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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


VAN COLLER, Hp. Presentation and positioning in Van Wyk Louw: 'n Lewensverhaal ("Van Wyk Louw: A life story") by JC Steyn. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2020, vol.60, n.2, pp.413-433. ISSN 2224-7912.

In this article, I attempta critical reading of Steyn's widely acclaimed biography (1998, named above) by using diverse critical frameworks and theories. In accordance with views advanced in narratology, writing a historical narrative is seen as a venture that cannot escape subjectivity, despite the historicist's being bound by factual writing and oral accounts of chronicles and facts. In a previous study (Van Coller 2019a), history-writing has been compared with the process of translation because the historian also has to choose between two modes of presentation, namely foreignisation and domestication (Venutti 1995). The present study, however, focuses on another influential and important translation theory, namely the skopos theory, propounded by the German scholar Christiane Nord (1991; 2006). According to this theory, translation is function-driven and the translator has no free play in translation. The translator is bound by "loyalty" - loyalty towards the initiator who commissioned or assigned the translation (the translation brief), the target audience and the source text. It follows that any strategic choices exercised are closely related to the needs (values and knowledge) of the target audience. These insights apply mutatis mutandis to the biographer, who has the same loyalty to the initiator, his target readers and, particularly, the subject of his biography. In a recent study (Van Coller 2019b), I also reviewed Steyn's biographies of Piet Cillié, former newspaper editor (of Die Burger) and influential political analyst, and MER (Miemie Rothman), an Afrikaans journalist, writer and member of the Carnegie commission of inquiry (1929-1932) into extreme poverty among white people. The conclusion in that study was that although both biographies can be regarded as thorough, the presentation of especially Piet Cillié was skewed because key aspects of his life have been manipulated in the sense that many of his obvious shortcomings were underplayed or treated in a manner to present him in a more positive light. This could perhaps be ascribed to the fact that the Cillié biography was commissioned by Naspers (which, at the time, also paid Steyn's salary, while Cillié was one of the pivotal figures in the organisation). Likewise, MER also had close ties with Naspers. In the present study, one of the findings is that Truida Louw, widow of NP van Wyk Louw, apparently strongly influenced the Van Wyk Louw biography as she reportedly favoured Steyn as the biographer (and may therefore be viewed as co-initiator) and that she (as well as her children, Reinet and Peter) granted Steyn interviews and even had access to the biography at the manuscript stage. This involvement of the Louw family without a doubt had a bearing on the final, published version: quite a few cuts had been made in the manuscript, almost all of them aimed at improving the posture (Meizoz 2010) of Louw or Truida, although it cannot be categorically stated that all of these changes resulted from their comments. One of the most important findings of this study is that while Louw, in the main, has been represented by Steyn - notwithstanding his obvious admiration for Louw - "warts and all", the representation of other key players in this "drama" has been manipulated. The posture of Truida - in accordance with positioning theory - is extremely positive (both with reference to her illicit affair with Louw from 1936 to 1938, and during his extramarital affair with Sheila Cussons from 1950 to 1956 in Amsterdam). However, Steyn does not portray Cussons, who declined point-blank to contribute to this biography, very sympathetically. After the publication of this two-part biography, Cussons responded and refuted several claims made in the biography, particularly the assumption that her relationship with Louw had been merely a fleeting affair. According to her, it was a serious love relationship and even more profoundly a poetic one. In the interview concerned, some of the most important poems in Louw's last published volume of poems were mentioned, all of them directly related to their relationship: dedicated to Cussons, alluding to the relationship or resulting directly from their poetic interaction and cooperation. In conclusion, it can be argued that although Steyn's biography is undoubtedly a beacon in biographical writing in Afrikaans, not even this scientific and comprehensive study can lay claim to absolute objectivity. The writing of any historical account is a hermeneutical endeavour, therefore always prone to subjective elements.

Keywords : Biography; Historical Narrative; Translation Theory; Domestication; Foreignisation; Skopos Theory; Translation Brief; Posture; Ethos; Pathos; Logos; (self-)positioning; Public Intellectual.

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