Literary Translation

Performing translation: Vertalings van Mathews Phosa en Wally Serote – Annel Pieterse and Pieter Odendaal


NOTE: Go to the end of this feature for a video of the performance, as well as a podcast of Mongane Wally Serote reading "City Johannesburg" in conversation with Leon de Kock at the Woordfees festival.

We [Pieter and Annel] are playing a translation game. We are interested in the process of translating from one language into another, or others, but we are also interested in the manner in which the poem translates from page to stage and back again.

In this particular case, Pieter gave Annel Mathews Phosa’s poem, “Talle Tonge” to translate from Afrikaans to English, and Annel gave Pieter Mongane Wally Serote’s “City Johannesburg” to translate into Afrikaans. We then decided to deliver our translations as a duet, to perform the overlap of sound and meaning that is such a key characteristic of the South African linguistic experience.

In preparing the print document for performance, we encountered the difficulty of representing on paper the effect of two or more voices speaking at the same time. A video of the actual performance can be viewed at the bottom of this page. The final “script” of our performance can be read below:

Talle Tonge / Many Tongues
Mathews Phosa, translated by Annel Pieterse

PIETER:               Talle tonge het ek
x                             Een tong op ’n gegewe oomblik.

ANNEL:               Many tongues have I
x                            One tongue at any given moment.

PIETER:               ’n heuning-tong
ANNEL:                               a honey tongue
PIETER:               ’n bitter tong
ANNEL:                               a bitter tongue
PIETER:               ’n  tong stomp genoeg
x                             om te swyg.
ANNEL:                               a tongue blunt enough
x                                            for silence.

SAAM:                 my skerp tong / my sharp tongue
PIETER:               klap
ANNEL:                               lashes
PIETER:               klap
ANNEL:                               lashes
SAAM:                 soos ’n sweep / like a whip
ANNEL:               slashes deep
PIETER:                               en keep diep
ANNEL:               draws blood
PIETER:                               en laat bloei

PIETER:               my suur tong brand
ANNEL:                               my acerbic tongue burns
SAAM:                  brand soos asyn / burns like acid
ANNEL:               desiccates and scars
PIETER:                               en laat krimp inmekaar en skend

ANNEL:               Talle tonge het ek
x                             een tong op ’n gegewe oomblik

PIETER:               Many tongues have I
x                             one tongue at any given moment.

ANNEL:               ’n tong om te sny
PIETER:                               a tongue for slitting
ANNEL:               ’n tong om te salf
PIETER:                               a tongue for salving
SAAM:                  ek het talle tonge / I have many tongues.


City Johannesburg
Mongane Wally Serote, translated by Pieter Odendaal

ANNEL:               City Johannesburg
x                            this way I salute you:
PIETER:               Só groet ek jou:

SAAM:                 My hand pulses to my back trouser pocket / My hand pols na my gatsak
x                            or into my inner jacket pocket / of na my baadjie se binnesak
x                            for my pass, / vir my pas,
PIETER:              my lewe
ANNEL:                               my life,

SAAM:                 Jo'burg City

SYNCOPATED:  My hand like a starved snake rears my pockets
x                                                             My hand reik soos ‘n verhongerde slang na my sake
x                                             for my thin, ever lean wallet,
x                                                             vir my dun, immermaer beursie,
x                                             while my stomach groans a friendly smile to hunger,
x                           terwyl my grommende maag vriendelik vir die honger glimlag,

SAAM:                 Jo'burg City.

ANNEL:               My stomach also devours coppers and papers
PIETER:                                               My maag verslind ook koper en papiere
SAAM:                 don't you know? / weet jy nie?

SAAM:                 Jo'burg City, I salute you
x                                                                              ek groet jou;

ANNEL:               When I run out,                or roar in a bus to you /
PIETER:                                          As ek uithol,                       of in ‘n bus na jou toe brul,
ANNEL:               I leave behind me, my love,
PIETER:                                                               laat ek my liefling agter,
ANNEL:               my comic houses
PIETER:                                               my koddige huise
SAAM:                 and people / en mense
x                            my dongas / my dongas
x                            and my ever-whirling dust / en my stof wat altyd dwarrel
ANNEL:               my death
PIETER:                                               my dood
ANNEL:               that’s so related to me as a wink to the eye
PIETER:                               wat so na aan my lê soos ‘n wink aan die oog

SAAM:                 Jo’burg City

SYNCOPATED:  I travel on your black and white and roboted roads,
x                                         Ek reis op jou swart en wit robotpaaie,
x                           through your thick iron breath that you inhale
x                                               deur jou digte ysterasem wat jy intrek
x                           at six in the morning and exhale from five noon.
x                           om ses in die môre en vyfuur smiddags begin uitblaas.

SAAM:                 Jo'burg City

SYNCOPATED:  That is the time when I come to you,
x                                                            Dít is wanneer ek na jou toe kom,
x                           when your neon flowers flaunt from your electrical wind.
x                                                                                        as die elektriese wind jou neonblomme laat pronk.
x                            That is the time when I leave you,
x                                                       Dít is wanneer ek jou verlaat,
x                            as jou neonblomme deur die vallende nag
x                                           when your neon flowers flaunt their way through the falling darkness
x                                on your cement trees.
x                                                    op jou sementbome pronk.

ANNEL:               And as I go back, to my love,
PIETER:                                       En wanneer ek teruggaan, na
SAAM:                 my dongas/my liefling
x                            my dust/my dongas
x                            my people/my stof
x                            my death/my mense
PIETER:              my dood

ANNEL:               where death lurks in the dark like a blade in the flesh
PIETER:                                 waar die dood in die donker skuil soos ‘n lem in die vlees

SYNCOPATED:  I can feel your roots, anchoring your might, my feebleness
x                                                    kan ek jou wortels voel wat jou mag anker, my flouheid
x                            in my flesh, in my mind, in my blood,
                           in my vlees, in my kop, in my bloed,
x                            and everything about you says it,
x                                             en alles wat jy is, sê dit,
x                            that, that is all you need of me.
x                                            dat dit al is wat jy van my wil hê.

SAAM:                 Jo'burg City, Johannesburg

ANNEL:               Listen when I tell you,
PIETER:                                               Hoor wat ek vir jou sê
SYNCOPATED:  There is no fun, nothing, in it,
x                                              Dis niks snaaks nie, glad nie,
x                              when you leave the men and women with such frozen expressions,
x                                                              as jy die vrouens en mans met sulke ysige gesigte los,
x                              expressions that have tears like furrows of soil erosion,
                                             gesigte met trane soos die groewe van gronderosie,
x                                Jo'burg City, you are dry like death,
x                                                      Jo’burg city, jy is droog soos die dood,
x                                Jo'burg City,
x                                              Jo'burg City,
x                                                              Johannesburg,
x                                                                              Johannesburg,
x                                                                                              Jo'burg City.
x                                                                                                              Jo'burg City.

Wally Serote performs City Johannesburg by SLIPNET