‘I had to compensate for the mediocre results of my youth!’ – 83-year-old receives second PhD in ten years during UP virtual graduation ceremony

Posted on April 14, 2020

Why would anyone want to go through the pain and hardship of acquiring two doctorates in the space of a decade?

Dr John Boje (83) is one of 11 000 University of Pretoria (UP) graduates who were awarded their qualifications in absentia earlier this week during a virtual ceremony necessitated by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Boje received his PhD in English, his second PhD after completing one in History, also at UP, in 2010. “I wasted my time at school and in my undergraduate days at university, and have had to compensate for the mediocre results achieved in my youth,” he joked. “My advice to undergraduates is: Don’t waste your time, and you won’t need to do two doctorates to prove yourself!”

Dr Boje, a former teacher who taught in England, Swaziland and South Africa, grew up in Cape Town as one of eight children in a working-class family. His father, who hailed from the Free State, had difficulty finding work there because of his limited command of English. “As a result, he was determined that I would be brought up as an English-speaker, and amazingly he and my mother stuck to this resolve despite their own limitations and the Afrikaner-nationalist censure they had to endure.”


Dr John Boje with his wife Elizabeth (left) and thesis supervisor Dr Idette Noomé.

As an English-speaker in an Afrikaans-speaking family, he says he was a translator from birth. He translated texts from English to Afrikaans and from Afrikaans to English throughout his childhood. “I did it for the pleasure I derived from the challenge – the (im)possibility of saying something in one language successfully in another language.”

While in matric at Wynberg Boys’ High School in 1953 he encountered an extract from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in his prescribed poetry anthology. “When I set about translating a few lines of the poem into Afrikaans, I little dreamt that this would become a lifelong hobby that would fill my leisure hours for the next 60 years. After I had translated the entire work, Professor Molly Brown, Head of UP’s Department of English, suggested I consider a thesis reflecting on the project.”

This then led to his being awarded a PhD in English this year for his thesis '"Save oure tonges difference”: Reflections on translating Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales into Afrikaans’. It argues that translation is not between languages, but between cultures, and therefore between ideologies. “This has vast implications when one translates from a medieval, Catholic, European milieu into a modern, predominantly Calvinist, nationalist thought world in painful transition to a more liberal one,” he explains.

Ten years ago his PhD in History focused on the impact of the Anglo-Boer War on the people of the Winburg district in the Free State. “All four of my grandparents – whom I was privileged to know – lived in the Winburg district. Consequently they were involved in the Anglo-Boer War – or affected by it – whether they wanted to be or not.”

Dr Boje advises postgraduate students to choose a research topic that is of compelling interest and, if possible, personal significance to them, to enable them to stay the course. “I think it’s terribly sad when people reach the end of their working careers and gloomily face years of intellectual emptiness. I am fortunate that I easily become interested in new ventures, and lifelong learning has saved me from that terrible fate.”

He can’t decide which of his PhDs was most rewarding. “The first one was more challenging academically, because I knew nothing about Winburg and very little about the war. The second was easier from the point of view that, apart from the theoretical background of which my knowledge was more limited, it was about my own life, insights, knowledge and experience. The downside was that I was 10 years older and beginning to feel it.”

Dr Idette Noomé, Senior Lecturer in the Department of English, says supervising this thesis was a privilege. “John Boje has an astounding breadth and depth of insight into the medieval world and South African current affairs. He completed this PhD in a mere 20 months! I think his sense of humour and passionate engagement with what he writes about connects him to Chaucer, enabling him to translate with such linguistic creativity, wit and empathy.”

She says insights from a 60-year project have produced a truly unique perspective, which one of the examiners called “an undeniable piece of humanities scholarship”. Dr Boje says both his supervisors were “superb”.

During UP’s virtual graduation ceremony on 6 April, Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe acknowledged the extraordinary circumstances facing the Class of 2020, and promised that when the COVID-19 virus is defeated “UP will hold celebratory ceremonies where graduates can walk across the stage in the presence of family and friends, take photographs, and go home for further celebrations.” He also urged graduates who are now part of UP’s more than 300 000 alumni to “go out there and promote your university and support it in the best way you can as a donor, mentor to our students, and a cheerleader”.

Dr Boje displays his characteristic good humour when asked what’s next on his to-do list. “I read a story in the paper about an old guy who celebrated his 100th birthday with a first-ever bungee jump. Afterwards, when asked how he felt, he said, ‘A little tired. I think I’ll go and lie down for a bit.’”

But it seems Dr Boje isn’t ready to sit still just yet: “Actually, I’m having fun translating Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat into Afrikaans!”

- Author Prim Gower

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