Is it true that André Brink initiated the process? And did he keep all his own love letters to Ingrid Jonker?
Yes, the fact that both sets of letters – almost complete except for a few items here and there – existed together, is really quite remarkable. It’s because of André’s own thoroughness, which, I have come to understand from his widow, was a lifelong habit.
André’s original letters do exist, but they were torn to shreds after Ingrid died. These pieces exist and and form part of Gerrit Komrij’s Ingrid Jonker collection in Portugal.
However, there were copies of all André’s letters – because he wrote on carbon paper – and it was these copies, together with Ingrid’s original letters, that he kept in his study in a large brown envelope for fifty years.
Why André wrote on carbon paper, one can only guess at. Thoroughness? Self-consciousness? A desire to read back what he had written to her? Ambition, perhaps? But they also discussed their work with each other and perhaps he wanted to keep a record of his ideas.
What does translating mean to you?
Translation is an imperfect art. If perfection is the aim, you have failed before you have begun. But even if you accept that you are working towards an imperfect goal, you still struggle along the way – when you feel you have to forego shades of meaning, or innuendo or (especially) subtle jokes that are best understood by a mother-tongue speaker.
There are two things that were important to me: I wanted the English text to read as smoothly as possible, but without making Ingrid sound as though she had written in English. I wanted to retain some of the texture of Afrikaans.
How I tried to overcome turning her voice into an English South African one was to steer as close to the source text as possible.
What made it easier was that Ingrid spoke plainly. There was nothing pretentious about her writing, nothing artificial. She was one of those people who “speaks on the page”. Her voice, her moods and her excitement all revealed themselves in simple ways. There was no artifice.
You translated the love letters of arguably the most well-known Afrikaans Romeo and Juliet of the Afrikaans literary world. Did you ever think about this while translating Ingrid’s letters?
Oh, I thought about it all the time!
Because of the time constraints on the project we had no time to read the full manuscript before starting the work. The longer I translated, the less sense I had of what was going to happen next and each day’s work was like watching a new petal unfold on a closed bud. It was – and I apologise for the cliché – gripping. When I closed my computer at night, I would wonder what happens next and I’d approach my computer with a sense of anticipation every morning. No, it was not drone work. It held me entirely. It wasn’t mere engagement with words.
Do you, in hindsight, feel that you got to know the person/people who wrote the letters?
There are two parts to this answer.
Because, as I mentioned before, I could not read the entire manuscript before starting, I read André’s letters only here and there to cross-reference or to gain some context where they appeared to have a direct impact on what Ingrid was writing. So only one side of the story was unfolding before me daily.
In that story I felt as though the whole of Ingrid Jonker was being revealed to me. I had a strong sense of her daily preoccupations, her passions, aspects of her personality and themes in her life.
For instance, Ingrid wrote in a fairly haphazard way, changing tack mid-paragraph, inserting brackets which contain what appear to be entirely unrelated stories to the one she was busy with, returning to comment on things she had said earlier, in the middle of some other bit of gossip or news.
I came to see that this fitted a pattern within her life. She was – and this is what André so admired about her – unfettered and unconventional, in quite the most natural way. She was also moody. This is something one knows from other sources, but it is clear in the letters that she is highly emotional. So what is revealed in this correspondence confirms much of what one has gleaned over the years about the person behind the poems.