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"Die Afrikaan" : Le Clézio's essential novel translated into Afrikaans


First published in French in 2004, “L'Africain” is a masterpiece of the novelist and Nobel laureate JMG Le Clézio. IntoFrench asked two literature experts to comment on its recent translation into Afrikaans – publishing details here. A translator of major names such as Gordimer, Breytenbach or Krog into French, Georges Lory presents the content of the book. Then Naomi Morgan, Professor of French literature at the University of the Free State and translator of Le Clézio's novel, explains how “L'Africain” has become “Die Afrikaan”.

"A genuine admiration for Africa" by Georges Lory

Reading the fist pages of the book, one could think that "Die Afrikaan" is the author himself. After an enclosed life in a city like Nice, Le Clézio recounts his childish enthusiasm for Nigeria's wide spaces, for freely moving bodies, for termites and ants, for odours and colours. But one discovers soon that the title refers to the writer's father, a man born in British-ruled Mauritius. Realising that he cannot afford an independent practice in London, this young doctor opted for a medical position in the British colonies. First, he was sent to Guyana, then to Cameroon and finally to Nigeria, with brief missions elsewhere on the African continent.

Le Clézio's father worked with passion. In the Bamenda district, he criss-crossed the bush with his young wife, a French-born cousin from Milly in Normandy. Later, he kept going on frugal expeditions around Onitsha – the title of another Le Clézio book – letting children and wife adapt to a Spartan but wonderful existence. Twenty-two years of such a life in Africa instilled a ferocious hatred of colonialism in Le Clézio, along with a genuine admiration for the continent.

Subtle and fluid, Naomi Morgan's translation will touch every Afrikaans speaker loving Africa. It is comforting for the reader that this gem of the French litterature can now be enjoyed without the bias of a third language.

Interview of translator Naòmi Morgan (Free State University)

Why was it important to translate « L'Africain » into Afrikaans?

In 2010, the Association for French Studies in Southern Africa (AFSSA) organized a conference where Le Clézio was to be the guest of honour. The theme of the conference was “Rives et dérives” (loosely translated as “On and off shore”). As translating is my favourite pastime, I searched for a novel by Le Clézio which would fit the theme. The title of “L'Africain” made it an appropriate choice, which was later confirmed by its content. Le Clézio did not want to relinquish the English translation rights; L’Africain has been translated into very few languages, Afrikaans being one, besides the Dutch and Spanish translations that I am aware of. The title also seemed to raise the question of the identity of the white man in Africa; it is intentionally misleading, as “L'Africain” refers to the author's father, a Mauritian of European origin. In translating it, I immediately thought of the pivotal title used by the South African political science specialist, Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, for his book "Afrikaner, Afrikaan".

What are the particularities of Le Clézio's prose? What makes translation of his work difficult?

The beauty of Le Clézio’s prose results from its difficulties, especially in this specific text: the sentences are long, almost Proustian; description becomes introspection or confession. The Afrikaans translator has no choice but to add a few full stops, unwillingly so, otherwise the reader will lose the thread. Compared to French, Afrikaans is a young language; it only acquired official status in 1925, when it was used in Parliament for the first time. We lack registers, tenses and dictionaries, especially for unusual terms or expressions (medical terms, for example; Le Clézio's father was a pioneer in humanitarian medicine).

Could parallels be drawn between Le Clézio and South African literature?

I can see clear parallels with the Afrikaans authoress Elsa Joubert. Like Le Clézio, she combines travel writing with a quest for self. I sent her a copy of my translation; she responded immediately to Le Clézio's type of prose. My dream would be to translate Joubert’s "Suid van die Wind" into French and to present Le Clézio with a copy. It is an account of a trip to the three islands of Mauritius, La Réunion and Madagascar at the beginning of the sixties. At the time, Joubert was trying to escape the oppressive political climate. I am sure that the 2008 Nobel laureate for literature will appreciate insights on a region he holds dear, formulated by the author of "Poppie Nongena".


Interview by Hadrien Diez


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