‘Good stories outlive their time’

2008-02-20 00:00

INKINSELA yaseMgungundlovu (The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg) by Pietermaritzburg’s Professor Sibusiso Nyembezi, has long been regarded as one of the best novels ever written in Zulu.

It has been a school setwork, was a popular radio series in the seventies, adapted for television in the eighties and on the list of Africa’s 100 best books of the 20th century in 2002. But there has never been an English language version.

That is now being put right, with a paperback edition coming from British publisher Aflame Books, which is an independent publishing house bringing out English translations of works from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East — books that have been hidden from the English-speaking world by the barriers of culture and language.

Aflame published a collection called Poems for Mandela, and one of the contributors was Johannesburg-based journalist and writer Sandile Ngidi. “I approached them about the possibility of doing a translation,” he says, explaining that he has been amazed by the number of people who ask him where they can get hold of translations of classic African-language books.

“It was lucky for me that they said yes, without knowing the book. They couldn’t read it in Zulu, and had to rely on my word that this is a story worth telling. What I like about Aflame is their openness — they seem to have a genuine sense of caring about African literature.”

Asked why an English translation has never appeared before, Raymond Wela of Shuter and Shooter, the original publishers of Inkinsela YaseMgungundlovu, explains that over the years the idea has come up several times.

But the Department of Education, with which Shuter and Shooter was closely involved as educational publishers, was anxious to see new works being published rather than translations, and so plans were shelved. Then they were approached by Aflame to buy the English-language rights.

Once Aflame gave Ngidi the go-ahead, he settled down to over six months of hard work. One of the biggest challenges was to get the flavour of the cadences of Nyembezi’s Zulu into English.

“I had first to try to understand and enjoy the original idiomatic nuances, and then try, without being literal, to get close to them in English,” he says.

“It’s not a literal equivalent, but I think I got into the spirit of the original.”

To help, Ngidi called on veteran South African publisher Monica Seeber who used to work with Ravan Press. She would read over what he had written, and say if it jarred. “Sometimes we argued over things we had to work out. In some places, it’s a negotiated settlement!”

For Ngidi, good stories outlive their time, and the fact that Nyembezi’s novel is now almost half a century old makes no difference to its relevance. “One of the elements of a good story is to speak to an issue, and to speak of a culture. And the issues of crooks, lost innocence, people who take others for a ride — they carry on.

“What I like is the laid-back pace of the rural life, the countryside. It can take about five minutes to say hello — people will touch on other things, repeat themselves, but it’s hello. It’s beautiful to have time for that. Nyembezi belongs to a rare generation of African writers.”

And although the translated idiom retains this leisurely sense, Nyembezi’s story keeps its momentum, and while it tells of rural life, it also deals with the clash of generations.

“There’s too often an assumption that indigenous literature is conservative and traditional, but it’s not the case here. I also like the role he gives to maNtuli (the main female character) as a voice of dissent. She’s sceptical, colourful and amusing.”

Ngidi admires the way Nyembezi handles political issues in what is in no way an overtly political novel. But the hot topics of the time are all there — displacement, rural poverty, the clash between the urban and the rural. “There is a sense that the politics of the time are interfering with society — the Land Act is leaving the country desperate,” he says.

The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg is a low-key novel, but the Aflame edition is going to bring what has long been considered a South African classic to an audience that has never had a chance to engage with it before.

The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg is due to be in South African bookshops by the middle of February.

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