BEING A WRITER

The importance of being Ernest, or Joe

Some characters introduce themselves to you by name. Others you have to christen, and it’s a vitally important job, because the name is by far the most common label your character carries, far more than being dark-haired, brave or devilishly handsome.

The name has to suggest the right kind of personality.

Sometimes the writer or reader carries baggage, remembers a particular person in a certain way, and using their name evokes remembered feelings. It is, for instance, a temptation to name a villain after a person you dislike. I tried it in Parts Unknown, giving a villain the name of my high school principal, but fortunately I walked away from the idea later. Those subjective names aren’t great, because readers don’t share your feelings. They have their own likes and dislikes, of course, but there is nothing the writer can do about it. Best is to pick names with more public associations, so that they might evoke the desired emotion in readers.

I think Siegfried Bock, hero of Parts Unknown, was one of the characters who told me his name straight up. In the earliest story notes I could find, from 2013, his name is there. I liked it from the start.

This is all after the fact – I had chosen the name instinctively – but if I have to analyse it, I’d be able to find reasons why the name worked so well for me. Sieg + fried is German for the victory of peace, which fits nicely with the story. There is Siegfried from the Medieval myth, slayer of dragons. It also has links to my own name, which is a uniquely South African mangling of Siegreich. His surname, Bock (which I probably nabbed from the German field-marshal Fedor von Bock) makes a contrast with the lofty first name, bock being the German for goat. It might also suggest a sacrificial goat.

Mordegai Guruseb is also named in that initial scribble. Mordegai is Biblical, and hence realistic for the time and culture. The first syllable has an echo of death. His surname suggests guru, which isn’t a bad association.

Lisbeth Löwenstein’s surname was taken from someone I knew in my younger days. I wanted something distinctive and Jewish. Her married name, Kamke, was taken from a German tennis professional I’ve seen play. I chose it because it seemed neutral without being bland.

The doctor’s name, Albert Pitzer, was a mangling of Albert Schweitzer and a combative Springbok hooker from my youth, Gys Pitzer. Pit suggests something dark and untoward.

I devised Alvaus Luipert’s name by simply taking the first name of one of a list of historical Swartboois and combining it with the surname of another. Luipert is leopard in Afrikaans (slightly misspelled), so there’s that connection. And the name Alvaus is quite outlandish, suggesting a singular man.

Apart from suggesting personality, names also have to help the reader tell characters apart. If there is something memorable about the name, it can help, especially for minor characters. You don’t want characters to have similar names, especially if they only appear a few times. I even get nervous if names start with the same letters. (I have written elsewhere about how confused I get with some character names in books by the highly rated Australian novelist Philip Temple.)

In writing Parts Unknown, I was taken with the historical fact that there were Finnish missionaries in Namibia at the time, and wanted to use a Finnish name, especially one of those quaint ones with a double i. I considered the surname of an old schoolmate, Wiid. (Annalise, who had success as a gospel singer, sadly died in mid-2018.) Eventually, I settled on the, from a Southern African perspective, more exotic Viitanen. The missionary’s daughter got the name, Isa, of another girl who was a year or so ahead of me at school.

The point is not the origin of these names, but the emotional content they suggest by association or even just their sound. To me, for instance, Adendorff sounds like a more cultured fellow than Grajek.

As a writer, you hope readers will also have these instinctive emotional responses to names, that they will agree that Heidi is more wholesome than Morgana, Norman less confident than Victor, Fred funnier than Benedict. And so on.

Afrikaans

Na die laaste hoofstuk

“Hierdie boeke wat vir hulle soveel waarde gehad het, beteken vir niemand anders iets nie,” het Ryk Hattingh gelate vir my gesê, die tweede laaste keer wat ek hom gesien het.

Ons was in sy skoonouers se huis, besig om boeke uit te soek. Peter en Pam Mentis is kort na mekaar dood in die twee maande voor Ryk se eie sterfte. Ek moes vat wat ek wou hê, die res word weggemaak.

Besig om te sorteer aan Ryk Hattingh se Afrikaanse boeke.

Twee jaar later sit ek hier en sif deur bokse van Ryk se Afrikaanse boeke. Sy kinders kan dit nie lees nie en sy vrou, Marténe, het gevra of ek sal kyk of daar iets te redde is.

Dis natuurlik net ʼn deel van sy boekery en weerspieël nie die omvang van sy leessmaak nie. Ryk was geweldig eklekties en het hom telkens met totale oorgawe in ʼn nuwe studieveld verdiep.

Selfs hier tussen die “Afrikaanse” boeke duik daar ʼn boek oor Egiptiese grammatika op, sowel as woordeboeke in Grieks, Duits en Noord-Sotho.

 

Die heilige Qur’an in Afrikaans.

Soos te verwagte, is daar ʼn stapel boeke oor bome en grasse en goggas en goete, onder meer ʼn ou boek van Oscar Prozesky, Ons voëls (1964). Daar is esoterika, Waarvandaan en waarheen deur Aart Jurriaanse (1973) en godsdiens, Die Heilige Qur’an (1961). Daarnaas, natuurlik, ook ʼn gruwelike strokiesprent en subversiewe fotoverhaal. Dis immers Ryk.

Die onheilige in Afrikaans.

Sy versameling sluit volkseie werke in, soos die FAK volksangbundel van Suid-Afrika (1937); Verwoerd aan die woord – Toesprake 1948-1962; Oupa en Ouma se boererate (1962); Totius Vier-en-sestig dae te velde (1977, eksemplaar 233 van 300) en Die helde van Italeni (1957). In laasgenoemde, so tussen die Boerehelde, kry ek ʼn vel papier met die liriek van die allemagtige proteslied “Weeping”.

Die klem val egter grootliks op literatuur. Benewens die teorieboeke en literêre geskiedenisse getuig ʼn rits Nederlandse boeke van sy studentejare. Maar dis die ander boeke, die wat hy uit eie wil bymekaargemaak het, wat vir my die interessantste is.

Ryk se gedig in die Tydskrif vir Letterkunde, November 1981.

Sy stapel literêre tydskrifte dateer meestal uit die vroeë jare tagtig, maar daar is ook ʼn Contrast uit 1974 wat ʼn gedig bevat deur ene David Kramer, sowel as een deur my vriend André le Roux, destyds skaars twintig jaar oud. ʼn Gedig van Ryk pryk in een van die lateres, sowel as sy huldeblyk by die dood van Koos Prinsloo. Hy haal onder meer aan wat Koos kort voor sy dood gesê het:

“Ek kan nie verstaan hoekom mense so ʼn groot ding van die dood maak nie. Dis maar net die natuur. En ons is tog natuur. Ek weet dis miskien maklik om te praat, maar ek dink dis een ding wat ek geleer het, om álles op te stuur en met ironie daarna te kyk. Die dood ook, miskien juis die dood.”

Dit, glo ek, sou Ryk self kon gesê het.

Die talle boekmerke getuig van Ryk se navorsing oor Leipoldt.

Ryk was natuurlik ʼn dramaturg, so tussen al sy bedrywighede deur, en het ʼn goeie versameling veral ouer dramas bymekaargemaak, onder meer ʼn 1952-uitgawe van Van Wyk Louw se Dias en Bartho Smit se Die verminktes uit 1960.

Van sy digbundels is horingoud. Party het hy dalk tweedehands gekoop, maar ander is kennelik geërf by sy oupa Hitchcock. (Ryk was glo verlangs verwant aan die befaamde rolprentregisseur – sy volle name was Andrew Ryk Hitchcock Hattingh.) Daar is Liefdelewe deur Jan F.E. Cellier (1924); twee versamelbundels, Digters uit Suid-Afrika, saamgestel deur E.C. Pienaar (1935) en Uit ons digkuns, saamgestel deur Tj. Buning (1939); I.D. du Plessis se Ballades (1942); A.G. Visser se Rose van herinnering (1942), Jan F.E. Cellier se Martjie (1944); en D.J. Opperman se Heilige Beeste (1947).

By die prosa is daar ook twee boeke uit de oude doos: Mikro se Die Houtswaan (1956) en D.F. Malherbe se Die hart van Moab (1940).

Terloops, wat was die ou skrywers so met voorletters behep?

Van Hond se digbundels.

Naas uitvoerige versamelings van ouer Afrikaanse digters se werk, word veral die 1980s goed verteenwoordig, met bundels deur sy somtydse vriend Breyten Breytenbach, sy geliefde vriendin Antjie Krog; bundels wat Ryk self in sy dae by Hond uitgegee het, deur Phil du Plessis, Dirk Winterbach en Willem Krog; en vele ander. Ek sien name soos Joan Hambidge, Johann de Lange, Theunis Engelbrecht, Wessel Pretorius, Lucas Malan en Pieter van der Lugt.

Die prosawerk is eweneens ʼn mengsel van gerekende ou skrywers en Tagtigers. Etienne Leroux, André Brink, Chris Barnard, Jan Rabie en Karel Schoeman staan langs Dan Roodt (toe hy nog ʼn enfant terrible was, nie ʼn adulte terrible nie), RR Ryger, Harry Kalmer, John Miles, Jeanne Goosen, Etienne van Heerden en al wat ʼn ding is van Koos Prinsloo.

ʼn Klompie van die boeke het persoonlike inskripsies voorin. John Miles het ʼn mooi boodskap vir Ryk en Marténe in Kroniek uit die Doofpot geskryf. Minstens een inskripsie lyk of hy nie vir Ryk bedoel is nie. Rachelle Greeff skryf voorin Onwaarskynlike Engele “vir my liewe vriend Koos”. Het Ryk die boek geërf soos wat ek hom nou erf?

Getikte gedig van Jeanne Goosen en die bundel waarin dit was.

Van Koos gepraat: Toe ek Slagplaas oopmaak, val daar ʼn kiekie van hom uit. Dit lyk of dit dalk laat in sy lewe geneem kon gewees het. Dis nie die enigste persoonlike item tussen die blaaie nie. In  Jeanne Goosen se Lou Oond is twee gevoude blaaie met ʼn gedig van haar tikmasjien af. ʼn Ander boek het ʼn nota van Dineke (Volschenk?) van Kagiso Literêr.

Die papiere wat toevallig in die boeke beland het, boekmerke wat byderhand was, vertel hulle eie storie: ʼn paar Nieu-Seelandse loterykaartjies (Ryk het geglo jou wenkans is 50% – jy wen of jy wen nie); ʼn kwitansie vir hout gekoop in Knysna in 1983, toe hy onderwyser daar was; ʼn ongedateerde kwitansie van Van Schaik Boekwinkel; ʼn koevert wat sê Ryk Hattingh Maandag en Dinsdagaand 27-28 Julie Downstairs Wits-Teater; ʼn stuk van ʼn Gitanes-sigaretpakkie.

Die meeste van Ryk se boeke gaan nou hier by my lewe, ten minste vir eers. Totdat dit iemand anders se lot raak om op hul beurt deur my geliefde boeke te sif en te wonder of daar enigiemand anders is wat in die goed belang stel.

BEING A WRITER

Gained in translation

More than a million words. That’s how much translation I’ve done in the last six years or so. It has taught me a lot.

The books I translated since 2012. The two Berlin Noir books are still in the works, and my novella Ek wens, ek wens (I wish, I wish) is due out in February 2019.

When writers give writing advice to aspiring writers, one of the suggestions I’ve encountered more than once is to retype some novels – your favourites as well as some you don’t like – so that you can see what the authors did and learn from it. At the time when I read this advice, I could not imagine doing something so tedious. There was no way I was ever going to do it.

But translating books has forced me to do this – retype existing novels, and render them into another language to boot. I actually engaged with the texts in an even more intense way than simply retyping them. And now that idea of retyping an entire novel doesn’t sound half as dumb as it did at first, I have become one of those writers who recommend this method. Seriously.

Before I get to some of the things I have learned by doing all this translation work, just an overview of the books:

  • 3 of my own novels
  • a novella I had written
  • the autobiography of cricketer AB de Villiers.
  • 2 historical crime novels by Philip Kerr
  • 3 early historical adventure novels by Wilbur Smith.

I’d like to think my translations have become better over time. After years of minimal practice, Afrikaans has become more readily accessible in my head again, my resources improved, and so did my practical processes.

Technique

I translate in stages. First, I get the text I have to translate into an MS Word document, in a format I like. That also gives me a consistent page count I can use to work out what milestones I have to achieve when to make the deadline. Then I create a separation in the text, usually a row of xxx in highlight.

Then the real work starts, what I consider as Stage 1. Above the bar, I start translating the words below it, rendering the English into Afrikaans as efficiently as I can. I find it easier to work with all the text on one screen. It also makes the project portable and I have even translated while travelling by bus or when waiting to see someone.

As I finish translating a paragraph or group of lines, I delete them. It’s like a worm coming down from above, eating English and excreting Afrikaans. I use some typing shortcuts such as automatic replacements of recurring words that are hard to type, especially the Afrikaans words with diacritical signs on some letters. I also keep notes of issues to take up with the publisher.

That is by far the most time-consuming stage, taking perhaps three-quarters or more of the total project hours.

After this is when the real fun starts, when I put the original text aside, and work fully with the translation. This is where I concentrate on style and idiom. Occasionally I might look at the original if a passage is problematic, but mostly I operate wholly immersed in Afrikaans.

Challenges

While the process is consistent from book to book, each project presents its own challenges.

My own books were the easiest to translate in the sense that I knew what the author meant, and where I didn’t understand the bloody idiot (this happened!), I felt free to change it. Actually, with unpublished books I ended up translating both ways, because when I found something awkward in the original or had an idea that made the translation better, I’d often back-translate that to the original. The biggest challenge was to render the more poetic passages or ones with word-play into the other language. Some thoughts are only striking because of the words with which they can be expressed in a particular language.

The AB de Villiers book threw up two unique challenges: One was procedural – receiving the text piecemeal while working against a tight deadline. The second was cricket terminology. For instance, I had a chart with 40-something fielding positions, and still AB managed to mention a couple of positions not on my chart, or any other I could find. The names of specific cricket shots were equally dumbfounding at times.

And there was also the oddity that I had received originally Afrikaans dialogue from his family life rendered into English, and had to back-translate that. I always wondered how the words have changed in the process.

I am still working on the second of two of British crime novelist Philip Kerr’s Bernie Günther novels. The biggest challenges here are the inconsistent rendering of German (and Russian in the third book) in the originals, and some aspects of Kerr’s style. His characters’ über-cool slang is sometimes impossible to decode. From a writer’s perspective, I found some of his choices between telling and showing a bit mystifying. And he occasionally goes to extraordinary and complicated lengths to make a simple point. When he becomes convoluted, it gets hard to translate.

Actually, here’s a general rule: If the original is written well, it is relatively easy to translate. It is when the original is terrible or brilliant that you struggle to translate it.

Translating Wilbur Smith

I left discussing the Wilbur Smith books for last, because they were by far the most problematic – and instructive.

They were mostly early novels by Smith, and perhaps he had become a better writer over time, but I’ll confess that, unlike Kerr, Smith is not a writer on my reading list and I’ll never find out what his other books are like.

What struck me about those early novels was firstly how badly they have been edited. Some of those books have been in the market constantly for 50 years, and still there were blatant inconsistencies, lapses of logic, etc. In one book, for instance, a character who cannot read, kept cut-outs of newspaper stories. This is unusual enough, but these newspapers were only pubished after the guy’s death! Some of these lapses did provide light relief during the translation.

I also spotted quite a few historical errors, but I suppose before Google those were easier to make.

The narrator sometimes casually makes a sexist or racist statement that was probably unexceptional in the 1960s, but which really grates on the reader now. Together with the publisher, we made the decision to tone down the offending sentiments where possible, though we couldn’t do it to the extent where it would affect events in the story. In Donderslag (The Sound of Thunder) the main character, who recently returned from a safari where he shot 500 (!) elephants, still gives one of his lovers a hiding, for instance.

What I learned

So, what did translating Wilbur Smith teach me?

First, that readers of commercial books like stories, and that little else matters. Smith is good at telling stories, especially at making historical events come to life. Even if, in one case, he carried on for a good hundred pages after the natural end of the story. He also has a knack for honing in on the strongest, most basic human emotions. And he exploits the African milieu well. These are, I believe, the main reasons for his success.

Hopefully some of this has subconsciously rubbed off on me.

I always thought that the aspect of writing that interested me least was plotting, but having read Smith, I am less sure. It is something one can get right as a writer and, when you do, it helps to make the book more attractive for readers. I believe it is possible to marry literary merit with good plotting. To be fair on myself, Half of One Thing was written before I translated Wilbur Smith, and has a smart, tight plot.

Smith’s prose never rises to any heights, but is effective, especially in action sequences. When he goes for lyricism or internal monologue, it tends to bog down. And there are shoddy aspects to his writing, perhaps a factor of working at speed. In one book, almost every brown object is described as “chocolate brown”. I’m fairly confident that in terms of prose, my translation improves on the original. So, in a sense, what I learned in terms of prose was how not to do it.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned from translating the Wilbur Smith books in particular, is to be far more confident in my own writing.