Xhosa poetry

In the early 1970s I chanced upon a small book of poems translated from Xhosa that has in the years since intrigued me with an implicit set of questions around self-expression in one’s mother tongue. The pamphlet was The Making of a Servant and Other Poems, translated by Robert Kavanagh and Z.S. Quangule, by the publisher Ophir, dated 1972.

This is the first verse of the title poem:

I can no longer ask how it feels
To be choked by a yoke-rope
Because I have seen it for myself in the chained ox.
The blindness has left my eyes. I have become aware,
I have seen the making of a servant
In the young yoke-ox.

The poem, published in 1936, powerfully conveys the feeling of being part of a system that condemns a whole group of people to a life of servitude and deprivation, the reality of the colonial arrangement of the Union of South Africa declared in 1910.

The poem’s metaphors and contain acute political observation, for instance, the following stanza describing how the violence of oppression makes the oppressed themselves prone to violence against their fellow sufferers.

Though he stumbled and fell, he was bitten on the tail.
Sometimes I saw him raking at his yoke-mate
With his horns - his friend of a minute, his blood-brother.
The suffering under the yoke makes for bad blood.
I have seen the making of a servant
In the young yoke-ox.

The poetry impressed me not only because of its frank manifestation of the loathing of the colonial dispossession of Africans in South Africa but also its energetic and original use of metaphor. Rather than mimicking colonial English poetry, the poet had employed his own voice, based on his own culture.

The questions that the 19-page booklet posed immediately for me, as someone keenly interested in South African verse, was: Why hadn’t I come across much Xhosa-language or Zulu-language poetry in translation before and especially why I had not encountered anywhere the excellent poetry of this volume? I was aware of a rich strain of South African poetry developing in South Africa, both overtly political and unavoidably conditioned by politics, but the poems in this volume seemed more powerful to me for having nor ingested whole the Western canon of poetry. Make no mistake, the English influence can be seen, for instance in the form and construction of The Making of a Servant poem. But it seemed to me that the poetry had benefited hugely from being written in the mother tongue of the writer.

What prompted my thought was my own discovery of the potent freshness of modern Afrikaans poetry in the 1960s and 1970s, unshackled from the clanking English idiom. As pleasant as I remember my early encounter with Eugene Marais’ poems, the first Afrikaans verse English speakers would encounter in school, and one of the first Afrikaans poets, those poem almost seemed like English poems translated into Afrikaans, as brilliantly fabricated as they are.

Take Diep Rivier:

O, diep rivier, o donker stroom
Hoe lank het ek gewag, hoe lank gedroom?
Oh deep river, oh murky stream
How long did I wait, how long dream?

Here then, in JJR Jolobe’s verse and the verse of other Xhosa poets was more proof for my theory that poets should write in their mother tongue and be translated rather than learning to write in English. Counter examples exist, I’m sure. Certainly, in prose, some second-language English speakers write superbly. Vladimir Nabokov’s fame is built on the novels he wrote in English rather than those he wrote in his native Russian.

So, you may ask, why, if I’m so impressed with Jolobe’s Making of a Servant, do I not reproduce the whole poem here? An important principle, much neglected in social media, prevents me. Jolobe’s work itself may now be in the public domain, but the translations are not. If his work is in the public domain, and I could translate Xhosa, I would publish a translation on this blog. As it is, I know of his verse the through the translation published in 1972 by two writers. They themselves may not mind their translation being republished without reward, but I haven’t contacted them. Many poets do not mind in the least having their work republished anywhere, their interest lying in being read rather than remunerated. But not all.

The wonderfully funny poet Wendy Cope is on record as being bitterly opposed to the piracy of her poetry. She’d like people to buy her books of verse. Hence, on principle I generally only reproduce snippets from poets’ work unless they are long dead, and their work is genuinely in the public domain.

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