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
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