Skip to content

Toggle service links

You are here

  1. Home
  2. Publications
  3. The Role of Greek Drama and Poetry in Crossing and Redefining Cultural Boundaries
  4. Issues in multicultural Translation: Translating the Iliad into Southern African English*

Issues in multicultural Translation: Translating the Iliad into Southern African English*

Richard Whitaker
University of Cape Town, South Africa

Open Seminar Series 2002

Since 2000 I have been engaged on a translation of Homer’s Iliad into Southern African English (hereafter ‘SAE’). I am now about halfway through. In this paper I reflect on what I have been trying to achieve through such a project.

I suppose the starting-point was dissatisfaction with various Anglo-American English translations I had used in teaching the Iliad over 25 years. Not that these translations were bad or inaccurate. It was just that I had begun to feel that their language and outlook- their ‘kings’, ‘princes’, ‘lords’, ‘palaces’ - were increasingly remote from the speech and experience of South African (hereafter ‘SA’) speakers of English (both first- and second-language speakers). In addition I felt that the Iliad, in a distinctly SA translation could ‘speak’ to this country at this particular moment in its history. Let me deal first with the issue of speech, of language.

SAE is a hybrid - as is the culture which has given, and continues to give rise to it. English has been spoken in SA, by different groups, for more than two hundred years now. Besides being shaped by particular historical and geographical circumstances, this English has also picked up vocabulary from the region’s many languages (eleven are officially recognized in our new constitution). Elements have come from the Bushman and Khoikhoi tongues, Zulu, Xhosa and other African languages, and especially Afrikaans, the local variant of Dutch. The Dictionary of SAE, on Historical Principles, published by OUP in 1996, lists 5,000 words, from many sources, each with a special local sense. (The definitions of SAE terms quoted below are from this volume.)

Speech and language are, of course, ultimately inseparable from broader historical, political and cultural processes. (After all, English would not now be a language of SA had not the British colonized the Cape in the late 18th, and the rest of the country in the 19th C.) In newly democratic, post-1994 SA, it has been fascinating to observe how languages officially kept separate and ‘pure’ under apartheid have been happily mingling and hybridizing. This mingling, admittedly, had always been happening at the level of speech, of the vernacular. But the difference now is that it is to be found more and more in ‘official’ media - in writing, drama and television programmes. Whether the basic language of the medium is Zulu, English, Afrikaans, or whatever, there is virtually always some admixture of one, or more, of the other languages.

I think there are two main (conscious or unconscious) reasons for this, both of them political in the broad sense. Partly, this mixing is a reaction against old apartheid policies of separation and isolation, which penetrated even into the linguistic sphere; partly, it is an attempt to forge a new, as yet inchoate, broad SA identity, which should be inclusive of difference.

Translation has often been used in the past as a way of establishing new forms of language in the receiving culture, and of creating new cultural identities[1], and the contributions of Lefevere, Brisset and Venuti himself, to the very useful collection, The Translation Studies Reader.[2] A large part of my aim in producing an SA Iliad has been to contribute to this process of forging a local cultural identity. Although English is the mother-tongue of only a smallish minority of South Africans, I use English as my base, since it is by far the most widely known second language in the country. The English of my translation includes many local words drawn from the indigenous languages most of which occur often in SAE speech. (My diction - componere magnis - is in this respect comparable to that of Walcott’s Omeros, which ranges from International Standard to slang, with a sprinkling of the French Creole dialect of his native St Lucia.). Further, when I do use Standard English (hereafter ‘SE’), I try to use words that refer to things and institutions familiar to South Africans. Occasionally I use relatively unusual indigenous words - but none which does not occur in the Dictionary of SAE.

In several cases local words have the advantage that they can render a Homeric term more economically or precisely than any single SE word. Let me give some examples.

1) In the society depicted by Homer, the man who wants to marry offers his bride’s father gifts, hedna or eedna for her hand, and these are usually gifts of cattle. This practice has a close parallel in SA, as represented by a Zulu and Xhosa word, very familiar in local English, namely, lobola. The Dictionary of SAE defines the noun lobola as follows : ‘1. The custom among many southern African peoples of giving cattle, goods, or (now usu.) money to the parents of a woman or girl in order to secure her hand in marriage; 2. Goods, cattle, or money given as dowry, according to traditional African custom’. Lobola, then, has the double advantage of precision and of familiarity to SAE-speakers.

2) No single SE word captures the full range of the Homeric word pharmakon, which means ‘medicine’, ‘medicinal herbs’, ‘drug’, but also ‘magic potion’, ‘poisonous drink’, ‘poison’. However, the African-language term muti, which is widely used by SAE-speakers, has this precise meaning: ‘A substance or object which has or is believed to have curative, preventive, protective, or harmful powers of a medicinal or supernatural kind’. So, by using the word muti, I am able to render Homeric pharmakon in all its senses by a single, familiar SAE term.

3) Homeric ieter or ietros is often translated ‘doctor’ or ‘physician’. But the connotations of these SE terms seem fairly distant from those of the Homeric words, the associations of which are much more with traditional healing, by means of folk-remedies and herbs (cp. ietroipolypharmakoi Il.16.28), than with the practices of modern physicians and doctors. I use the SAE inyanga, ‘a traditional healer or diviner, esp. one specializing in herbalism’, to render the Homeric terms.

In many other instances, too, I use an SAE word to render an Iliadic one not because the former is more precise, but simply because it is available: thus induna (captain), amakhosi (commanders), inkosi (lord), indaba or kgotla (assembly), outspan (unyoke), kloof (glen), sloot (ditch), assegai (spear), and so on.

In general it seems to me that, in the centuries-long tradition of English translation of Homer, there has been a tendency towards inflation, a tendency to make Homeric titles, institutions and objects grander than the Greek would suggest. Perhaps this is because an ‘English’ Homer has been appropriated by courtly and aristocratic elites to reinforce a monarchic ethos and ideology. Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in the persistent rendering of Homeric basileus by English ‘king’, with its inevitable associations of wide-reaching, exclusive, monarchical power. But it is well known that the basileus is not a monarch class. There are many basilees before Troy, and just what authority they have in respect of each other is very problematic and a central issue of the Iliad. ‘Chief’, which I use to render basileus, is a much more accurate translation.[3] And the word has a particular resonance for an audience in Southern Africa, where the institution of traditional chiefdom is still very much alive. In rural areas here there are many chiefs (usually advised by councillors), who control territories and communities of various sizes; and though one chief may be recognized as paramount (like Agamemnon) over others this paramountcy is not very well defined. (It is interesting to note that several English translators of the 18th to mid-19th century, such as Pope, Tickell, Macpherson, Cowper, Calverley and others, use ‘chief’, among other terms,to refer to the leaders of the Akhaians. One wonders what scruples have kept more recent translators from doing likewise.)

Finally, there is a larger, but less tangible reason, why (I feel) the time is ripe for an SA Iliad. Homer’s poem is so rich and complex that it is difficult to say that it is ‘about’ X or Y. But certainly anger, what it leads to, namely, the violation of the norms and values that make civilized life possible, and then the ending of this anger in a fragile moment of reconciliation between sworn enemies - all this is of major importance in the Iliad. This has a particular resonance for SA now. SA is only now beginning to emerge from centuries of conflict and division between the different groups and cultures that live within the country’s borders. The years 1975-1994, especially, witnessed continual, low-level, civil war. And yet, amid the barbarity, the acts of torture and terror, and the massacres, there have been moments of the most astonishing humanity. Men imprisoned for decades, like Nelson Mandela, have shown no bitterness at all towards their gaolers; sworn enemies have come to respect each other’s humanity; torturers have been forgiven by their victims. I would hope that an SAE Iliad showing how, against a background of implacable anger and brutality, enemies were reconciled - even if only momentarily - might strike a chord with South Africans of the 21st century.

[NOTE : I would be happy to send an electronic copy of a part of my Iliad translation to anyone who is interested – books 5-11 are in more-or-less final form. Email]

*An a earlier version of this paper was given at the Atti del Congresso Genova 6-8 luglio 2000 and subsequently published as 'Translating Homer in an African Context', in Omero tremila anni dopo, Atti del Congresso Genova 6-8 luglio 2000 ed. Montanari, F. et al., Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, December 2002, 523-533.


[1] L. Hardwick, Translating Words, Translating Cultures, Duckworth, London, 2000, passim, but especially ch. 5 and 6.

[2]L. Venuti, (ed). The Translation Studies Reader, Routledge, London and New York, 2000.

[3] Taplin makes this point: O. Taplin, Homeric Soundings, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992, 47