Ex­plo­sive in English

Though ‘30 Nights in Am­s­ter­dam’ was orig­i­nally writ­ten in Afrikaans, pro­tag­o­nist Zan leaps to life as vividly in English, writes Fiona Sny­ck­ers

The Times (South Africa) - - FRONT PAGE -

RE­VIEW­ING a novel in trans­la­tion is a tricky busi­ness — al­most as prob­lem­atic as the process of trans­la­tion it­self. You are forced to ques­tion whose work it is, the au­thor’s or the trans­la­tor’s. Be­cause trans­la­tion is nei­ther seam­less nor trans­par­ent.

The trans­la­tor does more than seek equiv­a­lents for words; he trans­poses the novel from one lit­er­ary cul­ture to an­other. And when those two cul­tures share a com­mon coun­try, the chal­lenges be­come even greater.

Eti­enne van Heer­den — that multi-award­win­ning nov­el­ist and aca­demic — writes in his na­tive Afrikaans. He is the first to ad­mit that hav­ing his work trans­lated into Greek or Rus­sian is eas­ier than hav­ing it trans­lated into Dutch, Ger­man or English, the three lan­guages he can read flu­ently.

“It’s eas­ier to let go when the lan­guage is com­pletely for­eign,” he ex­plains. “When it’s a lan­guage I un­der­stand, the trans­la­tion be­comes a fraught process of ne­go­ti­a­tion and com­pro­mise.

“I worked closely with Michiel Heyns on 30 Nights in Am­s­ter­dam and am very pleased with the re­sult, but it was far from sim­ple.”

What makes this book dif­fi­cult to trans­late is the voice of the fe­male pro­tag­o­nist, Su­san, known as Zan. Van Heer­den calls her stream-of-con­scious­ness nar­ra­tive “Zanspeak” and ac­knowl­edges it was a par­tic­u­larly for­mi­da­ble “com­post” for Heyns to sift. Her words are so deep-dyed in the id­iom of the Ka­roo that it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to find equiv­a­lents for them.

Zan is also prone, in her frac­tured, tor­tured way, to cre­ate com­pound words such as Henkiev­er­stand and aand­ven­ster. These trans­late, some­what less than lyri­cally, into “Henk­in­tel­li­gence” and “evening­win­dow”.

Afrikaans, like Ger­man, lends it­self to the ef­fort­less cre­ation of com­pound nouns. But try­ing the same trick in English will cause you to lose your­self in a wel­ter of hy­phens. Michiel Heyns suc­ceeds ad­mirably in over­com­ing these and other dif­fi­cul­ties, and the char­ac­ter of Zan leaps to life in English al­most as vividly as she does in Afrikaans.

“Many writers will tell you that the idea for a novel came to them in the per­son of one of the char­ac­ters,” says Van Heer­den. “That’s how it was for me with this book. I was do­ing re­search in Am­s­ter­dam when I seemed to hear the voice of a woman speak­ing to me. That was Zan, and her idio­syn­cratic speech formed the ba­sis for the book.”

The other pro­tag­o­nist in the story is mild­man­nered mu­seum-cu­ra­tor Henk who re­ceives a letter from a Dutch lawyer in­form­ing him that his Aunt Zan has died and left him her house in Am­s­ter­dam, with cer­tain con­di­tions at­tached. He is in the process of writ­ing a slim mono­graph about the life of Cor­nelius van Gogh — brother of the more fa­mous Vin­cent — who moved to the Transvaal shortly be­fore the Boer War, and died by his own hand.

The story of Cor van Gogh is clearly in­tended as a foil for Henk’s own story as, in trav­el­ling from South Africa to the Nether­lands, he per­forms Cor’s jour­ney in re­verse. I ask whether Vin­cent is like­wise a foil for Zan — the crazy, py­rotech­ni­cally bril­liant artist. Van Heer­den has not thought of this par­al­lel, but im­me­di­ately ac­knowl­edges it. As much aca­demic as nov­el­ist, he is too ex­pe­ri­enced to fall prey to the in­ten­tional fal­lacy — the myth that only what the au­thor in­tended can be read into a novel.

“Ul­ti­mately 30 Nights in Am­s­ter­dam is a story about iden­tity and dis­place­ment,” Van Heer­den says. “The re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Afrikaner and Africa and the Afrikaner and Europe is prob­lema­tised and teased out by the nar­ra­tive.

“Iden­tity is such a com­plex and shift­ing con­cept that any at­tempt to pin it down with def­i­ni­tions is des­tined to fail.”

That Van Heer­den is es­sen­tially op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of the Afrikaner in South Africa can be seen in the fi­nal im­age of the book in which two char­ac­ters per­form a crazy, hy­brid dance on the scene of a decades-old tragedy. Their dancing is at once clumsy and joy­ous as they rise like lat­ter-day phoenixes from the ashes of his­tory in the fi­nal pages of what has surely al­ready be­come a mod­ern clas­sic. ý 30 Nights in Am­s­ter­dam is pub­lished by Pen­guin, R220. Sny­ck­ers is the au­thor of the Trin­ity se­ries of nov­els.


MAN OF MANY WORDS: Au­thor Eti­enne van Heer­den

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