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Translator's Note: Eden

by J.M. Coetzee

Ina Rousseau's poem "Eden" was published in 1954, at a time when white Afrikaner nationalists were riding the crest of a wave: internally they were on the way to crushing opposition to the apartheid state they were building; externally their strident anti-Communism had ensured the support or at least connivance of the West. The future they promised their adherents was prosperous and secure. "Eden" is thus a surprising and disturbing text to emerge at this moment, from the hand of a young Afrikaans poet not known for politically divergent views.

Traditional in its form and imagery, "Eden" is nevertheless a cryptic poem. Internally it bears no trace of South Africa—no trace, that is, save the language in which it was written. But once the key phrase "South Africa" is breathed, the poem opens like a flower. The first European settlers were planted at the southern tip of Africa to supply the Dutch merchantmen sailing to the East Indies with fresh fruit and vegetables. The garden they laid out—the so-called Company Garden, still standing in the heart of modern Cape Town—is linked by Rousseau with the paradisal garden of Judeo-Christian myth, and hence with the promise of a new start, a return to an unfallen state, that operated so powerfully in the European colonization of the Americas.

Rousseau's deeply pessimistic view of the mislukte tuin, the failed garden, the failed colony, seen in backward view from some unspecified future date when it not only lies abandoned but has almost receded into the mists of the past, contradicts absolutely the vision of a white Christian South Africa enduring far into the future that was being trumpeted around her.

As a Germanic language, standard (as opposed to colloquial) Afrikaans rarely presents structural problems to the translator into English. Among the lesser hurdles to be overcome, the most prominent—in a poem that takes the form of a set of rhetorical questions—is the clumsy way in which questions are formed (with the auxiliary do) in modern English: The garden still stands—Does the garden still stand?


This poem originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2007

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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