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Interview with Marlene van Niekerk

Marlene Van Niekerk is the foremost Afrikaans writer of her generation. She is a renowned poet, scholar, critic, and public intellectual, but is best known as a novelist, and especially for her two major works, Triomf (1994, English translation 2000) and Agaat (2004, translated as The Way of the Women in 2007). Van Niekerk’s work casts an unflinching, penetrating regard on post-apartheid South African society, registering beauty and frailty alongside almost unbearable cruelty. Her prose has an ability unrivaled in Afrikaans for shifting register in order to capture the high academic, poetic, regionally vernacular, or simply idiosyncratic discourses of her characters. She has won the Ingrid Jonker Prize, the Sunday Times Literary Prize, and the Hertzog Prize; Agaat in its English translation by Michiel Heyns won the Sol Plaatje award for translation; and her work has been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize as well as the Man Booker International Prize.

—J. S.

 

Q

The White Review

— How would you describe your relationship with your translators? Does speaking the translating language, or having some knowledge of it, make a difference in this relationship?

A

Marlene van Niekerk

— My relationships with my translators have always been very friendly, generous and wonderful learning experiences, hopefully for both parties. I read Dutch well, and collaborated intensely and fruitfully with the translator. I read German and French but only enough to answer questions or correct the most glaring translation mistakes. The English translators with whom I have worked most intensely belong to a special category, because English is my second language.

 

Let me improvise, for the hell of it, an imagined limit case of this relationship in order to illustrate a dynamic that is always present, however imperceptibly and silently. Let’s say the relationship feels forbidden. Like an affair with a licentious monk/nun who sports a huge tool (i.e. full command of one’s second language), somebody who professes loyalty to ‘what is written’, somebody who presents him-/herself as chaste and celibate, but invariably proves to have designs or desires and invariably takes (poetic) license with (the body of) the work. This clever lusty monk starts appropriating the work as soon as his version or performance of it is judged to be admirable (by both himself and the author). As we know, this process is pleasurable to both parties. It is a matter of desiring the same thing: narcissus blooms nodding together in a heady breeze. All creative copyists choose to undergo this sweet suffering. First the author, when she ‘writes’, tries to ‘copy’ (concretise, particularise, capture) her intimations of the ineffable (life, matter, time) in her mother tongue. Then comes the translator who selects the product of the author’s efforts as his own ‘project’ because he is to some degree turned on by one or all of the following: the ‘source material’, the ‘original’ and ‘having a go at it’. Thus the field is prepared for mimetic rivalry (very similar to the type that René Girard elaborates on in La Violence et le sacré). The process often takes on the character of a skirmish, dandily kept in balance by the mutual flattery of fine strokes (of invention, or accuracy or breath-taking approximation) and negotiations (during which the author has to keep her pose, especially when the translator might accurately reveal that what she has written is inadequate to the object, or just plain shit).

 

This dynamic is one that I myself experience when I write ekphrastic poems about paintings I adore (like Velazquez’s dwarves, or the still lives of Adriaen Coorte), or when I translate poems (from English to Afrikaans) by poets that I truly admire. Fortunately they are all dead and would not, even via the Akashic records, be able ever to lay eyes on my attempts. Personally, I experience my own admiration of a text I want to translate, as a need to seduce it, to win it over and to ‘possess’ it in my own language; it is a need to equal the author, if not to seduce and conquer his/her issue. One likes to wield one’s s/word, especially when the challenge is substantial. Translation, especially of poetry, can elicit extreme forms of patience and dedication, much like trying to catch turtledoves in a hand trap. I once did no fewer than sixty-four translations, over a period of three months, of Larkin’s famous poem, ‘Trees’, before I gave up. There is no copying or ‘rendering’ without a form of ‘power struggle’ or ‘strategic waiting’.  Of course this is more the case with complex texts – ones that play ‘hard to get’ – than with manuals for making marmite sandwiches. And, of course, as a translator one feels much more alive when a text ‘resists’ one’s advances. In fact the more tight or complex or ‘licentious’ (ambiguous, playful) the text is, the greater the likelihood that the translator would succumb to poetic license.

 

(The above, of course, would lend itself to a rather devastating Freudian analysis. As for the matter of self-translation, I can only see the mire deepening….)

Q

The White Review

— I like what you say about translation as mimetic rivalry or seduction, which chimes with some of my own experience as a translator. The relationship you describe is quite different to the tired tropes of ‘fidelity’ or ‘conjugality’ evoked by translation theorists, and I think it leads to different possibilities and impasses. I especially like that it foregrounds the desire for translation lying behind all this false chastity.

 

Since you mention self-translation, and without us wading too deeply into Freudian waters, I thought I would ask about the translations you’ve done of your own Afrikaans poetry into English. Reading a collection like Kaar (2013) – a volume that pushes the boundaries of Afrikaans, mining its history, recovering many of its long-lost treasure words, and really wallowing in the materiality of its singular sounds – I couldn’t help but think of that old chestnut: Poetry is what resists translation. But then I saw some of your self-translations online, which certainly ‘have a go’ at the original in a very satisfying way. How different is self-translation into your second language than, say, translating Seamus Heaney into your mother tongue?

A

Marlene van Niekerk

— Heaney’s poems are much more difficult to translate than my own, for the simple reason that they (Heaney’s) are far better. Their construction is clear, tight, elegant and highly specific for each poem. They are especially challenging to translate because of the use Heaney makes of half-rhymes on the line end, because of the deliberate patterned spread of vowels and consonants, because of the economy of his formulations and because of the way in which he sets up and then frustrates the iambic meter, using syllable stacking or slacking for the effect of rubato (acceleration and retardation). And then of course there is his use of specific vocabularies of landscape and craft. Also difficult to copy in one’s own language is something hard to pinpoint in the tone of his most memorable poems, a tender manly appreciation of ‘the dearest freshness deep down things’, something like ‘over the bent world brooding with warm breast’ but in an adorable male caressing register, something that one sometimes hears in young male bel canto singers, the heart lifting up… a sincere human capability of ‘laudation’ without any soppiness or twee-ness or high-flowing-ness or right-wing-ness that has apparently gone right out of fashion (and has probably never again been realised in the poetry of Afrikaans male poets since Leipoldt) but is for me always a joy to try and translate, almost as a meditative exercise. In translating my own poems, I sometimes take liberties and change things depending on what works out better. I just try to get the spirit and the texture of the thing. With Heaney there is always also the architecture to try and fathom – and then to scale. Impossible really, but slightly less difficult than Larkin. Prynne, of course, is another story. Can’t do it.

Q

The White Review

— Your beautiful and enigmatic short story, ‘The Swan Whisperer’ (2015), which also contains one of the Kaar poems, just got released in the wonderful Cahiers Series by Sylph Editions. The translation is credited to both you and Marius Swart. What is it like collaborating with a translator on your own work? And how did you negotiate the change of context from inaugural address (its original, oral version), to its place in Die Sneeuslaper (2010), where it is reflexively echoed, reflected and intensified by the other stories in that collection, to the English-language chapbook?

A

Marlene van Niekerk

— Marius and I know each other very well and it was great fun to work with him. He got the cloth out, polished the text, and then we sat together working over problems and tweaking things here and there. A lot of dictionaries were involved: we are both second-language speakers, and have to check things, but he has more experience than I do and is also theoretically trained. So it was a question in a few cases of my licence versus his strictness!

 

The dramatised oral version of the text of ‘The Swan Whisperer’ as inaugural lecture is actually very close to one of the main concerns of the Sneeuslaper collection: the motivation for telling a story. For me the question is always, why do I want to write, about what and especially for whom. This is not even just a question, it is a crisis: what does a white Afrikaans author in South Africa want to tell which audience and why? Language, readership, content and authority are all vehemently contested by various parties in our country today. The legitimacy of white people merely having a political opinion these days is questioned, not only by black writers, (as demonstrated earlier this year at the Franschhoek Literary Festival), but also by white philosophers like Samantha Vice. Because this is a crisis for me as a writer, I always tend, in my writing, to use over-determined narrative situations where the narrator’s ‘motivation to tell’ is situationally amplified: that is why I present the stories as an inaugural address, a report, a memorial speech, a lecture. Speaker and audience are clearly delineated, ritualised. The fictional narrators in these stories are without exception extremely anxious and must perform his or her ‘public confession’ under some form of inner or formal duress. In this way, I project the South-African authorial crisis onto the ‘crisis’ experienced by the narrators in the stories.

 

Of course, then, when I myself perform a story like ‘The Swan Whisperer’ as inaugural address, a delightful complication arises: I bear the same name as the narrator in the story and I stand there in person, so people do not know whether I am telling a tall story. I designed the performance of the inaugural address as an inverse operation of the so-called ‘dramatic aside’ used by actors: at a certain point they step out of the main action, break through the ‘fourth wall’ momentarily and address the audience directly and confidentially, but still in their character role. (Like Frank Underwood in House of Cards!) I do the opposite. I start by standing in front of the fourth wall as myself, addressing the audience in person, and then, as the story develops, I retreat, as imperceptibly as possible, with a poker face, into the fiction until I disappear behind the fourth wall and ‘become’ a character. One can expect all kinds of strange things to come of it.

 

At the actual inaugural lecture, a philosophy professor came to me afterwards and asked me quite seriously and innocently whether such a student as Kasper Olwagen – the protagonist of the story ‘Professor Van Niekerk’ tells us – really existed. He did not get it at all; the entire conceit passed right over his head. People have forgotten how to play in SA (the fucking country is too bloody heavy). That is why different forms of a hermeneutic approach to literature still dominate the Afrikaans lit crit scene. Not all critics are sensitised to what one ‘does’ (or effects) in the literary field, or how one ‘sounds’ amidst the hubbub, they only care about what one ‘means’ by a reference or an image. I suppose many of the critics are still under the spell of the exegetic allegory-mongering magic performed by the old theologians of the Dutch Reformed Church on both obscure and quite literal passages of the Bible, with equal alacrity, as long as they could send people home with an edifying ‘message’. Of course, not only are some of the critics still under the spell of these practices – some writers think of themselves as prophets. I myself would not have been able to operate without the Bible; it is a crucial part of my inherited cultural toolbox. But I tend, mostly, to use it perversely. Without the Bible and the culture of interpretation, I think I would have never come to the two stones of my literary gristmill: the millstone, a need to trust language to mean something (for instance something political); and the runner stone, a severe scepticism of language (after Nietzsche).

Q

The White Review

— Your text in ‘The Swan Whisperer’ is published alongside images by William Kentridge of some decidedly un-swanlike birds: images, to borrow a phrase from the story itself, of the Swan-less South. The images and the text had separate origins and they meet, arrestingly I think, for the first time in the published product. What do you make of this juxtaposition of text and image? Does it make you see your story in a different light at all? And how does this almost accidental association feel different to the much more deliberate collaborative work you did with Adriaan Van Zyl in Memorandum: A Story with Paintings (2006)?

A

Marlene van Niekerk

— Adriaan and I decided that our narrative and pictorial inputs would not work as illustration or explication. We wanted a synergy to develop between the ‘narrative’ of the series of paintings and the story I fangled. (His paintings were nearly finished when I started writing; this sequence definitely played a role in my decisions about where to take the story). In the end the link between the visual and the narrative strand proved to be quite close, albeit not in the form of an extension of the one into the other but in the form of a continuous switch between two moods or tenors. Adriaan’s paintings are stark and contain no figures of people. I decided to ‘populate’ the paintings with characters and relationships. So we hopefully ended up with a synergy in which the story consoles the paintings with intimations of friendship, care and sympathy, while the paintings remind the story of the grim and lonely business of bodily pain and suffering, the loneliness of facing death. This we hoped would provide a dynamic reading experience.

 

The practical genesis of ‘The Swan Whisperer’ was quite different. There was no collaborative intent when either of us made the respective works; I had no contact with the artist and no say in the selection of the works included here. There are resonances, in form and content, as one would expect in the work of artists hailing from the same brutal corner of the earth. I can strongly identify with Kentridge’s thematics of colonial cruelty to totally defenceless people and animals, (cf. the list of victims’ names of the genocide of the Nama people by the Germans in 1904, and the city map/rock piercing the back of the rhinoceros), his interest in the powerful technologies of broadcasting, peeping, framing, entrapment and capture (held amongst others in images of telescopes, cameras, megaphones, maps, lists), his visual techniques of erasure, dismemberment and fragmentation, and the strong associative and narrative elements in his work. The strongest link between this story and the accompanying graphics, as far as content is concerned, is the explicit questioning of an appropriate artistic response to the exceedingly brutal past and present of our country. A false binary is intentionally erected in the story: Should one be a mere recorder of cold brutal facts or a shaper/narrator of aesthetically pleasing/terrorising artefacts? There is no choice really, simply a tension between the impulse to record, count, categorise, excavate, exploit, analyse and the impulse to shape, create, project, dream and synthesise. The best works of art actually perform this tension without any other solution but a formal one, and preferably a solution that includes a strong rough edge of ‘ungainliness’ or ‘excess’ (c.f. Elizabeth Grosz). It is not only a moral but also a technical and an aesthetic tension. In a way, Kentridge’s twin alter egos, Felix Teitelbaum and Soho Eckstein, illustrate this tension. Similar tensions are operative in the different choices of characters in ‘The Swan Whisperer’. The above, of course, is a totally personal and limited assessment and I only speak for myself here. Overall, I think the graphics lend a rough, dark, expressionistic tone to the whole, which I find really pleasing.

Q

The White Review

— You were on the shortlist of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, which, for the last time in that prize’s history, was awarded for a body of work. In your case, the committee and press particularly emphasised your two full-length novels: Triomf (1994) and Agaat (2004). The former was translated into English by Leon de Kock in two distinct versions, one for a South African, the other for an international audience. The latter was beautifully Englished by Michiel Heyns as The Way of the Women. With two such esteemed and talented translators in your corner, there could be no question about you being well represented in English. But I couldn’t help but feel at the time that it would be impossible for the judges to get an accurate sense of your value as a poet and a writer of shorter fiction, simply because they do not read (nor could they be expected to read) Afrikaans. (Of course I had similar reservations about their ability to evaluate the oeuvres of other non-Anglophone authors on the list). What did you make of the Man Booker International experience? Did it hold up a mirror to your work in any way? Is Marlene van Niekerk, the author whose works appear in English, the same writer as Marlene van Niekerk, the author whose works appear in Afrikaans?

A

Marlene van Niekerk

— I am very grateful for the acknowledgement of those two novels, and also for the acknowledgement of the excellent quality of the translations. It was a privilege and honour to be on that Man Booker shortlist and wonderful to meet the other contenders and read their work. The whole thing was a bit overwhelming; I am intimidated by publicity and public appearances. It is not for me to say whether my poetry and the short stories, if translated into English, would add to or detract from the appreciation of the novels. The new poetry collection Kaar had a strange reception in South Africa: quite dazzling reviews initially and strong confirmation from the prize committees that awarded the collection three big poetry prizes, but subsequently the whole affair was met with a huge critical silence from the literary establishment. Almost two years after publication not a single article in which an integrative reading of the collection is attempted has been published. It is almost as if nothing had happened and it will simply be forgotten. I heard through the grapevine that some influential Afrikaans fellow poets think the collection is rubbish for various reasons. So I think there might be a problem on home turf (let alone in the Anglophone world) to align the literary judgement of the novels with the verdict on the poems. Maybe I quite like the idea that nobody can add up the little flashes in the mirror into one single steady identity. I like to surprise myself and sometimes I get the idea that this is what irritates people. But that will not detract from an effort to get the poetry translated to see whether it holds up internationally; these things take time, however.

Q

The White Review

— I was in high school when, during South Africa’s transition years, Triomf was published. I discovered it in the same year that I discovered Shakespeare, Achebe, Forster and Borges: a year of reading eclectically, to be sure! But I remember clearly, and I was not alone in this, being thrilled and exhilarated that great novels were still being written in Afrikaans and about the complicated South African situation. Who are the young Afrikaans writers to get excited about now? Or is Afrikaans, as Karel Schoeman predicted, a dying literature?

A

Marlene van Niekerk

— Two young men with whom I have worked as students in the MA in Creative Writing at Stellenbosch University are showing their mettle as we speak: Willem Anker (who is now my colleague in the course) and his senior by a few years, the retired contracts attorney, Fanie Naudé (who has also taught in the course). Willem has written several important plays in a fairly experimental style (none of which have been translated) and he has just published his second novel Buys. It deals with the peregrinations of nomad outlaw Coenraad de Buys, and is a gruelling and highly entertaining iconoclastic romp in which every last vestige of humanist sentiment and reverence is scorched from the historical interpretation of colonial frontier politics. Willem took a leaf from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and fearlessly explored the parallel situation in South Afirca at the time of the wars between the trekboers and the Xhosa along the Fish River in the eighteenth century. This book more than deserves to be translated. I predict a great future for Anker. He is not scared. The same holds for Fanie Naudé who has made it onto international podia with his very first collection of short stories, originally published in Afrikaans and translated by the author as The Alphabet of Birds. It is written in a delicate ‘classical’ style, but it probes, amongst other, more private aches, some of the most harrowing social phenomena in contemporary South Africa (HIV, violence, brutalisation, hopelessness). Both Willem and Fanie are towers of erudition and monsters of curiosity who dare to go where angels fear to tread:  in the books mentioned above they both expose with searing honesty and uncompromising rigour, the running trauma which we call ‘South Africa’, managing at the same time, through the force of their language and the breadth of their insight, to transcend the merely local. And, most certainly Schoeman was way off the mark when he called his autobiography ‘the last Afrikaans book’. Not even he himself has stopped writing after delivering the tome carrying that title!

Q

The White Review

— What are you working on currently?
A

Marlene van Niekerk

— Best to keep quiet about it. Trying. Something glimmering, just out of reach.
 

 

*

 

This interview was selected for inclusion in the January 2016 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He is Associate Director for the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and an editor for The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Marlene van Niekerk is a South African poet and short-story writer, as well as being author of the celebrated novels Triomf and Agaat (The Way of the Women). The Swan Whisperer, a collaboration with William Kentridge for the Cahiers Series, was published in 2015. She is Professor of Afrikaans and Dutch literature and Creative Writing at Stellenbosch University, and was a finalist for the Man International Booker Prize in 2015.

Jan Steyn is a translator and critic of literatures in Afrikaans, Dutch, English and French. He currently teaches at the Université de Paris 8 in France.


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