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Article by Johann Boshoff about translation in South Africa

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Translation in Afrikaans Today

Afrikaans is the third largest first language speaker group in South Africa(1). It is the only language in Africa that takes its name from the continent, indicating its indigenous identity, if not origin and status. This can be seen in the way it has, since its early South African origin, assimilated elements of other South African languages, either by transliterating words or translating everyday expressions.

Afrikaans in translation has come a long way since then.

Today it is not limited to translating classical and contemporary literature in all genres from various local and foreign languages. From mainly English, translation takes place in the fields of general Christian literature, of national and international legal, paralegal and technologically technical texts, and of various written communications with socio-economic impact.

In all fields of textual translation, particularly since finally also gaining official status alongside English in 1925, Afrikaans has gained a rich tradition and expertise. It continues to do so under the new, democratic dispensation in South Africa. Section 6 of the current Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, also provides for parity of esteem among the now 11 official languages, of which Afrikaans is one.

After years of delicate deliberations, Parliament has recently given full effect to this Constitutional provision by approving and publicly launching and publishing the National Language Policy Framework(2) in the 11 official languages. The Framework provides, among others, for the eventual compulsory usage of six official languages for all government publications at national government level(3). This provides an overall boost to the local translation and language development industry.

In practice, the working language in both private and public sector is English. The required subsequent translations to be done in the public sector require enhanced skills and terminology development, especially for the previously disadvantaged indigenous South African languages. This is very much the mandate of the National Language Service (NLS) and the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB). In the process Afrikaans not only maintains its level of development, but also shares its growth.

Textual translation, as an established language activity, gives the non-speakers/readers of any language access to the information and cultural context conveyed by means of that language, promoting general understanding and acceptance. Globalisation and provincialisation are effected simultaneously, be that good or bad. In the diversely multicultural South African society, access to one another's culture is a powerful enabling tool necessary for nation building. The continued translation into and from Afrikaans contributes to such nation building.

Hence, the experience gained in developing and standardising Afrikaans is, at various institutions, being translated into training interventions. This experience is being made applicable to the general development and standardisation of the previously disadvantaged indigenous South African languages.

In doing so, Afrikaans and the speakers thereof is also benefiting markedly from the formal interaction with the previously disadvantaged indigenous South African languages and its speakers - informal, interpersonal interaction was never absent. The greatest overall national benefit is experienced not so much in the field of non-literary translation, but in the field of literary translation.

The locally and internationally much awarded South African author, Antjie Krog(4), for instance, recently published Met woorde soos met kerse [With Words as with Candles] (2002), a collection of indigenous African poetry "translated" in an unusual, if not novel, way. If direct translation is understood to be translation without third language intervention, one could call the kind of translation activity used by Krog indirect translation.

Poems of cultural and literary importance from the various cultures of the previously disadvantaged indigenous South African languages were identified by literary experts in those languages. Those poems were explained extensively to Krog mainly in a mutual language other than the first language of either party. Krog, a poet laureate herself, subsequently wrote Afrikaans versions for each of those poems. Hence, indirect translation. The Afrikaans text of each poem is published alongside the text in the language of origin.

An example of such indirect translation, from Afrikaans into Xhosa(5), where the mutually common third language was English, is the following:

Afrikaans English Xhosa
Huil nie as Ek struikel nie;

slegs hartseer huil.


Ween ook by my neerslaan nie;

net weemoed ween.

Verdriet is traanloos

in my węreld wat wankel,

in my hart wat vergaan.
Do not cry when I stumble;

only heartache cries.


Also do not weep when I fall down;

only woe weeps.

Sorrow is tearless

in my world that falters,

in my heart that perishes.
Ungakhali xa ndikhubeka

Yintliziyo ebuhlungu kuphela ekhalayo

Ungakhali xa ndisiwa phantsi


Lusizi kuphela olukhalayo

Ubuhlungu abunazinyembezi

Kwilizwe lam elixengaxengayo

Kwintliziyo yam etshabalalayo

This kind of linguistic access to one another's culture unfortunately is always limited to a select readership, i.e. adult readers of serious literature. Prescribing translated works of literature and informal texts at school and post-school level increases that readership and enhances understanding of the cultures in which the various texts originated.

By actively, even aggressively so, increasing the readership of translated South African works in South Africa, former President Nelson Mandela's Rainbow Nation can begin to understand and appreciate Africa's unique cultural diversity and thereby eventually meaningfully participate in the African Renaissance, as envisaged by President Thabo Mbeki.

(1) According to the latest official statistics (1996), first language speakers of the 11 official languages number as follows: Zulu (9,2 m), Xhosa (7,2 m), Afrikaans (5,8), Northern Sotho (3,7 m), English (3,5 m), Tswana (3,3 m), Southern Sotho (3,1 m), Tsonga (1,8 m), Swati (1,0 m), Venda (0,9 m) and Ndebele (0,6 m).
(2) Pretoria, 18 and 19 Maart 2003.
(3) These are: Afrikaans, English, Tsonga, Venda and, rotationally, one language each from the Nguni and Sotho groups.
(4) Antjie Krog was voted overall winner of the South African Translators' Institute Award for Outstanding Translation of the Year, 2003.
(5) Writer's original Afrikaans for Station 8 of South African born German composer Isak Roux's multilingual mini oratorium, Stations (2002). English for premičre in Stuttgart, Germany, 19 April 2002 (spoken). Xhosa by Bukelwa Kubheka for premičre in Bloemfontein, South Africa, 23 August 2002 (sung).

By Johann P. Boshoff. Copyright © 2003.
Published by lexicool.com, November 2003.

Boshoff (1956) is currently heading the Afrikaans translation and editing section of the National Language Service, Department of Arts and Culture. Previously, he taught Afrikaans Second Language and has published extensively in that field. In addition to the academic publications referred to, he is an established non-academic writer, publishing in five genres: namely poetry, short story, youth fiction, Christian devotional writing and journalistic writing. In 1998 he published translations of one of his poems translated by means of indirect translation into all of the other official languages by colleagues of his. This seems to have been a literary first for South Africa's new multilingual dispensation.

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