One tends to dive into translating one’s own debut work in the same way as one dived into writing it in the first place: headlong. My background is in law, and specifically the cold, adversarial kind of legal practice that entails negotiating large business transactions. I’m not trained as a translator, literary or otherwise. And, other than in tangential ways, my background as a lawyer did not do much to further the kind of skills, or at least allow for the quiet reflection, required for writing fiction.
So, when asked about the process of writing or translating my collection of stories, published in English as The Alphabet of Birds (Alfabet van die voëls in Afrikaans), it forced me go back and disentangle something that I did intuitively rather than through careful reflection. This is actually not unusual, I’m sure (even when one’s background is in literature or language), particularly for a debut work that was written when one’s innocence as a writer was still more or less intact. You find out much about the work you wrote, and the decisions you made in translating it, after the event.
While living outside South Africa for most of my adult life, I hardly ever spoke Afrikaans. English was the language in which I worked and socialised. Afrikaans was regained quite suddenly once I started writing. It simply emerged ‘intact’ after having been, as it were, ‘preserved’ for many years. The notion of ‘intactness’ is, of course, a fallacy. Languages are not static. Afrikaans, more than most languages, underwent significant changes in the period of my absence from South Africa (1994-2010). Its social position has changed and it has lost a huge amount of ground as a language of higher functions. Concomitantly, spoken Afrikaans has developed (degenerated?) in many ways. As a result, the Afrikaans that I felt re-emerging against my palate and in the glottis was a little formal and archaic, somewhat removed from the new Afrikaans (or mix of Afrikaans and English) spoken particularly by a younger generation of urban South Africans. Broken English has become the lingua franca of the new South Africa, and (bad) English is exerting a huge influence on (particularly spoken) Afrikaans. As I was no longer really in touch with spoken Afrikaans, I therefore often wrote dialogue in English and then translated it back into Afrikaans after doing some careful listening around. All of it then ultimately goes back into English. Even when I’m writing now, some of the prose starts out in English before being translated into Afrikaans. There is movement towards synchronicity – i.e. the Afrikaans and English texts being written almost simultaneously.
South African author Ivan Vladislavić recently asked me about the preparation of different English versions of my collection for South Africa, on the one hand, and for the UK/US on the other. This did not entail too many difficult choices. The approach was to keep as much as possible local colour by sticking to South African usage, except where it would be confusing to a British or American reader. For instance, for both the SA and UK/US English editions, German phrases (that are more easily comprehensible for Afrikaans readers due to the recent Germanic roots of Afrikaans) were translated into English. A word like ‘bakkie’ in the South African English was changed to ‘pickup truck’ for UK and US readers. Sometimes choices had to be made between UK and US usage, resulting, for instance, in the use of ‘lift’ instead of ‘elevator’.
An interesting dimension of translating these stories was the interaction between the themes of the stories and the act of translation. The stories may perhaps be considered to fall under the rubric of ‘diasporic literature’. And if emigration entails continuous processes of psychological translation of the self to unfamiliar cultural contexts, and of those contexts to oneself, then the experiences central to diasporic work must surely be re-enacted in language when the author translates his own work from or into his mother tongue.
Translating your own work gives you a marvellous freedom. You may rewrite, add or subtract to your heart’s desire. When translating someone else’s work, the need for engagement with, and obtaining the approval of, the author (provided he knows the target language) changes the nature of the process in an important way. I doubt whether, to me, translation would provide as much pleasure, such a sense of intuitive abandon, if I were to be subjected to the constraint of having to deal with an author’s wishes. On the other hand, I have heard accounts from translators of exhilarating interaction with writers, particularly in cases where a work of exceptional quality is being translated, the translator is innovative and the author is open to creative collaboration.
I’ve not had the experience of my work being translated by someone else into a language I know. If any of my future work were to be translated into English, I’d probably prefer to do it myself again, given the opportunity it affords me to ensure that different voices, registers and nuances are dealt with in exactly the way I believe they should be. My stories will shortly be translated into Dutch, of which I have a good passive knowledge, but with which I’m not sufficiently familiar in order to help calibrate or tweak the translation. I doubt whether I will insist on providing much input. (It certainly helps that I have an excellent veteran translator for the Dutch, someone whose sensibilities and judgement I trust implicitly.)
In short, it might be best to translate your own work if you are able to. If it is into a language that one doesn’t speak well enough to confidently double-guess the translator, it would seem logical to be hands-off. And, mercifully, in the case of translation into a language that one doesn’t speak at all, there is, of course, no opportunity for proper involvement by the author. There is surely freedom too in just letting go.