Van Niekerk’s Triomf out in translation

by Maureen Isaacson (Sunday Independent, 25 April 1999)

Marlene van Niekerk’s Afrikaans novel Triomf – which won the CNA Literary Award, the M-Net prize and the Noma award for South African literature in 1995 – has been translated by the poet Leon de Kock.

… [De Kock] describes “a strange experience of possession”.

“I don’t think one can translate such a large and difficult novel unless one is completely in love with it.

“For me, Triomf reads like the work of a South African Faulkner. We don’t have many writers of this class.

“So one does it for love, pure and simple. The love of making (one hopes) brilliant writing out of brilliant writing.

“That’s always the challenge of literary translation. And of course one learns the deep inner workings of fiction – you have to go right down there and stare long and hard at the obdurate machinery of writing.

“More than anything else, I learnt that sticking to the job – consistency – is the single most essential component of writing. Any kind of writing.

“And it has to be ruthless. Writing – and especially translating – is a violent process. It is not an Elysium.

“Literary translation is a house where you have to take your ego off at the door, and lay it down like a pair of shoes.

“Then you enter a place where long and hard semantic negotiations take place, in relays which are exhilarating and exhausting and heartbreaking by turns.

“As in all writing, you have to go a long way inward, back into yourself, pushing your resources to the limit and beyond.

“It’s not a game of Frisbee. Anyone who wants to do literary translation must put themselves at the service of a vast and hawk-eyed literary public, who ultimately own all literary texts once they go out into the world.

“Don’t do it unless you’re really serious.”