Plays and translation. Gitta Honegger and Elfriede Jelinek

Gitta Honegger

Gitta Honegger

The work of Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek is notoriously difficult to translate. The breadth of form alone is astonishing – essays, screenplays, novels, poetry, opera librettos and plays – and the writing is complex, filled with puns and word play using a localised Austrian German dialect. Gitta Honegger has been translating Jelinek’s work into English for years.  I was delighted and privileged to attend a talk she gave at Freie Universitat’s International Research Centre, ‘Interweaving Performance Cultures’ in Berlin this week about the tricky art of translation.

Gitta feels her training in theatre and ten years as resident dramaturg at Yale Repertory Theatre, where she also directed, serves her well when translating Jelinek’s texts. She is given a huge amount of freedom in the translation process, as some things simply aren’t translatable into English. Her experience in live performance and as a director assists her in making decisions when there are several paths she could take. Encouraged by Jelinek to ‘go as far out as possible,’ she often goes against the most obvious or literal possibility when choosing between meanings, and always tries to keep with the economy of Jelinek’s text.

The sense of trust and complicite between the two is palpable, built over many years of collaboration, as well as similarities in background and cultural heritage. Gitta has recently translated Jackie for The Project Women’s Theatre in New York, part of Jelinek’s Princess Plays – Snow White, The Sleeping Beauty, Princess Diana, and that American ‘princess’,  Jackie Kennedy/Onassis.

A one woman show, the New York production was a great success earlier this year. In an interview about the text on the company website, Honegger says of her process and decision making:

I think that the difficulty in Jackie is obviously Jackie [Kennedy] did not speak like [the character in the play]. So, how do you then make an artificial language acceptable for an audience in a culture that isn’t used to it? Do I take away [Jelinek’s] style and make it accessible and elegant in English, or do I really show what she’s doing? Through Spivak and post-colonialism, especially since feminism and post-colonialism are so related, I’m more of the opinion that you have to leave in the foreignness. What Elfriede is trying to do with the language of the canon, which is basically male, is already a foreign language in her own culture because she’s a woman.

Viewing excerpts of the production, the many theatrical styles the performer Tina Benko uses is fascinating. A more psychological, emotionally-led acting style is familiar and popular with American audiences, yet to Honegger this was curious when applied to Jelinek’s texts. Director Tea Alagic combined this emotionally-charged approach with other theatrical devices and styles in performance, suiting content, context, and the audience.

Jelinek’s texts are seldom staged in the UK, her mixture of the political with the post-dramatic perhaps a little difficult for many palates. Her 1998 Sports Play toured last year, in time for the Olympics, and there is a rare interview with the playwright here:

GITTA HONEGGER is professor of theatre at the Arizona State University. For ten years she was resident dramaturg at the Yale Repertory Theatre, where she also directed, and a professor of dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at the Yale School of Drama. She was an early member of the Women’s Project. In addition to Jackie, Honegger has translated Elfriede Jelinek’s recent performance texts Rechnitz and The Merchant’s Contracts, which will be published in the spring 2013 by Seagull Press, Totenauberg (Death/Valley/Mountain)Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Currently, she is finishing her translation of Jelinek’s novel The Children of the Dead, as well as a biography of Helene Weigel, Frau Brecht, for which she received a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is the author of the biography Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian and the translator of plays by Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Marieluise Fleisser Elias Canetti, aetti, among others.

ELFRIEDE JELINEK, who was born in 1946 and grew up in Vienna, now lives in Vienna and Munich. She has received numerous awards for her literary works, which include not only novels but also plays, poetry, essays, translations, radio plays, screenplays and opera librettos. Her awards include the Georg Büchner Prize and the Franz Kafka Prize for Literature. In 2004 she was awarded with the Nobel Prize for

One response to “Plays and translation. Gitta Honegger and Elfriede Jelinek

  1. Sports Play is being revived for two nights only at Camden People’s Theatre on 13 and 14 July 2013 before international tour.

    More information and booking info here:

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