Interview with Alice Inggs

by Jacob Collum

  Photo by Justin N. Lane

One of the striking features of your translations of Nathan Trantraal’s verse is the use of dialect. What is your process for translating not just the meaning, but also the sense and sound of Trantraal’s poetry into English?

This was one of the most interesting aspects of translating this poetry. Nathan writes in the vernacular or “Kaaps” dialect, a variant of Afrikaans spoken almost exclusively on the Cape Peninsula in the Western Cape province of South Africa. He uses phonetic spelling for the most part, and, as there is no official Kaaps dictionary, there are no set “rules” (contrasting with “standard Afrikaans”). My first draft was a “straight” translation using conventional English spelling and grammar. The translation was technically correct, but the meaning and impression the originals conveyed was totally lost. I began by looking at how phonetic spelling might work in English and what English phonetic contractions are used elsewhere, such as in SMS/Twitter (“lyk” is a good example). Something like “innie” is a phonetic spelling of the Kaapse Afrikaans pronunciation of “in die” (“in the”), which then became “inna.” I spent a lot of time reading the translation out loud to see if it rang true.

My first draft was...technically correct, but the meaning and impression the originals conveyed was totally lost.

Trantraal’s poetry, though written in its own, specific, cultural context, still feels immediate and accessible in your translation. What have been some of your challenges and successes of translating, not just between languages, but across cultures as well?

It was important to me that the translated voice didn’t sound unintelligent. The sound and pronunciation of the poems are also important – they’re meant to be read out loud or sounded out. I think I’ve been successful in terms of picking contractions and grammar that make sense in relation to the original poems and also work in the English translation. My consistency could be better, but then again a language such as Kaapse Afrikaans, which is predominantly spoken and based on pronunciation, is particularly changeable.

It was important to me that the translated voice didn’t sound unintelligent.

Your piece in issue 3, the translation of Nathan Trantraal’s “Valhalla Park,” makes reference to a specific place in Cape Town, South Africa. What’s the significance of this place in the context of the poem?

Valhalla Park is a township on the Cape Flats, originally demarcated during apartheid for people classified “non-white” and specifically “Coloured” (mixed race) following forced removals from central Cape Town. As a result of this racially motivated social engineering, there are widespread social and economic issues in this area, such as gang-related violence and high levels of unemployment and drug abuse. Despite this, the area is densely populated and there is a strong sense of community. The predominant language spoken in Valhalla Park is Kaapse Afrikaans. I think the significance of naming this particular area in the poem is that it fixes the imagery spatially and contextually, and better illustrates life in the area outside of newspaper headlines.

In addition to your work in translation, journalism, and photography, you are also an editor for Ons Klyntji, which, according to the website, is “the first magazine to appear in Afrikaans.” Can you tell us more about the magazine and about your experience as an editor there?

Ons Klyntji was established in 1896 by Die Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners (The Society of Real Afrikaners). At that time, it was a very conservative, doctrinal publication. In the mid-1990s, after being forgotten for several decades, Ons Klyntji was revived as a tongue-in-cheek underground zine by the alternative Afrikaans singer Koos Kombuis. It is now published annually as a literary zine featuring a selection of poetry, prose, and illustrations by debut writers alongside established South African writers and artists, including Lesego Rampolokeng, Rian Milan, Eben Venter, and Anton Kannemeyer. Ons Klyntji exists as both a print publication and a website, which are independent of each other but work to the same purpose – publishing writing (in Afrikaans, English and other languages in translation) by South Africans that says something about living in this country.

I became a co-editor in 2016 and mainly help with commissioning, proofreading, and layout. The theme of the 2017 issue is “international” and features work by South Africans living and working abroad, in countries such as the Netherlands, Georgia, Australia, Germany, India, and New Zealand. This adds a really interesting dimension to the issue, exhibiting how living outside South Africa has shaped the way South Africans write Afrikaans and English, as well as the ways they write about and relate to the concept of “home.”

I think the significance of naming this particular area in the poem is that it fixes the imagery spatially and contextually, and better illustrates life in the area outside of newspaper headlines.

What other projects are you working on or have coming out now?

A recent project was translating poems from Bibi Slippers’ award-winning debut collection, Fotostaatmasjien (Photostat Machine), for Asymptote journal (out October 19th). The collection is very concept-driven and the poems often have specific rhyme schemes or visual structures. The translation was a really fun, interesting challenge.


ALICE INGGS is Editor-at-Large at Asymptote Journal of Translation. Editor of Voice at Don't Party. Contributor to Monocle, Vice, Rolling Stone South Africa, Go! travel magazine, Spin, Your Live Music Guide, Mahala.

JACOB COLLUM is Translation Editor at The Arkansas International. He received his BA from Berry College and is an MFA in Translation candidate at the University of Arkansas.