The politics of translation and the translation of politics

Spooksaam, 13 March 2014, Woordfees, Stellenbosch.

Vertalings: Afrikaans en Engels, hand aan hand, 15 March 2014, Woordfees, Stellenbosch.

With Fourie Botha, Kirby van der Merwe, Jaco Botha and Dominique Botha


“Translation, like politics, is the art of the possible – with all the inevitable compromise implicit in that parallel with politics” – Dominique Botha quoting Craig Raine

In 2013, after the Dancing in Other Words Festival, I wrote about “translation as ethical pratice”. Last week at the Woordfees I attended two panel discussions centered on similar themes: the philosophers Pieter Duvenhage and Johann Rossouw talking about “Suid-Afrika as vertaling of vertaalde land”; and Umuzi editor Fourie Botha and writers and translators Kirby van der Merwe, Jaco Botha and Dominique Botha talking about the simultaneous publication of Afrikaans and English versions of local novels. Both talks were conducted in Afrikaans, but in the spirit of the events I decided to attempt to write in English for the benefit of the non-Afrikaans reader.


Pieter Duvenhage and Johann Rossouw are both currently lecturers at the University of the Free State. Their talk, entitled “Spooksaam”, represented a reunion of sorts, as they used to have a philosophical discussion program on RSG called “Spookstasie”, which I remember listening to furtively after lights out in my high school hostel. I was therefore excited and nostalgic, but should probably have expected that the event would be as sparsely attended as it was.

The discussion started with each speaker giving a monologue, after which they took questions from the audience. First up was Duvenhage. He introduced the topic by claiming that South Africa can be considered a translated country, as the nature of its diverse population and the fact that all state business is conducted in English requires all South Africans to translate and to be translators. He argues that the most useful role a South African can aspire to is that of interpreter.

Duvenhage’s monologue was based on the distinction between an instrumental view of language and an ontological one. To view language as an instrument implies that you see people as independent and autonomous individuals who can choose to use language any way they please. Instead Duvenhage is in favour of an ontological view which recognises that the individual is shaped by language and can only think and exist in language. This view also implies that you exist and think differently in each language, and the more languages you know the wider your scope of experience can be. Because the vast majority of South Africans are not native English speakers, their experience of, and interaction with, the state and each other is always mediated by translation (even when the translation happens in their own minds). Duvenhage therefore insists that translators and interpreters should be more respected and better paid to encourage better translations and communications. English should also be relativised, so that more translation and communication happens between the other South African languages and people are better enabled to really listen to one another.

While Duvenhage’s talk has political implications, Johann Rossouw’s is more explicitly political. He claims that state-driven attempts to establish a unified South African identity are inherently doomed to failure. These attempts are only for the benefit of the elites who suffer financial damage when South Africa’s democratic image is tarnished. Against this, and similarly to Duvenhage, Rossouw argues that the different language communities should stop trying to speak to the state, and rather start talking to each other. People who live in the same physical spaces have no idea of each others’ experiences of and in those same spaces due to not talking and listening to each other.

Two points of critique came from the audience. The first was that their focus might be too much on the state instead of the source of real power, namely capital. I agree that they could perhaps have elaborated more on the relationship between English and global economic flows, but to be fair Rossouw did mention the state’s attempt to mobilise South Africans with English in order to project a unified image to world-wide investors. The second criticism came after the discussion derailed and turned into a debate about mother tongue education and Afrikaans parents who send their children to English schools. An audience member (rightly, in my view) pointed out that Duvenhage and Rossouw had called for South Africans to have a willingness to listen to each other, and here the discussion had, as so often at these type of events, turned into a debate on a subject that has already been rehashed repeatedly within the insular Afrikaans speaking community.


Kirby van der Merwe, Dominique Botha and Jaco Botha are primarily known as authors, but they are also translators. Kirby translated Carol Campbell’s My children have faces into the Afrikaans Karretjiemense, Jaco translated Mike Nichol’s Cops and robbers into Dieners en donners and Dominique rewrote her own False River in Afrikaans.

Fourie Botha quickly got the apparent subject of the talk, the simultaneous publication of Afrikaans and English versions of novels, out of the way by explaining that it is necessary that they are published at the same time, as otherwise all the Afrikaans readers who would be interested in the book already would have read it in English by the time the Afrikaans translation is published. Apparently that is why the Afrikaans translation of Coetzee’s Disgrace did not sell as well as was hoped.

The rest of the discussion was focused on the panellists’ experiences and practices of translation. Jaco Botha blatantly loves Mike Nichol’s book, and declares his joy that he was assigned the translation by Random House Struik. He, like Kirby and Dominique, talked at length about the texture and detail of language. According to him Cops and robbers has a unique rhythm and authentic South African style and by translating it he could bring this innovation into Afrikaans and revitalise Afrikaans literature and the Afrikaans language by doing so. This type of cultural exchange excites him; he talks about the way Haruki Marukami has been inspired by American pop culture, Uys Krige by Spanish literature and Breytenbach by French surrealism. He sees artistic innovation as a type of infectious fever, and translators play an important role in spreading the disease.

Dominque and Kirby had a different type of task, as both novels they were translating were about Afrikaans-speaking communities and the original versions were already translations of an Afrikaans reality into English text. Both said that this made the translation process easy and comfortable; Dominique compared it to moving from an armchair to a bed. It seems that this is especially true of vocabulary and idioms, although both mentioned that they did struggle a bit with sentence construction. Kirby had to change most passive sentences into the active, in order to move the narrative forward, and while False River is written in the past tense, Valsrivier is in the present.

The talk turned to politics when the panellists, especially Dominique, started talking about the cultural significance of translation. She said that the idea that everything is happening (presumably globally as well as in South Africa) in English is illusory. Translation can, according to her, be seen as a form of defence against homogenisation and superficiality.

Some provocations

With reference to the first discussion I attended as well as this statement by Dominique Botha, I feel the need to ask where the discussions of the possibility of translation between South Africa’s other official languages are? I realise that literary translations are dictated by the market and Afrikaans and English are the only strong literary systems within South Africa. However, where are the intra-cultural talking and listening Johann Rossouw talks about supposed to happen, and where are the initiatives to develop good writers, translators and interpreters in all South Africa’s languages? Afrikaans-speaking people have a (understandable, given our history) seemingly endless desire to (re)define ourselves and debate our identity, especially at all of our “art festivals”. These festivals are of course dependent on sponsors cashing in on Afrikaners’ love of and loyalty to the language. It is therefore doubtful that they will risk introducing anything potentially alienating into the mix. Future Woordfeeste will likely still have only one or two English discussion panels (this year it was the turn of Niq Mhongo and Shuan Viljoen to introduce their books), quite a few Dutch ones, and discussions of how South Africa’s different language groups should listen to one another – without any illustrations of this utopic scenario.


Bad language: Poetry, swearing and translation” by Craig Raine.

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