Part one of Literary Bennington’s interview with translator Leon de Kock is here.
LB: Some may consider it a blessing (or a curse) that the original author, Marlene van Niekerk, is still alive, given Triomf’s semi-recent birth. How much was she involved in your process?
LK: She and I had to work together because, in the middle of the process, we had to completely stop in our tracks. We’d been counting on a South African publisher only, so we were making a mixed language polyglot translation, and suddenly Marlene’s agent in London came up with a contract with Little, Brown, a major trans-national publisher. She phoned me up and said, “We have a big problem here. We can’t go on with this mixed, bastardized publication. We have to render it in straight English.”
One of the issues of the translation is the destruction of “nice” language, which is part of a political process that’s been prettified and hides things away in the wallpaper. So we then had to get together to collaborate. In fact, I moved into her cottage in Johannesburg, and we worked at a great intensity and pace, rooting out all of the “Afrikaaner-isms” and the more colloquial “South African-isms” in the text. In the middle of the week, I woke up in the night and said that I wasn’t prepared to throw this text away. So I suggested to Marlene that we create two texts—one for the South African market and one for the overseas market. So the collaboration was extremely productive, at times abrasive, but we’re the greatest of friends and I think it’s almost inevitable and necessary that that engagement isn’t thoroughly peaceful.
LB: I think the version I read was the Afrikaans.
LK: The one with the blue color?
LB: Yes. Though I didn’t understand some of the Afrikaans, the fact that this vernacular and colloquial speech remained seemed so authentic to the original story.
LK: Definitely. Increasingly—one finds more and more of this in translations—people have begun to realize that it’s OK that not everything be in proper English anymore. That English itself can be a mélange of cultures, and can be transformed, remodeled, repurposed, and you’ve got to show that in your writing. You find that increasingly in South African works: writers refuse the old colonial practice of glossing and transforming anything local hasn’t got anywhere near the power that it used to have 40 years ago.
LB: What was it like having not written the novel but having such a first-person relationship to the characters, which demand an incredible amount of empathy and ability to understand their perspective?
LK: That’s a wonderful question, because the answer to it is also the answer to the question of how well are those characters drawn. How is it that an author can create such obnoxious characters who commit such atrocious, repulsive acts, and yet also get inside them to an extent where you feel such a large sense of compassion for them? From Pop and Mol down to the so-called retarded Lambert and the devilish Treppie. I think it’s one of the things about that book that makes it quite remarkable. And that she shows how they had become, I guess, in Marxist terminology, interpellated, into this hegemonic order of things. And hegemony works through a cultural lining of idea, into the practices of everyday life and thought.
And so, in seeing those characters act out, the deeds of isolationism and incest, what you’re really seeings are people acting out as representations of a cultural phenomenon. In that sense, they’re victims. And yet even then, there’s something in them that is a rebellion, determination, to be loving, compassionate, needful, and to reach out. The scenes with Mol and the dogs…why are they so touching? Why do they make one weep? And Lambert’s deep humiliation, even though it’s rendered in viciously sardonic satire, he’s also very vulnerably sad.
LB: Though you didn’t write the characters, you still had to inhabit them and rewrite them into English, which I can imagine was so emotionally draining.
LK: Oh, extremely! I felt that I was living in those characters for a long time. And I suppose the difficulty of that is when you get to the 15th draft and you’re constantly going back to certain pages and passages and I developed a technique where I read every single sentence of the book out aloud, kind of a mode of performance, as if I were reading it for an audiobook, which is great for all types of translation, because the moment there’s an awkward phrase or misplaced verb, or something that breaks flow, you can hear it and fix it. But that was such an exhausting process, that I suppose the identification of the characters toward the end became a bit thin.
LB: Given your inside perspective, would you say that this family’s journey is an accurate metaphor for this minority of people (poor whites) during the elections of ‘94?
LK: Oh yes, the heart and soul of the struggles of the Afrikaans community, from the perspective of working class people, especially poor whites, is definitely captured. Because especially for that minority of people, that perspective would customarily be written from a more high-cultured, colonial, normalizing, more legitimizing perspective. And this is where she [Marlene Van Niekerk] breaks from conventional/standard Afrikaans literature, and why this book is so important: it breaks ranks, and formal patterns of all kinds. A lot of the book is intertextual, and it contains allusions to early kinds of Afrikaans writing. She relativizes the “farm novel,” containing within the story how these people were once on a farm, and they ran out of money, and had to give up their plots of land, and go to the city to become poor whites. Only apartheid could save their butts. Otherwise, they would’ve been destitute and on the streets. But that former life on the farm has been idealized in many classical Afrikaans works as the ideal state of being for the Afrikaaner, which she relativizes, and mocks.
LB: I think that’s also quite universal in American literature, because we have the Southern Gothic, romanticized “farm life” genre, even though most Americans aren’t privy to that, we’re still able to connect with it.
LK: Definitely. Gone with the Wind…
LB: Which is brilliant. So I just wanted to read you a quote in the chapter where Lambert is painting his mural.
LK: Oh yes, I love that mural! That is one of the parts of translation I most enjoy.
LB: “He made South Africa too big to start with, so there was only a small space for the rest of Africa.”
LK: (Laughs) Absolutely. That just captures the way white South Africans live on the continent of Africa, with their backs to the rest of Africa. We’re right down at the bottom, and we sort of look right across to the North without looking back. Our first point of cultural reference is not Africa, but Europe, principally England and the Netherlands, and then of course the other great metropoles of the world: Paris, New York, etc. One of the things Marlene says is that this is a great blindness, and it remains a great trouble for the South Africans to integrate themselves with the rest of the continent, and make African culture and African literature the points of reference. I once taught with Marlene at the University of South Africa and one of the things she did was to campaign against the curriculum of the philosophy department, which taught no African philosophy, and she made a big stink about it. The only thing they had to say about African philosophy was encapsulated in the term “Animism,” which is a deeply anthropological and reductive term to use to encapsulate–
LB: And fetishize—
LK: The whole of Africa, absolutely. And while there’s some historical truth in it in some traditions, it doesn’t come near capturing the richness and diversity of African philosophy, which over the past 50 years has come to the forefront much more prominently in the Western literary and academic sphere. And she’s very aware of that, which is precisely a pictorial reference to that condition of white arrogance, and ignorance. Ignorance combined with arrogance, there’s nothing worse.
There’s an Afrikaans word for it that captures both of those things: “domastrante.” Which means stupid-arrogant in one word.
LB: Do you think the canon is changing in academia? Is the material that people are reading in Afrikaans becoming more aligned and representative with the actual population rather than an overarching colonial presence?
LK: Oh, definitely. It already was changing in the 90’s when Marlene wrote the novel. This was the decade when we finally started collapsing the boundaries between different literary traditions and started becoming more African and more ourselves. There had also been a great prejudice, in the English academy, against South African-English literature, because the colonial presence said, “We don’t need this local muck. We have to study Chaucer, and T.S. Elliot, and there’s not space for these locals.” That was a big fight. It was also the time when postcolonial literature and critique was gaining ground, and so it was no longer easy or possible to maintain those colonial agendas. And Marlene was a big part of that. Indigenizing and universalizing.
by Jesse Osborne 19′