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Notes about translating

At the AGM meeting of IBBY SA (7 August), Wendy Hartman, (Author) and Marjorie van Heerden (Illustrator) of Nina and little Duck [2008 MER award - winning book] were invited to talk about their writing and illustrating the book. With them to talk about translating Nina and Little Duck into Afrikaans was Johann van Heerden.

Here are a few notes about translating Nina and little Duck [2008 MER award - winning book], the translator Dr Johann van Heerden gave the members of IBBY South Africa at their annual general meeting in Cape Town. The notes below were e-mailed to the IBBY SA chairperson after the AGM:

"A reminder: In the little 5-minuter I shared with members at IBBY SA‘s AGM on 7 August, I tried to underline five points: 1) My love of words - whether reading, writing or translating them; 2) The fact that I now find myself on permanent holiday, that my time is not for sale any more (at any price) and that this kind of translation (Nina and Little Duck) I do for the sheer pleasure of playing with words for the benefit of really young readers/listeners. And what that means... 3) The value of translated works, a) from foreign languages, like (for most of us in the room) Russian and b) from not-so-foreign languages (like English for most Afrikaans-speakers) and specifically for young (often still unilingual) kids to gain access to a gem like Nina en Eendjie in their mother tongue; 4) The stunning experience Uys Krige shared with me when he was confronted with translating Twelfth Night into Afrikaans and he sat down with sharpened pencil to be challenged with the opening line “If music be the food of love, play on”!; and 5) The two metaphors that haunt me every time I sit down to translate some author’s treasured words into another language:

The first (Cervantes: “...the reverse side of a tapestry...”) I find very applicable to the translation of prose, generally: Cervantes is telling us that (with the exception of Greek and Latin, whose classical beauty cannot be ruined by even a bad translation), the challenge to translators is to keep their finished product from looking like the reverse side of a Flemish tapestry, with its negative images and loose threads. "Pero con todo eso, me parece que el traducir de una lengua en otra, como no sea de las reinas de las lenguas, griega y latina, es como quien mira los tapices flamencos por el revés: que aunque se veen las figuras, son llenas de hilos que las escurecen, y no se veen con la lisura y tez de la haz." (Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra).

And the second (Bialik: “...kissing your bride through the veil...”) has more direct application to the little verses in Nina and Little Duck (and also those Bertolt Brecht songs I translated for my stagings of the two Parabelstücke years ago). Bialik stated that, “Reading the Bible, and more specifically the Psalms, in translation, is like kissing your bride through a veil.” He was really referring to the more poetic passages in the original languages of the Bible.

And then, to try and illustrate that feeling of kissing a beautiful woman through a veil, I read aloud Wendy’s originals and my translations of a couple of the Nina verses, the two at the end of the second story, Little Duck:

Tomorrow with a bit of luck,
I will be a yellow duck.
I will swim and I will quack,
I will waddle there and back.
Tomorrow with a bit of luck,
I will be a yellow duck.

Môre, voor die son opkom,
Wil ek uit dié dop uitkom.
Ek wil graag aan Mamma raak,
Waggel-swem en waggel-kwaak.
Môre, voor die son opkom,
Wil ek uit dié dop uitkom.

Tomorrow morning there will be,
Brand-new ducklings, one, two, three.
Tomorrow seems so far away,
I wish tomorrow were today.

Môre is daar nuwe eendjies,
Een, twee, drie, op waggelbeentjies.
Hoekom nog tot môre wag?
Ek wens so môre was vandag.

You the chairperson, Robin Malan) suggest “a few words about how you went about that particular bit of translation”. That’s tricky. In a case like this, a very sensitive little verse in the first person singular, for very sensitive young readers/listeners, my guiding light is to try and stay true to the character of the speaker. In the first verse above it is the little chick pecking a hole from inside the shell before emerging into the world. In the second the mother duck is impatient for her little ones to emerge. These are feelings and emotions the target audience is familiar with. I want them to tune in to the words, to enjoy them and hopefully, to remember some of them. Marjorie once wrote that the biggest compliment she could ever get is for some young reader to sleep with one of her books under his or her pillow. I think I would be thrilled if I heard a three-year old, impatient before Christmas or a birthday, quote those words, Hoekom nog tot môre wag? Ek wens so môre was vandag."

At the same meeting Marjorie van Heerden gave a 10 minute talk on illustrating Nina and little Duck.
The Mind of an Illustrator: illustrating Nina and Little Duck
(if you want to read what she said - click on the title)

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