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Maya Fowler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Translation: A tense business

The Afrikaans present tense has an immediacy that is lost in the English past tense, says Michiel Heyns in an article in Beeld.

Heyns is a writer and celebrated translator of Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat, Etienne van Heerden’s 30 Nights in Amsterdam and, recently, John Kannemeyer’s biography of JM Coetzee. (“Die teenwoordige tyd van die Afrikaans het ‘n onmiddellikheid wat verlore gaan in die verlede tyd van die Engels.” Here he’s referring to his work on the biography, but I’d like to hear people’s thoughts on the use of tense in translating fiction.

In Afrikaans, one writes in the present tense. Simple. It’s immediate, and you don’t have to have your hero tripping over “het ge– … het ge– … het ge– …”. Instead, you want things to go like this: “Hy storm by die deur in, skiet sy vennoot morsdood en jaag weg.” If the events occurred in the past, the reader infers that.

Recently I’ve been investigating crime novels in translation. I’m not in the fortunate position of being able to understand Stieg Larsson in the original, but I’ve been comparing English translations to Afrikaans originals. In English we certainly use the past tense more freely. It seems the most “story-like” approach, and quite possibly, the easiest to read. However, when one turns from the Afrikaans (present tense, fast pace, immediate) text to the English translation you can find yourself a little deflated, even in the face of a very good translation (and there have been many). I find this particularly true in the crime genre, where immediacy is exactly what you want. Yet I looked at local writers working in English: Mike Nicol, Margie Orford, to name just two, and found past tense and it absolutely works. That’s the most natural way to write, in English.

These things considered, might it be useful to argue for greater use of present tense in Afrikaans-to-English fiction translation? Past tense seems to be the default, but perhaps that cages us in.

I’d love to hear your opinions!


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    May 5th, 2012 @01:41 #

    Very interesting, esp as I have just finished my first ever Deon Meyer (Thirteen Hours), and had a few questions about the translation, and how it worked for an Afrikaans-to-English thriller. BTW, I was impressed: Plot, character, research: all three boxes solidly ticked, and towards the end I couldn't stop reading. Although a few scenes were too much for my wimpy nerves.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Maya</a>
    May 6th, 2012 @22:50 #

    Hi Helen, same here: I read Thirteen Hours a couple of months ago, also my first DM, and I was mightily impressed. Also with the social commentary, subtly delivered, and with the way that he subversively, I believe, plants seeds of hope in the reader's mind about an optimistic future for this country, despite the fact that he makes no bones about racial tension etc in the workplace. Really something.


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