Afrikaans+ Iliad

This one’s getting quite a bit of press coverage in various venues … the Telegraph piece has been brought to my attention by myriad readers, so myriad tips o’ the pileus accrue:

Richard Whitaker, the Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Cape Town, said he wanted to celebrate South African English, a patois that takes in words from Afrikaans and the country’s 10 other official African languages, while helping his students to gain a clearer understanding of the polemic poem.

The 3,000-year-old text has been translated into virtually every language in the world, and there are more than 70 English versions, tackled by Greek scholars, poets and even British Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Smith-Stanley, the 14th Earl of Derby.

But Oxford and St Andrews-educated Prof Whitaker said that aspects in common between the traditional Greek and African societies was lost in European-centric translations.

“There are traditions that resonate far more for South Africans,” he said.

“The references to a bride price, where brides were sold for cattle, for example, is much more understandable to an African audience than a European elite.” The resulting translation took him 10 years to produce and sees European concepts such as kings, princes and palaces replaced with “amakhosi” (the Zulu and Xhosa word for chiefs and headmen), “kgotla” (the Tswana word for community councils), and “kraals” (Afrikaans for homestead).

Achilles, armed with his “assegai” (traditional spear), vanquishes many Trojan “impis” (the Zulu word for regiments), before he and his men celebrate with a feast of grilled meat which South Africans of all races refer to as a “braai”.

It took 61-year-old Prof Whitaker ten years to produce his South African version and, given the cold shoulder by the country’s university presses, he has published 300 copies of the 528-page text himself in the hope that it will be of interest both to scholars and ordinary South Africans.

He has already had some success: the respected Rhodes University in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape has put it on the curriculum for the next academic year, along with the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in Durban and Prof Whitaker’s own University of Cape Town.

Prof Whitaker now has his eyes set on a similar translation of Homer’s Odyssey. He hopes others will follow his lead in celebrating South Africa’s melting pot of languages, like all other aspects of race so fiercely kept apart previously by the apartheid government.

“It’s important for postcolonial countries to make their own connections with the classics – they belong to all of us,” he said.

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