Translating Mandela

It probably comes as no surprise to most Europeans that Nelson Mandela wished for his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, to be translated into several African languages. It seems the obvious way of making the book accessible to all as well as acknowledging minority languages and the diversity of communities sharing the country of South Africa. But reading an article by Antjie Krog, translator of Long Walk to Freedom into Afrikaans, I was surprised to discover an opposite perspective:

“An important barometer of the power of a language is the number of texts translated into it, so imagine my surprise when I received a request to translate Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, from English into Afrikaans, my mother-tongue, spoken by only 13.5 percent of the South African population.

“I was informed that Mandela wanted it to be translated into Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and Northern Sotho. Why? I wondered. The translation of the Bible into our indigenous languages was frowned upon as a form of colonisation: a way for Western values to gain entry into the traditional heart of the indigenous communities. But as we came to know the man, this request was vintage Mandela.”

As a European translator, I see translation as a vehicle for mutual understanding, the sharing ideas and international peace. Coming across such a view was both striking and humbling.

Antjie Krog

Antjie Krog

Photo: dancinginotherwords.co.za (credit: Philippe Matsas)