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Commentary on Stephen Watson's New Contrast article

Eve Gray, Strategic Publishing Solutions

Background

From a description in the UNESCO Memory of the World Collection:

The Bleek Collection consists of papers of Dr W.H.I. Bleek (1827-1875), his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd (1834-1914), his daughter Dorothea Bleek (1873-1948) and G.W. Stow (1822-1882) relating to their researches into the San (Bushman) language and folklore, as well as albums of photographs. Bleek developed a phonetic script for transcribing the characteristic clicks and sounds of the /Xam language which is used by linguists to this day. Although some of the material was published by Lucy Lloyd and Dorothea Bleek, a great deal remains unpublished. The material provides an invaluable and unique insight into the language, life, religion, mythology, folklore and stories of this late Stone Age people.

Conclusions - The Bleek and Lloyd materials are out of copyright and firmly in the public domain.

Moreover, it is clear that these materials are regarded as a site of collective memory, by definition meant for sharing and transmission.

Lastly, the multilingual nature of Bleek's proceedings is very clear.

One volume of the very much larger Bleek and Lloyd collection is published and readily accessible.

The article
The article starts out tendentiously, alleging an epidemic of plagiarism. The definition of plagiarism is correct, and the two cases cited are genuine cases of plagiarism, but the immediate shift to Antjie Krog and the imputation that she belongs in this company and that she is guilty of plagiarism thus defined is inaccurate and damaging:

  • There is no 'passing off' - the poems in Krog's collection are clearly attributed and the front cover of the book announces clearly that these are 'adaptations'.
  • There is attribution, therefore.
  • The title of the Krog book makes it clear that the original authors of the San stories have been attributed by name. Watson acknowledges this implicitly in his citation of the full title of Krog's book.

Watson then shifts to his own book of San poems and stresses the academic apparatus of his book: the copious notes, the explanations of cultural references, etc. He stresses the 'long task' and the 'scruples' that he had in compiling this volume. The implication is that this scholarly apparatus is his guarantee of originality, of avoidance of plagiarism - entirely untrue, as a creative writer's borrowing can be completely un-annotated and yet valid, or heavily annotated and still plagiarised.

Watson's allegations then emerge: that Krog does not have a scholarly apparatus (this is expressed in a sneering tone), and that one third of the poems she uses are in his collection, too. He makes much play of the fact that there are 13 000 pages of transcriptions, but it needs to be borne in mind that very few of these are published and many of them would be of technical interest only. Using some of the same transcriptions from the Bleek and Lloyd volume and adapting them into another kind of verse (different from Watson's) is neither copyright infringement nor an act of plagiarism.

Moreover, as Krog has pointed out, Watson is by no means the first person to have written poetry based on these transcriptions, nor to have compiled such a collection. An Afrikaans writer is likely to be aware of the differences between Watson's poems and previous Afrikaans adaptations. To assume that any work Krog does with the Bleek transcriptions must be based on Watson's book is, therefore, presumptuous - she could equally have drawn the idea of adapting poems from a number of predecessors in this enterprise.

The idea of 'concept theft' is introduced. While Watson concedes that the sciences are dependent on such an approach, he is more reticent about the extent to which creative work builds upon the work of others and the difficult and sensitive work that has been done to try to define the boundaries between creative borrowing and plagiarism.

The nub of his accusation then emerges - that Krog must have copied her idea directly from him. That her book was indeed in some way a reaction to what he did might well be true; however, she was not copying him but joining a longer tradition, reacting to his work from her context in a different tradition and a different language. This is not plagiarism.

The specific examples Watson gives of Krog's 'borrowings' are spurious.

  • The 'five-thousand year culture and way of life' is a commonplace, going back to Theal in the early part of the century; In referring to this five-thousand year way of life, Krog's wording is quite different to Watson's.
  • The question of the circularity of San verse, which Watson uses to substantiate his first direct accusation of plagiarism, is equally invalidated by the fact that this is a particularly common perception in relation to traditional African oral literature (and indeed music). Many statements of this idea can be found in the anthropological and cultural literature.
    • Again, the wording of Krog's expression of this fact is completely different to Watson's and in fact comes from a different intellectual base: she is talking from the craftswoman's' perspective of how to round off a poem that is drawn from an oral tradition, while Watson is engaging in a much more theoretical discourse about the act of creation
    • To call this ' the house of plagiarism' and 'theft' is bordering on the defamatory, given the flimsy ground on which Watson is standing. To go on to say that 'like many a plagiarist, Krog is simply lazy' and that she commits 'the sin of sloth' compounds this. To write outside of a scholarly tradition is to be neither a plagiarist nor lazy. Watson's vituperative language is completely misplaced.
    • Krog's statement that the stories were recorded while the informants were in the Breakwater prison, is again a commonplace and is in fact true of some informants (whether of all of these particular informants, I do not know). An extract from Wikipedia demonstrates how commonplace this perception is:
      In 1870 Bleek and Lloyd, by now working together on the project to learn Bushman language and record personal narratives and folklore, became aware of the presence of a group of 28 xam prisoners (Bushmen from the central interior of southern Africa) at the Breakwater Convict Station and received permission to relocate one prisoner to their home in Mowbray so as to learn his language. The prison chaplain, Revd Fisk, was in charge of the selection of this individual - a young man named |a!kunta. But because of his youth, |a!kunta was unfamiliar with much of his people's folklore and an older man named ||kabbo was then permitted to accompany him. ||kabbo became Bleek and Lloyd's first real teacher, a title by which he later regarded himself. Over time, members of ||kabbo's family and other families lived with Bleek and Lloyd in Mowbray, and were interviewed by them. Many of the |xam-speakers interviewed by Bleek and Lloyd were related to one another. Bleek and Lloyd learned and wrote down their language, first as lists of words and phrases and then as stories and narratives about their lives, history, folklore and remembered beliefs and customs.
  • The question of whether there were !Xun speakers interviewed is not material to an accusation of plagiarism.
  • Whether the Bleek volume was edited by Bleek or Lloyd, is again not central to Watson's allegations of plagiarism.
  • The trashing of Krog's comment on the Afrikaans substructure of some of the language is misplaced, as Watson is not qualified to pontificate on Afrikaans linguistics.

Watson's criticism (to put it mildly) of Krog's poetry is Watson's privilege. But to be sentimental is not to be a plagiarist, and he ignores the specific statements Krog makes about her venture, which differs from his in wanting to be a more literal transliteration of the San stories.

The crux of Watson's argument (if indeed it is that) emerges towards the bottom of page 54: 'the fact that the stanza above is so close to the original that it is virtually indistinguishable from it' - which he claims gives 'an entirely new meaning to the concept of creative adaptation'. Krog says that she set out to be literal, and these are examples of nearly literal transmission; but does this make them plagiarism, given her explicit acknowledgement of what she is doing? Watson calls it 'moving one's fingers over the keyboard'. One could equally call it editing in the sense of selecting - choosing examples from a long and relatively unapproachable work.

In this vein, how can the work be 'stolen' from Lloyd and the San when it explicitly acknowledges them, with biographies, photographs and attributions?

Watson cites Leon de Kock's article, which can be found at (http://www.sundaytimes.co.za/Articles/TarkArticle.aspx?ID=1045976), without mentioning de Kock's criticism of his own enterprise: 'Unlike Watson, Krog leaves herself less open to charges of appropriation. Watson subtitles his volume Versions from the /Xam, calling them "translations" in his acknowledgements, and adding explanatory notes about who originally "wrote" the poems. Although Watson doesn't claim the poems as his own, there is a significant gap of intermediation, and he enters into joint authorship of the poems quite robustly.

Krog goes about the matter with great caution and delicacy - perhaps recalling that Watson was labelled a "cultural trophy hunter" by a contemporary critic.'
De Kock (who is also an eminent and rigorous academic) discusses the problematic of this enterprise, but then goes on to a completely different judgement of Krog's volume:

'Given this understanding, Krog's volume becomes an exercise of listening to voices that are distant in time and space, and to the ghosts of earlier voices embedded in them. That is, both the long-gone, faint strains of the original "informants", and the subsequent add-ons by the cultural interpreters who follow in their wake - the 19th-century transcribers, philologists, translators and listeners, and the modern poets who cannot resist re-speaking voices that are lost but forever beckoning.'

Watson makes a bow towards rejecting 'intellectual property fundamentalism', but his main enterprise betrays this as a token obeisance. In a paper that I gave at the workshop on plagiarism and creative authoring that Njabulo Ndebele hosted at his residence last year, I made the point that the kind of witch-hunt of which Watson's article is an example is in fact evidence of copyright fundamentalism and could serve to stifle creativity in a country that needs it badly. At this workshop, Kole Omotose made the point that the African literary tradition is one that does not have reservations about 'borrowing' - he cited, amongst other examples, the use of a multiplicity of traditional tales embedded in the work of Ben Okri.

And so, Watson's accusation eventually boils down to the fact that Krog is 'very far from possessing the sensibility of an Eliot, let alone his intelligence'. Leaving aside the fact that hardly anyone would qualify for these particular criteria, Leon de Kock's contrary view makes it clear that Watson's is a very personal view and not an unchallenged analysis.

Again, de Kock challenges thisidea, that Krog's poems are 'a form of borrowing that is obviously derivative'.

Watson then goes on to raise the issue of an alleged borrowing in Country of my Skull. In this article, he cites two paragraphs, making it appear that they are of equal length. This is a (deliberate?) distortion. When I checked the passage in Hughes, I was struck by the fact that it extended over two or three pages. Taken at full length, the similarities were much less striking. Krog has addressed this issue on previous occasions, and it is seems that what we might be seeing is evidence of the fact that Hughes, too, was drawing on another/other source(s) and not inventing his own completely original definition of myth (as if such a thing were possible). Krog claims not to know and not to have read the Hughes volume in question and it would take a fair amount of academic detective work to track this particular version of the nature of myth. It all seems to hinge, in Watson's mind, on the use of the idea of 'inner mind' and 'outer mind' - I would doubt if this is an idea held only by Hughes.

Be that as it may, to have a small cluster of unacknowledged phrases in a book of striking originality of thought a few hundred pages long is hardly a sound basis for Watson's accusations of 'a blatant act of appropriation', 'personal opportunism' and participation in 'the baleful annals of plagiarism in South Africa'.

It is in the last paragraph that I feel that this article might finally and definitively topple over into defamation. To claim that UCT was wrong to have invited Krog to address a panel discussion, on the basis that she herself is 'an expert on that topic', as he so snidely puts it, is to make a direct attack on her credibility in an arena in which she earns part of her living. To suggest that she is not fit to appear in such a forum is a direct attack on her integrity and her credibility as a writer and an academic, based on the flimsiest and most spurious grounds.



LitNet: 19 February 2006

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