Thursday, March 13, 2008

Beautiful in Beaufort West

It is roughly impossible to translate poetry and retain all the qualities and nuances that make it special. Language is too closely aligned with cultural references and the feelings they evoke to permit aspirations of anything more than a best effort. To capture some of the original sense is already an achievement, and yet I feel that my latest attempt has been better than most.

Gert Vlok Nel is well-known in Afrikaans circles for his poetic folk-songs in the compilation "Om Beaufort-Wes se beautiful woorde te verlaat" ("To leave the beautiful words of Beaufort West"). He was already a winner of the prestigious Ingrid Jonker Prize for a debut collection of poetry in 1995 for his earlier work "Om te lewe is onnatuurlik" ("To live is unnatural"), but it was the troubadour songs of "Om Beaufort-wes se beautiful woorde te verlaat" that captured people's imagination.

"Beautiful in Beaufort-Wes" (a song title not to be confused with the title of the compilation) is a key moment in the sequence of songs and very tempting to try and represent. But as with all of Nel's work it poses the additional problem of English mixed into the Afrikaans in a colloquial tone, something not possible to convey directly. I've stuck with a straightforward translation that maintains the original rhythm, much of the rhyme and hopefully some of the sense of a love lost but not forgotten.

Beautiful in Beaufort West

& you were beautiful in Beaufort West
& I was so awed & awfully in love with you
& you & I kissed on graves & trains
& in the backseats of Ford Fairlanes
& now you & your man are both computer analysts
& last winter you tried to cut both your wrists & now you write to me:
you can't sleep any more, laugh any more
no longer do things for yourself
never ever kiss me again

& fine fine fine were the words you said
while you smoked those menthol cigarettes
& those sweet sweet things that you said to me
while you lay in my arms sweat sweatingly
& the words expressed I've expressly forgot
I just remember the smoke & the sweat & Beaufort West
& your naked body under a cool, summer cotton dress
no more sleep, no more laughter
no longer do things for each other
never ever kiss each other again

& maybe it's like a tale from the Daily Mail
but one evening you suddenly pushed me away
& in the rear view mirror you looked at your face
& said "maybe I should try to look happy anyway"
that night I could neither sleep nor dream
I felt how my heart was being ripped from my chest
& like a dinghy drifted on down the stream
I couldn't sleep any more, laugh any more
I couldn't do things right
never kiss you again

& the last reminiscence of which I sing
is the night you & I rode on the milk train on and on into the night
until the other side of the ding-dong gong
when the breakfast waiter passed us by
& that was my wake-up call my love
you said "love me, please"
but I'd dreamt we went & lived in Beaufort West
& I couldn't sleep any more, or laugh any more
no longer do something like that
or ever kiss you again