Translating Deon Meyer

Deon Meyer's editor, Nick Sayers, puts his Afrikaans to the test!

Posted on June 25, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: cobra, crime fiction, deon meyer, south africa, translated crime

This piece is adapted from one which was first published last year.

Are you ready for the Summer? I hope so. I had a lekker time last week watching the cricket. My neighbours had a braai in the garden  – Harry burned the flippen sausages, but ag, never mind, it was still lekker. Soon it will be the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, always a real jol, crime writers are such a moerse social bunch. One thing’s for sure: I’ll be poegaai by the time it’s finished!

OK, OK, I admit it… I’ve been reading Deon Meyer again, my favourite South African writer, who peppers his brilliant crime fiction with expressions from his native Afrikaans. (Not quite as many as I used in that first paragraph, don’t worry!) Or I should say his wonderful translator, K.L. Seegers, does the peppering, because Deon writes it all in his first language. This often comes as a surprise to people who have heard him speak so eloquently – in English – at literary festivals like Harrogate and book signings in the UK and America, but Deon says he wouldn’t quite be confident enough to write in a foreign language. And perhaps that sense that we are reading a story with rhythms and expressions that are not originally English is one of the factors that make his work so compelling and enjoyable, such a marvellous window into a different world.

One of the things you quickly learn from Deon’s stories, of course, is that Afrikaans is just one of many languages spoken in the ‘Rainbow Nation’ by people with a host of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds – and many of them are represented in the police force in which Deon’s weather-beaten detective, Benny Griessel, serves his country.

It is not so long ago that the police, as part of the apparatus of the state, could be described as fighting a war against the ANC, who now govern the country. So for long-serving policemen like Benny, the changes at work must have been tumultuous. However, it’s not just the management structure which has set Benny’s head spinning, as regular readers know. Beset by personal problems, he has allowed alcohol to become his biggest enemy.

Still, recent novels have seen him slowly getting the upper hand in his battle with the bottle, becoming a mentor to a new generation of detectives from some of those varied backgrounds, and regaining not just confidence, but also his status as a brilliant investigator. Not to mention the beginnings of a new relationship with the beautiful and talented singer Alexa Bernard – a woman fighting demons of her own, admittedly, but someone who can bring some love back to Benny’s life. (Sometimes more often in one night than he can manage!)

So, everything’s moerse – cool. Which brings me back to the question of Afrikaans. Translated fiction has obviously undergone quite a boom in our market in recent years, but I must admit I hadn’t thought much about the technicalities of it until asked to share a panel with Deon and some other writers and critics in Bristol a while ago. Lots of interesting questions were raised, and the one that stays with me is how much should we be trying to explain a foreign country to an English reader, and how much should we just be saying this is an exact translation of a foreign text, use it as a sort of full-immersion experience of another world?

Here’s an example. In one of Deon’s novels – I think it’s Trackers – a woman is described as the type who would buy her lunch at Woolies. It turns out that Woolworths in South Africa is a very different proposition from the now-defunct chain of shops in the UK. As I understand it, the brand equates more to Waitrose than its cheap-and-cheerful UK namesake. Do you start changing the text in some explanatory way so that it’s different from what Afrikaans readers have enjoyed, or do you start adding footnotes, or do you just let the reader work it out?

So far, we’ve just put a glossary at the back of the recent books – but we would be very happy to receive any thoughts from our readers. Someone has already suggested that we should make it clearer at the front of the book that the glossary is at the end, and that is a simple thing I regret not having done in the first place, but which we are doing now, so do be in touch with any more ideas.

Personally, I love the scattering of Afrikaans words, the sense that I am plunging into a different culture and climate and way of life, but still, the main thing is, these are amongst the finest crime novels being written anywhere in the world. The plots, the characters, the emotions, these things are universal in their appeal.  I do urge you to go out and read them.

Oh, and did I say that everything is cool for Benny now? I guess that was true until the moment the Cobra killer came on the scene… Deon’s newest paperback sets Benny a formidable challenge, and Icarus, the hardcover which follows in August, sees matters take an even darker turn. These two novels are beyond doubt up there with his very best.

-Nick Sayers

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