A beautiful and touching ceremony held in Cape Town last night saw translator Luke Stubbs receive an award from the English Academy for exceptional services to South African literature.
Stubbs, who has translated Eben Venter’s Ek stamel, ek sterwe (My Beautiful Death) and more recently, Horrelpoot (Trencherman), is fighting cancer, as his wife, writer and storyteller, Helen Brain records in her insightfully written and darkly funny blog.
Eben Venter himself was on hand, and paid tribute to Stubbs, saying that he must be tired of hearing everyone say how shy and humble he is. Venter experienced a different side of him when working intimately night after night in Prince Albert. “I got to see his dry humour and the wicked comments he’d make. About my protagonist, Marlow, he said, ‘This guy needs to get a life!’” Venter praised Stubbs’ integrity as a translator, remembering occasions when he’d have opted for a “more elegant” phrase. “Luke pulled me back to the original text. In the end, the translation captured my way of phrasing.”
Venter recalled a place where he’d have left out the phrase where the taximan takes one to a spot and scrapes his strength together. Who present did not sense the poignancy of that phrase? He concluded by saying how much he hopes he will be able to work again with Stubbs on his next book.
Michiel Heyns, professor, author and award-winning translator said he scans every book he reads for translatability, pondering how he’d translate a section, wondering whether, indeed, he could. “Reading Eben Venter, I’ve always felt myself stymied: his writing is just too richly colloquial, too firmly rooted in its origins, to be convincingly translated, I thought.”
Heyns had read Luke’s translation of Ek stamel, ek sterwe with professional interest. Then, with professional jealousy and ultimately with professional admiration as he noted “Stubbs’ facility in rendering Eben’s colloquial Afrkaans in unforced, idiomatic English, while yet retaining much of the feel of the original”.
Horrelpoot posed an even stiffer challenge, in that Venter ‘invents’ a kind of hybrid language for his character, quite apart from his usual colloquial richness. As he prepared to interview Eben, he scrutinised the translation carefully in relation to the original, and was again highly impressed.
“Luke’s translation was something of a tour de force of inventiveness and ingenuity, rendering Eben’s coinages in coinages of his own, preserving both the weirdness and the strange plausibility of the original. in both these translations, Luke succeeds admirably in the translator’s most daunting task: making one culture accessible to another while yet respecting the unique features of both cultures. I can think of no higher praise.”
Stubbs accepted the award from Barbara Basel of the English Academy and acknowledged those who, over the years had influenced and shaped his passion for Afrikaans over the years: his teacher at SACS, Louis Knotze, the man who read Magersfontein to him, after it was banned, a quirky man who stirred his love for Afrikaans, and his lecturers, Cates and Pheiffer, at UCT.
He reflected that he had come to realise that the work of translating was similar to being a priest. “The work of both,” he said, “is about negotiating boundaries and finding common ground and integration. Translation is about reconciling one culture with another, and different forms of things unto themselves.”
Journalist and writer, Rachelle Greeff, who hosted the event, said she’d first encountered Stubbs as a priest. “When I first heard Luke’s sermons I thought to myself, ‘That man is a writer. And if he isn’t one, he should be.’ I’m still hoping, Luke, that we’ll read your collected sermons one of these days.”
Of this you can be sure – Greeff is not alone in her wish.