Interview with Małgorzata Drwal

Alwyn Roux: Jy is tans ʼn dosent in die Departement van Nederlands en Suid-Afrikaanse Studies by die Adam Mickiewicz Universiteit in Poznan, Pole. Sal jy ons meer vertel van die voorgraadse en nagraadse kursusse wat tans by die departement aangebied word?

Małgorzata Drwal: Our Department offers full BA and MA Dutch studies programmes, as well as South African BA specialisation within the English studies programme – and in this respect we are unique because we are the only academic centre in Poland offering this specialisation. We teach quite a broad spectrum of subjects, ranging from intensive language courses to literature, cultural studies or linguistics. Those who choose South African specialisation learn Afrikaans; furthermore we focus on cultural studies, where our students learn about geography and history, folklore, popular contemporary culture, film but also business and economy. Naturally, there is a module on literature created in South Africa, both in Afrikaans and in English. Our aim is to present South Africa as a melting pot of cultures, a country with its complexity and richness.

When it comes to the Dutch studies programme, our ambition is to balance tradition on one hand and our modern times and their challenges on the other hand, so our curriculum is diverse. Besides, of course, Dutch as a foreign language module, we offer courses on culture and literature of the Low Countries, and at the same time we focus on translation – both literary and non-literary translation, and language in the context of business and economy.

Alwyn: Jy hou jou besig met verskillende tale en letterkundes soos byvoorbeeld die Suid-Afrikaanse, Nederlandse en Engelse letterkundes. Waar het jou belangstelling in die Suid-Afrikaanse studies begin? Watter raakvlakke vind jy tussen die tale en letterkundes?

Małgorzata: My road to South African literature was not the shortest one, since it led via English and then Dutch. My first choice was English, which is probably not surprising since the language is so ubiquitous. I was overwhelmed by the richness of English literature. I’ve always liked the sound of the language, so different from Polish which has many rustling sounds and excessive – one might think – concentration of consonants. I like the structure of English which, being a Germanic language, is totally different from Polish – a Slavic langauge with a complex and irregular grammar. English seemed so logical and almost mathematical when campared with my mother tongue. English is a language which allows to look at different worlds; literature created in this language is so diverse because it is created in many countries with their various histories and peoples with their various sensibilities. I discoverd how reading and writing in English made me think and comprehend reality in a different way than I’m used to in Polish.

During my third year of BA in English literature I started studying Dutch because I just wanted to learn a new language – but a language less common, from my Polish perspective, than for example German or French. That was pure curiosity. And I began to like Dutch with its guttural sounds. Compared to the smooth flow of English, it sounds as if it was all sharp egdes. And the ability to read texts in Dutch opened for me one more gate to access other worlds. Even though I’m aware that my way of grasping these other worlds is imperfect and burdened with my Slavic, Central European perspective.

I wrote my MA in English on Victorian literature, where the social aspect is obviously quite prominent. I focused on how literature utters criticism by means of metaphors and textual devices. During my Dutch studies I attended courses in colonial literature and an introductory course to Afrikaans and South African literature and culture. The instructor was professor Jerzy Koch who later became my PhD advisor. So it was prof. Koch who encouraged me to focus on South Africa, more specifically to combine my interests and background as an English and Dutch studies graduate. The result was my PhD project on women life writing from the period of the Anglo-Boer war.

When it comes to what I think that links all those languages and literatures – it is that they open my mind to different perspectives. I was approaching South Africa gradually, first through English, then Dutch, finally through my rather imperfect grasp of Afrikaans, basing mostly on written texts and applying my perception of them as mechanisms and structures, puzzles to decipher. All these langauges force me to think and read in a different way, less automatic, more conscious. I am aware of my foreign, tentative way of interpreting South African literature and cultural phenomena. My perspective is mediated; metaphorically speaking, I look through my Central European eyes with Dutch and English glasses.

Alwyn: Sal jy meer kan uitwei oor jou eie navorsing, veral betreffende jou PhD-tesis?

Małgorzata: My PhD thesis focused on personal writings referring to the Anglo-Boer war. More specifically, I dealt with diaries and memoires written by Boer women and published in English, Dutch and Afrikaans. What I found most interesting was what happened to a personal text when it was published, the process of transcending the personal sphere and the fact that once published no text is any longer personal. How does it happen that a text written to relieve personal trauma becomes a product of the times it which it is published, and why is it so easy for a personal life story to be appropriated for propaganda or official history making?

In my work I chose three texts to discuss in detail: Met die boere in die veld by Sarah Raal, Tant Miem se kampdagboek by Maria Fischer and The Kappie Kommando by Johanna Brandt. All those texts have histories of publications, i.e. they have been published several times in changed editions or translations. I found it particularly interesting that the interpretation of the same text can dramatically change depending on the historic moment of publication, and the political and cultural background of the reader – so on circumstances which lie beyond the intention of the author. To discuss those changing interpretations I focused on paratexts. Such elements as prefaces or introductions, footnotes, dedications, illustrations and even the title – especially when translated – function as mechanisms which influence the reading process, and which evoke given associations in various interpretive communities. I analysed those various paratextual elements to illustrate how they guide one’s reading of a book so that it matches the ideology which is in fashion at a given moment.


Alwyn: By die ALV-kongres in 2016, het jy ʼn referaat gelewer met die titel, “Een vertaalde tekst en een vertaalde ideologie: de Amerikaanse Jezus-socialist in Zuid-Afrika. Hulle Noem my Timmerman van Upton Sinclair in het vakbondstijdschrift Die Klerewerker/The Garment Worker“. Sal jy ons meer kan vertel oor die vakbondtydskrif en die tydvak waarin dit verskyn het?

Małgorzata: The first issue of Die Klerewerker/The Garment Worker appeared in October 1936 and I focus on its editions till 1950s. As the title suggests, it was a bilingual magazine and an official organ of the Garment Workers Union from the 1930s on. In that time it were mostly women who worked in clothing industry in Johannesburg, most of them in fact migrated to the city in search of employment. Since the working and living conditions were very poor and those women were simply exploited, the GWU’s aim was to instruct workers in their rights and teach them how to fight for them, and in practice, to spread the idea of socialism. Each issue of the union’s magazine consisted of a section in English and in Afrikaans running back to back. The English texts discussed current issues of the union, there were e.g. reports from meetings or negotiations with factory managers. The Afrikaans section focused mainly on culture and there were literary texts such as poems, songs, theatre plays, short stories, most of which was originally written in Afrikaans by the women workers-activists, but among them I came across an Afrikaans translation of the novel by Upton Sinclair They Call me Carpenter.


Alwyn: Die fokus van die referaat het onder andere gehandel oor die vertaling van die Amerikaanse roman van Upton Sinclair, getiteld They Call me Carpenter (Hulle noem my Timmerman). Sal jy ons meer vertel van die wyse waarop die vertaler van die teks, Hester Cornelius, gepoog het om die buitelandse ideologie van sosialisme aan die fabriekswerkers in Suid-Afrika bekend te stel? Die skakel tussen sosialisme en Christendom is veral interessant. Sal jy ons meer vertel van die ver-taling van die ideologie (sosialisme) in religieuse terme van Christendom.

Małgorzata: The novel They Call me Carpenter is in fact a rewriting of the history of Jesus set in America of the 1920s, so in a sense it is a translation. In the book Jesus wanders through the modern Western City and – just like in the Bible – he preaches before crowds and heals the sick, and sympathises with poor, exploited workers. Upton Sinclair wrote the book to protest against abuses in America in the Progressive Era, but he drew upon an older literary tradition originated in England. Industrialisation and exploitation of workers in the late 19th century served as a background for a series of rewritings of the life of Jesus. Authors realised that if Jesus lived in their, modern times, he would be a working man, a proletarian and a socialist who loves the poorest and the abused, and believes that all poor workers must unite to oppose capitalists – the embodiment of evil.

Factory workers in South Africa were mostly people coming from countryside, strongly attached to traditional values represented by religion and family farm, distrustful of foreign ideas, such as socialism. Socialism was a new ideology offering them a way out of poverty, so their values had to be adjusted to the changed situation of an industrialised city. Activists of the Garment Workers Union, such as Hester Cornelius, had to overcome the reluctance of workers and literary forms published in their magazine seemed to be an effective tool to achieve this end. The reader – a woman working in a factory – could easily notice a parallel between the story of Jesus in America and her situation in the 1940s in Johannesburg. What is most important is that this reader is familiar with the biblical story of Jesus, recognizes it as belonging to their own tradition and realises that ideology of socialism stems from Christianity – they are both based on love and equality of all people. So literature served as a bridge which made it possible to link traditional Christian values with new values of socialism.

Alwyn: Watter Poolse digters of skrywers sou jy graag in Afrikaans wou lees?

Małgorzata: Stanisław Lem – especially his The Cyberiad (in Polish Cyberiada) or Fables of Robots (Bajki robotów). These are collections of grotesque science-fiction short stories, but there is a lot of humour and philosophy. Lem’s approach to the language is very creative and playful – with lots of neologisms and puns, so I imagine that translating Lem is a real challenge. Lem’s books have been translated into many languages, but I am not aware of any translations into Afrikaans.

To illustrate the ingenuity of Lem and the difficulty the translation of his works entails, here is a passage from The Cyberiad about a machine that generated poetry. In the Polish original the machine was requested to write a poem of no more than six lines, the topic being cybererotica, music, black people, betrayal, incest and tragedy. Futhermore the verses have to rhyme and every word must begin with the letter c.

Here’s the Polish version

“Cyprian cyberotoman, cynik, ceniąc czule
Czarnej córy cesarskiej cud ciemnego ciała,
Ciągle cytrą czarował. Czerwieniała cała,
Cicha, co-dzień czekała, cierpiała, czuwała…
…Cyprian ciotkę całuje, cisnąwszy czarnulę!!”

The author of the English translation, Micheal Kandel, had to be very inventive and here is the result:

“Just a minute,” said Klapaucius, annoyed. He was trying to think of a request as difficult as possible, aware that any argument on the quality of the verse the machine might be able to produce would be hard if not impossible to settle either way. Suddenly he brightened and said:

“Have it compose a poem — a poem about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter S!!”

“And why not throw in a full exposition of the general theory of nonlinear automata while you’re at it?” growled Trurl. “You can’t give it such idiotic — ”

But he didn’t finish. A melodious voice filled the hall with the following:

“Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Silently scheming,
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide.”

The poem is much different but I think that it retains the absurdist character of the original. I would love to read an Afrikaans version of it.

(Here’s more about this passage: