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English: Friend or Foe?

Kgebetle Moele, Thembelani Ngenelwa, Rustum Kozain and Rachelle GreeffKgebetle Moele (Room 207), a native Northern Sotho speaker, feels that he uses too much English in his life, especially his writing life – but also that he has little choice. The marketplace demands it, and he doesn’t even bother to start off in Sotho, because the task of translation becomes too hard. So he begins and ends in English when sitting down to write.

Along with Moele, the others on the panel at the Cape Town Book Fair‘s Via Afrika stand had much to say on the subject, while moderator Antjie Krog looked on. (Highly appropriate, given her book A Change of Tongue.)

Antjie KrogRachelle Greeff (Palazzo van die Laaste Dans) pointed out the irony that, although each panellist had published in English, none of them knew the others’ work very well. She was overjoyed when Marlene van Niekerk won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize; it gave her hope that mother-tongue books would be more appreciated in a marketplace in danger of being dominated solely by English. All languages contribute to South African literature, she said – perhaps Agaat will help all South Africans realize this.

For Rustum Kozain (This Carting Life), the language one writes in is “a historical issue”, which comes down to which languages are dominant at any given time. Economic and political issues will always be factors determining how people write and what they write about – and the language they do it in is an extension of this.

Rustum Kozain and Rachelle GreeffThe author of The Day I Died, Thembelani Ngenelwa, wrote his book in his third language, a very difficult process, given that he was taught English only up until matriculation, and had been operating, so to speak, using his mother tongue on a daily basis since then.

Most of the panellists saw encouraging signs about the readiness of SA book buyers to consider purchasing “mother-tongue” books (apart from Afrikaans, which is relatively well-established), but also agreed that it’s good to have access to the dominant, English marketplace as well.

Thembelani NgenelwaQuote of the hour: “One regret I have from publishing my book in English is that my mother and grandmother, who both speak and write Xhosa fluently, can’t understand it – along with the children in my community.”
-Thembelani Ngenelwa

Kgebetli Moele