Two translations of a Setswana train poem

“Rhinoceros of the highlands / Beast coming from the South, it comes along steaming, / It comes from Pompi and from Kgobola-diatla.” With excerpts from oral poetry about cattle and other domestic and wild animals, marijuana, bicycles and the 2nd Boer War; with Kipling and other European South African railway poetry; and with Hugh Masekela as uitsmyter.

Steam locomotive graveyard at De Aar Junction (or Touws River?), South Africa.

Steam locomotive graveyard at De Aar Junction (or Touws River?), South Africa. Image: Danie van der Merwe.

Greg Ross at Futility Closet has posted a poem I recall from an encounter with Ruth Finnegan’s Oral Literature in Africa a while ago. Collected some 80 years ago by D.F. van der Merwe at Braklaagte, an extraordinary settlement on the Botswana border, it refers to a long-gone or perhaps imaginary railway 150 miles to the east, at Moretele, near Hammanskraal, which is on the single-track railway from Pretoria to the border with Zimbabwe at Beit Bridge:

Here’s Van der Merwe’s transcription, complete with footnotes, from his 1941 article, “Hurutshe Poems” in Bantu Studies, now African Studies:

Tshipi e tswa Pompi[1]It is possible that this name has been derived from Afrikaans pomp (pump, windmill) in view of the nature of the places indicated by it (cf. [footnote 6]). e tswa Kgobola-diatla
E kgobotse MaEsemane diatla
Ga e na pele le morago.
Ka re e ya kwa ntlha yele.
E tla kwano.
Nna ga ke mpara[2]I have also heard lepara (= mpara) with plur. mapara; both nouns have probablv been derived from Afrikaans baar (raw). ke lekgomotsha
Mpara ke yo o ko Magalisbêrê.
Kgomo e tswa ko Pompi ko Moretele
E tla ka bobi jwa sekgokgo le montsane.
E rometswe ke pente[3]From Afrikaans punt. ya nale le montsan.
Swartmeis[4]From Afrikaans Swartmuis, a name given to a black cow [SOG: but literally “black mouse,” so swartmuishond, “black mouse dog,” i.e. black mongoose]. kgomo e tswa ko Kgopi-kgobola-diatla
Koting se segolo sa mma-mosadi wa mokalaka.
Mogala ke wa tshipi
Wa thudi o ka kgaoga.
Ke kopane le mosadi wa motlhala a potile molapo ka teng
Ka re ke a mo phamola
Ka re
“Tila kong mora[5]An abbreviation of morwa.-Mokwatsi mo letseleng.”
Sepane[6]From Afrikaans span (team). sa makuru seramaga sa iphutha motlhala
Sa itsaya mma-ntlotlobua
Tshutshu makgale
Tshukudu ya maboto
Kgomo e tswa Borwa e tswa e suma
E tswa Pompi e tswa Kgobola-diatla.

The first translation is by v/d Merwe, whose mother tongue appears to be Afrikaans; the second, by a non-Bantu-speaking Greek-American, George Economou, is based on v/d Merwe’s:

Ironware coming from Pompi,[7]This name indicates any place where there are big workshops, especially railway workshops. It seems, however, that it is associated mostly with Kimberley and Johannesburg. Pompi and the following name, Kgobola-diatla, which means literally tear the hands, appear to refer to the same place. from Kgobola-diatla,
It having torn the hands of the Englishmen,
It has no front or back part.
Rhinoceros.[8]Tshukudu (rhinoceros) is here used probably for the following reasons: (a) to draw attention to the strength of the train by alluding to the rhinoceros – a powerful beast; (b) for the sake of sound-imitation: compare the sound made by the engine with the pronunciation of tshukudu.
I thought it is going that way.
It is coming this way.
I am not a raw one, I am a skilled and strong person,[9]In this and the following line the reciter wants to draw attention to his own skill.
The raw one is he who is at the Magaliesbergen.
Beast coming from Pompi, from Moretele,
It comes with a spider’s web[10]Alludes to the smoke of the engine. and with gnats[11]Alludes to the smoke of the engine; cf. gnats flying in a swarm.
It having been sent along by the point of a needle[12]Some of my informants think that point of a needle refers to the engine, others again that the lever pulled to set the engine in motion is alluded to. and by gnats.
Swartmuis, beast coming from Kgopi[13]cf. kgopa (bump against).-kgobola-diatla
Out of the big hole[14]i.e. a tunnel. of the mother of the gigantic woman.
The cord[15]i.e. the rails. is of iron
One merely welded together will break.
I met with the woman of the track, making a turn along the banks of the
river,[16]i.e. when the train crosses the river by bridge.
I thought I would snatch her
I said,
“Get out of the way, son of Mokwatsi, there at the teat.”[17]i.e. the lever pulled to set the engine in motion.
Team of red and white pipits,[18]i.e. the coaches. it gathered the track unto itself,
Itself being spotlessly clean.[19]There is an idiom go itsaya (or go itshola) mma-ntlotlobun (or setho) (to be spotlessly clean – used of a place).
T’shutshu[20]Said of the noise made by the engine. of the dry plains
Rhinoceros of the highlands
Beast coming from the South, it comes along steaming,
It comes from Pompi and from Kgobola-diatla.

Iron thing coming from Pompi, from the round-house
Where Englishmen smashed their hands on it,
It has no front it has no back.
Rhino Tshukudu going that way.
Rhino Tshukudu no, coming this way.
I’m no greenhorn, I’m a strong, skillful man.
Animal coming from Pompi, from Moretele.
It comes spinning out a spider’s web under a cloud of gnats
Moved by the pulling of a teat, animal coming from Kgobola-diatla
Comes out of the big hole in the mountain, mother of the great woman,
Coming on iron cords.
I met this woman of the tracks curving her way along the river bank and over the river.
I thought I’d snatch her
So I said
“Out of the way, son of Mokwatsi, who stands there at the teat.”
The stream of little red and white birds gathered up all of its track
Clean as a whistle.
Tshutshu over the dry plains
Rhino Tshukudu out of the high country
Animal from the south, steaming along
It comes from Pompi, the round-house, from Kgobola-diatla.

Here‘s Economou on his use of Van der Merwe’s work:

I have even translated a few poems —and had a ball doing them— from languages that I did not know at all. For example, when Jerome Rothenberg was gathering work for his important anthology Technicians of the Sacred, he asked me to contribute translations of poems from Africa, and I decided to try my hand at some Bantu poems. I recall going into the stacks of the Columbia library in search of anthropological journals and found some remarkable sources. Anthropologists working out in the field would record a tribal poet reciting some poems. Then they’d transcribe it in its original language and provide a literal word for word interlinear translation. Consulting with the poets, they added any notes they thought would illuminate a reading of the poem. Working from such a rich source, I said to myself, “Wow, now I’m going to make this into a poem in contemporary American.” […] Whatever your base as a translator, from well-versed in the source language to dependent on various kinds of help, you have to be deeply responsible to the original and committed to achieving a comparable level of its performance in the receiver language.

The rest of the interview is well worth a read.

Economou is more fluent, but Van der Merwe, by not trying to conceal difficulties of interpretation, is able to show the otherness of that country, to allow us to believe that the railroad may be the umbilical cord connecting train and tunnel and that there is a cattle-rustling metaphor at work. It is said that you lose control over the meaning of what you write as soon as it leaves your bedroom, but sometimes the rot sets in earlier. In his introduction he writes:

In the course of [translation and annotation] it was found that those who recited the poems were not always able to give the full explanation of their meaning and of the allusions which they contain. In such cases other people consulted on the matter sometimes offered explanations, but it is difficult to say whether these are always correct.

That chimes. At around the time I read Finnegan, and starting with even less linguistic skills than Economou, I tried to transcribe and translate some of Thomas Mapfumo’s (chiShona) lyrics. I quickly realised that the task was quite beyond me, but after a while I took my best efforts and showed them to one of Mapfumo’s guitarists, who roared with laughter and said that no one, not even the boss, knew what he was on about.

I wonder what happened to D.F. van der Merwe. There are a couple more wartime papers on Bantu language and literature, but then nothing. Some splendid and curious excerpts from other poems in his anthology:

1. Cattle
Animal with the moist nose
The roads lead to the country of the Ndebele:
I slept in the trunk of a white thorn tree, together with a blue crane;
I looked for the makers of the shuffling-clashing noise.
There are being closed in (the things) which can be managed by the man with many children.

2. Cattle
Beast (with) gravy agreeable to the taste
Animal with the moist nose
Sniffer with nose and mouth in one;

3. Cattle
Dark grey beast, disturber of sleep;
Beast with many white spots
The one with the musical tongue.
Powerfully built one of arms
Cooker of watery food
God with the moist nose.

7. The Horse
It is my horse, I bought it for myself,
It is my horse, I paid (for it) with my cattle.

8. The Mule
It is a tree growing also in the excreta of a dog.
You mule, clatterer of the Europeans
What will you give me as a token of your gratitude if I praise you thus extensively?

10. The Pig
We do not eat you, Mr. Grunter,
When eating you we feel disgusted with you
As you eat food not belonging to you
As you are the eater of the excreta of man.

12. The Elephant
I am the elephant related to mankind
Hence what I regard with fear are the ways of mankind;
For that reason, when I kill (one), I actually bury him, just as people do;
Furthermore, I remain in an unmarried state, just as people do;
I even wash with medicine, just as people do;
I am the big one of the mother of trees
Smasher of trees.

15. The Springbok
I slept in the South, there being no wood,
I slept, warming myself with the dung of the blesbok.

17. The Hare
Leaper from the treeless plain
Leaper from the trunks of trees;
It leaps up, and stretches its tail
And it places its ears on its shoulders

20. The Hyena
I, Mr. Prowler, crouching about,
Son of the one sent in the darkness

27. The Black Vulture
Big black vulture, the decrepit one,
When it perched the tree bent down.
All the crows went out to stop the calves.
When they have scattered the little calves,
I remained, pretending to be a large white locust bird;
I pretended to be the son of the mistress and the master.

30. The Dove
Coo-coo-roo of the girls
Hopper in the sand;
They are playing behind the kraal
They make short turns and little circles
They repeatedly make short turns and little circles;
Coo-coo-roo, coo-coo-roo, coo-coo-roo-coo-coo.

34. Dagga [Marijuana]
Tree of Mpedi of Kganyane[21]It is maintained that this man was responsible for the introduction of dagga amongst the Hurutshe.
It comes up in a bundle,
The child was instructed to look after it
The outcome was that it looked after the child, (it being) in the pipe.[22]The child while looking after the dagga took a few draws from the pipe and consequently fainted.

36. The Bicycle
My frail little bicycle,
The one with the scar,[23]The little bag containing the tools of the bicycle is often attached to the frame and this conveys the idea of a scar. my sister Seabêlô,
Horse of the Europeans, feet of tyre,
Iron horse, swayer from side to side.

38. Europeans
We and Paul [Kruger] used to shoot one another
It happened that in the middle (of the fight) Paul became tired
There remained shooting the black one.

The consequences of having a Book and a Land but, unlike European emigrants to North America’s Wild West and Russians in their Wild East, not enough People.

I also wonder what happened to the Moretele train. Maybe there never was one – I can’t see where you’d hide a tunnel around there, and it’s not shown on the 1920s(?) Standard Railway Map of South Africa/Standaard Spoorwegkaart van Suid-Afrika:

Friends of the Rail run a heritage railway to the Pretoria suburbs, from Hermanstad to Cullinan, but when the Moretele Times went for a ride they found that not all was well:

The train still uses the old method of hooting and the smell of the coal from the chimney, reminded many of the coal stove fro the olden days.


On board, there were people from all races who came to experience a steam train ride and to enjoy the scenery of Tshwane.

The steam train demands attention and is not easy to ignore as it is much louder than the modern train. As the train passed Mamelodi Township, community members were fascinated by the hooting of the train and came out, young and old, to wave at passengers on the train who also waved back. At stop stations, people waiting for the Prasa train would also admire the steam train and marveled a the the experience passengers on the steam train were enjoying.

All the fun was spoiled 10 kilometers before reaching Cullinan when Metrorail maintenance crew stopped the steam train because the 150 meters of the remaining railway line had been stolen.

If anyone can answer my questions it will probably be Laurence Wright of North West University, author of what sounds like a stupendous anthology, Stimela: South African Railway Poetry. The introduction is available here, but the book seemingly nowhere. A couple of favourites mentioned in the intro: Kipling’s “Bridge-Guard in the Karroo” deals with Oom Paul’s war, referenced in the last of the poems above, and I think it’s rather good:

Sudden the desert changes,
The raw glare softens and clings,
Till the aching Oudtshoorn ranges
Stand up like the thrones of Kings—

Ramparts of slaughter and peril—
Blazing, amazing, aglow—
’Twixt the sky-line’s belting beryl
And the wine-dark flats below.

Royal the pageant closes,
Lit by the last of the sun—
Opal and ash-of-roses,
Cinnamon, umber, and dun.

The twilight swallows the thicket,
The starlight reveals the ridge.
The whistle shrills to the picket—
We are changing guard on the bridge.

(Few, forgotten and lonely,
Where the empty metals shine—
No, not combatants—only
Details guarding the line.)

We slip through the broken panel
Of fence by the ganger’s shed;
We drop to the waterless channel
And the lean track overhead;

We stumble on refuse of rations,
The beef and the biscuit-tins;
We take our appointed stations,
And the endless night begins.

We hear the Hottentot herders
As the sheep click past to the fold—
And the click of the restless girders
As the steel contracts in the cold—

Voices of jackals calling
And, loud in the hush between,
A morsel of dry earth falling
From the flanks of the scarred ravine.

And the solemn firmament marches,
And the hosts of heaven rise
Framed through the iron arches—
Banded and barred by the ties,

Till we feel the far track humming,
And we see her headlight plain,
And we gather and wait her coming—
The wonderful north-bound train.

(Few, forgotten and lonely,
Where the white car-windows shine—
No, not combatants—only
Details guarding the line.)

Quick, ere the gift escape us!
Out of the darkness we reach
For a handful of week-old papers
And a mouthful of human speech.

And the monstrous heaven rejoices,
And the earth allows again,
Meetings, greetings, and voices
Of women talking with men.

So we return to our places,
As out on the bridge she rolls;
And the darkness covers our faces,
And the darkness re-enters our souls.

More than a little lonely
Where the lessening tail-lights shine.
No—not combatants—only
Details guarding the line!

In “Long Journey” Ruth Miller (1919–1969) travels inside the rhino:

Into the vacuous yawn of tunneled dark
We creak, and yellow-wedged the walls lurch past.
Sound solidified in masonry.
Breath stops. Ears tauten. Memory
Tries to forget the tonnage of the hill.

Almost too late the air grows clean, the arch
Widens on sanity. The hills look small again,
Each tunnel’s shining pinpoint piercing sight
With pain but not with vision.

Wright also quotes Churchill’s impression of the Uganda Railway – “one slender thread of scientific civilization, of order, authority, and arrangement, drawn across the primeval chaos of the world” – to which one possible riposte is Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela”:

There, I didn’t even mention London’s GreaterAnglia trains and their augmented-fifth triad hooters.


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