Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Despatches from Jozi House of Poetry

Today Jozi House of Poetry explored languages with Mthunzikazi Mbungwana and Nicholas Richard Holmes Welch as featured poets. Vangi Gantsho and I presented the show, which was called The language where you live. Vangi opened with a poem, and I closed with another, both about language. I was curious about what language people think and dream in, and how that becomes poems.

We are still so raw from apartheid, such wounding that we haven’t been able to make the transition to live comfortably in languages outside our mother tongue without the serpent of compromise. Or is it pragmatism? One brother mentioned that he avoids speaking his mother tongue because of not wanting to inconvenience others, then we heard a story about how speakers of African languages are often told that they’re excluding people yet the same people refuse to learn those languages, thereby removing the responsibility for unexcluding themselves from themselves.

Yet one sister admitted that her language knowledge was too poor to really gain much from the literal meaning of the languages she heard(isiXhosa, isCamto, and snatches of isiZulu and isiNdebele from uWelech), yet she appreciated the feeling that came across. This is fascinating to me as I told Khosi earlier, because I’ve heard so many translators of poetry are not actually conversant in the language they’re translating from, but they repeat and repeat and repeat the poem and then gauge the feeling and then rewrite it in the language they’re translating to. They REWRITE your poem, choma. A poet I am studying under told me that in Russia they rewrote her poem so that it was rhyming – which it wasn’t in the original.

According to Nicholas Richard Holmes Welch, it easier to translate from Japanese to Zulu because of the open syllables which abound in both languages. Both poets are scholars of language, Mthunzikazi learns at the feet of her family in the Eastern Cape; having studied communications and working continuously in government departments which require her skills. Nicholas is an itinerant performer who picks up knowledge and adds it to the linguistic lexicon he inherited from is isiZulu speaking grandfather. He has also studied linguistics formally and so is able to arrange his knowledge according to a system. His current craze is translating traditional Japanese tanka poems into isiZulu.

Unfortunately Pitika Ntuli had to be excused because he was in KZN, attending to a dispute between kings. The open mic was particularly brilliant with young poets reflecting on the nature of home (goosebump moment), travels to the metropole and the fierce feelings that brings up and a love story, as well as a brave freestyle exploration of language and identity in present day South Africa. Felix de Rooy opened this part of the session with his invocation of his being and his destiny, which, even though he’s from a place which most of us have NEVER HEARD OF (Curacao) we could relate. We are also products of the colonial orgasm, trying to find our way in the world.

Sigh. We all want to belong. We all want to be recognised. This is the human condition. Sometimes it hurts when we don’t. However today at JHP everyone was included – even if we couldn’t hear all the words. That is a sadness that’s folded into the hem of my expression. Yet Nicholas – Pule – gathers silences in other tongues and paints them on walls to a hip-hop beat with the rhythm of laughter. Mthunzikazi says what women are not supposed to say, with humour and a firm grasp on what’s wrong and reminding us that the word can open a path to your true identity, and it might be lonely and hard but the reward is that subtle sense of belonging – to yourself.

The generous and faithful Zaheer Karolia filmed the event and participated in the discussion. Makhosazana Xaba joined us as well as Felix de Rooy, who as we speak is sitting in OR Tambo airport waiting for his (delayed by 3 hours) plane. Even though we had a great time WE MISSED YOU MYESHA. COME BACK SOON.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    September 30th, 2013 @22:06 #

    Thanks for this, Phillippa. Sounds like such a creative set of responses to a besetting problem. Brilliant phrase that, "the colonial orgasm".

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    October 1st, 2013 @10:25 #

    Thanks for this, Phillippa - very interesting. One of the things that interests me is the manner in which poetry in english translation has still influenced local poets who can't speak that original language - Neruda and Brecht during the struggle years; more recently figures like Lorca, Vallejo, Apollinaire. In my view this is legitimate, without worrying about whether the SA poets are 'doing damage' to an 'original'. And how does one deal with the rapid changes in african languages? e.g. someone such as Mqhayi's isiXhosa, I am told, is now seen as so 'pure' that it sometimes intimidates younger people. (?)

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Phillippa Yaa</a>
    Phillippa Yaa
    October 1st, 2013 @20:35 #

    What became clear during the Chinese translation of African poetry project we did a couple of years ago was that proficiency in the original language was completely arbitrary - our Chinese colleague Kaiyu Xiao said as much in a recent interview. The translator's ability to render 'the feeling' of the poem was far more important than their attention to grammar or syntax, according to him. Translators of poetry have to be poets themselves, in his view. Unfortunately Pitika Ntuli was not able to join us, but Mthunzikazi pointed out that she returns home to Cala to refresh and refine her language, which becomes mixed in an urban setting such as Joburg. Nevertheless, her poems were enthusiastically welcomed by our audience, so clearly she is communicating - the purity of language is, in our session, something secondary to the ability of the poem to be caught by the people


Please register or log in to comment

» View comments as a forum thread and add tags in BOOK Chat