Some people know Professor Naòmi Morgan as the head of the French section at the University of the Free State. Others know her as the artist behind the play Oskar en die Pienk Tannie. Yet others know her as a woman who can speak Afrikaans, English and French without a trace of an accent.
Most recently, though, people might know Morgan as being knighted by the French Ministry of Culture. She received the French Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres earlier this year from French Ambassador to South Africa, Elisabeth Barbier. She joins only three other South Africans to receive the award.
The white Zulu Johnny Clegg (1991), artist William Kentridge (2013) and filmmaker Ramadan Suleman (2014) are other well-known locals who have received this honour, often referred to as “the envy of artists, writers and creators”.
However, to tell the story of how Morgan came to be knighted, one has to look back to where her love for French first started.
Her love affair with the language started unexpectedly at the age of 13, in Bloemfontein.
“My cousin… gave me the French grammar book and dictionary he no longer needed for his studies. A gift of two books shaped my future forever,” she said.
She was so taken by her French teacher at Oranje Meisieskool that she describes her classes like leaving on a trip to a faraway land – well away from all she knew in the Free State.
“French, because of its foreignness, made me realise the power of the page, which like a magic carpet, could project the reader to any part of the world where the language was spoken,” she said.
By the time she went to university, she had eight years of French under her belt and was accustomed to being transported to different worlds through French literature and song.
She describes how a French lecturer introduced her to the music of Belgian singer Jacques Brel. Then and there Morgan’s project to translate Brel into Afrikaans was born.
Her first trip to Paris, at the end of her third year at university, was as an au pair: “I went from Bloemfontein to Paris without ever having been to Joburg,” she recalled.
Decades later, her love affair with the language of love is ongoing and possibly even stronger than ever.
Barbier called Morgan a “femme d’influence” (an influential woman) – referring to her academic career and CV that spans more than 30 pages. She thanked the French government for recognising her work and said translation in South Africa, after her award, would never be the same again.
“This award means more to me than anything else I have received, because it recognises the art of translation and of creative writing,” she said.
She praised the art of translation in the words of Robert Wechsler: “(The translator) performs not with hopes of fame, fortune or applause, but rather out of love, out of a sense of sharing what he loves and loving what he does.”
She called translation an art, though often translators are not considered artists: “The translator’s problem is that he is a performer without a stage, an artist whose performance looks just like the original, just like a play or a song or a composition, nothing but ink on a page”.
Morgan thanked one of her mentors, George Lory, the only Frenchman in history to have mastered Afrikaans for the purposes of translation. He translated the works of Antjie Krog and Breyten Breytenbach into French.
Morgan’s already impressive career is far from over. She has several projects waiting in the wings including translating Yasmina Reza’s Trois Versions de la Vie and Jean-Pierre Daumas’ Cimetière des éléphants into Afrikaans.
Despite having lived, studied and worked in Bloemfontein almost her entire life, Morgan said she “really lives” in France.
“Unlike Harry Potter, I don’t have to go to King’s Cross station to go to the place where I live. I just open a dictionary…”
• Lali van Zuydam is the press attaché at the French Embassy in South Africa.
Translator a pioneer in her field
During the award ceremony, Naòmi Morgan said: “Tonight, I am reminded of a language which began as a secret code at school and became a career, a way of seeing the world”.
Some of her recent works include translating Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s Oscar et la Dame Rose (Oskar en die Pienk Tannie, the play Sandra Prinsloo has so successfully toured locally) and Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran (Monsieur Ibrahim en die Blomme van die Koran) into Afrikaans.
One of her well-known projects is the translation of French songs into Afrikaans and Afrikaans songs into French. After she translated Brel, she turned to Edith Piaf, which later led to turning the order around and translating Afrikaans songs into French. And so, Afri-Frans, a collection of traditional Afrikaans songs in French, was born. Today, Morgan is one of only five translators who can translate into French from Afrikaans.
She has also produced the only Afrikaans translation of l’Africain by French Nobel prize laureate, JMG Le Clézio.
Oskar en die Pienk Tannie has won many awards – not only for translation but for Morgan’s artistry in converting it into a play.