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Stephen Watson in the annals of Plagiarism

Antjie Krog

Prof. Watson's vituperative piece in the latest issue of New Contrast is a bit like an accusation of plagiarism by Walt Disney studios for making poems out of the stories of the Brothers Grimm.

After hanging me in the plagiarist gallery next to Darrell Bristow-Bovey and Pamela Jooste, Watson uses fourteen pages in an attempt, that is as libellous as it is desperate, to prove his case. It is ironic that he accuses me of the same things he was accused of (by Anne-Hilge Gagiano) after publishing his versions of the /Xam narrators' work (Return of the Moon, 1991).

It is clear that his concern has nothing to do with the possible exploitation of the /Xam narrators' work. After repeated use of words like "plagiarism", "pillage", "stealing" and "theft", the petticoat shows: "Nowhere in Krog's the stars say 'tsau' is there the least acknowledgment of what is obvious throughout: that she has lifted the entire conception of her book from my Return of the Moon - and a few other things besides."

Let me respond: Unlike Watson, I know more than one South African language. I grew up with the poetry of EugŤne Marais who, in his book Die skepbekertjie, explicitly acknowledges Wilhelm Bleek as an inspiration for his famous free-verse Bushman poems, among them the well-known "Dans van die reŽn" and "Hart van die dagbreek". In fact, to bring the /Xam voices back into Afrikaans after so many years was the sole motivation for my initially undertaking the project.

Unlike Watson, I read the adapted versions of /Xam poetry in The Penguin Book of South African Verse (1968) by Jack Cope and Uys Krige during my high-school years; not to forget Alan James's impeccable versions in The First Bushman's Path, published three years before my version appeared. (James also mentions A. Markowitz's 1956 poetic versions.)

The front cover of Return of the Moon bears only Watson's name. In contrast, on the cover of my book, the names of the people whose work was selected and adapted appear with mine. Unlike Watson's book, mine provides their photographs and a short biography of each. Unlike Watson's book, mine has never been presented as my own work, but as translations into Afrikaans and adaptations in English.

The fact that I didn't give Watson the recognition he thinks he deserves does not make me a plagiarist.

To ridicule my remark that there is evidence of Afrikaans syntax in the translations of Bleek and Lloyd is disingenuous. Unlike Watson, apparently, I have seen the original Afrikaans words and questions in the margins of the Bleek and Lloyd manuscripts, e.g. the confusion about 'sterre' - which they initially thought should be translated as 'stars', but subsequently found to be 'buttocks', in which the 't' for 'sterte' had been assimilated. How can the phrase "the stars are not a little hungry" be anything but "die sterre is nie bietjie honger nie"?

For a self-proclaimed first-class scholar, there are startling inaccuracies in Watson's New Contrast piece:

He says that the /Xam working with Bleek were no longer in prison. Both J.D. Lewis-Williams (2002) and Miklos Szalay (2002) mention that Bleek was requested by prison authorities to arrange for /A!kķnta (who was regarded as unfit for hard labour) and //Kabbo to sleep in a room with bars at the windows, and to be under guard at night.

He says that I misspelt the title: Specimens of Bushmen Folklore - that it should be 'Bushman'. My edition of Bleek and Lloyd (reprinted by Struik in 1968) as well as the one acknowledged by Miklos Szalay has 'Bushmen' on the cover as well as the title page.

In a footnote Watson asserts that I plagiarised J.D. Lewis-Williams. What, I ask myself, can have caused him to overlook the explicit acknowledgment of Lewis-Williams in the introduction as well as on the colophon page? Can it be the same reason that causes him to disregard the explicit request by //Kabbo that the /Xam material should be made widely known?

Watson complains that a third of my choices are the same as his. This is surely not surprising as (despite Watson's self-congratulatory pronouncement that he knows how to work hard) we both worked from the same more accessible Bleek and Lloyd book. Yet, unlike Watson's all-male renditions, the stars say 'tsau' also includes the work of //Kweiten ta/ken, the sister of one of the four poets in my edition of Bleek and Lloyd.

My "problematic calculation" of five thousand years of /Xam culture is not based on Watson's text, but on the 1911 introduction to Bleek and Lloyd's book by Geo. McCall Theal, who linked it to Egyptian culture.

What Watson refers to as a "symposium" on plagiarism was in actual fact an informal discussion, one of several such discussions on writers and literature regularly held at UCT. The chair was not the vice-chancellor, Prof. Njabulo Ndebele, but Larry Pokpas of UWC.

I can go on, but the point is of course that Watson's tirade isn't really about scholarly ineptitude.

Watson uses nearly five pages to explain what a bad English poet I am: "tin ear", "stone deaf", "poetic misdemeanours and other howlers", etc, etc. Unlike Watson, I am not an English poet. I write in Afrikaans and sometimes I translate, and am translated, into English. It is his absolute prerogative to dislike my work intensely. But the fact that he thinks I am a bad poet does not make me a plagiarist.

Near the end of his libellous piece, he comes to the core of his argument - two lines and a phrase from Ted Hughes. Watson cunningly disguises the context of these lines, and the spread of pages over which they appear, through the use of ellipses. Last year I was confronted by a student known to Watson about similarities between these lines and my own work. The implication of plagiarism is, however, absurd.

In 'Myth and Education' (Winter Pollen, 1994), Ted Hughes writes about a particular kind of myth, namely those sediments of Greek and Christian culture that settle in the unconscious and inform the Western mind. Watson suggests that that is the only way to view myth. But during the processes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africans were confronted by another kind of myth, the one that enabled an ordinary white man to kill a black man and afterwards go home and play with his children.

In interviews with psychologists and a member of the special forces, it had become clear to me that when a white man had internalised the indoctrination that a black man was a "kaffir" (code for the myth of not being human), he was enabled to kill what he then took to be not human. My conclusion was: Myth makes it possible for one to live in two real worlds simultaneously. Therefore, when I say:

"And if the myth has been learnt well it becomes a word, a single word that switches on a whole system of comforting delusions", I am dealing with a specific derogatory word that connects two real worlds.

This is altogether different from Hughes's "earth and underworld" or the link between the conscious and the unconscious. He deals with Greek mythological backgrounds when he writes:

"If the story is learned well, so that all its parts can be seen at a glance, as if we looked through a window into it, then that story has become like the complicated hinterland of a single word."

Watson sees no difference (and especially no "transformative use") between the following:

"A myth (as encapsulated in the word "kaffir") is a unit of imagination which makes it possible for a human being to accommodate two worlds." (my sentence)

"A child takes possession of a story as what might be called a unit of imagination." (Hughes)

It is strange that Watson, while claiming to have an ear finely tuned to the "difficult of (sic) art of English", finds the following phrases so similar that they amount to a case of "authorial deceit":

"It contains not merely the space and in some form or other the contents of those two places; it reconciles their contradictions in a workable fashion and holds open the way between them" (Hughes);

"It reconciles the contradictions of these two worlds and holds open the way between them" (mine).

It is ludicrous to label a similarity in idiom (or even conceptualisation) as "plagiarism", particularly with the myriad discussions on the nature of myth - thousands of these on the internet alone.

I am extremely flattered that my English - which, I am told by the expert, "comes across Ö as bad translations from 17th-century Spanish" - has at least delivered one shining sentence that sounds uniquely like Hughes.

Let me simply say: I cannot understand how a person who once generously and skilfully guided the writing of a very isolated housewife and poet in Kroonstad now feels driven to abuse the journal of which he is a director to publish one of the most vicious attacks I have ever encountered, let alone been subjected to. I am sorry that a man who once asked me to launch one of his volumes of poetry (Presence of the Earth, 1995), and thanked me at the time for my "generous words", is for some reason so bent on destroying me at all costs.

LitNet: 19 February 2006

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