2005. Triomf details, in a somewhat fractured and nonlinear narrative, the struggle of the poor white Benade family through the elections of ‘94 in South Africa. The novel deals with themes of poverty, incest, nostalgia, and strength. It doesn’t attempt to hide the reality of the family and others like it, but honestly depicts the impact of change in an environment that is very much rooted in the past. Below is a conversation I had with Leon de Kock after his interview with translator, author, and Bennington faculty member Marguerite Feitlowitz.
Literary Bennington: One of the things we see in the world of literary translation is an under- representation of marginalized or lesser known languages and time periods. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what drove you to translate such a wide spectrum of works from Afrikaans to English, and what drew you to Triomf in particular.
Leon de Kock: I translate from Afrikaans to English because that’s what comes most readily to hand for me. The general rule of thumb is that you should always translate into your home language. It’s okay to translate from a second language, but one should never translate into a second language. So it worked out well for me in that Afrikaans is my second language, and English is my native tongue. That’s the most comfortable situation for translating in my circumstance, which is one of wanting to be a writer in as many forms as possible, and I think translation is the perfect variant in the act of writing, and I think it’s undervalued to an extent that is a misrecognition of how strong a form of writing translation is.
On the whole, translation also serves the function of giving minority literatures and languages some “speaking room” in the more powerful hegemonic languages. And so, it is very satisfying for me to be part of the expansion in the reading market or the audience for a book like Triomf, which truly deserves world acclaim, and has proved itself worthy of that by the reception it has received since its translation. In the South African/Afrikaans market, selling 5,000 copies would be considered very good. Triomf exceeded that by a long margin.
LB: The book has been described as “Faulkner-esque,” which is undoubtedly relatable to a lot of American readers in particular. What was the reception like here, specifically, and then for other English speaking parts of the world as well?
LK: Well, I think I’m the guilty party in using that term, “Faulkner-esque.”
LB: That was you?
LK: Yes, because that was what the book felt like to me! In two senses: Faulkner-esque in its modernist fracturing of perspective and its splintering of stories, and its use of several senses of consciousness. But also in the sheer import, the weight, the depth of its human concerns.
LB: The generational suffering.
LK: Yes, absolutely. I couldn’t have put it better myself. I haven’t studied the American reception, except for a few of the major reviews, but there was a great article by Jeanne-Marie Jackson of Johns Hopkins where she talks about the dogs in Triomf and how they introduce, sort of an untranslatable limit-condition in the novel, although I might possibly be misrepresenting the argument. But the novel’s reception was generally very open to the book’s concerns and issues; it’s as though that book speaks very well to an audience that doesn’t necessarily understand its context, as other major works of our country have done. Alan Paton’s Cry: The Beloved Country, and other examples of books that spoke to the world, speaking across cultures in a way that’s kind of universal, without sacrificing their specificity.
LB: Moving on to your process of translation, there’s this one line that I really loved in particular, and I believe it was a flashback of when Mol and Pop would go to the market for roses. The passage goes, “they could spend hours like that. Telling each other what roses smelt like.” This just really struck me, it was so beautiful, seemingly because of its rawness. It felt stripped down, unadorned in a really honest, simple way. So on a topic of much debate in translation: what’s your strategy? Are you a structuralist? Or do you give yourself more of a creative license?
LK: Well, I try not to adopt any paradigm, whether I’m structuralist or post-structuralist, or essentialist or imitationalist… I’m just making these terms up. You get some people who say a translation has got to be above all true to the original, and that’s a famous debate, and you’ve got other people who will say that you have to be true to the spirit of the translation. In Walter Benjamin’s famous essay The Task of the Translator, he talks about the conflict between freedom and license. When I write a translation, I try to work organically, in the sense that I try to feel the experiential substrate in the novel, as deep and in-dwelling, with a sort of negative capability—Keats’ term—that is possible, so that I can come into the business of evoking the feeling, atmosphere, sense, spirit of the world that is in that book, in a language other than in which the book is written.
So much of that process can be theorized, but is also totally implicit. At a subconscious level, which is present in translation, you work these things out in the heat of that transfer, what I call an “inter-zone.” First you have the “evoked experience.” Then, in moving from one language to another, you free the translation (as Walter Benjamin says) from this entrapment in the language in which it is written, and release it into what he calls “pure language.” This gives you the sense of the translator as a freedom fighter, rescuing the translated work from its entrapment! And releasing it into the registers of a purer language, a more accessible, broader language. But of course, every language into which you translate is also just another language, so this desire to discover and achieve the pure languages is also a perpetual, unfinished business. But I think it’s a lovely idea.
LB: There’s a chapter in Edmund Keeley’s book On Translation where he writes about the balance between the presence of the author’s voice and the translator’s voice, ideally in harmony with each other. How much did you mute your own voice, or maybe, amplify it? Were there some parts that were, maybe, more sensitive than others, that you didn’t want to alter?
LK: In the early phases of the translation, I was a bit more audacious. I’d even use the word arrogant, in imprinting my voice onto the text in a way that would leave a mark of my style as a translator.
LB: Since translators are so underappreciated anyway…
LK: Yes, exactly. But I found toward the end of the process where the forces of impending reckoning, via skeptical critics and readers, that I was thinking differently. That changes are only justified when they both satisfy your stylistic choices and remain true to the text. This issue of fidelity is such a bottom line, especially strong for authors and editors. So one finds as a translator an early process of where you tend to be quite indulgent, you take liberties, and then you get pulled back by these forces (editors, authors, agents, readers) who don’t want your mark on the book, but just the book rendered in another language. And it can be a difficult power negotiation, because they often want the translator to be invisible. Occasionally, I’ve had to struggle and insist that my name appear prominently on the author’s page, not just on the acknowledgements page in very small print. And sometimes, not at all.
To be continued…