Zan-speak finds its tongue

By Diane de Beer Time of article published Mar 10, 2011

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30 Nights in Amsterdam

by Etienne van Heerden

(Penguin, R200)

Translations of books are always problematic and can make or break a book if the translation doesn’t work.

That’s even more the case when you’re dealing with Etienne van Heerden’s 30 Nights in Amsterdam, which has garnered all the important Afrikaans literary prizes in the country.

The story revolves around an eccentric Afrikaner woman who uses her body both as weapon and battleground. Called Zan de Melker, she later changes her name to Xan for political reasons.

It was finding De Melker’s voice that first inspired Etienne to write the novel. “I was staying with an old friend on the Spui (a square in Amsterdam where much of the story unfolds) when Zan’s voice came to me,” he says.

When you read the way she talks, you can understand why the author had such fun inventing this Zan-speak – and why finding the right translator was such a huge deal, especially in this instance. If you didn’t find a way to translate that voice, it would all be lost.

Luckily, award-winning translator Michiel Heyns, a writer himself, was up to the task.

In fact, he has handled the translation so well that I can’t really imagine reading it in Afrikaans – even though the writer urges me to do just that.

Van Heerden feels they were blessed that Heyns knew the Karoo intimately. It is the kind of novel where the sensibilities of the translator made a difference.

He knew when to push a feeling and when to pull back. He understands the psyches of the people Van Heerden created, and handles them sensitively.

It is a story that deals with memories, looking back and dealing with the past.

It’s a concept that’s troublesome in a country where individuals grapple with the idea of looking back and try to forget, depending on which side of the spectrum they’re on.

But for Van Heerden, there’s no quibble. You can’t move on unless you deal with the past, he says.

With this one, he has found exactly the voice to tackle all those thorny issues. Because of the language and the way his chief protagonist speaks – the way her language is visual, even playful – the narrative takes one into a world that becomes absurd, almost cartoon-like, as you imagine the characters sketched so disarmingly.

It can almost be described as a grotesque fairytale of sorts because of the way it is written.

The Afrikaner and some of the absurdities of the past lend themselves to this kind of retelling, which is as visual as it is haunting.

But that was also why the translation had to be pitch-perfect. Afrikaans is a wonderfully descriptive language in a very different way from English.

“It’s almost like trying to put the Irish countryside into a French idiom,” explains Van Heerden.

But with Heyns, what they had was an English speaker with Afrikaans in his background. “He needed to understand the nuances to do a sympathetic translation.”

While he watches closely how the translations are done, Van Heerden doesn’t have any desire to do them himself. “By that stage I’m ready to move on and already grappling with new characters,” he says.

That’s easy to understand as you get stuck into the intricacies of just this book. Not only is Zan’s young nephew on his way to Amsterdam to investigate why his aunt has left him all her worldly goods, he is a museum assistant in a small Eastern Cape town where he spends much of his time writing slim monographs of unnoticed historical characters.

The one currently in his sight is the lesser-known Van Gogh brother. Yes, we are talking of the brother of the much more famous Vincent. Yet it’s not Theo, who was also the painter’s agent, but another brother, Cornelius, who apparently fought here during the Anglo-Boer War.

It’s absolutely true, Van Heerden assures me. Even more astonish-ingly, there’s a belief that he might have brought some of Van Gogh’s drawings with him. But that’s just one of the many sideway glances woven into this complicated, yet accessible, story that flashes between the much more sombre voice of the family heir, Henk, and that of his flighty and often ferocious aunt, Zan.

As we mind-travel between the Eastern Cape, the Karoo and Amsterdam, the characters are as flamboyant as they are independent in spirit and story.

That’s what makes this such an extraordinary read. Van Heerden finds a way of delving into the past, of scratching open the wounds, of mixing memories, merry and mad, that both engages and enriches.

Not only is Zan-speak amusing and inventive, it also adds to the story’s depth as the descriptions – sometimes lopsided; often biting – tell a story all their own.

But, says Van Heerden, what it finally comes down to is ways to deal with the past. Many countries have had to do this.

For Van Heerden, who has always been attached to a traditionally English university, first at Rhodes in Grahamstown and now as a professor in the School of Language and Literature at the University of Cape Town, the distance from his own language group set him free and allowed him to operate in a challenging space.

I haven’t read an Etienne van Heerden novel for some time, but if this one is an indication of where his headspace is, I don’t want to miss out. The writing is extraordinary; the story is like a carnival in which some rides are scary, others exhilarating. You can take it to as many levels as you wish.

l Etienne van Heerden was a guest author at one of the recent Pretoria News/WritersSpeak book lunches. Watch out for details of a fun cricket book event at the end of the month.

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