Interview with Gitta Honegger by Alexis Clements October 16, 2012
The writing of Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek is notoriously tricky to translate. Jelinek’s writing uses word play and idioms that reference not only Austrian German dialect, but also the even more specific vernacular of Vienna—Austria’s capital and cultural center. Gitta Honegger has been translating Jelinek’s work into English for a number of years now, in addition to translating the work of numerous other prominent Austrian writers. But it’s not just Honegger’s experience as a translator that makes her a particularly apt person to tackle Jelinek’s complex writing style, they also share similar upbringings and a love of the theater.
Both women were born in the wake of World War II, into an Austria that, for them, appeared to be in a state of denial about its role in the war. During the late 1930s the Nazi party in Austria took over the government and very soon after that Hitler unified Austria with Germany. This led to one of the darker periods in Austrian history, during which some Austrians participated in Nazi-led campaigns, including the deaths of thousands of Jewish Austrians. Both women were also born into families that placed a high value on the arts, and a culture that demanded that they conform to very strict assumptions about how young women should behave in society.
From a young age Jelinek was pressured by her mother to study classical piano and Honegger choose at the age of 14 to pursue acting at the country’s national theater. Since then their lives have diverged, but both have maintained an ardent connection to the theater. Jelinek remains in Austria, and continues to write new works on a regular basis, despite suffering from severe acute anxiety syndrome, which keeps her homebound. Honegger moved to the US early on, where her varied career has encompassed everything from acting to journalism to directing to writing books and translating.
Alexis Clements, an alumna of the Women’s Project Playwright’s Lab and co-editor of the anthology of plays titled Out of Time & Place, sat down to talk with Honegger. They discussed her theater career, the ins and outs of translating Jelinek’s work, and why Jackie, a recent work by Jelinek that is receiving its North American premiere at Women’s Project this season, is a particularly interesting play.
Alexis Clements: I’d love to start by talking a bit about your own biography and how you came to do translation work. You started your acting career at the Vienna Burgtheater, which is Austria’s national theater. But eventually, you decided to move to the US. What led you to move here?
Gitta Honegger: I came here to research my dissertation about Eugene O’Neill. That was the time of the Living Theatre and the Open Theater, and I came from a very structured, classical background. So, to me, America was just great. I didn’t want to go back. I liked the freedom, also, of the ensemble work—instead of the hierarchy of European classical theater. And Off-Broadway was wonderfully experimental at that time.
AC: And then, as I understand it, not long after receiving your doctorate from the University of Vienna, you began working as an arts journalist in the New York City for a handful of German-language publications. Why were you interested in taking the job as a journalist covering theater in the US?
GH: American theatres, and the opportunity to observe the rehearsals and productions of innovative companies became my university. I got to interview, for instance, the Negro Ensemble Company, and then I went up to New Haven to the Yale Repertory Theatre, where [Robert] Brustein [founder of the American Repertory Theater] first did his work. I could learn about American theater from inside.
AC: So, very quickly you were able to immerse yourself in the theater?
GH: Yes. And I was also lucky, because at that time the Jewish émigrés from Germany and Austria were at the height of their careers—Rudolf Bing, for instance, was artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera. I interviewed him, as well as the editor of TIME Magazine Henry Grunwald, for an article about Austrian refugees in New York.
AC: That community of Austrians and Germans in New York must have been important for you. From reading about your life, I gather that part of your desire to leave Austria in the first place related to your disenchantment with Austrian politics and your rejection of the fact that no one in Austria was discussing what happened during the war. Which is an experience you shared with Elfriede Jelinek. She obviously stayed in the country, but why was it important for you to leave?
GH: Well, you know, America, at that time, meant openness to us, not this little country surrounded by Alps and nobody talking about what had happened quite recently. I hate to use the word freedom, because it’s so abused right now, but it offered a more personal freedom.
AC: It was a symbol, then?
GH: It was the idea of America that was so attractive.
AC: At what point did translation become something interesting for you to be involved in?
GH: I don’t know if you are familiar with the plays by Thomas Bernhard. He was a controverial novelist and also a poet, one of the most important writers of 20th century German language literature. He’s more known here because of his novels. When I was directing, which coincides with my time in New York, I looked for material to direct and I was completely mesmerized by his plays because they made it possible for me to deal with Austria as a home through language. The way he approached language was in some way similar to Elfriede. He shows you the fragments of the culture after the war—it’s not whole and beautiful. He shows the rupture in people’s minds through his syntax. I talked with a very active cultural representative from the Austrian Institute (now the Austrian Cultural Forum), Gertrude Kothanek, who thought that Bernhard’s plays should be staged in New York, but first they needed a translator. She said to me, why don’t you do it. So, then I got started.
AC: And that led to the book that you did on Bernhard’s work, just as you’re now working on a book about Jelinek?
GH: Yes. They are pretty related in a way—Elfriede and Bernhard—in terms of their attitude towards Austria. She always differentiates, though, that Bernhard, as a man, could make these authoritative statements and journalists, along with the world, accepted it. But as a woman she could not do the same thing. It took her a much longer time to be acknowledged on a large scale, though she was always acknowledged by certain people.
AC: When were you first introduced to Jelinek’s work?
GH: I first met her in the 1970s. I met her once. One of her directors introduced me to her. She was kind of…awesome, just awesome.
AC: What do you mean by that?
GH: Well, since she’s shy, which you can’t read so well when you first meet her, she was so centered. The first time I met her, she wore this flowing gown, which made her look like a regal apparition out of fin-de-siecle Vienna. Later, she dressed in leather and had spiked hair. It made her look real tough, “awesome” in today’s lingo.
AC: So she presented herself as someone who ran counter to the image of what an Austrian woman should be?
GH: Yes, totally.
AC: And when did you start working seriously with her writing?
GH: That was after I was, more or less, finished with Bernhard—not the book yet, but I had translated many of his plays. I saw Jelinek’s play in Vienna about Hannah Arendt and [Martin] Heidegger [Totenauberg (Death/Valley/Mountain)]. I was very intrigued. I loved it. I said, oh wow, I would love to translate this. But then I thought, oh, no, I don’t want to get into that again, because I was directing at the time. But then my husband said—he’s Austrian too—you’re the only one who can do this kind of language, and actually it’s true. So, I did it. And that was my first, very intensive contact with [Elfriede].
AC: How much does Jelinek participate in the crafting of the English translations of her work? Everything that anyone says about her writing focuses on the incredible specificity of the idioms and word plays that she uses. Essentially, the consensus seems to be that her writing is completely different if you experience it as a native Austrian.
GH: Totally. I was talking about this yesterday. Some translators have German advisors and the advisors can’t even understand some of the idioms she’s using. You have to really understand the Viennese subtexts.
AC: So it’s that specific—not just Austrian German, but the vernacular of Vienna?
AC: You have clearly developed a working relationship with Jelinek over a long period of time, having translated a number of pieces of her writing. What’s interesting for you about working with Jelinek?
GH: Two things. First, for biographical reasons—because she really helped me come to terms with my culture; because she gave me a language that is speakable, or thinkable, after the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, because it’s artificial, it’s distilled from Austrian vernacular as well as from the German literary canon and media speak. And the other thing is that I’m not a translator who translates anything. You have to live inside the world of a writer and really learn that language. I found that the more I translated, the more I saw the similarities between translation and performance. Because you have to go inside that voice. And since both writers [Bernhard and Jelinek] are very dramatic—I mean, dramatic not like drama, but their language is performative—so you can really go from an actor’s approach.
And actually Gayatri Spivak, the literary scholar and theorist—she is also a translator—she talks about a translator having to go through the text like an actor or a director, which to me was very interesting. She speaks of the language as consisting of syntax, rhetoric, and silence, and the least interesting is the syntax, and the most important is the rhetoric, and how it relates to the silence. And when I read that, I said, oh yeah. When I think of translating, I think much more in terms of post-colonial ideas, and what the English language means in the world, from a colonial perspective, from a corporate, global economy perspective. And that is so exciting with Jelinek because she critiques culture through language, and so the drama is really inside that language—it doesn’t talk about it, but the language expresses it.
AC: Thinking about Jackie and popular culture, the character in the play is so reflective of the conflict between an idealized or mediated person and the real person trapped inside of those false representations. Do you think there are differences between the way that an Austrian writer like Jelinek would understand Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, versus the way an American writer might?
GH: 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 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.
AC: I like the way you put that—the idea of a woman’s voice representing a kind of foreign language within her own culture. I think that’s a great moment to reflect on the Tim Parks essay in The New York Review of Books from 2007, which discussed a handful of her novels and none of her theater works. The essay is one of the few major English-language reviews of her work, but Parks’ writing about Jelinek’s work is totally indicative of that sense that her writing just seems utterly foreign to him in a way that he’s unwilling to engage with. It’s as if he simply rejects her language outright and makes no attempt whatsoever to see that it’s being written from a perspective that is unfamiliar to him.
GH: Yes, completely, and that often happens.
AC: Ultimately it’s as if because Parks doesn’t think that he would ever think or behave the way that her characters think and behave, which evokes that sense of foreignness. But it’s also very patronizing and bizarre, because his critique seems to be that her characters aren’t human, but she’s not trying to represent a strict realism in her work.
GH: Yes, that’s on purpose.
AC: This all gets to another point that I wanted to discuss. As we’ve touched on, some of her work can be very challenging, particularly in the novel form. You have to make a commitment as a reader of her work to put forth a bit of effort. But theater allows the work to be seen in different lights, to be interpreted by other artists. Do you think seeing her work in the theater helps people who otherwise might find it difficult to engage with her writing on the page?
GH: Well, you know,her writing is also quite funny. But either you accept her directors’ often experimental approaches or you don’t. She encourages directors to translate her work into their very own visual language and she doesn’t interfere with that. So, you have to go along with their vision. And not all audiences go for it. What she does get is a lot of young people. I’m amazed at the youth of the audience, when I see productions of her plays, I often see her shows more than once, and young people totally relate to her in Germany and in Austria. And then, of course, you have the women of our generation.
AC: Let’s talk more about her play Jackie specifically. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is something of a specter in American culture. Certainly, at the very least, every first lady since John Kennedy’s presidency has had to reconcile their relationship to her legacy. And she’s obviously also a big part of the ongoing cultural obsession with John Kennedy, as well as the increasing connection between celebrity and politics in this country. To your mind, why look again at this woman who has been so discussed and dissected over the decades, through the lens of Jelinek’s writing?
GH: Well, it’s part of Elfriede’s cycle of Princess Plays. She describes them as a satirical counterpoint to Shakespeare’s histories, which in German are called “Kings Plays.” She has Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and Princess Di—it’s actually one big play. And you couldn’t leave out Jackie Kennedy—for the 20th Century she is the essential princess. Also, [Jackie Kennedy] was so closely identified in Europe as the first one to bring culture to the White House. I mean that wasn’t her motivation, but that’s the image of her in Europe.
AC: Picking up on of some of what we talked about before, in terms of the idealized version of America, do you think there’s something interesting about having Jelinek’s perspective on an American icon as an outsider to the country?
GH: Well, you know, I’m not sure that it’s that different, because it’s all mediated reality. In America we are so used to looking at America through the media, and I think the average American, most probably, doesn’t know their royalty either, except through the media. Elfriede’s not trying to go into any biography or psychology, she’s really constructing and de-constructing a mediated image. I think that’s the hardest, ultimately, to get across.
AC: That touches on one of the things that I think is so interesting about this play and other works by Jelinek. There’s a tension in many of her characters between the expectations from outside and the desire of the individual on the inside, specifically the places where the expectations and desires clash. In the case of Jackie, it’s the larger culture, politics, and media imposing upon a real human being who remains subsumed beneath all those things. But in other works, The Piano Teacher, for instance, which for most American audiences is their primary contact with Jelinek, it’s the mother’s expectations of the daughter. In Jackie, as you indicate, Jelinek isn’t attempting to represent the real human being Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, but it so clearly demonstrates everything that was imposed on that person, who was in many ways trapped by those impositions. You have a much wider view of Jelinek’s body of work—do you have a sense of that tension existing in other works of hers?
GH: Well, I think you really got it, and specifically, it does go back to the mother, and that feeling—the expectations. I think that’s at the core—the expectations and the performance you do to meet the expectations. I would say that’s the driving force in Elfriede. When you meet her, and talk to her—we joke, she is so much the good, well bred, convent-educated, lady from Austria. She could never say no to you; she gets very upset if someone asks her something and she can’t say yes. And I think maybe that’s what we share, maybe more intensely because we are out of that same culture.
But she is also someone who can speak intellectually about Heidegger, about a wide range of issues. Although she will always say she’s not an intellectual, but she has an incredible intelligence, I mean, an absolutely unbelievable intelligence. But as the good, well-bred girl, she would also not boast about it too much. She’s very articulate, but she would never say, I’m an intellectual person. She’s actually very modest. But never when she was a public figure. When she was still out there, as a younger rebel, she was not just nice. She would really say what was going on, and she was very articulate. I think it’s more when she meets people one on one, I think that’s more my experience. And since we have similar experiences we can laugh about it—two nice ladies! (She laughs.)
AC: That gets to another thing. Because of her anxiety disorder she’s obviously not available to a lot of people. Do you find that people ask you to be a kind of representative for her, or a kind of middleman, when they are working with texts of hers that you have translated?
GH: Well, she calls me her “riding messenger.” Because her play Rechnitz, is all about messengers, and I went to see the production in Tel Aviv, because it was such a historic event, to have a German-language woman write a play which takes off from the Holocaust but is not about the tragedy of the Holocaust, but about messengers, about how we transmit the memories through generations. It’s a fantastic play—I think it’s her best play.
AC: After all this time working together, would you say that the two of you are friends?
AC: So you’re in regular contact?
GH: I see her every time I go [to Austria], and not just when we’re discussing her writing.
AC: We’ve touched a little bit on it already, but because many people’s only real contact with her writing in the US is the film version of her novel The Piano Teacher, which is quite grim in some ways, I’d like to talk about the humor and satire in her writing, which is very present in Jackie.
GH: Who she really reminds me of—not as much in Jackie as in her later performance texts — who she’s actually very close to in her language strategies is Stephen Colbert. Because when he drives the logic to its most absurd, when he takes the rhetoric of Paul Ryan and people like that, and when he aims at the totally nonsensical punch line, which is also so true, that is pure Jelinek—the sense of nonsense, you know, that nonsense which turns out to be the truth.
AC: I think that will be really helpful for people unfamiliar with her work to hear. Because I think the impression of her work is focused so much on the darkness and complexity. It’s good to present Colbert’s word play and rhetorical absurdism as a way to get at the fact that she’s engaged in a lot of play in her writing.
GH: Yes, and she very much sees herself in the tradition of Jewish humor, Jewish cabaret. She says that at her [childhood] home, word play and games were always part of the conversation. I saw that most vividly when I saw the production of one of her favorite directors—Nicolas Stemman, who staged The Merchant’s Contracts (Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns)—this is her play about the global economic crisis—and he just totally explodes the text. He includes improvisations, even confrontations with the text where the actors, who actually read the script just rip up the sheet of paper when they are done with it. But I think you can do that now because she’s well known in Europe, so it’s understood as a personal confrontation. Here it wouldn’t mean anything, because people don’t know her work.
Ultimately it should be a conversation between the director and [the actor playing] Jackie and Elfriede’s writing.
AC: I think that’s a great way of putting it—that it should be a dialogue. I think that maybe allows the audience to let go a little bit of that sense that this is an important writer who has won an important prize and that they should take her very seriously. By presenting it as a conversation, a flexible interaction, it allows people to see that there’s room for them to grapple with and interpret the work as well—it’s not a fixed thing that can only be understood in one way.
GITTA HONEGGER is a 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, 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 Literature. www.elfriedejelinek.com
ALEXIS CLEMENTS is a playwright and journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. She is currently a Fellow at the Cultural Strategies Initiative. Her creative work has been produced and published in both the US and the UK. She is the co-editor of the two-volume anthology of performance texts by women titled, Out of Time & Place, which includes her performance piece, Conversation. Her articles, essays, and interviews have appeared in publications such as Bitch Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Nature, and Aesthetica. She regularly writes about art and performance for both Hyperallergic and The L Magazine. www.alexisclements.com