Translator opens great South African literature to French readers worldwide

16 September 2002
PRIZE-WINNING work of French translator Catherine Lauga du Plessis has opened up some of South Africa's literary gems to French-speaking readers worldwide.

This includes the French speaking nations of Africa, where her translations of works by Zakes Mda and Es'kia Mphahlele appear in a collection of the Dapper Foundation in Paris.

This collection aims to introduce French readers to writers of the black diaspora, including West Indian authors.

The retired UCT French lecturer's first translation was JM Coetzee's Dusklands. Later, she added works by Mike Nicol, Mda and Mphahlele to her list. The standard of Catherine Lauga's work (she has been praised for her close attention to stylistics as a "loyal translator") is reflected in her translation of Coetzee's acclaimed novel Disgrace (Disgrâce), which won two awards: the Prix Baudelaire de Traduction awarded by the Societe des Gens de Lettres and sponsored by the British Council, and, more recently, the Prix Amphi, to be awarded in October by Lille University.

"The acknowledgement is important. I feel that colleagues and students in the area understand what I am trying to do," she says of the accolades. She is particularly pleased with the Prix Amphi from Lille. The prize (awarded to both author and translator) was introduced in 2002 to encourage reading from other cultures and the jury is made up of students who study translation as well as various professionals, academics, writers, publishers and critics.

Lauga has a Master's degree in English from the Sorbonne and an Agrégation in English as well. She also has a Distinguished Teacher Award from UCT where she met Coetzee soon after arriving in South Africa in 1976. They became friends and colleagues.

During a hiatus while waiting for a work permit for l'Alliance Francaise (she became a fulltime member of the UCT French Department in 1986 and retired last year), Lauga started translating Coetzee's Dusklands "for fun". Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country and Waiting for the Barbarians were published by Maurice Nadeau in the translation of an eminent colleague. When Le Seuil took Coetzee over, they felt that they were dealing with a major author and that all his work should be published. They heard that "a woman in the Cape" had undertaken translating his first text. Lauga's translation of Dusklands was eventually published in 1986.

Working during sabbaticals and vacations, she translated Boyhood:Scenes from Provincial Life and recently the sequel Youth, which will appear in France early next year. Of Coetzee's work that she has translated, Lauga enjoyed Boyhood most for the insight it gave into the early days of apartheid from the fictional perspective of a shrewd child.

"I find it ironic that I received the Prix Baudelaire de Traduction for Disgrace (which sold 3 000 first edition copies in France and went to paperback). It is not the book of Coetzee's that I liked most and not the most difficult book I had the chance to translate. My favourite text by Coetzee is Waiting for the Barbarians, which I did not translate."

As a translator of South African literature, living in situ affords her a valuable advantage. Here, she comes face-to-face with the cultural background, the "referential dimension, the overtones and the undertones" of the society reflected in the writings of Mda and Nicol. Though she describes Coetzee's work as "self contained", other authors present the challenge of finding the right French idiom and "place" described in, say, Mda's Ways of Dying (Le pleureur).

But there is also a cost to living here. "I do not "live" in French, so my French may become frozen as it is not penetrated by the linguistic flavour of the month. I lose the referential competence that fellow translators living in a French speaking country have from daily verbal experience."

To counter this handicap, Catherine Lauga reads extensively in French, subscribes to Le Monde and keeps as intensive contact with French speakers as she can. However, translating South African literature remains a challenge. Tackling each new work, her approach is usually similar: she reads the text four, five times to get a global understanding of the work, before she translates the first sentence. "The first 50 pages are hell as I try to find 'the voice'," she reflects. "But the more you translate an author, the faster you can capture that distinctive voice." The challenge with Coetzee's work is to produce a French version of the author's distinctive dry, lean prose. "You can't make it fatter," she muses.

"Neither can you colonize the text," she notes in general reference to her work. "It must keep its foreignness. At the same time you have to write something that is going to have meaning for the French speaking reader."

As for the future, she has been approached to translate a collection of Coetzee's critical essays for Le Seuil. "But this is another kettle of fish, and I am not sure I am capable of it."

Though the Prix Baudelaire and the Prix Amphi are of no academic use for her now, Lauga hopes they might trigger an interest in her previous efforts to teach translation at UCT. "It is mind-boggling that, in a multilingual society and with bilingual departments in the University, no room has so far been found for sound translation training and a translation degree."

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