In his own words?

In celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday, we are pleased to reproduce an article from The Linguist in June 2013 on the challenges faced by Antjie Krog whilst translating Nelson Mandela’s autobiography.

An Afrikaans version of Mandela’s autobiography was bound to be political, but even translator Antjie Krog didn’t realise she would need a new word for ‘African’.

An important barometer of the power of a language is the number of texts translated into it, so imagine my surprise when I received the request to translate Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, from English into Afrikaans, my mother-tongue, spoken by only 13.5 percent of the South African population.

I was informed that Mandela wanted it to be translated into Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and Northern Sotho. Why? I wondered. The translation of the Bible into our indigenous languages was frowned upon as a form of colonisation: a way for Western values to gain entry into the traditional heart of indigenous communities. But as we came to know the man, this request was vintage Mandela.

My questions were immediate, starting with the title. ‘Long Walk’ would preferably be Lang Pad, but a well-known, jolly traditional song existed about a black old man (disrespectfully called outa, which is slightly softer than kaffer) walking a long road playing his tin guitar. Its title was Outa in die Langpad! So how to translate ‘Long Walk’ without summoning up a happy-go-lucky outa with his blikkitaar?

For a long time, I left out ‘long’ and used Pad na Vryheid (‘Road/Walk to Freedom’) as the working title, but just before sending the manuscript to the publishers, I changed it to Lang Pad na Vryheid. If it is true, I thought, that translation is first and foremost a political act to change an existing state of affairs, then the time has come to take on the outa echo and to confront it with a worthy opponent.

The second major challenge appeared right in the first paragraph, where Mandela describes his lineage: he hails from the Thembu clan. The Afrikaans for ‘clan’ is stam, but it carries a particular primitive aura: white people have a family tree, black people have a traditional stam. Initially, I decided to use the English word ‘clan’, which already had some currency in Afrikaans (everyday Afrikaans absorbs many English words). However, that would signal a conscious choice to translate the whole text into mixed Afrikaans. It is important to realise that Afrikaans was, and still is, a highly politicised language: a choice of either the formal algemeen beskaafde Afrikaans or the alternative, mixed Afrikaans, would indicate not only style and tone, but a political position: who you were, where you came from and with whom you sided. Deliberately choosing a mixed Afrikaans was a large part of resisting apartheid during the 1980s, resisting everything that came towards one in That Afrikaans. So my first inclination was to translate the text into the mixed ‘people’s Afrikaans’, also known as ‘struggle Afrikaans’.

The tone, in English, of Long Walk to Freedom is a mixture of the intimate and the formal – at once the friendly dignity of a boy’s longing for his mother; the sharp critical tone of the intellectual argument and the formal lawyer; the sloganeering of the activist; the survival of an inmate; and the oratory of the statesman.

I phoned the Xhosa translator, Professor Peter Mtuse. “What kind of tone have you chosen? Do you mix with English?” He laughed. “O boy! The isiXhosa of the street or formal isiXhosa? I was tempted to use words like igalery or idemocracy, but I can’t. Mandela is a prince in my language – he must speak like one! So, after looking, I actually found all those words existing in isiXhosa.” Professor Bheki Ntuli, who was working on the isiZulu translation, decided to take the informal road: “I want young people – the man in the street – to read it and not feel alienated by a deep isiZulu.”

I made contact with those who work on the Afrikaans dictionary and was introduced to the (for me, completely unknown) word sibbe, an academic word for clan. This, then, set the tone for formal Afrikaans and many more calls to the dictionary makers as we had to hammer out a new vocabulary.

Afterwards, I realised that this was precisely the political point: for this ‘subversive’ story to manifest itself in the kind of formal language that articulated deep-seated racist thinking and the first laws of apartheid. Afrikaans speakers had to read hundreds of pages of Mandela’s defiance in old-fashioned Afrikaans. “It was like reading Communism but in the voice of God,” one reader told me.

By far the biggest problem, though, was the word ‘African’. From the start, Mandela calls people from his Thembu clan ‘Africans’ but, as the story develops, he uses it for Xhosas, later all black people, sometimes also people of mixed race. To complicate things further, on Robben Island, Mandela tells an Afrikaner warder that he is an African. Initially I thought this was easy to solve: simply use the word ‘African’ when and how Mandela uses it. But grammatically the word in Afrikaans poses serious problems.

In Afrikaans, a man from America is an Amerikaner. Technically, a man from Africa should be an Afrikaner. But (and what does this tell you about them/us?), this word had been claimed by Afrikaners three centuries previously, as meaning us exclusively. By no stretch of the imagination can Mandela be regarded as an Afrikaner. So I used the grammatically incorrect, but nonetheless existing word Afrikaan.

The adjective caused bigger problems. During the struggle, in our mixed Afrikaans, we simply used the English word ‘African’, as in: Sy is ‘n African vrou (‘she is an African woman’). But what if she is white and from Africa? Then we said Sy is ‘n Afrika vrou (using the word Afrika without any declination). But in this translation, the time had come to find a proper adjective for ‘African’ that means black. I phoned the dictionary makers.

If an American man is an Amerikaanse man in Afrikaans, an African man should be an Afrikaanse man, I said. This means he would speak Afrikaans. So what is Mandela? Help me make a word! After long deliberations we decided to use the noun Afrikaan also as an adjective: Mandela is ‘n Afrikaan man.

The African writers Ez’kia Mphahlele and Franz Fanon have emphasised the importance of imaginatively renaming a community after liberation, in order to prevent old concepts and ideologies from flourishing under the overlay of the new. So it was particularly moving for me to see this ‘new word’ finding its balance in the book. There is one specific paragraph where Mandela spells out how being born black condemned one to travel in an African bus, live in an African area and attend an African school. This activated him into the struggle for freedom. It released in me a curious mix of joy and pain to let that particular paragraph find its place in my language:

Om Afrikaan in Suid-Afrika te wees, het beteken dat jy van die oomblik van jou geboorte af, bewus of onbewus, gepolitiseer word. ’n Afrikaan kind word gebore in ’n Afrikaan hospitaal, huis toe geneem in ’n Afrikaan bus, leef in ’n Afrikaan woonbuurt en woon ’n Afrikaan skool by…

One further challenge stands out in my mind: Afrikaans didn’t have a word for ‘safe house’ – places providing safe refuge for activists working underground. Does this mean that Afrikaners felt the whole country was their ‘safe house’? Or were they so totally in control that even the concept of a safe house did not arise? I devised the word skuilhuis (literally ‘hiding house’).


A spiritual journey

Close-reading Long Walk to Freedom for translation was a spiritual journey for me. It was hard to work through the grim years of suffering on Robben Island and surprising to come across so many confessions of love and longing elsewhere. I wondered why a reviewer of the autobiography found that ‘the man became the mask’. Mandela obsessively keeps the personal public or, rather, humanises the public, as can be seen after his release from prison:

‘It was almost dusk when I was led up to the top floor of this stately building [Cape Town City Hall…] I walked out on to the balcony and saw a boundless sea of people cheering, holding flags and banners, clapping and laughing. I raised my fist to the crowd, and the crowd responded with an enormous cheer… ‘Amandla!’ I called out. ‘Ngawethu!’ they responded. ‘iAfrika!’ I yelled; ‘Mayibuye!’ they answered. Finally, when the crowd started to settle down, I took out my speech and reached into my breast pocket for my glasses. They were not there; I had left them at Victor Verster. I knew Winnie’s glasses had a similar prescription, and I borrowed hers.

Translating Mandela’s book felt a bit like an old-fashioned mission. He was using the South African languages to reach into the heart of these communities. Xhosa had to re-find its word for democracy, and Afrikaans was forced to name the people of Africa and change the language of apartheid into a language of togetherness. And, like the missionaries of old, I do believe that it was for the good of all.