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korreltjie sand

Korreltjie korreltjie sand
klippie gerol in my hand
klippie gesteek in my sak
word korreltjie klein en plat

Sonnetjie groot in die blou
ek maak net 'n ogie van jou
blink in my korreltjie klippie
dit is genoeg vir die rukkie

Kindjie wat skreeu uit die skoot
niks in die wêreld is groot
stilletjies lag nou en praat
stilte in Doodloopstraat

Wêreldjie rond en aardblou
korreltjie maak ek van jou
huisie met deur en twee skrefies
tuintjie met blou madeliefies

Pyltjie geveer in verskiet
liefde verklein in die niet
Timmerman bou aan 'n kis
Ek maak my gereed vir die Niks

Korreltjie klein is my woord
korreltjie niks is my dood

- Ingrid Jonker

Or in the English translation by Antjie Krog and André Brink:

Little grain of sand

Grain little grain of sand
pebble rolled in my hand
pebble thrust in my pocket
a keepsake for a locket

Little sun big in the blue
a granule I make out of you
shine in my pebble little grain
for the moment that's all I can gain

Baby that screams from the womb
nothing is big in this tomb
quietly laugh now and speak
silence in dead-end street

Little world round and earth-blue
make a mere eye out of you
house with a door and two slits
a garden where everything fits

Small arrow feathered into space
love fades away from its place
Carpenter seals a coffin that's bought
I ready myself for the nought

Small grain of sand is my word, my breath
small grain of nought is my death

One of Jonker's most famous poems, the repeated diminutives in Afrikaans ('korreltjie', 'kindjie', 'wêreldjie', etc.) make it hard to render in English. They give the poem its distinct quality of a lullaby for grownups, starting out as a soothing childhood memory which gradually transforms into a meditation on death.

The English tries to keep the rhyme, which is always a translator's dilemma but in this case gives some forced results. For instance, while the original turns on the 'dead-end street' ('Doodloopstraat', which for some reason loses its capitalization in the translation), the English announces the theme earlier, and a bit bluntly, by substituting 'tomb' for 'world' ('wêreld'). The simple statement of 'Carpenter works on a coffin' ('Timmerman bou aan 'n kis') is also unnecessarily embellished.

Still, the poem loses none of its power in juxtaposing the vulnerable little things of this world with the looming presence of 'the nought' ('die Niks'). It reminds of Virginia Woolf's work, especially 'To the Lighthouse', which also envelops human activity in nothingness.

More poems by Jonker, haunted by children, dolls and death, are online in Afrikaans and English translations.

Jonker's tragic life is also inspiring a growing number of films. A 2001 Dutch documentary, 'Korreltjie niks is my dood', is available online. Another, South-African documentary is 'Ingrid Jonker: Her Lives and Time'. Meanwhile, a Dutch feature film about her is in development, called 'Smoke and Ochre' 'Black Butterflies'.


to the lighthouse

Virginia Woolf 's fifth novel ' To the Lighthouse ', published in 1927, is one of her most experimentally modernist works. The book's genius is hard to summarize, except by saying that reading it is a uniquely immersive experience. To as… Read the full post »

six comments

Mooi zijn haar gedichten he!

Marthe , 08-01-’10 12:03

Here's my translation. I like the sound of it and I like being able to keep the pebble wearing down to a granule in the first verse:

Granule granule of sand
pebble I roll in my hand
pebble I keep near my skin
becomes granule small and thin

Little sun big in the blue
I’ll make just an eye out of you
bright in my pebble you shine
that will do for a time

Little child screaming at fate
nothing on earth is great
softly laugh now and speak
silence in Dead-end street

Little world round and earth blue
a granule I’ll make out of you
housie with door and two squares
garden with blue flowers there

Arrow that’s flown from the bow
love that dwindles and goes
Coffin maker’s employed
I’m getting set for the void

Granule small my word’s breath
granule of nothing my death

Sandra van Zyl , 24-04-’12 17:58

Hi Sandra,

Thanks for sharing your translation - I like it a lot!

The repeated "Little" at the start of the stanzas is a nice way to convey the diminutives in English.

Your solution for the carpenter ("Coffin maker's employed / I’m getting set for the void") is excellent, very simple and powerful. And "void" is better than "nought" for the Niks that the poem tries to temporarily fill.

I'd actually capitalize Void, because the poem hinges on it - or do you find that too much in English?

Just one detail: "housie" sounds a bit strange to me. Rhythm-wise you could also say "house with a door and two squares".

bernard (URL), 24-04-’12 23:24

Yes I agree with both of your suggestions (Void and house), and reading over it now I see a few other (minor) things I might change. But my main hesitation lies in the first and the last two lines. Granule is such a thin word compared to korreltjie that two of them side by side don't make a great opening. Maybe after all "Grain little grain" or something like "Round little granule" would be better.

Word's breath is also flimsy. The alternate ending I had was:
My word is a granule small
my death is nothing at all
But I chose the ending with death as the final word.
Love this poem

Sandra , 25-04-’12 10:43

You've convinced me on the opening. I do like the repetition of "Granule granule", which sets the lullaby tone (or even magic spell), but "Grain little grain" accomplishes that too, and flows slightly better.

The ending of Krog and Brink I thought especially bland, and yours more direct. It would change a bit depending on the opening, but I'd definitely keep death as the final word.

Perhaps the solution is to sacrifice the rhyme (the original doesn't really rhyme either), so you're able to keep the conceptual pairing of woord - dood. So something like:

Little grain small is my word
Little grain of nothing my death

bernard (URL), 25-04-’12 21:48

Good point that the final lines of the original don't fully rhyme (and are the better for it).

Sandra van Zyl , 28-04-’12 11:01

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