Michiel Heyns attended school in South Africa, in Thaba Nchu, Kimberley, and Grahamstown, and studied at the universities of Stellenbosch (B.Comm., MA, D. Litt.) and Cambridge (MA). He served as professor of English at Stellenbosch University from 1987 until 2002, when he took early retirement to be a full-time author. He lives in Somerset West, South Africa, and is the author of four novels: The Children's Day, The Reluctant Passenger, The Typewriter's Tale, and Bodies Politic. A fifth, Lost Ground, is at present on submission. He is the translator of Marlene van Niekerk'sAgaat (published in the U.S. by Tin House Books, 2010), which won South Africa's top award, the Sunday Times Fiction prize, the first translated work ever to win.
Words without Borders: It must be gratifying to see the writer you translate honored as a finalist for the Man Booker. What is it that drew you, as a translator, to the writer's work?
Michiel Heyns: I have always had the greatest admiration for Marlene’s work and had previously translated two of her short stories. As a translator, I found her work, Agaat in particular, tremendously challenging, because It employs so many different registers of Afrikaans, from the lyrical through the technical to the vernacular, even the scatological. Marlene is also a fine poet, so one feels in translating her that one is dealing with language at a very high pitch.
WWB: Can you tell us about a particular challenge/problem you've come across translating your writer's work and how you resolved it? Alternately, what's something you learned from translating this writer [that has stuck with you to this day]?
MH: Of the various registers I’ve mentioned, the vernacular-scatalogical proved the most difficult, in that the language itself is performative, that is, has a power in excess of its dictionary meaning. At one stage I considered appending a short essay on the word meid to my translation to explain its shifting register. Originally a neutral Dutch term for a young woman (compare maid in English) it came to mean, in South Africa, female servant (again like maid in English). From here the process of what semioticians call pejoration degraded the word further, as it came to constitute a disrespectful reference to a black or colored woman, and in schoolboy slang, to a cowardly person.
One of the realities reflected in Agaat is the whole range of registers still surviving in a single word. When Jak, the racist husband, for instance, uses the word, it is almost always with its full force of offensive intent:
Hy sê sy’t alles wat ‘n meid kan wens & dis beter dat sy vir hr apart hou hy wil tog nie moelikheid met ‘n gesaamlopery nie dan kom daar vanself jong hotnos by & dan raak sy met die lyf & dan is ons hr kwyt.
In instances like this I was reduced to finding a word that could somehow embody in itself Jak’s desire to wound:
He says she’s got everything a woolly could wish for & it’s better that she keeps herself apart he really doesn’t want hassles with a hobnobbing then next thing you have young goffels climbing in & then she gets that way & then she’s lost to us.
Needless to say, this is a pale version of the original. Woolly was the best I could do in an effort to convey something of the insulting charge of Jak’s usage; there were complaints, justified I’m sure, that the term is hardly a current South African one. Just so, Jak’s use of hotnos called for something insultingly vernacular; goffels, though hardly Queen’s English, does occur in the Oxford Dictionary of South African English, which I adopted as my benchmark.
When Milla, Jak’s wife, uses terms like meid and its cognates, on the other hand, she does so more neutrally: the term is still offensive, of course, in its very unawareness, but the offense is not deliberate, as in Jak’s case. When Milla says “Die meide kyk my of ek mal is,” she is using the term more referentially than emotively; my translation, though it cannot encompass the full range of register of the original, can approximately render its sense: “The kitchen maids look at me as if I’m mad.”
When the farm workers themselves use the term, it’s closer to being purely referential, though here, too, it requires an intimate knowledge of a specific language community to pick up the register. A passage like the following, a translator’s nightmare, captures a whole hierarchy of social and racial values in its modulated use of racial terms. Milla is teaching Agaat to cut up a sheep:
… daar sing die meide: Oi oi oi die mou van die aap verhoog die meid of laat sak die skaap. Hou julle bekke sê ek maar hulle dans met die boude in die lug al om A. die lip bewe & ek sê dis net kombuismeide moet jou nie aan hulle steur nie hulle kry net kop & derms & vanaand kry jy tjops. …Goedso my meidjie nou ken jy jou vleis.
The shifts in register from die meide (relatively referential) to die meid (referential, but tinged with malicious mockery) to net kombuismeide (deliberately pejorative) to my meidjie (patronizingly affectionate) were impossible to render using a single word, as in the Afrikaans. Thus I had, somewhat lamely, to resort to a variety of terms:
. . . so then the kitchen-girls start singing oi oi oi five pigs in a heap, raise the girl or lower the sheep. Shut your traps I say but they dance buttocks in the air all around A. her lip trembles & I say it’s just kitchen-skivvies don’t take any notice of them they’re getting only head & guts & tonight you’re having chops. Well done my little girl now you know your meat.
I must confess that I do not regard these as the most successful passages of my translation, for the reasons mentioned.
WWB: What trends or recurring themes do you see in the literature you translate?
MH: To generalize very broadly, I’d say that contemporary Afrikaans literature is trying to come to terms with a society in transition, from the previous racist dispensation of white privilege to a theoretically more equitable democratic dispensation. Where traditional Afrikaans literature reflected the settled agrarian certainties of a conservative society, for instance in the genre of the “farm novel,” modern Afrikaans novelists are trying to make sense of the sometimes disconcertingly rapid changes in perceptions and attitudes of a previously empowered, now largely disempowered minority. Agaat is in fact a rewriting of the “farm novel,” taking cognizance of the new realities and the new power relations, in the story of a dying white woman being cared for and dominated by an erstwhile servant.