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Jo-Marie Claassen, N.P. van Wyk Louw, Germanicus: Translated and with an Introduction.

Jo-Marie Claassen, N.P. van Wyk Louw, Germanicus: Translated and with an Introduction. Smashwords Dragonfly eBooks, 2013. (11) Pp. 142. ISBN 9781301402489. Price US$10.00.

Germanicus is one of the few characters who emerges with positive, even perhaps heroic, qualities in the early books of Tacitus' Annals. The great Afrikaans poet, N.P. van Wyk Louw, chose him as the central character in an Afrikaans play that was first published and performed in 1956. It enjoyed critical acclaim, as the award of the prestigious Hertzog prize for Drama in 1960 attests. Now the well-known South African classicist, Jo-Marie Claassen, has made this verse drama available to the wider world by publishing her poetic English translation online.

The translation is preceded by an extensive introduction (pp. 9-35) in which Claassen provides various kinds of information to aid the reader. She deals with the historical background, the contents of the first three chapters of Tacitus' Annals, and their interpretation by scholars. Louw's own mid-twentieth century context and his role as Afrikaans poet are discussed, as well as the themes of his Germanicus. Claassen has clear aims for her translation. They are ambitious; she wants readers to react to her version as they would have reacted to Louw's 'had they been able to understand Afrikaans' (p. 23). She explains how she went about her translation, opting for metrical lines which stay as close as possible to the original metre. That she manages to achieve this while rendering each Afrikaans line into one in English and preserving the meaning without distortion is a considerable achievement. At the end of the volume there is a select bibliography, which, like the introduction, covers various topics: theories of translation, the history of Afrikaans literature, Louw's literary work and the Tacitean source material. There is thus provision for plenty of further reading for the interested newcomer to the historic material or to Louw's work.

Claassen's clear organisation continues in the translation itself. She provides links to the Afrikaans text by inserting the page numbers of the original in square brackets. A line by line comparison is thus easy for those who would like to investigate the original.

The cast of characters in Germanicus come from different social strata, but Louw's language does not reflect this. The aristocratic Germanicus, his wife Agrippina, and other characters like Piso, speak the same highly poetic Afrikaans as the common soldiers do. There are occasional examples where the soldiers use more colloquial expressions, but their Afrikaans tends to be of a higher register than one would expect of their lowly status. Claassen mentions Louw's idiosyncratic lexicon. His poetic language admits archaisms and he also uses neologisms. All these factors allow considerable scope for a similar mixture of the elevated and the colloquial in the English.

Examples of two short extracts illustrate Claassen's masterful rendering of the Afrikaans lines into equivalent English:
      DERDE SOLDAAT [Kragtig]
   Nou is die uur. Manne, kom luister hier!
   Dis een van julle self wat praat. Ek ken,
   soos julle, hoon en trap en swaar-kry;
   die stok van die honderdman; die houtdra; graaf
   in die kliphard wintergrond; stawel met die hande
   wat styf geryp is, tot die naels op die wortel slyt. (p. 7)

      THIRD SOLDIER [Forcefully]
   Now is the hour. Soldiers, come and listen here.
   It's one of you that's speaking here. I know,
   as you do, shame and blows and suffering;
   the centurion's staff, the burden to carry wood, to dig
   in stone-hard winter earth; to pile up sods with hands
   frozen stiff with frost, nails worn down to the quick. (p. 42)

The words and syntax of the soldier come from the higher register of Afrikaans and contain a neologism 'honderdman', literally 'hundredman', Louw's invention for a centurion. This may be one of the easier passages to turn into English, but Claassen is equally successful where the original has strong emotional and rhetorical force. Here Thusnelda, captured wife of the German leader Arminius, defies Germanicus:
   Ek ken U nie ... miskien,
   miskien is U selfs edel:
   maar die Ryk gebruik ook edeles vir sy werk
   om die sagte woorde na die gruweldaad,
   na die neerslaan en oorrrompeling te se.
   Selfs as U sag praat, praat die blinde mag. (p. 45)

   I don't know you ... perhaps,
   perhaps you may be noble:
   but noble Romans also bow to serve
   to give soft names to horror-deeds,
   and after carnage and fell battery to speak.
   Your softest words reflect blind might. (p.74)

Louw's play is an example of classical reception where the poet has taken information from one genre of ancient literature, in this instance historiography, and transformed it creatively into a work in a different genre. Other modern plays which fall into this category are Ben Jonson's Sejanus: His Fall and Albert Camus' Caligula. Thus far Germanicus has been studied only by those who understand Afrikaans. Jo-Marie Claassen has made this important text accessible to Anglophone readers across the world. Her sensitive rendition of Louw's text enables readers to gain a very good understanding of Louw's treatment of the historic material. This translation is clearly a work of devotion and should be read by all with an interest in twentieth-century drama. The themes of Germanicus, the moral challenges facing those in power and those who aspire to power, are timeless and are presented here in an accomplished way.

Betine van Zyl Smit (University of Nottingham)

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Author:Smit, Betine van Zyl
Publication:Acta Classica
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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