My work blog

J.M. Coetzee, writer and translator

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I think it’s fair to say that the (two-time) Booker Prize-winner and (one-time) Nobel Prize-winner J.M. Coetzee is better known for his novels and essays than for his translations. In fact, I’m not even really sure I knew that Coetzee had done some translations until I discovered one of these works quite by a chance in a second-hand bookshop some time ago.

The book in question is A Posthumous Confession, a translation – “from the Netherlandic”, readers are told – of  Een nagelaten bekentenis (1896), by the Dutch novelist Marcellus Emants (1848-1923). Coetzee’s translation was released in 1975 as volume 7 in the quaintly named “Library of Netherlandic Literature” edited by the no less quaintly named Egbert Krispyn and published by Twayne: Coetzee’s name is visible in the bottom right-hand corner of the front cover (pictured below left). By a strange coincidence, I see that the novel was reissued earlier this year by New York Review Books, with an introduction by Coetzee, dating, however, from the mid eighties (pictured below right).

A Posthumous Confession is not Coetzee’s only translation. He has also translated from Afrikaans The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenström: it was first published by Jonathan Ball in Johannesburg in 1983 and by Faber in London in 1984. It was reissued by the South African publisher Human & Rousseau in March of last year. And in 2003, Coetzee brought out a volume of Dutch poetry, Landscape with Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands, in a bilingual edition published by Princeton University Press.

For readers who are well acquainted with Coetzee’s fiction and who have enough knowledge of Dutch (and perhaps Afrikaans) to read these works in the original, it must be interesting to go over his translations to try to discover stylistic and perhaps thematic overlappings between his own work as a novelist and the works he chose to translate. Indeed, more so than in any other type of translation, here readers really are left wondering who they are in fact reading, whose voice it is they are listening to, whether that of the original author, or that of the translator.


Written by Patrick Lennon

October 18, 2011 at 9:53 pm

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