Interview with South African Author and Translator Hannes Barnard

To mark the release of Halley’s Comet (Catalyst Press) by Hannes Barnard, Johanna McCalmont reviews the YA novel set in Apartheid-era South Africa and talks to the author about what it was like to translate his own book from Afrikaans.

Johanna McCalmont (JM): Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you started writing?

Hannes Barnard

Hannes Barnard (HB): I am a South African-born author of both English and Afrikaans novels. I have been writing all my life but started writing seriously a few years ago. I debuted in 2019 with the YA novel, Halley se komeet, which I translated into English as Halley’s Comet. In 2020, Wolk (Cloud), an apocalyptic YA adventure, was released. It was recently nominated for the kykNET-Rapport prize. Roet (Soot), the follow-up to Wolk, was released in October 2021. Coming up in 2022 is my crime novel, die wet van Gauteng (The Law of Gauteng). When not writing, travelling, or planning my next adventure, I work in sales and marketing. I have called England and Seychelles home but now live in Johannesburg with my wife.

JM: What sort of books have been published in Afrikaans until now? Is Halley’s Comet a new departure from the type of YA books previously published?

HB: Afrikaans literature is blessed with a wide variety of great books and authors. From poetry and literary fiction to early readers. For a relatively young language, it has a rich literary tradition.

Over the past few years, the Afrikaans YA offering has also increased significantly, both in quantity and quality.

I do think Halley’s Comet is a departure from the type of YA previously published. For one, it tackles issues that are sometimes avoided in YA, particularly South African YA.

Secondly, it is very much crossover fiction. In South Africa, there has generally been a line drawn between youth fiction and adult fiction and this book muddles that line, though this is changing.

Thirdly, this novel is set in a very tumultuous time in South Africa. Although there have been several books published that are set in Apartheid South Africa, there aren’t many YA books. What sets Halley’s Comet apart is that it is written from the perspective of a regular teenager, with regular teenage issues. He is not a freedom fighter or the organiser of a protest movement. The strangers from other cultural backgrounds he befriends are also regular teenagers. All three of them are discovering their similarities despite society reminding them of their differences. It is therefore transformation on a micro-scale. This type of story, set in that context, is not something I’ve seen in YA, and therefore the reason why I wanted to write about it. There are many more ‘regular’ people in the world than the famous public figures we see and know, and I wanted to write a story about them. The tone and perspective are also a little different from what one generally finds in YA. Kirkus Reviews referred to this as “an intriguing tone and fast pace.”

Finally, I must add that, although this is a historical novel, set in a time and place many readers might not know, it is the relationships–love, friendship, parental– and the types of questions the characters have, that make this relevant. Times may have changed, and the setting might be different, but these elements and questions remain relevant and universal.

JM: What is your relationship with Afrikaans and English? And other languages?

HB: Afrikaans is my first language. My family is Afrikaans and so too is my wife. I love the Afrikaans language; it is very expressive and a wonderful medium for creativity.

I grew up in a community of both Afrikaans and English speakers. I also went to double medium school (Afrikaans and English). This meant I never had to learn English, I was surrounded by it and have spoken it my whole life. It doesn’t feel like a second language. I love the incredible range the English language offers, especially when it comes to writing. I write in English and Afrikaans. They are very different and that is what makes it so much fun to write in both.

I am ashamed to say that I am not fluent in any other languages. I understand and can say a few phrases in Zulu and Spanish, but my vocabulary is very limited. I aim to develop my ability in these two languages as I enjoy both.

JM: How did you come to translate Halley’s Comet into English yourself?

HB: Fun fact: I wrote the original draft of Halley’s Comet in English. When I first sat down to write this story the words came out in English. Later, I translated or rather re-wrote it into Afrikaans. During that phase, I developed the story along with my Afrikaans publisher to what it is now.

I did, however, always feel that this story should be in English too. For one thing, it was the language in which it was created, and for another, this story felt like it should have a wider reach.

Once the story was ironed out and developed in Afrikaans, I knew I would translate it back into English. I never considered the option of getting anyone else to translate it for me, this was a job I wanted (needed) to do myself.

I am very glad that I did! It was a wonderful experience. When I started working with my international publisher, Jessica Powers at Catalyst Press, a new dimension was added to the process. Certain elements were tweaked which makes Halley’s Comet more of an English version of the Afrikaans book, rather than a pure translated piece.

JM: Let’s talk about the process of translating the book. Was this a new experience for you? How was the process different to writing in Afrikaans?

HB: I translated this book twice, therefore the second time around it was less of an unknown which made it both easier and more difficult. Easier because I had a better understanding of how to approach the process, and more difficult because now the stakes were higher. This was no longer an unpublished draft, but a published novel. I also knew what the challenges would be, which was scary and exciting (perhaps leaning more towards scary!)

Translating a book compared to writing a book is very different. Of course, for both, you need a lot of creativity, but when translating, the creativity is channelled or focussed much more than in writing. You have a framework within which you must work and it is your job to not only do justice to the existing text but to (where possible) enhance it. With writing (whether it is in Afrikaans or another language) you are working on something that does not exist yet, you are creating something brand new. You have the idea of the story in your head but there is much more scope to experiment.

The biggest challenge of translating from Afrikaans to English was getting the nuance and feel right. Afrikaans is a very expressive language. There are a few expressions that are not translatable. That means finding alternative ways to portray the same thing without jeopardising the feel and the story. Luckily English is such a wonderful language that it provided me with an array of options to overcome this challenge.

The other challenge is to be mindful of remaining true to the context (setting and time) whilst not creating a disconnect with readers who might have a limited (or no) knowledge of South Africa and that era.

Although challenging, I thoroughly enjoyed the process. It gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the story and the characters. I think when the story and characters are authentic (real) they are not bound by language, they transcend it. It didn’t happen overnight, but I am very happy with the result. I believe it feels right and reads as it should.

JM: Have you translated other texts? Did you discover anything about the novel as you translated it? Did you read it differently?

HB: Not formally. I have translated many an email and document from one language to the other, but Halley’s Comet was my first translation project.

I must say translation is like a deep dive into the text. You discover so much by doing this. The advantage of this was that I saw opportunities to learn from what I have done before and to improve upon it (or attempt, at least).

I did read it differently. I read it and re-read it listening to the voices of the characters, trying to hear it in English, trying to visualise the settings with English descriptions. It was interesting, as you read the Afrikaans text you hear it in English. Some sections were harder than others, I kept reading until the English ‘clicked’ in my head, then I started writing. I did this paragraph by paragraph at first and later worked on longer sections to ensure the flow was correct.

JM: Would you have approached writing an English version differently?

HB: That is a great question! I don’t think I would have approached it differently, either way. The fact is, I have learned so much along the way through all the iterations of this book. And because of that, I don’t think I would change much. One thing I can say is that I found it slightly easier to translate from Afrikaans to English than from English to Afrikaans. This could be because I was still finding my translation feet, I don’t know. What I do know is that I enjoy the process and would like to do more translation in the future.

JM: Can you give us one or two specific examples of words or phrases where you needed to think long and hard to find a good way to express the text in English?

HB: The biggest challenge was to ensure the characters sounded right – like themselves. In Afrikaans, this was far easier because I could play with language. I could use a few English words or slang terms to bring an authentic feel to their dialogue. This is particularly the case with Sarita and Petrus, neither of whom are native Afrikaans speakers.

A specific example is where Sarita tries her best to speak Afrikaans to Pete, but her vocabulary fails her, and she mixes Afrikaans and English. When translating, all the text was in English, so I had to find another way to portray this. This was done in various ways, such as using Pete’s inner dialogue–he wonders why she insists on speaking Afrikaans when both he and Petrus understands English. And he wonders why he finds her failed Afrikaans so incredibly cute!

With Petrus, who is a Zulu speaker, I too had to consider my use of language. It is much easier to use the odd Zulu word in the Afrikaans book as a lot of people have at least some knowledge of Zulu words. With the translation, I decided to keep a few. One is the word Eish. Which is used as an exclamation. This could have been translated but some of the authenticity of Petrus’ voice would have been lost, hence it remained. And it is so much fun to say, pronounced ‘eesh’ with an extended ‘ee’ sound and an exaggerated ‘sh’ sound.

Also, the main protagonist is an Afrikaans speaking person. I had to be mindful to make sure he didn’t sound like a native English speaker. This was a fine balancing act. I hope I managed to achieve this. Luckily my publisher thinks so!

One other challenging aspect of translating from Afrikaans to English was that I had to change the tense in which the story was written. In Afrikaans, almost all novels are written in the present tense as the past tense can be quite cumbersome. In English, writing in the past tense is most common – and suited the English version of this story – so it was an interesting exercise to be mindful of the tenses whilst translating.

JM: Are you currently translating any other books?

HB: Not at the moment. 2021 has been a busy year. This included writing Roet, finalising Halley’s Comet and die wet van Gauteng, and writing two middle-grade short stories (one in English and one in Afrikaans) for two anthologies that will be released next year. Next on my plate is the final book in my YA trilogy (to follow Wolk and Roet). I plan to translate all three, as I think they are fun, fresh, and relevant. I just need to find the time to do that! I would also love to translate my crime novel, die wet van Gauteng, as I think it will work very well in English.

JM: What are you reading now?

HB: On my Kindle: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna. The two paperbacks waiting for me are Black Diamond by Zakes Mda and Losprys (Ransom) by Martin Steyn. Then, being an avid traveller, I am also dipping in and out of David Bristow’s Been There Done That, a collection of great travel ideas in South Africa.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. We can’t wait to read more of your work in English!


Want to hear more from Hannes Barnard? Did you miss the Catalyst Press & World Kid Lit panel during #ReadingAfrica Week? Then catch up here!


Johanna McCalmont was born in Northern Ireland and now lives in Brussels, Belgium where she works from French, German, Dutch and Italian. Her work has been published by New Books in German, No Man’s Land, European Literature Network, and Lunch Ticket. She loves connecting writers with audiences when interpreting at literary festivals and has a particular interest in African literature.