Found in translation or crumbling Babel?

Franschhoek Literary Festival, 17-19 May 2013, Franschhoek. ‘Found in translation’: Lynda Gilfillan in conversation with Ingrid Winterbach, Eben Venter and Carel van der Merwe.


Translation, translation, 
elusive conceptualisation, 
contriving, devilish inclination,
to uncover/recover imagination.

But can it be done, they want to know? Do you take the literal or the licentious road? Do you do it yourself or find a professional translator? Do you leave them to their own devices or work together to find the common ground? And should all books be translated or should some simply remain untranslated because they are, in a sense, untranslatable? And why translate in the first place?

These were some of the questions raised by editor Lynda Gilfillan, chairperson of the session “Found in translation”, with Carel van der Merwe (Shadow/Skaduwee), Ingrid Winterbach (Die boek van toeval en toeverlaat/The book of happenstance) and Eben Venter (Wolf Wolf) discussing their particular experiences and relating it to the books mentioned in brackets.

Carel van der Merwe, who self-translates his novels, made no attempt to hide the fact that he translates simply because he wants to sell more books. And he does. A self-translator, he doesn’t have to deal with professional translators and their egos, as he put it, and explained that he writes his first draft in English but finds that as he translates, the one language changes the other and so in a way, he kind of retranslates both books simultaneously, allowing the one to change the other and vice versa. His choice, he says, is the licentious road, but, being a self-translator, I think it is obvious to all of us that the choice to go down that rabbit hole has less consequences for a self-translator than for a translator dealing with someone else’s work. The rabbit hole is less likely to be a wonderland in the latter case and more likely to be a battlefield with shouts of “Off with their heads!”

Ingrid Winterbach, who usually finds other translators for her books, partially self-translated Die boek van toeval en toeverlaat and was the first to admit that she shouldn’t have translated it and didn’t have the skill to do the book justice, even though it won an award for translation. Besides, it is a particularly difficult book to translate as it contains long lists of archaic Afrikaans words. These proved to be very difficult passages which she cut considerably in the English version, keeping the Afrikaans archaic words with English explanations in brackets. For her it is important that her idiosyncratic style be kept intact in the English version – that her “voice” be retained. She prefers more literal translations and hoped to have become part of at least the South African English book industry, but remains on the fringes although she is currently one of the best established Afrikaans writers in our country. I think this may say something about readers and the “Hollywoodisation” of culture in general. Deon Meyer, for example, has done very well internationally and I suspect that it is, at least in part, because he writes plot-driven crime fiction, rather than slow-moving language-focused novels like Ingrid Winterbach does.

Eben Venter, who currently lives in Australia, has struck it lucky and seems to have entered the international book industry with the release of his latest novel, Wolf Wolf. The Afrikaans and English versions have the same title and were released simultaneously. Eben thinks this may be one of the reasons he hit the jackpot this time, though he can’t be entirely sure what factors worked together to bring about this outcome. He too prefers more literal translations and, like Ingrid Winterbach, uses professional translators but works with them on drafts until there is consensus.

What is interesting about all three these authors is that they all write about loss, obsessions, love and betrayal – central themes not only to their books but also to all of our lives. It is familiar to all of us; it haunts us and heals us with some remaining fissures and scars. For me, this is not dissimilar to the process of translation which, though fractured, is both familiar and unknown.

Will the answers central to translation ever be answered? Will there ever come a time when there is absolute structure in translation strategies and processes? I hope not. I hope it remains open to new interpretations, new ways of writing, new ways of learning about ourselves, about the other in ourselves and about ourselves in the other. The curse of Babel is inevitable (why are we even still discussing this?), but translation also allows for the commonalities of love and fear to be felt, for obsessions and loss of control to be recognised, for betrayals to be remembered and perhaps forgiven and, most of all, it allows us, in small ways, to make sense of this messy, beautiful world we share and, sometimes, to realise that there is no sense to be made of the senseless. Some atrocities, whether personal or global, cannot be explained or understood, regardless of the language in which it is written.

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