Literary Translation

Leroux’s Sewe dae by die Silbersteins gets a fresh new translation


Etienne Leroux is regarded as one of the most influential members of the group known as the Sestigers in Afrikaans literature. Although his acclaimed novel Sewe dae by die Silbersteins was translated into English by Charles Eglington, this translation now seems dated and the novel needs a fresh translation, or so Greg Penfold will be arguing as part of an MA project in translation in the Department of English at the University of Stellenbosch. Below, we present an extract from Chapter 3 of the new translation.

Henry woke to the sound of small birds singing in the trees outside his window. It was one of those Boland mornings when the whole environment conspires to forge a memory of a sunny day that will replay enduringly in future as “one sunny morning” …

The coffee in the pot was perked up by a shot of Benedictine, the curtains were drawn wide and all the enchantment of the day penetrated into the room. In the bathroom, he made another discovery: he pressed one of the lions' eyes and a fine jet of pine scent coloured the water green. Khaki shorts, shirt and sombrero had been placed conspicuously next to his clothes. So dressed, he found Jock in the garden waiting for him, hands joined behind his head, face raised to the sky, occupied in sampling the clean air with deep breaths.

“Very nice!” he said, with an approving glance at Henry's outfit. “And now we can look further into how the farm works.”

They passed the flaming steel tank without a second glance. They patiently avoided the green trucks and then watched three thousand fat and juicy German merino lambs waiting in pens to be branded. After that they headed for the cellars. But first they were waylaid by a guard who inflexibly demanded a name badge or some other form of identification. This meant entering his office, a small room with an outsize picture of a baobab hanging from the wall.

The window sill was covered with pot plants growing so wildly, they blocked out most of the light, permanently casting a penumbra over the small room. Lacking name badges, they had to fill out some forms. After that the guard dialled a number. He treated them with pure contempt. Waiting for a reply, he sat on the edge of the desk and dead-headed flowers with secateurs. Suddenly he listened with attention, read out loud certain details on the completed forms and put the receiver back on its base. Slowly, ponderously and carefully he filled out an entry permit, glowered at them under dark eyebrows and signed that they could go on in.

“Doesn't he know you then?” asked Henry.

“Of course,” said Jock. “I gave him the job myself. But the old-timer is scrupulous. He's a stickler for the rules and tolerates no exceptions. Unfortunately I forgot my ID card.”

“But why all the permits?” asked Henry.

Now they were walking down a passage that looked like a tunnel and their hollow footsteps echoed from damp walls with greenish moss clinging to the stones.

“To keep unauthorised people out, of course,” said Jock. “There is a primal reason for every regulation. The more complex the system, the harder to determine the exact reason for every regulation. Gradually, regulations become dogmas, established truths about which there is nothing further to discuss.”

They turned off into a narrow side passage and kept coming across men in white who, with the controlled zeal of temple priests, were playing their parts in the ritual of fermentation and perfection; who, with the pipettes, flasks, barometers and other holy instruments of their office, were guiding the soul of the wine to its ultimate individuation.

They reached a cellar where a series of barrels lay like coffins in the gloom.

“Here is a replica of Spain,” said Jock with the same zeal as his priests. “Here the mosto lies and ferments until the sugar has all gone and the anada de vino appears. It takes from twelve to eighteen months and, like the Calvinist soul of man, some are destined for perfection and others for perdition. We have no control over the results of the fermentation process; all we can do to help is add the Yeso – and the rest is in the hands of the Creator.”

From there they walked down another narrow passage, greener and mossier, with an even temperature, quiet but for their footsteps troubling the righteous silence, into another cellar.

“And here is the Criadera,” said Jock. “The fermentation is complete. It's the nursery where each kind ages in line with its nature.”

Some vats bore the signs of Palma, others the single stripe of Raya, the two stripes of Dos Rayas and the cross of Palo Cortado.

“You could say,” said Jock, “that this is heaven. The bitter fruit has been purged. Here every soul abides by degree of perfection.”

Now the narrow passage led right down into one of the biggest cellars. Here the vats lay on three levels, row upon row, interconnected from top to bottom.

“This is the completely integrated wine,” said Jock. “Each row stands for a particular year, following the solera system, close to the earth. Here lie the endless combinations of Palma, Raya, Dos Rayas and Cortados. The combinations are tapped from the soleras at the very bottom, and then each layer is automatically refilled from the newer layer above. It's the ultimate achievement, the reconciliation of all the elements, the centre of balance, the true Self in every case.” Despite his farmer's garb, Jock in the cellar light looked like a hierophant guiding his followers in the secrets of the Mystery.

“What happens in these cellars,” he declaimed, his voice booming against the walls, “is similar, perhaps, to what happened in the mysteries of Eleusis in the caves, or in the mysteries of Attis and Cybele, or in the true believer's complete assimilation to his symbols, or in the artist's moments of vision, or in the soul of one who with perfect insight reaches the place of atonement realises the complexio oppositorum in the conjunctio oppositorum, experiences life in God.”

They quit the cellar, and as they gradually made their way back above ground, so the mystic light in Jock's eyes allowed in the complexity of the everyday, which alternates from moment to moment and sensation to sensation.

They passed by a large building where a crowd of coloured workers were busy. Everyone was cheerful and relaxed and the atmosphere had changed from supernatural to mundane. They looked cheekily at Henry and Jock with the superior understanding of human weakness, which levels social status and reduces everyone to ordinary life: fitness in matters of sex, love, satisfaction of material needs and the power to survive life's rat race. A young Malay woman looked Henry straight in the eye and laughed suddenly as he looked away.

But Jock led Henry on past them. Next door a smaller building was dwarfed by two objects resembling gigantic locomotives. Great heaps of coal lay on either side of the building. The ovens were open, and blacks with shiny, sweaty faces were vengefully filling the smouldering guts of the colossi.

Jock strode into a small room latticed on all sides with copper pipes. He shut a small door behind him and a clinical silence reigned in the little retreat. He looked at Henry, indicated something with his finger, and suddenly opened a steam-cock. An infernal whooshing filled the place blotting out all other sounds. In the corner to one side lay an iron hammer. Jock picked it up and pelted a piece of steel with mighty blows so that the hammer bounced back in lightning protest while the muscles in his arms bulged to curb the iron. But there was no sound besides the whooshing. In an exalted frenzy, Jock leaped up and down, flung away the hammer, kicked the walls, punched the pipes – and still there was no sound besides the overwhelming rush of steam that, the more they got used to it, made a silence of its own.

Jock turned off the steam cock and at once his voice reached Henry clear and bright.

“This is my isolation chamber,” he said. “In this racket is the perfect silence.” He seized Henry's arm urgently and drew him closer, one hand on the steam-cock, his voice elated by the onslaught of his unique drug. “Would you mind helping out? When I open the cock, I want you to shout as loudly as you can. Swear, curse and weep as you please – cry out loudly as once you could only cry out in your thoughts, like Job lament your undeserved human lot, because here you are talking directly to your Creator; nobody else can hear you.” His eyes shone white with fanaticism. “Here you're alone like you've never been alone before, but it's not the impotent voice of your thoughts, it's the full, corporeal voice screaming at the Absolute; it's you yourself in full command of your senses; it's you, Job, bellowing accusation at the Almighty from the depths of time. It's your human right to register your protest with all your might in the inbetween realm of silence that is not silence.”

Suddenly he opened the steam-cock, the whooshing dominated everything, killed all other sounds and passed on into the new silence born of monotony. There was only Jock's mouth opening and shutting. Henry could see the veins bulge in his neck – his mighty chest heaving with the power of his inaudible shrieks. His eyes were raised to the roof, his arms bent in the air, his whole body shuddering in soundless discharge. At first Henry was flabbergasted by this extraordinary confession, then, in this too deafening silence, something within him kindled – a feeling of sheer solitariness, as though he stood in a desert landscape, in the loneliness of the wilderness, and in this isolation the primal scream welled up inside him, the longing, the unfettered outcry at powerlessness, the keening of his forlornness, the free and alien formulation of his deepest desires, the emptying out of his own heart. He felt moisture on his cheeks and realised it was tears. Wiping them off with his hands he discovered his mouth was agape. Something tingled in his throat, in his chest, in his lungs, and he realised he had given himself over. Only now did he start to think and formulate the nature of his longings and outcry, but he soon realised that normal formulation was unnecessary. Certain words, certain ideas, certain sounds, quite what he was uncertain – he howled them at the firmament; just the nucleus of feeling came up, the half-formed thoughts came and went and no one knew what was manifesting. It was more than the silent desire, longing or lament, for it was articulated beyond conventional articulation. It was complete freedom of expression without the bondage of self-judgement, for he knew not what he said. It was the greatest, most comprehensive communication with the Absolute he'd ever had.

Exhausted, purged, he gasped for breath and saw Jock suddenly bring his finger to his lips. Then the steam-cock was closed and the other silence took over, interrupted only by their breathing. They looked at each other, but with the feeling of people who despite having shared an experience remained separate from each other; with the camaraderie that stems from full participation, yet has an unassailable secrecy at the core. It was the perfect fraternity, and they left the sanctum in total silence.


Greg Penfold says:

Oeps, 1970. Sept jours chez les Silbersteins. – Daar is net een, maak gou.

Greg Penfold says:

As jy op abe.books gaan kyk sal jy miskien ‘n eksemplaar van die 1972 Franse vertaling (via die oorspronklike Engels) vind.

Leon de Kock says:

Bets, die bestaande vertaling is dekades gelede deur die oorlede SAE digter Charles Eglington gedoen. Dit behoort in biblioteke beskikbaar te wees. Greg Penfold se voltooide vertaling sal eers oor ‘n jaar of wat beskikbaar wees.

Bets de Bruyn says:

Ek doen navraag oor die beskikbaarheid van ‘n volledige vertaling van Sewe Dae by die Silbersteins in Engels, ek het ‘n Franse vriend wat baie graag die boek wil lees maar kan dit natuurlik net in Engels doen.
Baie dankie,
Bets de Bruyn