Translating Nyembezi no walk in the park

In mid-1989 I was in a Durban hospital for weeks after members of the United Democratic Front attacked me in Clermont township. I belonged to the Azanian Student Movement and proudly subscribed to the Black Consciousness ideology.

The attack was nothing unique, nor was it a source of bitterness. I was just another statistic in a cycle of violence that defined the times. The Clermont incident is relevant inasmuch as it begins to offer glimpses of explanations regarding how I started my journey as a literary translator.

Although I was already writing poetry and different forms of short prose, it took me 10 years to write about the attack imaginatively. The first instance was a short story titled And Then the Rain Came, published in the Sales House Club magazine in 1998. The second was a poem titled Memory Is … This longish poem, comprising close to 30 lines, which gained some popularity whenever I read it at Peter Makurube’s Monday Blues sessions in Yeoville, Johannesburg, in the late 1990s.

The poem’s power lies in its performance, and not so much in the finesse of craft on paper. As I set out to write the poem, or as the poem urged me to write it, the imagery and the vocabulary came vividly to me in my mother tongue, Zulu. Although I had wanted an English poem, a stubborn mystical Zulu voice kept on telling me how to express myself.

One phrase in particular kept on hitting me in the viscera, izinyembezi zabafelwe asoze zawela phansi. This literally translates as “the tears of the bereaved will never fall down”. In my poem, which I performed at Durban’s Poetry Africa last October, I used this phrase to produce this line: “tears of the bereaved refuse to kiss the earth”. This seeks to evoke immediacy and to reinvigorate the power of the original Zulu phrase in its English translation.

In a sense then, I ventured into literary translation, first and foremost for personal healing. No lofty idealism made me do it. I simply plunged into the darkness, searching for light, hoping to turn trauma into a positive force.

In 2008 Aflame Books published my translation of Sibusiso Nyembezi’s classic Zulu novel, Inkinsela yaseMgungundlovu, as The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg. It was my humble effort towards reviving interest in Nyembezi’s literary corpus, especially his immense gift as a novelist.

Men of words: Sibusiso Nyembezi (above) , author of ‘Inkinsela yaseMgungundlovu’ (below), which Sandile Ngidi translated into English

A towering linguist, scholar and publisher, Nyembezi would have turned 100 this year, alongside departed fellow South African writers Es’kia Mphahlele, Peter Abrahams and Noni Jabavu. Nyembezi, originally from Vryheid in northern KwaZulu-Natal, is a relatively marginal figure in South Africa’s literary canon in comparison with some writers of his generation who wrote in English or went into exile.

Nyembezi succeeded the eminent Zulu poet, Benedict Wallet Vilakazi, in 1948 as a lecturer in Bantu studies at the University of the Witwatersrand after Vilakazi’s untimely death in 1947. He later taught at the University of Fort Hare, only to resign along with other colleagues in 1959 to protest against the implementation of the Bantu Education Act.

A publisher at Shuter & Shooter from 1960 until his retirement, Nyembezi’s effect on the shaping of modern Zulu is expansive. His prodigious output includes the seminal Inqolobane Yesizwe, a survey of various key aspects of Zulu culture and traditions. He co-authored with Otty Nxumalo the Zulu primary school language reader series Igoda. His best known novel remains Inkinsela yaseMgungundlovu.

Nyembezi the writer was integral to my world for the better part of my schooling, and he continues to loom large in my life. When I considered the translation of his novel, I was acutely aware that there is often the danger of packaging anthropological accounts of African lives through their translation.

Already more exposed to a wide range of African literary works, translating Inkinsela yaseMgungundlovu was an opportunity to “revive a forgotten voice”. The novel borrows from the Zulu oral tradition to present a seemingly harmless critique of apartheid. Nyembezi neither sermonises nor moralises. Instead, he fully trusts the power of his characters to drive a multilayered, yet accessible and entertaining novel — satirical and avowedly feminist in its affirmations.

The opening lines of the novel seem so straightforward, yet I spent a considerable amount of time in an effort to get the musicality and its effect right in English: “Nyanyadu in northern Natal is an old place, a pretty famous place, in fact. The name of the place is taken from that of the nearby Nyanyadu mountain. If you are travelling to this place, either from Durban in the south or Johannesburg in the north, the best route to take is the one that goes straight to the town of Dundee. In this town you would board the bus to Nyanyadu that travels once a day, except on Sundays. The bus leaves Dundee at lunchtime, and zigzags through the white suburbs until it exits the town. Then you will see it blowing up the winds beside the legendary Mpathe mountain, which is believed to harbour money left by ghosts at its summit. It will keep on travelling, stopping only to let some passengers alight. Some would have come to Dundee by the buses from Zululand, others would have come by the buses from Msinga.”

In translating these lines, I sought neither to oversimplify nor to romanticise the text. Beneath the countryside setting lies a world savagely ravaged by land dispossession and forced conscription into the mines. The trope of cows predominates, as it does in Dr Walter Rubusana’s Zemk’Inkomo Magwalandini and jazzman Mankunku Ngozi’s iconic song Yakhal’Inkomo. Calm and turbulence share the same terrified dance floor in this tale of a conman from Durban who seeks to dupe the rural Nyanyadu locals.

Published in 1961, the novel posed a few challenges for me with regard to responding well to the tenor of the times (not just of place, but also of language and the understated poetic and satirical turn). Certain expressions in the Zulu text did not seem to translate well into English, a struggle that continued into 2018 as I worked on the revised edition for publication in 2019.

I follow my own instincts and knowledge of Zulu and English in the main, and prefer this format as opposed to one preoccupied with translation theories and group consensus.

These comments from my editor, Monica Seeber, illustrate the point: “There are a few margin comments elsewhere in the text, mainly to do with exclamations. (A good example is ‘my goodness!’, a very mild expression in English, rather like ‘dear me!’, not at all suited to tough farming folk.)

“I agree that none of them, whether in English or isiZulu, should be italicised. I also agree that where possible we should change Zulu outbursts into English. But there are a few that simply don’t work in English, whereas in isiZulu they have punchiness and flavour. We have to choose whether to leave them out, to find a better English equivalent, or to leave them in isiZulu.”

As a translator I sometimes feel like a glorified salesman, peddling African cultures to Europe and North America. Yet I strive to be true to the spirit of the original text as a literature belonging to a specific language — not a museum relic.

My English writing is enriched when Zulu is its stubborn bedrock. A line in my poem The Last Dancer, “there is a grace and glory in the dancer who dances last”, is a child of the Zulu saying isina muva liyabukwa.

In Reclamation Song, a poem dedicated to sociologist Ben Magubane, I give Zulu an expansive pan-Africanist diction, evoking Ukhahlamba mountains and River Gambia in one line. It is, in fact, this aesthetic that makes the poetry of the Zulu poet Mazisi Kunene majestic and timeless.


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