Mastering the challenges of translation in SA
Synapse Antjie Krog Human & Rousseau 128 pages R200 recommended retail price
Antjie Krog will always be an Afrikaans poet, first and foremost, and any translation into English will only be able to capture so much of what she is renowned for being able to do in her mother tongue: testing the boundaries of Afrikaans, creating new words and turning the language into a malleable putty of meaning, ambiguity and transformation.
With this in mind, Karen Press does well in the translation to try to convey some of what Krog does best (because so little of her Afrikaans verse has been made available in English) while, in effect, helping to create a new work that creates its own set of impressions and reactions for an audience in English. It’s inescapable that the references will differ slightly from those an Afrikaans audience is likely to relate to.
But Press does well to play with English, no doubt inspired by Krog’s creativity and vision, such as in a phrase describing a body that “tuneforks with abundance”.
In Afrikaans, the collection was published as “Mede-wete” – which means “co-knowledge” or “co-consciousness”. Instead of such a direct translation, in English, Press decided on Synapse, a reference to the many connections of one’s own mind and body as well as those of others – the core theme of this collection.
Krog writes movingly about her family, particularly the older generation. She also vividly imagines and reimagines farmland and the concepts around it, focusing on the power it holds over people and dealing with the troubles of a racially divided and patriarchal past.
Phrases such as “hold your ear to the tear in the skin of my country” are powerful, typical Krog, in any language. Through it, she returns to a subject she knows well and has written about movingly, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
She concludes that “concrete bunkers” were built inside the mind of one of apartheid’s soldiers – implying his crimes against those who were not like him – not white – were driven by his inability to connect to them, to see them as fellow beings, contiguous with himself.
His was a profound failure of the synapses.
Through a comparison of a developing set of three different texts, which form a narrative trio, first with verses in English, then in isiXhosa and then a translation of that isiXhosa, she shows just how hard or even impossible it can be for different cultures to understand each other.
Nevertheless, she is able to move beyond some of these troubling themes to verses that explore the “miracle” of our democratic transition, though she finds we nevertheless do still let ourselves down “in ethnic avarice”.
The collection is about far more than only politics, although her eulogy for Nelson Mandela will probably be the poem that will enjoy the greatest longevity – and deserves to be counted as one of the better poetic reflections on Madiba. As you continue with the book, though, a difficult musing style comes to dominate, with long rambling sections that do, at least, reward careful reading. It’s heavy going though.
All in all, if you’d like an insight into why Afrikaans academia gets so excited every time Krog writes anything new, this collection will show you why she is so celebrated.
You could do worse to your own synapses than to lose yourself to these well-crafted words.