Monday, 27 May 2013

Protest Works lose their Poeticism

By Mbongiseni Buthelezi

How do you revitalise a book that has become a classic 41 years after it was published? And how do you read poems that you've lived with for many years with a new eye? These are the questions raised by the republication of Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali's Sounds of a Cowhide Drum (Jacana).
Let us begin by taking a step back into the past. Poems from the collection littered my path as a student of literature over many years. The detribalised, Sounds of a Cowhide Drum, Always a Suspect and Bow on a Swing have been favourites of teachers and anthologists. They have been commented on by critics again and again. The collection, as a whole, has assumed a position of importance as a key intervention at a time when writing by so-called protest writers of the 1950s and 1960s had been silenced by censorship after the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre.
As writer Richard Rive noted in a 1977 essay in the journal English in Africa, writers like Es'kia Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi, Dennis Brutus and others had voluntarily or involuntarily gone into exile in other countries. Those who remained were banned or their works were banned. Hence, says Rive, "For almost a decade there was no literature by blacks and when one did emerge in 1971 with Mtshali's Sounds of a Cowhide Drum there was almost no precedent for it."
The collection has received great acclaim, which has grown over the years, for poems that turned away from protest writing's sloganeering. It has been lauded for Mtshali's astute capturing of the detail of people's daily lives and struggles in Soweto, Joburg and in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Most important, critics have seen great value and skill in Mtshali's devastatingly understated critique of apartheid through a brilliant use of irony.
Given the acclaim the collection garnered, how, then, did it receive a new lease on life when it was republished?
The republished book makes another important intervention. All the poems have been translated into Zulu. Alternate pages carry English and Zulu versions. Mtshali translated the poems himself. The publication of the poems' Zulu versions is part of a growing and admirable trend to promote reading and writing in African languages.

The trend gained momentum with the launch of the successful newspaper, Isolezwe, in 2002. It has continued with the publication of a Zulu version of The Sunday Times and of books such as artist William Zulu's autobiography, Spring Will Come, and Liyoze Line Nangakithi, as well as books of a more academic bent like John Wright and Aron Mazel's uKhahlamba (Tracks in a Mountain Range).
What is more, in KwaZulu-Natal, the Department of Arts and Culture sponsors writers' competitions that are seeing the publication of all genres of Zulu literature.
The trouble with Mtshali's|translations in this case is that they are uneven. Some poems have translated well, while most fail in either of two ways. In poems such as A snowfall on Mount Frere, the metaphors and similes do not carry across from English into Zulu.
The translation thus ensures the poem is not fully comprehensible in the Zulu version. One has to then read the original English version in order to understand what the poems in this category are trying to say.
The second issue that almost paralyses some of the translations is when the translator seeks equivalents for proper nouns like the Berlin Wall and the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem in Walls (Izindonga).
Poems become even more difficult when names of places like Orlando (Hholandi) or brands like Florsheim shoes (Fuloshema) in the poem The detribalised (Asebelahle phansi ubuhlanga babo) are translated. In the same translated poem, Ellis and Bradlow's are not transliterated in the same way, making for confusing reading.
Overall, many of the translations do not read like poetry in the Zulu language. They are more successful where they are not word-for-word translations, but try to transmit the poeticism of the source poem in the poetic register of the Zulu language. Amadoda asemaketangini (Men in Chains) and Umsolwa njalo (Always a Suspect) are examples of such successful poems.
Yet even if more of the translations do not succeed in carrying the poetic qualities across than those that do, the effort is a good start. What the translations do well is to be true to the observations of life in Soweto by capturing the dialect of Zulu spoken there. More skilful translators will likely come later and retranslate these poems.
Of more concern than the largely unsuccessful translations is how poorly the book has been edited.
The Zulu language poems are littered with typographical errors and outdated orthography in ways that hinder the reading and understanding of many of the poems. A misplaced or a missing "h" changes the meaning of a word and thus a phrase, a line, a stanza and even of a poem.
Even some of the poems' English versions are missing words here and there - they were there in the original 1971 publication. The book could have done with a sharper editorial eye from somebody who could read carefully in both languages.
Worse still is that the republication of this book is out of sync with trends in publishing classics. Where publishers bring out critical editions of classics with a contextualising introduction and several essays from leading voices on the author and period, this publication is accompanied by a paltry and|grossly inadequate new foreword from Nadine Gordimer.
While I am certain this has something to do with our small and immature book market in which works of poetry don't sell, I think the publishers could have done a little better than publish a book that does not even carry a note on Mtshali's translation or strategy as a translator.
The English poems in the book remain as alive as they were when first published. Though they speak of a bygone time, they still have the potential to speak to new audiences in translation. It's a pity the book has been published before it was ready.

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