Trans­lat­ing Nyem­bezi no walk in the park

Sandile Ngidi writes that the chal­lenge of trans­lat­ing ‘Ink­in­sela yasem­gun­gundlovu’ into English was to keep in­tact the novel’s tone

Mail & Guardian - - Books -

In mid-1989 I was in a Dur­ban hos­pi­tal for weeks af­ter mem­bers of the United Demo­cratic Front at­tacked me in Cler­mont town­ship. I be­longed to the Aza­nian Stu­dent Move­ment and proudly sub­scribed to the Black Con­scious­ness ide­ol­ogy.

The at­tack was noth­ing unique, nor was it a source of bit­ter­ness. I was just an­other statis­tic in a cy­cle of vi­o­lence that de­fined the times. The Cler­mont in­ci­dent is rel­e­vant inas­much as it be­gins to of­fer glimpses of ex­pla­na­tions re­gard­ing how I started my jour­ney as a lit­er­ary trans­la­tor.

Al­though I was al­ready writ­ing po­etry and dif­fer­ent forms of short prose, it took me 10 years to write about the at­tack imag­i­na­tively. The first in­stance was a short story ti­tled And Then the Rain Came, pub­lished in the Sales House Club mag­a­zine in 1998. The sec­ond was a poem ti­tled Mem­ory Is … This longish poem, com­pris­ing close to 30 lines, which gained some pop­u­lar­ity when­ever I read it at Peter Maku­rube’s Mon­day Blues ses­sions in Yeoville, Jo­han­nes­burg, in the late 1990s.

The poem’s power lies in its per­for­mance, and not so much in the fi­nesse of craft on pa­per. As I set out to write the poem, or as the poem urged me to write it, the im­agery and the vo­cab­u­lary came vividly to me in my mother tongue, Zulu. Al­though I had wanted an English poem, a stub­born mys­ti­cal Zulu voice kept on telling me how to ex­press my­self.

One phrase in par­tic­u­lar kept on hit­ting me in the vis­cera, izinyem­bezi zabafelwe asoze za­wela phansi. This lit­er­ally trans­lates as “the tears of the be­reaved will never fall down”. In my poem, which I per­formed at Dur­ban’s Po­etry Africa last Oc­to­ber, I used this phrase to pro­duce this line: “tears of the be­reaved refuse to kiss the earth”. This seeks to evoke im­me­di­acy and to rein­vig­o­rate the power of the orig­i­nal Zulu phrase in its English trans­la­tion.

In a sense then, I ven­tured into lit­er­ary trans­la­tion, first and fore­most for per­sonal heal­ing. No lofty ide­al­ism made me do it. I sim­ply plunged into the dark­ness, search­ing for light, hop­ing to turn trauma into a pos­i­tive force.

In 2008 Aflame Books pub­lished my trans­la­tion of Sibu­siso Nyem­bezi’s clas­sic Zulu novel, Ink­in­sela yasem­gun­gundlovu, as The Rich Man of Pi­eter­mar­itzburg. It was my hum­ble effort to­wards re­viv­ing in­ter­est in Nyem­bezi’s lit­er­ary corpus, es­pe­cially his im­mense gift as a nov­el­ist.

A tow­er­ing lin­guist, scholar and pub­lisher, Nyem­bezi would have turned 100 this year, along­side de­parted fel­low South African writ­ers Es’kia Mphahlele, Peter Abrahams and Noni Jabavu. Nyem­bezi, orig­i­nally from Vry­heid in north­ern Kwazulu-natal, is a rel­a­tively mar­ginal fig­ure in South Africa’s lit­er­ary canon in com­par­i­son with some writ­ers of his gen­er­a­tion who wrote in English or went into ex­ile.

Nyem­bezi suc­ceeded the em­i­nent Zulu poet, Bene­dict Wal­let Vi­lakazi, in 1948 as a lec­turer in Bantu stud­ies at the Univer­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand af­ter Vi­lakazi’s untimely death in 1947. He later taught at the Univer­sity of Fort Hare, only to re­sign along with other col­leagues in 1959 to protest against the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Bantu Ed­u­ca­tion Act.

A pub­lisher at Shuter & Shooter from 1960 un­til his re­tire­ment, Nyem­bezi’s ef­fect on the shap­ing of mod­ern Zulu is ex­pan­sive. His prodi­gious out­put in­cludes the sem­i­nal In­qolobane Ye­sizwe, a sur­vey of var­i­ous key as­pects of Zulu cul­ture and tra­di­tions. He co-au­thored with Otty Nx­u­malo the Zulu pri­mary school lan­guage reader se­ries Igoda. His best known novel re­mains Ink­in­sela yasem­gun­gundlovu.

Nyem­bezi the writer was in­te­gral to my world for the bet­ter part of my school­ing, and he con­tin­ues to loom large in my life. When I con­sid­ered the trans­la­tion of his novel, I was acutely aware that there is of­ten the dan­ger of pack­ag­ing an­thro­po­log­i­cal ac­counts of African lives through their trans­la­tion.

Al­ready more ex­posed to a wide range of African lit­er­ary works, trans­lat­ing Ink­in­sela yasem­gun­gundlovu was an op­por­tu­nity to “re­vive a for­got­ten voice”. The novel bor­rows from the Zulu oral tra­di­tion to present a seem­ingly harm­less cri­tique of apartheid. Nyem­bezi nei­ther ser­monises nor moralises. In­stead, he fully trusts the power of his char­ac­ters to drive a mul­ti­lay­ered, yet ac­ces­si­ble and en­ter­tain­ing novel — satir­i­cal and avowedly fem­i­nist in its af­fir­ma­tions.

The open­ing lines of the novel seem so straight­for­ward, yet I spent a con­sid­er­able amount of time in an effort to get the mu­si­cal­ity and its ef­fect right in English: “Nyanyadu in north­ern Natal is an old place, a pretty fa­mous place, in fact. The name of the place is taken from that of the nearby Nyanyadu moun­tain. If you are trav­el­ling to this place, ei­ther from Dur­ban in the south or Jo­han­nes­burg in the north, the best route to take is the one that goes straight to the town of Dundee. In this town you would board the bus to Nyanyadu that trav­els once a day, ex­cept on Sun­days. The bus leaves Dundee at lunchtime, and zigzags through the white sub­urbs un­til it ex­its the town. Then you will see it blow­ing up the winds be­side the leg­endary Mpathe moun­tain, which is be­lieved to har­bour money left by ghosts at its sum­mit. It will keep on trav­el­ling, stop­ping only to let some pas­sen­gers alight. Some would have come to Dundee by the buses from Zu­l­u­land, oth­ers would have come by the buses from Msinga.”

In trans­lat­ing these lines, I sought nei­ther to over­sim­plify nor to ro­man­ti­cise the text. Be­neath the coun­try­side set­ting lies a world sav­agely rav­aged by land dis­pos­ses­sion and forced con­scrip­tion into the mines. The trope of cows pre­dom­i­nates, as it does in Dr Wal­ter Rubu­sana’s Zemk’inkomo Mag­wa­lan­dini and jazzman Mankunku Ngozi’s iconic song Yakhal’inkomo. Calm and tur­bu­lence share the same ter­ri­fied dance floor in this tale of a conman from Dur­ban who seeks to dupe the ru­ral Nyanyadu lo­cals.

Pub­lished in 1961, the novel posed a few chal­lenges for me with re­gard to re­spond­ing well to the tenor of the times (not just of place, but also of lan­guage and the un­der­stated po­etic and satir­i­cal turn). Cer­tain expressions in the Zulu text did not seem to trans­late well into English, a strug­gle that con­tin­ued into 2018 as I worked on the re­vised edi­tion for pub­li­ca­tion in 2019.

I fol­low my own in­stincts and knowl­edge of Zulu and English in the main, and pre­fer this for­mat as op­posed to one pre­oc­cu­pied with trans­la­tion the­o­ries and group con­sen­sus.

These com­ments from my edi­tor, Mon­ica See­ber, il­lus­trate the point: “There are a few mar­gin com­ments else­where in the text, mainly to do with ex­cla­ma­tions. (A good ex­am­ple is ‘my good­ness!’, a very mild ex­pres­sion in English, rather like ‘dear me!’, not at all suited to tough farm­ing folk.)

“I agree that none of them, whether in English or isizulu, should be ital­i­cised. I also agree that where pos­si­ble we should change Zulu out­bursts into English. But there are a few that sim­ply don’t work in English, whereas in isizulu they have punch­i­ness and flavour. We have to choose whether to leave them out, to find a bet­ter English equiv­a­lent, or to leave them in isizulu.”

As a trans­la­tor I some­times feel like a glo­ri­fied sales­man, ped­dling African cul­tures to Europe and North Amer­ica. Yet I strive to be true to the spirit of the orig­i­nal text as a lit­er­a­ture be­long­ing to a spe­cific lan­guage — not a mu­seum relic.

My English writ­ing is en­riched when Zulu is its stub­born bedrock. A line in my poem The Last Dancer, “there is a grace and glory in the dancer who dances last”, is a child of the Zulu say­ing isina muva liyabukwa.

In Recla­ma­tion Song, a poem ded­i­cated to so­ci­ol­o­gist Ben Magubane, I give Zulu an ex­pan­sive pan-african­ist dic­tion, evok­ing Ukhahlamba moun­tains and River Gam­bia in one line. It is, in fact, this aes­thetic that makes the po­etry of the Zulu poet Mazisi Kunene ma­jes­tic and time­less.

I strive to be true to the spirit of the orig­i­nal text as a lit­er­a­ture be­long­ing to a spe­cific lan­guage — not a mu­seum relic

Men of words: Sibu­siso Nyem­bezi (left), au­thor of ‘Ink­in­sela yasem­gun­gundlovu’ (above), which Sandile Ngidi trans­lated into English

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