Hiding in Plain Sight: The Bushman/San narratives and the influence of Western translators.

In this essay, I will explore how the Bushman culture is presented through folklore and examine how various translators have acted as conduits. I will analyse whether it is correct to group the Bushman together into one unit and follow chronologically the different labels that have been applied to these people; Bushmen, San, and /Xam. For this reason, I will be using the term Bushmen interchangeably with San. It has fallen out of favour recently because of its perceived pejorative aspect but I will argue that it is no more disparaging than San or /Xam and indeed, no less accurate. I will follow the presentation of the Bushmen through Bleek and Lloyd and their Specimens of Bushman Folklore[1] to more recent translations of the Bushman texts as well as look at contemporary novels by J. M. Coetzee. I will argue that Bushmen stories are appropriated by Western writers to display changing Western attitudes. When explaining the extent to which European philologists produced the Bushman narratives, it helps to begin by recognising a simple fact: Bushman narratives are oral and the genre in which a modern audience experiences them is written. This process changes the text fundamentally. A result of the change from oral to written, Desdemaines-Hugon notes[2], is that the culture whose narrative has been written become easier to conquer, lending an imperialist purpose to the work of Bleek and Lloyd.

The stories that make up any collection of Bushman folktales purport to be the accurate representation of an entire culture’s mythology. They are an insight into another way of life, highlighting similarities and pinpointing differences. On the one hand demonstrating the mosaic of culture that create the world and on the other showing the innate, recognisable aspects that unite all humans. The fact they are a representation raises the problem inherent in all translated texts; there is a medium through which the stories have to pass to get from speaker to reader. This medium should act as a lens and clarify but there is always the risk that it will instead be a filter and distort what passes through it. The latter is true of Bleek and Lloyd’s Specimens of Bushman Folklore. The text as it comes to the modern reader reveals more about its compilers and authors than it does about the Bushmen, and it reflects a nineteenth-century attitude more than an indigenous African one.

The title chosen for the work, Specimens of Bushman Folklore is the first revealing look at the purpose of the text. The word ‘specimen’ has connotations of scientific collections; pinned butterflies, examples of rock types, catalogued fossils, all recorded and displayed. The title suggests that The purpose of the work therefore is not to reveal the hidden culture of an African people as an end in itself, but to do that as a means for Western academics to better understand and objectify the world. The theme of collecting is explicitly mentioned in the Preface to the work (p. vii) and stating that Bleek was a collector. Mark McKinlay noted that when viewing a collection, more is revealed about the collector than about the various items that have been assembled so fastidiously[3]. It is the collector who gives objects their importance and their meaning. So too therefore will the stories Bleek has collected reveal more about him and what he considers important than about the Bushmen themselves.

The importance of Bleek to the work is significant because he becomes the protagonist of the work. The academic reality of philology is given a sense of urgency in the Introduction with the narrative of the Bushman history and how it is shown to be coming to an end. The history begins with the postulation that the Bushmen once covered the whole of Africa and maybe parts of Europe and Asia, but had shrunk to a small area of South Western Africa (p. xxxii). His hard work was a dramatic race against time lending him further merit in the cataloguing of a ‘fast dying remnant of a primitive race’ (p. xxxiv). The myth of Bleek is more important than the myths he was collecting.

The history of the African continent is only ever shown through the way it interacts with white settlers. The San have not merely stopped being a ‘distinct people’ (p. xxv), they had done so before white Europeans had ever encountered them. This manner of the African only gaining relevance through her interaction with the European makes up the entire structure of the book. The lay out, with one page, the verso, used for the original Bushmen story, told in their own language though not their own alphabet, and the rector page for an English translation, brings about a number of problems. First is the alphabet used to display the Bushmen story, devised by Bleek. It uses Latin script as its primary base along with the inclusion of a few symbols to represent sounds not available in English. These symbols are still European typographic symbols and so the attempt to represent an authentic Bushmen voice is a European creation.

The verso and recto layout is also interesting. On the surface it is logical, the original story followed by its translated form befitting the European tradition of left to right reading. This is problematic because it places the English translation on the recto, more dominant page. It is on the page traditionally used to begin books and chapters within them[4]. The Bushman original is on the verso, turned side. The page, just like the Bushmen themselves, are only important and named by how they relate to the other, European, page. Recto and verso are not absolute terms for the left and right sides. In other cultures, where right to left reading is the tradition, the terms are reversed. In this way the maintaining of the Western tradition places the Bushmen firmly within it, they have been made subservient to the dominant culture. Their otherness is also apparent here, the Bushmen are literally the opposite of the Europeans.

Bleek’s inability to represent the San narratives accurately is demonstrated throughout his text. He keeps interrupting the San voice with jarring square parentheses[5]. Bleek’s voice talks over the San voice as he becomes what I term an intrusive translator. The reader is never allowed to forget that the work is Bleek’s and he must be at the forefront throughout. Bleek guesses at meaning and intent, ‘he spares the sinew [spinal chord?] because I spoke’, and so the translation has to be considered inaccurate at worst and suspect at best. This problem of translating oral testimony and changing meaning is actually examined in the text of the story of ‘The Moon and the Hare. The hare gets the moon’s testimony wrong, ‘it did not say that which the moon had said’,[6] and is punished for it.

It seems that the San narrative is one that is impossible to translate faithfully. This could be because the Bushman/San/!Xam is an artificial community, created by the West in an attempt to contextualise them. The Bushmen themselves do not think of themselves as a homogenous unit. They recognise the smaller group they belong to, which is mainly ‘family based’ and ‘relatively fluid’[7]. The Bushmen don’t even have a word for themselves, leading to an anxiety on the part of people trying to label them. All the terms that have been ascribed to them have been considered derogatory and pejorative at some point in their use, namely because they are imposed by groups of people, previously colonisers and now ethnographers[8]. For these reasons it becomes apparent that the San as a unit is a fiction. They are just individuals who share a geographic area.

This manner of using the San to find a new media for projecting a Western viewpoint into the world has been picked up on by many critics. David Johnson makes the point that the term which Bleek translated in ‘folklore’, kakummi, does mean folklore at all[9]. Kakummirather refers to all manner of stories and communications. Bleek’s choice to term them folklore hints at a teleological view of the San. They still tell their folklore tales whereas in the West, folklore has been usurped by formal religion, and later, science. The San are now as we once were and instead of learning about them, the hint is that we may learn about ourselves instead. Even David Johnson is not immune to showing his own attitudes towards the San. He acknowledges that ‘Western writers have projected their own concerns onto the San’[10] while at the same time referring to Bleek’s interviewees as ‘informants’[11] showing how he regards them as traitors. They have told their story, and in Johnson’s view, given it away.

The genre that the folktales are presented in is also important in showing how the translators establish who the San are. The ‘Foolishness of the Little Hare’ is presented as a poem[12] but Alan James reminds us that the poem is based on ‘a part of [a] narration’. The decision to present it as a poem therefore seems to come from the translator. Duncan Brown in fact describes the line divisions as being ‘somewhat arbitrary’[13], before introducing his own.

The assumptions regarding form are not the only assumptions made regarding these stories. ‘Broken String’ tells the story of the death of an important figure in San culture. Brown claims that in lamenting the loss of a cultural leader, the narrative also ‘anticipates the destruction of the San’[14]. The text certainly can be read as foreshadowing, and the dramatic irony within the story offers an illuminating view of the narrative. What is problematic is the critic’s belief that the ‘power’ of the text lies in this interpretation. That may be where the power lies for some twentieth-century Western readers, but the power to the San would have been in the death of the shaman. In this way just reading the poem becomes an act of translation and meaning is altered as readers project their own attitudes and beliefs onto the story.

Antjie Krog’s translation[15] of a story from Kabbo, one of Bleek and Lloyd’s interviewees, is revealing in the extent to which Western authors have dictated the way in which the Bushman story is presented to us. Kabbo himself is regarded as one of the most important of Bleek and Lloyd’s interviewees, being called a ‘storyteller [and a] visionary’[16]. Krog’s translation of ‘//Kabbo’s Intended Return Home’ demonstrates a lot of the issues the reader faces in trying to ascertain to what degree the translator’s intent supersedes the Bushman’s. The title of the work which the piece is from explicitly states that the Bushman stories are poetry. Also the Bushman are referred to as /Xam, which shows an attempt at a very modern politically correct depiction of the Bushmen by using pronunciations that are not part of Western language.

When viewing the text, graphically it is clearly a poem with all the line breaks which a Western reader would expect from the genre. However, in the reading of the poem, it comes across as a spoken monologue. There is no punctuation at the ends of lines giving a relentless quality to the work. If //Kabbo had sat down to write a piece of poetry, then the incessant enjambment would be something to take note of, but as it was the result of a conversation, the decision of Krog to present it as a poem suggests a desire on her part to elevate the text above merely an imprisoned man’s lament for his family and home, into a poem. While Krog’s intention to separate out the distinct stories from other overlapping narratives explains the isolating of various stories[17], it still does not explain the choice of poetry as genre. An assumption of the importance of song to the San may explain this partly but it seems more likely that it is part of an attempt to show the value of indigenous cultures. This is of course a positive example of multi-culturalism and it is undeniable true that indigenous cultures have much of value to offer to academia. It is the decision to use a very specific genre that speaks to an anxiety on the part of the translator. The Bushmen stories should stand on their own as an example of a different culture, they should not need to be put into an alien genre to bring them alive.

Krog’s anxiety over just how much ‘Western’ influence to put on the San is evident in her grammatical choices. While she is keen to show that the San are culturally the equal of other cultures that write poetry, Krog has decided they are also distinct in their use of grammar. None of the lines begin with capital letters, demonstrating that this is not standard ‘Western’ poetry. Krog does however give capital letters to nouns ‘I’ and ‘Flat Bushmen’. This shows the importance of self and distinct types of Bushmen. Flat, as opposed to Mountain and Grass[18], and further suggests that the name of San or /Xam is erroneous and refers to a group of people who consider themselves distinct from each other. The lack of capital letters to begin each line, or to begin anything in the poem, suggests a story which is ongoing. There is no beginning to the poem in a traditionally Western manner, therefore there is no end. The reader comes into it when it has already begun and will leave it before it ends. The story does not exist for the Western reader, it was already there and has only just been revealed to us.

In terms of authorial authority over texts, something which I argue the Bushmen do not exercise in Specimens, Coetzee’s Dusklands[19] offers some issues for further consideration. Coetzee is the author of the text, the cover and title page tells the reader as much. Coetzee also appears as a character in ‘The Vietnam Project’ (p. 1), however the reader is not meant to believe that this is the same man as the author of the book. The narrator of ‘The Vietnam Project’ is opposed throughout the text to the Coetzee character, they are at odds over the work the narrator is undertaking. In ‘The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee’, the reader is again presented with a character called Coetzee who this time assumes the authorial voice with his intrusive preface. Because of the provenance of the work stemming from Coetzee’s time at the University of Texas at Austin[20] this Coetzee can be assumed to be the real one but for the inclusion of a fictional father, S. J. Coetzee[21]. The first Coetzee in Dusklands is fictional, so this one could be too. As Coetzee has explored elsewhere in his work, the autobiographical voice takes on the role of a character and is not fully representative of the author[22][23] as it will always be one step removed from the author. This suggests a link with the Bushman stories. They cannot be representative of the Bushman culture because they are removed from it. They are written down, not oral, and they are translated. Just as Coetzee knew that the narrative voice could never be the same as the authorial, the Bushmen voice must be lost in translation.

The continuing privilege of the Western writer to determine where the ‘power’ of the Bushmen lies is evidenced further in Dusklands. In ‘The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee’, the power of the white European takes on a post-colonial twist and instead of the celebrated ingenuity of Bleek, the white male in Africa is presented in a self-loathing way common to the genre, in an attempt to ‘[militate] against guilt’[24]. Determining to what extent the self-loathing is deserved is not the aim of this essay, but it must be clear that the attitude is expressed. Coetzee makes quite clear that the European settlers were a destructive, vengeful force in Africa. The narrator comes close to understanding his role as destroyer in the lingering, unanswered question, ‘may I not have killed something of inestimable beauty?’ (p. 106). The rhetorical question hangs in the ether, the narrator not daring to answer it for fear of what it would mean for him. From Jacobus Coetzee’s single minded, Ahab-like zeal for vengeance that emerges when he is humiliated in front of the Khoikhoi (p. 88), to his graphic and informal description of one of the murders he commits in which Jacobus shoots a man in the head and notes that ‘whatever happened in the pap inside his head left his eyes crossed’ (p. 104), he is shown to be responsible for the destruction of the Khoikhoi community. He is presented as something of a clown in the horrendous descriptions of the boil he develops and the subsequent self-laceration to rid himself of it (p.89). The reader is invited to laugh along with the khoikhoi at Jacobus in these passages, as his clothes are ‘whipped… from the bank where they lay’ (p.89). The self-loathing white European male makes fun of himself and encourages the reader to position themselves as the khoikhoi audience. Despite being another attempt to show the reader what khoisan culture is like, and how it functions, ‘The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee’ falls into the same trap as Bleek and Lloyd’s work and instead only analyses the European role in Africa. Whereas in Bleek the role was to document and contextualise, in Coetzee it is to destroy. The khoisan story is still secondary to the European story, despite Coetzee’s repudiation.

The power of the translator is apparent in ‘Jacobus Coetzee’. The text begins with the translator’s Preface in which Coetzee explains that his work is a double translation as it is an English translation of a Dutch work and also of the original Afrikaans introduction (p. 55). The power of J. M. Coetzee as translator is demonstrated by his being the first voice the reader is introduced to and the way in which he has pushed the original Afrikaans introduction to the back. This power is demonstrated in the translated text. J. M. Coetzee takes the narrative of Jacobus Coetzee, which we know to be an authentic seventeenth-century text and changes it to present a different opinion. The original oral testimony of Jacobus Coetzee gave the facts of his journeys into the bush and J. M. Coetzee added in motives and an interior monologue which is a fiction and so changes the meaning of the original text. There is an obvious similarity between the Bushman narratives and Jacobus Coetzee’s in that they were both oral testimonies which were recorded. We know Jacobus Coetzee’s original version was oral because he ‘signed with an X, indicating [his] illiteracy’[25].

The companion story to ‘The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee ‘in Dusklands, ‘The Vietnam Project’ makes an attempt to show contemporary, twentieth-century colonisation, but the text again shows how it is experienced by a Westerner. By combining the colonial experience of the Vietnamese and the Bushmen, Coetzee invites the reader to make connections but he makes the same mistake as Bleek did nearly a century before when he grouped together all the various groups of Bushmen into one unit. It is not that Coetzee assumes the experience of the two cultures vastly different in time and place were the same, it is that it does not matter. The texts are not about the colonised people but about the colonisers.

The stories that make up the canon of Bushman folklore come from a handful of prisoners interviewed in South Africa over a century ago. The stories were translated and published and have been retranslated by numerous writers over the last hundred years. Differences in culture and language such as misunderstandings over the true meaning of the word kakummi, and attempts to define the Bushman/Sam//Xam, have distorted the meaning of the texts. The modern reader coming to the stories has to pass through different geographic and chronological ideologies to understand the text. As zeitgeists have changed so too has where emphases have been placed on aspects of the stories. The reader learns much about different cultures, but very little about the Bushmen, the predominant ideologies displayed are those of the translators. The translator in the case of the Bushman is always at the surface of the text, continuously deciding what is important about the words and showing off what she believes to be important. The Bushman folk tales, more than any other it would seem, are unable to be translated accurately. The stories are a rich area of world literature, able to be dissected and analysed as much as any other work, but they are very much the work of Western philologists and it is their art which is analysed and read critically. The great trouble in analysing the texts is that they have so little connection philosophically with the Bushmen that even a critical analysis exploring this issue betrays its author’s attitudes, not the San’s. This is because there just is not enough of the Bushmen in the Bushmen folk tales. They are a culture which has effectively died out, and despite the efforts of Bleek and Lloyd, or perhaps because of them, their folk tales have been lost as well.

[1] W. H. I. Bleek & L. C. Lloyd, eds. Specimens of Bushman Folklore (London: George Allen & Company, 1911). Further references will appear in the text.

[2]Christine Desdemaines-Hugon,Stepping-Stones: A Journey Through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordogne, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) p. 75

[3] Mark B. McKinley (2007) The Psychology of Collecting [Online] Available at http://nationalpsychologist.com/2007/01/the-psychology-of-collecting/10904.html (Accessed 18 June 2016).

[4] Ruth Ann Jones, (n. d.) Publishing and Book Design Basics: Elements of page design [Online] Available at http://libguides.lib.msu.edu/c.php?g=97090&p=908734 (Accessed 20 June 2016)

[5] Mathia Guenther, Bushman Folktales: Oral Traditions of the Nharo of Botswana and the /Xam of the Cape (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden, 1989), p. 72. Reprinted in A815 Reading Guide, Block 4 (Milton Keynes: Open University, 2009), p. 32

[6] Mathias Guenther, Bushman Folktales: Oral Traditions of the Nharo of Botswana and the /Xam of the Cape (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden, 1989), pp. 71–75. Reprinted in A815 Reading Guide, Block 4 (Milton Keynes: Open University, 2009), p. 34.

[7] David Johnson and Shafquat Towheed, ‘Reading Guide for Block 4: Stories from colonial encounters’, in Course Materials for A815 (Milton Keynes: Open University, 2009) p. 7.

[8] David Johnson and Shafquat Towheed, ‘Reading Guide for Block 4: Stories from colonial encounters’, in Course Materials for A815 (Milton Keynes: Open University, 2009) pp. 6–7.

[9] David Johnson and Shafquat Towheed, ‘Reading Guide for Block 4: Stories from colonial encounters’, in Course Materials for A815 (Milton Keynes: Open University, 2009) p. 7.

[10] David Johnson and Shafquat Towheed, ‘Reading Guide for Block 4: Stories from colonial encounters’, in Course Materials for A815 (Milton Keynes: Open University, 2009) p. 9.

[11] David Johnson and Shafquat Towheed, ‘Reading Guide for Block 4: Stories from colonial encounters’, in Course Materials for A815 (Milton Keynes: Open University, 2009) p. 14.

[12] Alan James, The First Bushman’s Path: Stories, Songs and Testimonies of the /Xam of the Northern Cape (Scottsvile: University of Natal Press, 2001), p. 153.

[13] Duncan Brown, Voicing the Text: South African Oral Poetry and Performance (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1998). Reprinted in A815 Reading Guide, Block 4 (Milton Keynes: Open University, 2009), p. 71.

[14] Duncan Brown, Voicing the Text: South African Oral Poetry and Performance (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1998). Reprinted in A815 Reading Guide, Block 4 (Milton Keynes: Open University, 2009), p. 72.

[15] Antjie Krog, ‘//Kabbo’s intended return home’ in the stars say ‘tsau’: /Xam Poetry of Diä!kwain, Kweiten-Ta-//Ken, /A!kúnta, Han≠kass’o, and //Kabbo (Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2004), pp. 50–3. Reprinted in A815 Reading Guide, Block 4 (Milton Keynes: Open University, 2009), pp. 79–80.

[16] Sylvia Volenhoven (n. d.) //Kabbo: Rainmaker, Storyteller & Visionary [Online]. Available at http://www.thejournalist.org.za/pioneers/kabbo-uhi-ddoro-jantje-tooren-rainmaker-storyteller-visionary (Accessed 18 June 2016).

[17] Michael Wessels (2009) ‘Bleek and Lloyd Collection’, from Encyclopedia of South African Arts, Culture and Heritage [Online] Available at http://www.esaach.org.za/index.php?title=Bleek_and_Lloyd_Collection&action=history (Accessed 18 June 2016)

[18] Michael Wessels (2009) ‘Bleek and Lloyd Collection’, from Encyclopedia of South African Arts, Culture and Heritage [Online] Available at http://www.esaach.org.za/index.php?title=Bleek_and_Lloyd_Collection&action=history (Accessed 18 June 2016)

[19] J. M. Coetzee. Dusklands (London: Vintage, 1982). Further references will appear in the text.

[20] David Attwell, J. M. Coetzee & the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 56.

[21] David Attwell, J.M Coetzee & the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 56.

[22] J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life. (London: Secker & Warburg, 1997).

[23] J. M. Coetzee, Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II. (London: Secker & Warburg, 2002).

[24] Stephen Chan, (2014) ‘The Limits of Guilt and Correctness: The Postcolonial Metropole and Postcolonial Literature’ in European Review of International Studies, Vol. 1 (3), p. 124.

[25] David Attwell, J.M Coetzee & the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 56.

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