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The Translator | Karen Jennings

The Translator | Karen Jennings

The stranger got up unsteadily, said it was late, he should get to bed, but I felt suddenly desperate, felt that I had to say this last part, and I grabbed his arm, said, “Listen, just listen, I’m almost done.”

By Karen Jennings

Perhaps it was his being a stranger that made me talk as I did. The ship had docked that morning, passing through from Batavia back to the Netherlands, stopping at the Cape of Good Hope for refreshment along the way. He was sick of the confined life on board by then, already 8 weeks into the journey, as well as the dreadful rations and the lack of drinking water. He said he had set foot on shore in the afternoon, and went immediately to the market to eat whatever fresh food he could find. But before too long he was in the tavern, enjoying the ale, talking to anyone who passed him, inviting them to sit down and drink with him. He made no secret of the fact that he had plenty of money with him, hard-earned he said it was, no matter what the Company thought. 

It was an acquaintance of mine who told me about the stranger; saw me sitting on the stoep of my daughter’s house, and he knew how she denied me the small pleasures in life, stingy with her handouts of tobacco, and never so much as a coin towards a beaker of anything. “Get yourself down there”, my acquaintance said, “there’s a man giving away drinks left and right.” So I got up, my rheumatism bad, but went as fast as I could, hoping he would still be there when I arrived. I planned out what approach to use; after all, there’s skill involved in cadging drinks. You can’t just go up to a person and demand one. You have to entertain them, catch their interest somehow. But I needn’t have bothered, because he called me over as soon as I entered, and within moments there was a beaker in my hand and ale down my throat. He was already drunk, talkative, picking up what he must have been saying before I came in, carrying on as though I had been there all the time, cursing the Company, saying he had given them two decades of his life, almost died a dozen times, and now this, being sent home in disgrace, and what did it matter, he said, if he had done a bit of his own business on the side, everyone did that. That was the way. Did they think we could survive on what they paid us? 

I listened and nodded, matched him as he continued to down beaker after beaker. But after a while he seemed to tire of the subject, growing quieter, his head hanging a little. He pointed at me, “Now you talk.” Like I’ve said, there’s skill in cadging drinks, and I had any number of anecdotes and tales I could have picked, ones I had told many times before with great success, but I began to tell him something I had never spoken of, not once in this kind of way, telling him the whole thing from beginning to end, though it was easily a decade after it had happened and I couldn’t remember all the details. Yet much of it was still clear, it had never left me over the years. Especially the man they had called Father, or in the record he was listed as the third prisoner, September van Boegies, slave of the widow Heuning. 

The stranger had, of course, not heard of the murder of the Smuts family, but it was still spoken of then, often full of inaccuracies, almost as a legend, or a warning to small children who wouldn’t behave.

“This was in the winter of 1760”, I said, and he replied that he had been in Tonkin that year, met one of the Trinh lords, with whom he had done good business. But I interrupted him now that I had started, needing to carry on. “There was a gang of runaway slaves living up there in caves”, I pointed towards the mountain, “and they wanted to get up north, away from here and further up into Africa, to be free, so they decided they needed guns and provisions and valuables, you know.”

The man took a gulp of his ale, nodded. “Yes, freedom.”

“Exactly. The captain was Fortuijn van Boegies who had run away a year before, after having stabbed his master. And there were others too, some 11 or 12 or more, most of them also Buginese, and one of them, Achilles or Alexander or something, wanted revenge on his master Michiel Smuts because Smuts had beaten him one day for not selling enough vegetables at the market. That’s why he’d run away. And he says to the group, ‘Let’s kill him, he’s got a nice home, and he has weapons and valuables.’”

I paused to take a drink and the stranger said he had been to the island where the Buginese came from, spending a few months there in ‘56. “The women, oh the women”, he said, “the best lovers you will ever have, the best, you’ll never have any better, I’m telling you. But they’re very jealous, like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and they will curse your penis, just like that, put an actual curse on it, so that you don’t stray from them. Terrible, that curse, terrible”. He shook his head, gave a low laugh, then called for more drinks, asking the serving girl whether she’d like to see his cursed penis, just take a little look, no harm in that, pulling her down onto his lap while she tried to get away. But after a moment he let her go, having had enough of her struggling, and she dashed off as he turned back to me, saying, “Well, carry on, they were going to murder this Smuts.”

“That’s right, him and his wife and his little boy, and they ran off with the weapons and some valuables, going over there to Blaauwberg”, I pointed across the bay, “and lived off mussels and stolen sheep. This was when they met September and I remember this, how when he was brought in front of the Council of Justice – I was the court translator, you see, that’s how I know all of this – and they brought in this man to be tried, around 50 he said he was though he wasn’t sure, and to me he looked even older, thin and grey, moving slowly, unable to do much more on the farm so he’d been put out as shepherd, which was how the runaways came upon him. He was Buginese, like them, and back home he had been a healer. Father, they called him, because of his age and his healing, and he treated one of them who had injured his hand. September spat on it and bound it, in the traditional Buginese way, and he took care of the runaways, arranging food to be left for them once a week under a certain bush.”

The stranger got up unsteadily, said it was late, he should get to bed, but I felt suddenly desperate, felt that I had to say this last part, and I grabbed his arm, said, “Listen, just listen, I’m almost done.” He sat down heavily, picked up his beaker, looked into it, saw that it was empty, and seemed as though he might get up again. I pushed mine across to him. It was still three-quarters full, the talking having slowed me in my drinking. “Take it, take it”, I said, “you can have it”, and he gave a long yawn, then began drinking slowly as I continued to talk. “They were being hunted by a commando, and eventually it caught up with them. Most of the gang was killed, but one of them, as he lay dying, he told them all they wanted to know, maybe because he didn’t know he was dying, or because he hoped they’d take pity on him and put him out of his misery, as they had done with a few of the others. So he told them everything about the murders and then about this September, how he had helped them. The commando, they went and arrested him and searched his belongings, and found a letter in his chest, written in Buginese, and that’s where I come in because it was handed on to me, that was my job, to translate it, do you see?”

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By now he had crossed his arms on the table, had dropped his head onto them, mouth open, eyes fully closed. Still, I spoke, saying it all. “But they gave me no time, that was the problem, and this letter, well, Buginese, it’s a different alphabet, I can manage with the talking well enough, but this is different, the alphabet, you see, and it was hard for me, and no time to do it in, they needed it done at once, so I had to see what sense I could make of it. I got the gist, I think, I mean, that’s what I think, but the thing is that the letter didn’t really say anything, it was nothing really, just a note from another Buginese asking for help from the healer as he’d been sick for two months. Brother, he called him, brother; that’s the Buginese custom, September said in court, just as the others called him Father. He claimed he couldn’t read, and could give no reason for having kept the letter. And then he was convicted of trying to start a rebellion, a Buginese conspiracy, and he was deemed dangerous, this old, stick-thin man was to be tied to a cross, then broken alive on the wheel from bottom up without even the coup de grace, before being quartered and those four parts of him displayed where other slaves could see them.”

My throat hurt from talking. I coughed, then reached across, taking back my beaker, drinking what remained in it. “It’s the letter, you see, that letter. That’s what has always bothered me. Was it really a conspiracy? Was that what it was about or maybe I made it seem that way, or maybe… I don’t know, that’s the thing. What does the letter mean? That’s what I want to know, what does it mean?” I tilted the beaker, hoping for a few last drops, but there were none, and I licked my lips, tasted the ale on them, and could smell it on my breath as I gave a sigh.

The man did not raise his head from his arms, but opened his eyes, looked at me, tapped the table with one of his fingers. “It’s the fact of the letter”, he said, his voice slurring so much that I could barely hear him, had to lean forward, ask him to say it again. “That’s the conspiracy, see, that’s the bit you’re missing, them being able to communicate with one another, that’s it, that’s the crime.”

He closed his eyes again, began to snore. I still had my hands around the beaker, could not seem to let go of it, wishing it would refill, that I might take another sip, drink until I passed out as the stranger had, so that I could forget the sight of the healer’s head on a pike. That ghastly head, grey with death, his eyes already gone, and the memory of how he had said he couldn’t read, had not been able to read, and those words, those words I had tried to translate, brother, help me, brother, please.

Karen Jennings is a South African writer whose novel An Island was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021. Her most recent novel, Crooked Seeds, came out in April 2024. She is currently writer-in-residence as a post-doctoral fellow at the Laboratory for the Economics of Africa’s Past (LEAP), Stellenbosch University. Karen co-founded The Island Prize for unpublished African authors to help them get published globally. Now in its third year, the prize has helped authors from all over the continent, with both winners so far being published in the UK.

Photo by Rubén Bagüés on Unsplash

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