I've just read Triomf, Marlene Van Niekerk’s powerful portrayal of post-Apartheid Afrikaners in all their pathos, in English. One day I hope to read it in the original Afrikaans.
I grew up in Pretoria, the administrative seat of the Apartheid government, and though my home language was English, I quickly learned to ‘praat die taal’ to avoid being bullied and to help my ‘rooinek’ (Yorkshire-born) mother who never learned to speak Afrikaans and couldn't get served in some shops. My delight in the language itself was my guilty secret all through the Apartheid years. I loved and still do (though my vocabulary is much diminished from lack of use) the full-mouthed taste of Afrikaans words. They satisfy like the English equivalents simply don’t. ‘Full-mouthed’ being a case in point; it’s ‘vol mond’ in Afrikaans and pronouncing it properly involves a veritable feast of maxillo-facial activity: the mouth cavity, the cheeks and both lips. It’s like sucking the sweetness from a whole orange or a granadilla, or mouthing a very ripe guava. Delicious!
I think Afrikaans is a robust-sounding, richly onomatopoeic language, not for pronunciation by the mealy-mouthed. I admit that the Afrikaans words that litter my novels are my homage to my clandestine love affair with the language of the Oppressor. I know from conversations I’ve had with readers that words and phrases strike chords with them too. I once had a very jolly experience with a book group in South Africa who were reading Kalahari Passage. They invited me to make a guest appearance via Skype. They told me a Springbok radio jingle I’d referred to in my novel had taken them back to their childhoods. Before long we were I-remember-when-ing and then singing ‘Hospitaal Tyd’ in unison across cyberspace.
I have never been able to remember the second verse: Stuur vir my, asseblief, as daar iemand is wat die 'leid en 'n glimlag onthou'.)
I was surprised at the Univeristy of Wolverhampton’s International Festival, to hear two students from the Netherlands describe the Afrikaans I was speaking to them for their amusement (I imagine that Afrikaans must sound to contemporary Dutch speakers like 17th century peasant-speak – the Dutch colonized the Cape in the 1650s) as soft. They believe that Dutch is a harsher-sounding language. ‘We call Afrikaans “Baby Dutch,”’ said Ninelin, who reported that she did not have to resort to using the glossary at the back of my novel for the Afrikaans words. The Ju|’hoan ones were more challenging :)
So, despite what I believe to be an excellent translation of Triomf by Leon De Kock, I’d still like to have a go at reading it in Afrikaans. If he found that a word like ‘bek’ was best left untranslated – it means mouth, but it’s cruder than that. ‘Gob’ maybe… perhaps that’s too regional – I shall find it fascinating to wrap my mouth around the lexicon of these materially poor but richly imaginative characters.