Nicolaas Petrus van Wyk Louw (1906-70) was a man of many identities. He was a leading Afrikaans writer influential across two literary “movements” of Afrikaans literature, the Dertigers (writers of the 1930s) and Sestigers (writers of the 1960s); a public intellectual (he espoused a distinct form of the ideology of “separate development”); and an alleged Nazi sympathiser, as has recently been shown by a controversial publication of some of his private correspondence.1 Now, for the first time, one of his major works, a verse-drama on the life of the Roman prince Germanicus, first published and performed in 1956 and based on the early books of Tacitus’ Annales, has been made available to the Anglophone-world through the translation efforts of Jo-Marie Claassen, professor emeritus of Stellenbosch University’s Department of Ancient Studies.
Claassen’s translation is accompanied by introductory sections on the historical background of the events retold in the drama; explanation of the Roman social practices of obligatio and patrocinatio; Tacitean antecedents of Louw’s drama; the origins of the composition of the drama; its early reception history; major themes; the characterisation of the various actors within the narrative; Louw’s sense of history as presented in the play; and finally, a discussion of the various principles of translation adopted and the problems presented to a translator of Louw’s dense Afrikaans. The supplementary material is rounded off by a brief overview of the contents of the drama.2
For Claassen, Louw’s Germanicus successfully captures the dramatic elements of Tacitus’ history, even more successfully, in her opinion, than his more famous predecessor in this respect, the playwright Ben Jonson, whose Sejanus, His Fall (1603) presented a dramatic adaptation of later books of the Annales. Louw’s education left him well-placed to be a sensitive reader of Tacitus, as this drama clearly shows, and of Roman history more generally. Latin had been one of his majors at the University of Cape Town, where he earned a BA in 1925.3 For Claassen, Louw’s approach is more literary than political. She is wary of an overly politicised reading of the drama and she rightly critiques those who have read criticism of the South African Nationalist government into it pointing out that, although it was published only in 1956, the play was largely completed by December 1944, prior to the Nationalists came to power.4 If it was (parochially) political at all, Claassen concedes that elements of the drama refer to General Jan Smuts and Afrikaans-English relations in South Africa in the period between the Second South African War and World War II. She does, however, see in Louw’s characterisation of Germanicus the “inevitability of the corruption inherent in power”; Louw, while presenting Germanicus as a thoroughly Tacitean character, also moves beyond his principal source to present a “portrait of an intellectual, doomed by his own historical awareness to inactivity” that is not wholly Tacitean. In this at least Louw is nodding towards his own contemporary concerns.
Claassen has set ambitious aims for her translation. She hopes that it will not only make classicists aware of Louw’s “tour-de-force in metamorphosing historiography into drama”, but also that it will bear testimony to Louw’s “mastery of language”. Given the difficulties of Louw’s idiosyncratic vocabulary, his creation of neologisms, and his grand poetic, albeit compressed, style, Claassen’s verse-translation is largely successful. Take, for example, Claassen’s rendering of a passage where Thusnelda, the wife of Arminius, addresses Germanicus in typically vatic fashion on the corruption of power:
Louw’s text (p.45, vv. 11-16):
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 oorrompeling te se.
Selfs as U sag praat, praat die blinde mag.
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.
Claassen, for the sake of clarity no doubt, has produced “noble Romans” for the nobles that the Empire uses (“maar die Ryk gebruik ook edeles vir sy werk”). This sacrifices something of the universally applicable comment on empire. Similarly, Claassen has provided “horror-deeds” for “gruweldaad”, where “atrocity” would have sufficed and sounded less artificial to an English ear, as does “fell battery to speak”.
The volume’s main drawback is the format in which it has been published. Although eBooks, in general, are to be lauded for academic publications – especially because of their user-friendly formats when trying to find specific information (the Ctrl-F function is particularly useful here, as no page numbers have been inserted except within the translation itself for ease of comparison to the original Afrikaans text) – this eBook in particular has a rather less professional presentation. Claassen’s learned translation would have been better served by a more established academic press.
These are minor quibbles, though, in regard to an otherwise accomplished translation. Claassen is to be thanked for bringing this powerful verse-drama to a wider audience. It will no doubt be of interest to those with a specific interest in the reception of Roman historiography in particular, and also to those working in the field of classical reception studies more generally.
1. For recent assessments of Louw’s literary merits, see Gerrit Olivier, “The Dertigers and the plaasroman: two brief perspectives on Afrikaans literature”, and Tony Voss, “Refracted modernisms: Roy Campbell, Herbert Dhlomo, N. P. van Wyk Louw”, both in David Attwell and Derek Attridge (eds.), The Cambridge History of South African Literature (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 308-324 and 339-359, respectively. On Louw’s role as a “public intellectual”, see Mark Sanders, Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid (Pietermaritzburg, 2002). Louw studied German at the University of Cape Town, where he later also taught, as well as at the University of the Witwatersrand, another South African tertiary institution. He was also Professor of Afrikaans at the University of Amsterdam from 1949-1958. The controversial book which printed Louw’s letters was edited by the academic and literary biographer J. C. Kannemeyer, Ek ken jou goed genoeg: die briefwisseling tussen N.P. van Wyk Louw en W.E.G. Louw, 1936- 1939, and was published in 2004 by Protea Boekhuis.
2. Some of this material has appeared in two earlier articles by Claassen, “Germanicus revisited – and revised?” Akroterion 41 (1996), 133-50; “Rendering Caesar: thoughts on the translation into English of N. P. Van Wyk Louw’s Germanicus” Akroterion 51 (2006), 57-69. Throughout my review I have not provided references to page numbers as there are none.
3. Aspects of Suetonius’ Life of Tiberius are also incorporated into the drama. One of Louw’s later poetry collections, entitled Tristia (1962), is indebted to its Ovidian namesake; see Jo-Marie Claassen, Displaced Persons: The Literature of Exile from Cicero to Boethius (London, 1999), 255-6.
4. A more general political reading is to be found in William J. Dominik, “Writing Power and Politics in Classically Derived Afrikaans Drama”, in John Hilton and Anne Gosling (eds.), Alma Parens Originalis? The Receptions of Classical Literature and Thought in Africa, Europe, the United States and Cuba (Oxford, 2007), 93-115.