Reviews BooksPerformance Published 5 August 2012

Translating Jelinek

Chelsea Theatre

Designers and dramaturgs discuss Elfriede Jelinek’s Sports Play.

Carmel Doohan

Jelinek sees her finished plays as merely the beginning. In the interview that introduces the English language edition of Sports Play, she says “A play is never the product of the author; it is at most half; if at all, his or her work. It only comes into being through collaborative teamwork. That’s what’s so interesting about theatre.”

Born in Austria in 1946, Jelinek studied musical composition at the Vienna Conservatory along with theatre and history of Art at Vienna University. She won the Nobel prize for literature in 1994 and is perhaps most well known internationally for her novels – Women as Lovers, Lust and The Piano Teacher (adapted into a film by Micheal Haneke in 2001). Much of her work investigates how media cliches seep into peoples consciousness and allow violence, gender oppression and class injustice to be normalised.

Throughout her work, motifs re-occur and the same themes are interrogated again and again. She explains “I think most authors are obsessed by an idea that they keep modifying and varying.” A playwright, translator, screenwriter, opera librettist and political commentator, she continually re-works her ideas through different mediums. She also actively encourages others to re-interpret and re-translate her work.

Staging one of her plays involves a blurring of roles; dramaturg, translator, director and designer all come together as interpreters. This overlapping collaboration is the focus of the latest Dramaturgs’ Network discussion, as the plays director – Vanda Butkovic, translator- Penny Black- designer/ scenographer – Simon Dogner and dramaturg – Karen Jurs-Munby (via skype) meet at to discuss the many types of translation involved in the project.

Sports Play is a series of monologues delivered by generic types – young woman, sports man, victim. There is no dialogue, creating a sense, as Donger puts it, “of a text with no space – people were petrified, or mumified into being just voices.” The panelists explain how this was something of a worry during the first two weeks of translation and editing, but once they heard actors actually speak Jelinek’s words it was no longer a problem. While on the page the prose can appear impenetrable, when spoken it comes alive. As Butkovic insisted, “The text must be treated as music- a musical score not a story.”

In the introduction to the playtext, Black writes that translating the play was “like running uphill in the fog and rain across an obstacle course filled with booby traps.” It is a work of  “puns, word games, alliteration, abrupt changes of style and words that have three different meanings,” without any of the “usual reassurance of character voice, established rhythm.” It is, at heart, anti-theatrical and therefore, Butkovic tells us, “must be shown in a theatre in order to work against it.”

The job of this creative team was to edit the original five hour playtext down into two. It ran to seven hours when staged in Vienna but, as Butkovic puts it, “the British don’t have those kind of theatrical muscles.” Black speaks of her translating method paralleling the way Jelinek herself writes. To translate a text that takes snippets from so many styles and sources – poetry, quotation, political satire, advertising jingles and polemic – Black needed to use everything from out of date and online dictionaries, to Google, Youtube, Austrian advertisements and historical records. She and Jurs-Munby emailed sentence scraps back and forth, trying to communicate and unpick the many references Jelinek had layered into her sentences. More a collage or montage than an arc, like the play itself, it is from an array of seemingly unconnected fragments that a cohesive whole somehow emerges.

The design process began with Black and Jurs-Munby sending such sections of text to Donger. Intrigued by Jelinek’s ambiguous opening stage directions – “Do what you like…And do it in a way that interrupts the plot. There isn’t one anyway…It could perhaps look like this…or maybe it is about something else.” He drew sketches of swimmers and athletes built from ‘points’ or ink dots, characters that where hard to distinguish from the marks and environment around them; they were figurative, but refused to fully show themselves. He also sought out “self dismissive materials;” ones that could show something, yet also show nothing at all.

To translate the abstraction of the text into something visual he began experimenting with polyester fluff. 160 kg of it. “99% of the devising process was done with the fluff present.” It absorbed sound, sweat and effort and created obstacles, rather fittingly turning the rehearsal into an athletic challenge. “The fluff is both nothing at all, and something that can fill up all available space. It can communicate something very specifically, yet the next moment return to meaning nothing at all.”

As the discussion draws to a close, Black talks of the challenges she found in acting as both dramaturg and translator, the tension between focusing obsessively on the small details and having an overview of the entire piece. She speaks of how this conflict between detail at sentence level and the overall effect is an important one in regards to how the play needs to be approached by the audience.

So I ask, how should we enter Jelinek’s strange plot-free world?

Butkovic warns us:“You will be overwhelmed by the text – you won’t grasp it all. It is an audio experience – it’s not about who’s who and whether they are related.” Black adds that we need to not filter the work through our brain but through somewhere else – “our stomachs perhaps?” Donger puts it best: “Don’t panic,” he says. “Sit back and let yourselves be flooded.”

Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.

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