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Karin Schimke Talks About Translating Ingrid Jonker’s Love Letters for Flame in the Snow

Flame in the SnowVlam in die sneeuNovember sees the publication of what is said to be one of the most important pieces of South African literary history to see the light in recent years.

Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker is translated by Leon de Kock and Karin Schimke, and edited by Francis Galloway. Naturally it will also be available in Afrikaans, the language the letters were originally written in, as Vlam in die sneeu: Die liefdesbriewe van André P Brink en Ingrid Jonker.

Schimke met up with LitNet’s Naomi Meyer to talk about the massive project that was the translation of Jonker’s words to English. De Kock took care of Brink’s words to ensure that the English document had two distinctly different voices. She shares more about the project as a whole, how she approached the intimate love letters and the decisions she made during the translation process.

“Translation is an imperfect art. If perfection is the aim, you have failed before you have begun,” Schimke says. She goes on: “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.”

Schimke also reveals what she learnt about Jonker through this close reading of her letters and says that the infamous poet “was, first and foremost, a struggling single mother working in soul-destroying jobs”. On her writing, and the difference between Jonker and Brink’s writing, Schimke says: “Ingrid’s poetry was deeply and unashamedly personal. She didn’t, like André, try to grapple great ideas into long novels. Her work feels grounded and embodied. There is a presence and immediacy in both her poetry and her letters and they seem, to me at least, inseparably, undividedly hers.”

Read the article for insight to what is sure to be a fascinating book:

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.

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