Agaat.

Derek Attridge has a fascinating post at Public Books called “The Triumph of Afrikaans Fiction”; being only vaguely aware of Afrikaans literature, I was glad to get a crash course. Attridge begins:

I’m reading one of the great novels of our time. I’m doing so slowly because it’s in Afrikaans, and although I learned the language for many years in South African schools, that was a very long time ago. The novel is Agaat, its title both a proper name (Agatha) and the Afrikaans word for “agate”; the author, Marlene van Niekerk, is a leading Afrikaans poet as well as novelist and short-story writer.[footnote: Agaat was originally published, by Tafelberg (South Africa), in 2004. The title is pronounced with the /x/ sound of Bach.] Luckily, I have at hand the superb translation by Michiel Heyns, the version in which I first encountered the novel. A film of Agaat is said to be in preproduction, but however successful it turns out to be, it will be able to convey only a glimmer of Van Niekerk’s achievement.

He describes the history of Afrikaans, and says:

As only one of the contemporary country’s 11 official languages, and no longer bearing any political privileges, Afrikaans is now under threat. The proportion of Afrikaans speakers who read literary fiction is tiny, and writers must rely on translations to reach a wider readership. Despite these conditions, the language has seen a remarkable flourishing since the ending of apartheid in 1994. At that juncture it became easier to challenge the myth of a pure language; “Afrikaans” could be seen more clearly as a spectrum of speech practices, often intermingling with English and indigenous tongues. Van Niekerk’s ambitious first novel, Triomf, published in that year, uses the language spoken by poor white Afrikaners, a far cry from the Afrikaans of the academy, while Agaat draws on the specialized languages of farming and embroidery—two long-standing features of Afrikaner culture—as well as the heritage of Afrikaans popular song.

After descriptions of other works in Afrikaans, he returns to Agaat and gives a fairly detailed description of the plot and its “four interwoven strands, each using a distinctive mode of narration,” including an analysis of how the translator was forced to change a description of trying to create a sound. It certainly makes me curious to give the book a try. Thanks, Jack!

Comments

  1. J.W. Brewer says:

    Maybe it’s different for one of a largeish number of “official” languages in a larger country, but with 7 million L1 speakers Afrikaans is larger than approx 10 of the official languages of the EU all of which (except Irish) are not *obviously* on government-funded life support. Add in the significant number of L2 Afrikaans speakers and it would probably move up (compared to the the European charts) past the likes of Magyar, Czech, and Swedish. It’s probably true that the subset of Afrikaans-speakers most likely to buy lit’rature are disproportionately likely to be fluent readers of English, but the same is true these days of e.g. pretty much all the Scandinavian languages, innit?

  2. I was really surprised in South Africa just how much is printed in Afrikaans, at least as far as magazines go. Loads of posh lifestyle mags, you’d never imagine that this was any kind of increasingly marginal language. Afrikaans belle-lettres might be a very niche interest, but it’s a niche interest among most languages anyway.

    I know that Afrikaans is being lost among the white population, and these are switching to English. – multiple white farmers I met complained about how their children who left for the cities are losing touch with Afrikaans. Inversely, Afrikaans has only become more of a badge of pride for the Coloured population and that might be where its future lies. However, that Coloured population does seem to read a lot. The situation is thus quite unlike, say, Yiddish, where the shifting demographics of its speakers dealt a fatal blow to literature, because the Haredim who keep Yiddish alive today don’t give a toss about writing like the more secular generations before the war.

  3. Trond Engen says:

    the same is true these days of e.g. pretty much all the Scandinavian languages, innit?

    I recently read an online book review (I’ve forgotten where, and which book) which ended in a strong recommendation. One of the first commenters asked if there was an English translation planned, “since that’s a much smoother language for reading”.

  4. !!

  5. David Marjanović says:

    The title is pronounced with the /x/ sound of Bach.

    Specifically [χ].

    !!

    QFT.

  6. thank you, indeed a fascinating post.

    Kennis van die Aand was the first novel in Afrikaans to be banned, and not coincidentally the first novel in Afrikaans that I read outside of the classroom. It wasn’t very good as literature but it was a significant public service.

    As Christopher notes, the Coloured community spoke/speaks a vivid dialect Afrikaans which considerably enlivened the language, though of course scorned by the academic guardians of the Taal.

  7. How much of a market is there for Afrikaans literature in the Netherlands and Flanders? I assume the sort of person who enjoys sophisticated literate fiction written in Dutch can read Afrikaans without too much extra effort. There are at least a few works written in Scots that have made a splash among English speakers, and I imagine the gulf is similar. Are Afrikaans novels translated into Dutch?

  8. Excellent questions!

  9. SFReader says:

    They are translated into Dutch from English version.

    At least that’s how they did translation of Andre Brink’s novels according to

    http://www.boekvertalers.nl/2009/10/19/a-fork-in-the-road-van-andre-brink/

  10. gwenllian says:

    I know that Afrikaans is being lost among the white population, and these are switching to English. – multiple white farmers I met complained about how their children who left for the cities are losing touch with Afrikaans. Inversely, Afrikaans has only become more of a badge of pride for the Coloured population and that might be where its future lies.

    I’ve never been to South Africa, so I only know what I’ve read, but I got the impression there was a lot concern among Afrikaans speakers about the language and its future, and especially its fate in Cape Town among white and Coloured speakers alike. According to the census though, for now at least, it actually seems to be growing.

  11. They are translated into Dutch from English version.

    Weird!

  12. > How much of a market is there for Afrikaans literature in the Netherlands and Flanders?

    The two countries have been separated for two centuries now. Afrikaans speakers kinda sorta maintained a relationship with the Dutch language because of the standard Bible translation for a long time, but Dutch speakers had zero exposure to Afrikaans all that time. I would imagine that presenting an Afrikaans text to Dutch speakers would probably turn off most readers, just like work in Scots have their small following across in the English-speaking world but strike most readers as requiring too much effort or being outright totally opaque (or, for another example, consider how Swedish literature is usually translated into Danish for the Danish market even though the two versions share the vast majority of their vocabulary and mutual intelligibility on the written page might even be higher than between US English and Scots).

  13. Trond Engen says:

    Christopher Culver: (or, for another example, consider how Swedish literature is usually translated into Danish for the Danish market even though the two versions share the vast majority of their vocabulary and mutual intelligibility on the written page might even be higher than between US English and Scots)

    Not sure how high the mutual intelligibility of Danish and Swedish is, but Norwegians generally understand both well. So consider how Swedish and Danish are translated into Norwegian, while there’s no translations between Bokmål and Nynorsk. The reason is purely cultural. There’s simply no tradition for reading literature in the neighbouring national languages.

  14. Apparently the English version, written by the author, is quite different from the Afrikaans one, and the author wants all European translations to be of the English version. The translator did use the Afrikaans version to clarify ambiguities in the English, however.

    Is Beckett usually translated from English or from French, does anyone know?

  15. @John Cowan: Given Beckett’s tendency to drop significant blocks of material from his own self translations, I would think that any competent translation would need to be done looking at both the English and French “originals.” I recall looking at German scripts for a couple of his plays (Godot and another one that I forget) for which it was clear that the translator(s) had indeed done this, as there were attempts to recreate some of the wordplay, including some bits that were present only in the English and others that were only there in the French.

  16. mutual intelligibility of Danish and Swedish is pretty high for the written languages, but the spoken forms have been mangled in opposite directions and present an initial challenge.

    There are pitfalls, of course, both lexical and flexional, so for legal texts you should get a translator, but reading a newspaper in the other language is not a problem.

    Getting from fluency in the one language to fluency in the other is a whole nother kettle of fish, there are little subtleties that will trip you up even after many years. (Gender, word derivation, and placement of sentential and phrasal verb adverbs suffer heavy interference between the languages).

    Norwegian, impressionistically, comes across as careful and conservative Danish with a few lexical nods to the Swedish side, so the intelligibility with both Danish and Swedish is higher.

    I haven’t really seen enough ‘pure’ Scots to judge the relative distances, but it can be pretty impenetrable for an ESL reader.

  17. According to Wikipedia a few Afrikaans writers have won Dutch literature prizes within the past few decades, so there must be a fair level of mutual intelligibility. I have no idea if those writers have much of an audience.

  18. I once read an issue of Time magazine in French (faute de mieux) despite never having studied French, based purely on common roots, proper names, and my knowledge of what a current issue of Time would be likely to be talking about.

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