French translator leaves legacy behind

Lauga du Plessis

Catherine Lauga du Plessis, prize-winning French translator, passed away on Sunday June 5 after a short illness.

Ms Lauga du Plessis lived in Liscard, Kalk Bay, between the main road and the railway line, a well known gathering point for those who cared about the arts. She was the widow of Afrikaans poet, musician and medical doctor, Phil du Plessis, who died in 2011.

“We all have our special memories of Catherine as mother, wife, teacher, cook, raconteur, hostess, lover of music,” said Professor Ian Glen, during his funeral tribute.

Ms Lauga du Plessis was born and studied in France, studying English at post-graduate level.

“She left holidays deep-sea yachting in the North Sea and the life of a Left Bank intellectual for a new existence,” said Professor Glen.

“She was tear-gassed in Wale Street a week or so after her arrival in Cape Town in 1976. Shortly after that, at a picnic with John and Philippa Coetzee in Cape Point, a large male baboon jumped into the car next to her, snatching a sandwich from her hand and leading her to scream, ‘Maman!’ A lesser woman might well have fled.”

She taught French at Alliance Francaise before joining UCT’s French department in 1986, teaching language, literature and civilisation and was honoured with a UCT distinguished teaching award.

“In South Africa she moved in a literary milieu. Douglas Living- stone, Denis Martin, Brian Willan, Stephen Watson and many other writers and scholars enjoyed her hos- pitality and insights,’ said Professor Glen.

Nobel laureate JM Coetzee was one of the authors she became friends with and his work Dusklands was the first she translated, later translating all of them and adding works by Mike Nicol, Zoe Wicomb, Zakes Mda and Es’kia Mphahlele.

Her translation of JM Coetzee’s novel Disgrace (Disgrâce) won two awards: the Prix Baudelaire de Traduction awarded by the Societe des Gens de Lettres and sponsored by the British Council, and the Prix Amphi by Lille University. She was decorated by the French govern- ment as chevalier des Palmes Academiques.

JM Coetzee paid a tribute to Ms Lauga du Plessis, saying she knew the English language “extraordinarily well”.

“(She) translated 10 books of mine into French, thousands and thousands of pages. With the greatest good humour she would send me these pages to check, and with equally good humour discuss with me, via email, the pros and cons of alternative phrasings. During these discussions I learned from her 10 times as much about the resources of the French language as she might have learned about English from me.

“The translations she produced are not just the equal of the originals, but, in a strange way, better than them. I am only one of several writers with whom she worked, but I do believe that her French versions of my books will not be excelled and will endure as a monument to her fine literary sensibility.

“It was always a pleasure to work with her. Now she is gone; whoever replaces her will have a daunting standard to meet.”