In January of 2019, a friend of mine sent a message of congratulation from Yangon, the capital city of Myanmar. Walking on the streets of that city she had seen copies of my 2004 book, “Dog Eat Dog”, displayed for sale by a street bookseller. It had been translated from English into Burmese. Excited for me, my friend also posted the message on my Facebook wall.
Messages started to trickle in from friends who told me how happy they were for me. Very few books by black South African authors, especially post-apartheid writers, get translated outside South Africa. Unfortunately, books written in Bantu languages such as isiZulu, Xitsonga, Sesotho or isiXhosa (which are spoken by millions of people in South Africa) rarely get translated at all.
New readers on the other side of the world
I was overwhelmed by these accolades, but didn’t know how to respond to them. I didn’t know how to tell people that I didn’t approve of the Burmese translation of “Dog Eat Dog”. My unhappiness was sparked by the fact that I was completely unaware of this Burmese translation. I contacted my publisher, Kwela Books. They were equally surprised about the Burmese translation, but promised to follow up on the matter.
Meanwhile, I started receiving messages from students and scholars from Myanmar. Some readers asked me questions about “Dog Eat Dog”, as they claimed to be studying it for a course on “African literature”, or “comparative literature”. They all claimed to have loved the book. Somehow this made me even more angry rather than happy.
“My book got good reviews from Myanmar readers because many political issues in my book were similar to the political environment in Myanmar”
Two months later, a South African scholar friend of mine called me to say he had met my Burmese publisher at a San Francisco conference. I was introduced to him, and we started communicating through a series of emails. I wanted to know how he came to publish “Dog Eat Dog” without my knowledge.
What I learned from him was shocking to me; namely that, at the time, Myanmar was not under the international copyright law umbrella and most Myanmar publishers did not concern themselves with buying translation rights. He said he always tried to get translation rights, but sometimes he couldn’t reach the rights holder. Also, the publishing industry in Myanmar was not a very good business but he had sold every copy of “Dog Eat Dog”.
Apparently, it got good reviews from Myanmar readers because many issues I described in my book, which is set in South Africa in 1994, were similar to the political environment in Myanmar: who gets access to education, for example, and how minority groups are persecuted. Of course, it always feels great to be translated and read across the world, but without a contract, my labour, such as the many months of researching and writing, is free. The Burmese translation of “Dog Eat Dog” meant lost income.
South African literature after apartheid
I’m often asked how translations into other languages are achieved without a literary agent (the norm in the literary industry). There’s a number of possible factors, one being that I got lucky: I was first published at a time when the literary world thought that the South African literary landscape had died alongside the collapse of apartheid.
After the end of apartheid, the international interest in South African literature appeared to decline. This seems to suggest that South African authors formerly had a tremendous literary tradition of championing human rights and the end of the apartheid system. By this reckoning, there is nothing interesting to write about since apartheid, as protest literature and political response to colonialism or apartheid themes are outdated. I don’t subscribe to this view.
The post-apartheid generation of writers is very diverse. But before 2005, only few young black authors were published in South Africa, let alone internationally. Our books explore important global issues such as identity politics, social power relations, landlessness, homelessness, global warming, hunger, race, gender, Afrophobia, xenophobia, gender-based violence, corruption, fake religion and so on. In negotiating these themes of the present, South Africa’s post-apartheid writers do not necessarily leave the past behind.
“Suddenly, people around the world wanted to know what the youth of South Africa were doing with their new-found freedom”
Around 2006, the world’s appetite for South African post-apartheid literature appeared to ignite. Suddenly, people around the world wanted to know what the youth of South Africa were doing with their new-found freedom. This coincided with the attention directed South Africa’s way after their successful bid to host the 2010 soccer World Cup.
The international community wanted to know what kind of a country South Africa had turned into after the fall of apartheid. International publishers and translators were convinced the answer would be found in our writing, and they turned their focus on us authors. A handful of us were translated, or included in short story and poetry anthologies across the globe.
Young black South African authors, as I was back then, were featured in international festivals to talk about our books and our country. We somehow became literary ambassadors; we were used to allay fears about South Africa as a violent country held by the international community.
Sometimes it got so strenuous, we didn’t even talk about our books per se, but about the politics of our country. On the plus side, it was that during this time that I was translated into several European languages such as French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, as were other authors including K. Sello Duiker and Phaswane Mpe. This was all very exciting but with the last whistle of the 2010 World Cup final, the euphoria abruptly died.
An international audience for South African authors
Currently, reaching an international audience is still difficult for many authors, as the South African publishing industry is rather isolated. In South Africa, literary agents scarcely exist. In most cases, publishers double as literary agents for their authors, and authors in turn double as marketing departments for their own work.
Publishers sometimes sell their authors‘ books at book fairs or through their contacts. Authors use social media to make their work known. When it comes to us black contemporary writers; marketing and distribution is often done through word of mouth. Sometimes an author is mentioned by another author during a festival or book reading outside the country.
This may be one of the reasons the international book market does not hear much from contemporary black writers from South Africa. Those of us lucky enough to be published in America usually do so through universities. There have been re-publishing efforts in the USA by small publishers such as Ohio University Press, who publish authors including myself, Phaswane Mpe, K. Sello Duiker, and others.
Unfortunately these smaller American publishers don’t have much distribution, publicity or marketing muscle. This is all the more sad because South Africa has one of the most self-sustaining publishing infrastructures on the continent, with a domestic industry which produces dozens of local fiction and non-fiction books every year.
“In Germany, several smaller publishers have made substantial efforts to publish and translate South African literature”
However, there is hope. The recent boom in television and film adaptations drives international interest in and perception of South African literature much more than publishing ever did. Netflix, the international streaming service, announced early in 2022 that it will invest R900 million in the South African film and television industry. It has already partnered with local production houses to create and adapt literary works for film and television.
This has given space to self-published authors and to those who write in indigenous languages, some of whom have gained huge attention and audiences in recent years. Nozizwe Jele’s “Happiness is a Four Letter Word”, for example, was adapted into a successful film in 2016, and its sequel, “Happiness Ever After”, debuted on Netflix in 2021. Also in 2021, international streaming service, Showmax, adapted Dudu Busani-Dube’s “Hlomu” books to make one of South Africa’s most popular telenovelas, “The Wife”.
In Germany, several smaller publishers have made substantial efforts to publish and translate South African literature. Wunderhorn Verlag (my publisher); btb Verlag, and Unionsverlag among others have made accessible the works of Sello Duiker, Masande Ntshanga, Zakes Mda, Kopano Matlwa, and myself.
The recently established InterKontinental Verlag is already making a huge impact in the translation and publishing industry. In conclusion, I hope that efforts such as these further showcase the rich South African literary landscape, especially by post-apartheid writers, and that books written in indigenous languages benefit from these translations and adaptations too.
 In May 2019, a new copyright law was passed in Myanmar, granting – at least theoretically – foreign authors copyright protection for the first time in the country’s history
This essay is part of the series „African literature today“ and was commissioned in cooperation with the African Book Festival 2022. Curated by South African writer and filmmaker Lidudumalingani, the event will had a particular focus on literature from Southern African countries.