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  • Africa Pulse
  • Chris Dunton

There are eight volumes in the Africa Pulse series recently published by Oxford University Press (South Africa). This set of books represents one of the most dynamic contributions to the African literary heritage for many years. As the publisher's note states, "the texts translated for this series have been identified time and again by scholars of literature in southern Africa as classics in their original languages" (Hall iii).1 The first volume discussed below has introductory comments on the value and processes of translation that apply to the set as a whole.

The anthology Stitching a Whirlwind comprises forty-two poems or excerpts from longer poems with the originals (in Sesotho, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Setswana, Sepedi) and their English translation printed on facing pages. In her foreword one of the translators, Gabeba Baderoon, states that when the poems are gathered together (and bearing in mind southern Africa's history of enforced separation) they "engage in an imaginative exchange across barriers of language, author and period, overcoming decades of riven conversations" (viii). One notes that this is something the poems are being asked to do, not necessarily part of their authors' aspiration. But Baderoon's point is borne out by the anthology. The poems in each language are not clustered together—rather, the arrangement is, roughly speaking, thematic—which strengthens the point about speaking across. On that score, one of the praise poems included is "The praises of a maskandi singer" and one can imagine, for example, Basotho readers coming across this isiZulu poem and thinking, how like their own lithoko (praise poems) this is, but how interestingly different, too.

Baderoon expands on her point: "translation should be our thirteenth language. [South Africa has twelve official ones]. Instead, our literary culture, publishing, and education systems have not kept pace with this polyglot reality" (viii). Although all power to the translators; how much added value there would be if "The praises of a maskandi singer" appeared not only in English translation but in Sesotho also.2 (Baderoon's observation bears on language policy in postapartheid South Africa; in his foreword to one of the Africa Pulse novels, Oliver Kgadime Matsepe's Tears of the Brain, David wa Maahlamela also touches on this issue, commenting: "Until tangible multilingualism is implemented, translation is likely to remain the only mechanism in the South African context to demonstrate that African languages are as fecund and flexible a medium as English or any other European language. Notably, in the case of languages of limited diffusion, [End Page 170] particularly when the source language is of rich cultural intensity, translation can either resuscitate or suffocate literary merit" [Maahlamela iv]).3

Antjie Krog, one of the translators of the poems in Stitching a Whirlwind and the coordinator of the volume's translation team, has an introduction in which she remarks: "This anthology gives readers a glimpse of the incredible depth and wealth of beauty, knowledge, flair and brilliance found in the literatures of indigenous languages in southern Africa" (xiii), and the volume bears this out handsomely.

As a specialist in translation theory and practice, Krog notes that "translators [of poetry] now often work in tandem: a mother-tongue speaker and a poet" (xiv), the practice followed in this volume. S. E. K. Mqhayi's "Sinking of the Mendi" is given twice, with alternative translations by two different teams: a fascinating validation of Krog's comment that "the translation [should not be seen as being] equivalent to what is on the page next to it" (xiv).

The volume kicks off with love poems and poems on beautiful women, for example, "Nomkhosi of my father" by B. M. Vilikazi: "Your firm steps as you walk / tire a young man courting. / He passes you and then takes a glance backwards, / watches you and tears flow" (Hall 3).

One of the most striking poems, Otty Nxumalo's "Why does it keep saying?," protests at the repeated cry of a dove, reminding him painfully of lost patterns of social behavior and interaction, a topic that might have proven maudlin but is made vibrant by the poet's close observation and wit ("Here they eat sweets and ice blocks … here they...