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  • The Odyssey of Homer: A Southern African Translation by R. Whitaker
  • Jo-Marie Claassen
Whitaker, R. 2017. The Odyssey of Homer: A Southern African Translation. Cape Town, African Sun Press. Pp. 534. ISBN 978-1-874915-28-7. R385.

Why another translation of the Odyssey? Whitaker’s joins at least two other recent translations on the groaning shelf of Odysseys in English that have come into existence since Chapman’s (1614–15), each with a claim to uniqueness. Most recent are Emily Wilson’s (2017) ‘first translation by a woman’, and Antony Verity’s (2016) prose version that purposely preserves original line divisions.11 So, why another and what distinguishes it from its predecessors? Whitaker’s is expressly termed ‘a Southern African Translation.’ Why?

Translation theory is a fairly recently codified enterprise, but its practice is older than Livius Andronicus. The first question a translator must decide on, is: Should a translation be literal or free? The French scholar Meschonnic called for the ‘dignity of translation’ to be enhanced through a conscious distancing between the original and the translation, a retention of a certain [End Page 222] ‘foreignness’ in the new text in the target language.12 There are many theories of translation that lie elsewhere on the line between two opposing trends: adequacy (equivalence to the source text, as with Verity’s new translation, cited above) or fluency and naturalness. Eugene Nida coined the terms ‘formal equivalence’ (a source-text-oriented approach) and ‘dynamic equivalence’ (a target-text- or reader-oriented approach).13 Simply put, these extremes ignore either the writer or the reader. The purpose of a translation very largely guides the degree of literalness (source-text-orientation) or adaptation to the target culture (reader-orientation) that a particular translator will adhere to.

Whitaker translates certain Homeric concepts with words and expressions taken from a variety of Southern African indigenous languages, including Afrikaans. He explains in his thorough ‘Preface’ (pp. 9–14) what his purpose was with his use of the multilingual origins of the South African English dialect. His ‘tribal’ vocabulary shows that we should not imagine Bronze-Age Greek ‘kings’ as the equivalents of modern-day ‘royalty’, but rather as tribal chiefs such as the famous nineteenth-century king, Shaka Zulu. This was also the translator’s intention in his earlier, widely acclaimed ‘Southern African’ version of the Iliad.14 These borrowings show us a picture of a Homeric world that Whitaker, rightly, envisages as closer to the pre-colonial and pre-technological world of early, indigenous South Africa than the urban sophistication of modern cities and modern royalty (such as still survive in the Northern hemisphere). Whitaker’s approach is hence clearly reader-oriented. Yet his use of the South African English vernacular that features these terms serves partly to convey to his non-South African readership a certain degree of ‘strangeness’ that places Homer at a distance from their modern world. Thereby he succeeds in producing a text that is both reader-oriented and text-oriented.

Most of Whitaker’s ‘tribal words’ fit into the Greek context perfectly: induna (headman, officer under a chief), amakhosi (chiefs and headmen collectively), impi (army or regiment of warriors). Whitaker’s translation, therefore, tries to show that, although his modern readers come from a very different milieu than the Homeric, there are still, today, people living very much as did the Homeric heroes; that there are, in other words, aspects within which ancient Greek and modern African cultures coincide. These include a strongly patriarchal ethos, use of javelins for hunting, use of herbal remedies and potions by a ‘traditional healer’ (termed a sangoma or [End Page 223] inyanga), also the custom that the exploits of the chiefs are praised in song by an imbongi (praise singer, bard), and the paying of a bride-price by the prospective bridegroom to his bride’s father. The word lobola for this unfamiliar (to modern, non-South African readers) concept (the opposite of a ‘dowry,’) enriches our international vocabulary of exact Homeric equivalents. In a more rural, tribal context, such payment today still can comprise cattle; even in a modern, urban African context, the practice is usually maintained. Here the...


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