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Oorspronkelijke auteur: 
Karel Schoeman
Oorspronkelijke titel: 
Hierdie lewe
Elsa Silke

Reflecting on the experience of translating Karel Schoeman’s Hierdie lewe into English (This Life. 2005. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau), I shall focus on a few rather arbitrarily chosen features.



The poetic, lyrical quality of Schoeman’s prose stems largely from the rhythm and cadence of his long sentences, strung together by means of dashes, commas, colons and semicolons. I tried to emulate Schoeman’s syntactic patterns and repetitions of words, word classes and phrases, even his punctuation, to recreate the atmosphere of the original.

The following example demonstrates how the positioning of the words within the subordinate clauses gives momentum to the long, involved sentence.

Wanneer ek die aankoms op die plaas hier voor my sien in die donker, is dit vir my soos dit al die jare was voordat die nuwe huis gebou is, want met watter pad jy ook aangekom het, van Groenfontein se kant of Oorlogskloof – die dorp het in daardie tyd nog nie bestaan nie – langs die spoor van die wiele tussen die lae heuwels en klipbanke, of met die pas teen die berghang op en by Klipfontein verby, wanneer jy uitkom op daardie wye, oop, golwende land van die eskarp, het jy oor ’n lang afstand reeds anderkant die deining van bossies en gras en die skittering van die damme die huis met sy hoë grasdak teen die rant gewaar, die huis met die skuur en stal en ander buitegeboue op ’n afstand daaragter, die vrugteboord met sy skeef gewaaide peerbome, en die begraafplaas met sy onreëlmatige muur van opgestapelde klippe.

When I picture the arrival on the farm here before me in the dark, it appears to me as it was during all those years before the new house was built, for no matter which road you chose, from the direction of Groenkloof or Oorlogskloof – the village did not exist in those days – following the ruts of the wheels across the low hills and rocky ledges, or along the pass up the mountainside past Klipfontein, when you reached that wide, open, rolling land of the escarpment, you saw from a great distance, across the waving shrubs and grass and the glitter of the dams, the house with its high, thatched roof against the ridge, the house with the shed and stables and other outbuildings some distance behind, the orchard with its wind-swept pear trees, and the graveyard with its irregular wall of stacked stones.

Certain images recur in the text, certain objects and moments are mentioned repeatedly: the candlestick on the bedside table, the quill pen, the falling chair, the window opening silently and the moonlight spilling over the floor, Sofie rising up from the folds of her gown like a swimmer from a dam, and she and Pieter vanishing like two swimmers in a flood. The recurrence of these images leads the reader to a recognition of their iconic value. To lay down the patterns that the reader must follow in order to unravel the thread of the narrative Schoeman chooses his words carefully and specifically. One such iconic term is skitter (used repeatedly in connection with the dams in the sunlight and the moon in the mirror), which I translated, where possible, with glitter in an attempt to transfer the sense as well as the hard, ringing sound of the original. Other words, like gloei, glinster, glans and skyn add to the carefully-fashioned play between light and darkness in the novel. As translator, I had to be aware of these markers and guard against replacing them with expressions lacking the richness of the original.


Grammar conventions

In Afrikaans the convention of using the historic present tense to relate past events is frequently used in novels, while English usually gives preference to the simple past tense. On occasion I resorted to the present tense to reflect, for instance, the musings of the old woman as they took place:

The night light flickers and goes out; I lie awake in the dark, listening to the regular breathing of the girl asleep on the cot at the foot of my bed. It does not matter, nothing matters now, for to wait is all that remains, and light or darkness no longer matters.

In the episode cited below, Schoeman used historic present tense verbs exclusively. These active verbs (slaan, leun, skreeu ...), describing the heated conflict between Moeder and oom Swanepoel, are in sharp contrast with verbs pertaining to the role of Vader (sit, nie probeer inmeng nie). In the translation, present participles (slamming, leaning, pressing, shouting) attempt to recreate the immediacy of the present tense verbs in the Afrikaans text, though it was impossible to do this consistently, and past tense verbs, such as shouted, drove and were wielding also occur.

... ou oom Swanepoel met sy rooierige baard wat met sy vuis op die groot tafel in die voorhuis slaan, Moeder wat oorkant hom oor die tafel leun in haar swart rok terwyl sy met albei hande op die tafelblad leun en skel op hom skreeu soos sy skreeu op die werkvolk in die kombuis, en Vader wat hulpeloos of magteloos tussen hulle sit en hom nie met hul heftige woordewisseling probeer inmeng nie terwyl Moeder die ou man met haar woorde uit die huis uit verdrywe asof dit ’n sambok is wat sy hanteer.

... old Oom Swanepoel with his reddish beard, slamming down his fist on the big table in the voorhuis, Mother in her black dress, leaning across the table towards him, both hands leaning on the table top, shouting at him shrilly, the way she shouted at the farm hands in the kitchen, and Father sitting between them, helpless or powerless, not trying to intervene in their heated argument while Mother drove the old man from the house with her words as if she were wielding a sjambok.


Cultural aspects

Schoeman is a meticulous historiographer, and Hierdie lewe is a record of a lifestyle and an entire culture, established and maintained for more than two hundred years by Afrikaans-speaking people in rural South Africa, which has been irrevocably lost. The novel is a remarkably accurate and vivid account of cultural and historical details reflecting, among other aspects, the lifestyle, customs, clothing, architecture, flora and fauna and farming methods of the settlers in the stark and near-uninhabitable South African interior of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries.

Despite there being acceptable equivalents in English, certain Afrikaans terms were retained, for example Nagmaal, a word that carries a cultural load not present in the English equivalent communion. Much more than partaking of the sacrament, Nagmaal was a major social event, usually taking place once a quarter. People would travel from the outlying districts to gather for a long weekend, at the same time bringing produce to market and procuring household necessities.

Likewise the voorhuis was the hub of the farmhouse and the Afrikaans word was retained in translation. Front room was considered too general a term, living room sounded too modern and the genteel English parlour wasn’t suitable either.

Certain words pertaining to race in a South African context would not be perceived as such in other cultures. A term like plaasmense (farm hands) is understood to refer to coloured farm labourers, though the racial connotation may be lost in translation. The same applies to werkvolk, where volk has a derogatory connotation.

A glossary was compiled of the Afrikaans terms that were retained in the translated text, including some that have become integrated in English, at least in South Africa – words like veld, kraal and trek. Words like sjambok (Afrikaans: sambok) and kaross (Afrikaans: karos) have been assimilated into English but may not be known outside South Africa and were likewise included in the glossary.


There are of course numerous other aspects of the translation I could comment on but I conclude by saying that immersing myself in a text of such outstanding literary quality was an intensely rewarding experience, and it was a privilege to hopefully help introduce Karel Schoeman’s work to a wider English-speaking audience.