Not lost in translation

Can an English translation of an award-winning Afrikaans novel ever do the original justice—especially if it is a complex and finely nuanced literary work? This is the question many asked Afrikaans novelist Ingrid Winterbach when two of her best-known works were translated into English. But the other question is: Can high-profile Afrikaans writers afford not to have their work made available to an even bigger audience?

“You know you will always lose something of the original work,” says Winterbach, who is described as one of the most important writers working in Afrikaans today. “In translation you win some and you lose some.
But I would rather lose some of the nuances than not be translated at all.”

She believes the Afrikaans literary scene has long been lively and active, with interesting and challenging writing done by many writers, both established and emerging. But for those writers to become part of the greater South African literary scene they have to be translated. And fortunately there is a strong impetus towards literary translation at present.

“I find it exciting that a novel is given a new life in translation, as it were, and an entirely new readership,” she says. “It is exciting and also a little terrifying. But it’s still early days and we will have to see how the translations are received.”

Her first work to be translated was Karolina Ferreira, which became The Elusive Moth. Love and desire are very much served as a finely layered main course in the book, which tells the story of entomologist Karolina Ferreira. She goes to a small Free State town to research a rare moth species. There, she stays in the local hotel, where she engages with a variety of male characters while playing snooker, drinking whisky and dancing with the Kolyn fellow on Saturday nights.

Winterbach’s first five books, including Karolina Ferreira (published in 1993), appeared under her then pseudonym, Lettie Viljoen. Since 1999, with Buller se Plan, she has published under her maiden name, Ingrid Winterbach, which is also the name she uses as visual artist. Winterbach just laughs when asked about the name Lettie Viljoen.

“It was youthful folly,” she says. “Perhaps I thought a real writer had to have a pseudonym. When we lived in Stellenbosch the name still made some sense as a slight parody, but when we moved to Durban this was lost on people. So I took the leap and changed names in mid-air. Readers were a little confused initially, but cottoned on soon enough.”

Over the years Winterbach has raked in literary prizes. She was awarded the M-Net Book Prize and the Old Mutual Literary Award for Karolina Ferreira, the WA Hofmeyr prize for Buller se Plan, the eminent Hertzog Prize for prose for her novel Niggie and, earlier this year, made a grand slam by winning the M-Net Book Prize, the Hofmeyr Prize and the University of Johannesburg Prize for Creative Writing for her most recent novel, Die Boek van Toeval en Toeverlaat, published last year.

“The prize money seems substantial,” she says, “but if you consider that the sales of my books don’t bring in much and that I write full time, this is hardly a vast salary for four years of damned hard work.”

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