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Recently it has been claimed that Translation Studies is experiencing a “creative turn.” It goes without saying that a “creative turn” claims to contest traditional notions of translation which stress the activity’s secondary nature and, in addition, foregrounds the figure of the translator as an autonomous, self-assured person.[2] At first sight, there is nothing to object to in these claims, or developments, if this change is really taking place. Over the last few decades numerous steps have been taken in the theory and practice of translation which challenge traditional views of translation and translator and which dispute hierarchical ideas of “original” and “translation” (see, for instance, Buden, 2005; Cronin, 2006; Wolf, 2008; Simon, 2012). Yet, once we connect these developments to the figure of the author, things become complicated: doesn’t the view of literary authors as one of the key players in the “creative turn” in Translation Studies implicitly mean that authors are supposed to give a creative incentive to the translation activity which translators—obviously—are not, or not sufficiently, capable of doing? Subsequently, the question arises whether translators intrinsically can be expected to bear a creative potential in their activity, or whether at best they depend on authors for bringing to the fore this potential. This—again implicitly—would result in a hierarchical view of the figures involved in the translation field, something that undeniably is (still) a matter of fact but is exactly what Translation Studies has been struggling to transcend over the past decades. In addition, the discussion on the “author’s death” (Barthes, 1977 [1967]) and the resulting problematic “translator’s birth” which was already questioned in the 1990s (see Arrojo, 1997; for the context of art criticism see Wuggenig, 2004) has shown us that emphasising a dichotomous thinking of the figures involved in the translation process results in an essentialism which fixes existing relations and perpetuates hierarchical relationships in the translation field. Rosemary Arrojo has succinctly illuminated this stance:

If the conscious presence of the author is somehow expected to be found in her or his writing, and if the original is seen as the true recipient of its creator’s intentions and expression, any translation is, by definition, devalued since it necessarily represents a form of falsification, always removed from the original and its author.

Arrojo, 1997, p. 21

To come back to the context of “creativity,” I would therefore suggest that we explore the relatedness of the author’s and the translator’s creativity and particularly scrutinize what they can contribute to elaborating a translation concept which helps to re-formulate the terms under which the translation process takes place and which takes into account the creative nature of writing in view of its potential to “negotiate” the power relations inherent in any writing process.

Regarding the second component of the “creative turn”—the “turn” itself—it seems obvious that there have been too many turns in Translation Studies in the last few years, but the existence of the term does testify to the visibility and the importance of the phenomenon.[3] The discussion of an academic discipline’s shifts of paradigm might be seen as a sign of its establishment within the scientific community and a stage in the branch’s “evolution” which allows its results and achievements to be questioned, also from outside. In her book Cultural Turns: Neuorientierungen in den Kulturwissenschaften (2006), Bachmann-Medick asks how “turns” generally come about in the humanities. According to her, a turn moves through three stages that characterize “turns” in general. The first stage is the expansion of the object or thematic field: this implies a shift from the level of object of new fields of research to the level of analytic categories and concepts. Secondly, the dynamics of turns is characterized by the formation of metaphors, such as “culture as translation.” Metaphorization is transcended once its potential for insight moves across disciplines as a new means of knowledge and into theoretical conceptualisation. The third stage is that of methodological refinement, provoking a conceptual leap and transdisciplinary application (Bachmann-Medick, 2006, pp. 26-27; 2009, p. 4). With reference to my claim expressed at the beginning of this paper, the “creative turn” appears to be still at the first level of its process of establishment, as there is no evidence of the metaphorization of analytic tools in terms of “creativity.” And the third stage seems to be still long in coming, as testified by Perthegella and Loffredo: “A ‘creative turn,’ then, is slowly taking place […]. However, for this to happen effectively, it needs to be accepted and supported in the larger socio-cultural, economic and literary systems” (2007, p. 11).

This contribution aims at contributing to the debate on these issues by exploring Elfriede Jelinek’s translation activity. The focus will be on her translation concept, which will be tested against her own particularly innovative and provocative style of writing. I will also ask whether her ideas on translation, as expressed in several interviews and speeches, have been put into practice in her translations.

Jelinek: “Untranslatable Author” and Author-Translator

Elfriede Jelinek stands in a line of tradition with many other writers who have devoted themselves to translating alongside their own writing, or at least have occasionally taken up the task of the translator. The forms that these translation activities may take are multifarious. Often prompted by a situation of exile, and for other reasons too numerous to list here, many of these writers translate their own texts, thus engendering a special form of “encounter with the self” (Greiner, 2004, p. 119);[4] others are able to afford the luxury of selecting texts for translation and can approach the work of translation with a kind of relish. In self-translation, creativity is a key factor, as is attested in statements such as “[t]he author who translates his or her own texts habitually transcends the limits of the original by means of creative procedures” (Fišer, 1998, p. 33); and once for self-translators it is a requirement to “have a cultural status in both language communities” (Jung, 2002, p.18), it seems indicated to fully exploit one’s creative potential. Norbert Greiner distinguishes between translators who find “congenial compatibilities in the work to be translated and pay reverence to them as translators,” and translators who “see the process of translating as something that resembles and complements that of creative writing” (ibid., p. 112). In my introductory remarks I have already mentioned that there are some difficulties associated with perspectives of this kind; but what does seem relevant here is Greiner’s classification of the different motivations that writers may have for taking on translation work.

As will be shown, Elfriede Jelinek can be regarded as a writer who habitually crosses the borders between the two categories. Here, it is important to consider her view of translating against the background of her own literary work and her international reception. When Jelinek won the Nobel Prize in 2004 for what the committee called her “musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that, with extraordinary linguistic zeal, reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power” (Nobel Prize, 2004), the reactions of the international public were quite divided, but critics like the ones describing her as an “unknown, undistinguished, leftist fanatic” (Schwartz, 2004) had the upper hand. It is a truism that Nobel Laureates do not receive the prize for mainstream literature; on the contrary. Additionally, in most cases the jury members (of the Nobel and any other international prize) assess not an author’s original works but their translations—though without mentioning that fact. This makes it all the more surprising that Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize, given that she herself has explicitly said she considers her works to be “untranslatable” and that audiences outside German-speaking countries would never understand them (Jelinek, 2004, cited in Kavenna, 2004). However, her statements seem to be contradicted by the facts: in many countries, Jelinek is viewed as one of the greatest contemporary German-speaking authors, and there is no doubt that the Nobel Prize has reinforced this high reputation.

Jelinek is a caustic and inconvenient critic of Austrian society and its Catholic and authoritarian environment, denouncing the hypocrisies of social conventions and patriarchal traditions. Accordingly, the main issues of her prose and theatre are the enduring oppression of women, feminism in general, and the menacing persistence of fascist ideology in Austria and other parts of Europe. When Jelinek arrived at the literary scene at the end of the 1960s with poetry publications and published her first books shortly after (wir sind lockvögel baby!, 1970; Michael. Ein Jugendbuch für die Infantilgesellschaft, 1972), she received little notice in the press, yet her first works already heralded her trenchant political and social critiques. Only her third novel, Die Liebhaberinnen (1975; Women as Lovers, translated by Martin Chalmers, 1994), aroused the interest of literary critics. When Die Klavierspielerin appeared in the bookstores (1983; The Piano Teacher; translated by Joachim Neugröschel, 1988), fears were expressed that the “breath-taking radical text” would probably be “terribly misunderstood” (Löffler, 1983, cited in Lamb-Faffelberger, 1994, p. 291). This fear proved to be valid. Lust (1989; translated under the same title by Michael Hulse, 1992) is considered the most successful work of the author in terms of linguistic brilliancy (Mayer and Koberg, 2006, p. 172). Regarding translations into English, additionally to these novels numerous drama texts have been translated: What Happened after Nora Left Her Husband, or Pillars of Society, 1994; Clara S.,1997; In The Alps, 2002; and so on (for more details see Görtschacher, 2004), scripts (Malina, 2000), single prose texts such as Princess Dramas: Death and the Maiden I-V, 2003; Bambiland, 2005, and a series of essays.

As a writer, Jelinek sees her task as showing “how economics, sexuality, discrimination and racism are all intertwined with each other” (Jelinek, cited in Packalén, 2005). Against this backdrop, perhaps the most striking thing when reading her works is her relentless language, the “cold gaze” she directs at social relations (Bartens, 1997, p. 50), the forensic descriptions of women’s and (other) outcasts’ lives. The Austrian writer and composer Olga Neuwirth points out Jelinek’s concern to allow, in the author’s own words, “language itself to get a word in” (Jelinek, 1989, p. 25):

What had always made an impression on me in Jelinek’s texts […] is her distanced gaze at human beings and things, without compassion, the sharpness of her language, the unmasking deployment of linguistic quotations from everyday life, as well as the ironic coldness and disdainful eye of the satirist, who observes the environment like a scientist.

Neuwirth, 1997, p. 220

The Nobel Prize jury praised Jelinek’s “extraordinary linguistic zeal”—but in view of the huge power of the author’s language, that statement seem almost trivial. Jelinek’s fundamental stance on language is expressed in the fact that unlike many other writers, she does not try to create a particular poetic language of her own which differs from everyday language. Instead, her texts are open to every “empty phrase, predictable cliché and platitude” (Schlösser, 2003, p. 74). By using automised, everyday language in a carefully considered way, she “poisons” that language “to such an extent that, at least for the duration of the reading, it becomes unusable” (ibid.). One interviewer encapsulated Jelinek’s wish to subject socially relevant issues to continual attack by language. She noted: “These power structures that you record with a very cold, analytical eye: you unmask them by translating them into language structures” (Winter and Jelinek, 1991, p. 13).[5]

But how can Jelinek’s experiments in language be translated? Is it not something almost beyond the capacity of translators to do? Jelinek herself has often asserted that her texts are simply “untranslatable”—and, indeed, how could they be translatable when she herself says of her language: “give us the set phrases and in they go, and another, and another, until they squirm under my hands in pain or perhaps because they have too little space” (Jelinek, 2000)? For Jelinek, writing is a processual matter for which the classical categories of prose, dialogue, theatre and so on do not apply. The boundaries between the genres are always fluid, and her oeuvre does not obey a fixed code or pre-conceived generic pattern. When it comes to translating, this means that the games with code and genre need to be translated as well if Jelinek’s literary objectives are to be even approximately fulfilled. Jelinek has said that her specific code consists in trying “to force language, often against its will, to disclose its own ideological content. […] It is almost impossible to translate that into a different culture, a different language” (Jelinek, 2004, cited in Male, 2004, p. 33). She justifies her fundamental view that she is an “untranslatable author” (Augustin and Jelinek, 2004, p. 97) as follows: “because my puns, word and language games that arise from the phonetics and the sound of the language, cannot be transposed” (ibid. For the translation of Jelinek’s works into English see Fiddler, 1997; Chalmers, 1997; Vansant, 1997; Wolf, forthcoming.)

In order to illuminate Jelinek’s concept of translation in detail, it is essential to look not only at her comments on the translation of her works but also at those on her own activity as a translator. What view of translating does she set out there? Her attitudes to her own translating, set out in various personal attestations, seem—at least in part—to starkly contradict her innovative concept of language. An outline of her own problems in translating emerges in her statement that “translating is often like agitating in water: something that looked as clear as a spring now suddenly seems murky and muddy” (Jelinek, 1999a, p. 11). She sees translating as a “fascinating, creative task,” because the product of the labour is ultimately always something different from the original and becomes a “new work”—yet in many ways she attributes a secondary character to the activity of translating. For example, in a 1988 interview she comments on her translation of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1976), a mammoth project that took her three years of uninterrupted work, that she did not feel any desire to bring in her own language—on the contrary, she wanted to subordinate herself completely to the author. In the same way, she believes that her translations might be criticised for clinging too closely to literalism (Fleischanderl and Jelinek, 1988, p. 25). In an interview of 2004 she says: “When I translate, I am in principle a follower of the method of relatively literal translation” (Augustin and Jelinek, 2004, p. 97). There are certain shifts in her view of translating: in yet another statement, she presents the view that it is quite admissible to spell out and strengthen the original’s points when translating:

Related to this are radicalisations in my choice of words and language: not discretion but excess, wherever possible. A lady of easy virtue can absolutely be called a whore so as to make plain the contempt and hypocrisy […] of her customers, the superior gentlemen.

Jelinek, 1999b, p. 8

What is certain is that Jelinek puts the recipient at the forefront of her attention, something accentuated even more by her divergent translation strategies for prose and for drama. When translating prose texts, Jelinek subordinates herself far more fully to the author than she does in her drama translations, where she argues for a freer form of translating that adapts more closely to the German language: as she says, she tries to put dramatic texts “into a German that is as everyday, modern and terse as possible” (Fleischanderl and Jelinek, 1988, p. 26). Likewise, she stresses that the translation strategy used will depend partly on the structure out of which and into which the text is to be translated (Augustin and Jelinek, 2004, p. 101). The balance of power between original and translation certainly becomes obvious when she says: “The translation cuddles up to the original like the lamb to the wolf” (ibid.).

Jelinek’s attitude emerges with particular clarity in those statements where she discusses the relationship between author and translator. She argues that authors could be regarded as better translators in as much as they possess a greater capacity for intuitive empathy with foreign texts (ibid., p. 97); she also emphasises that translating other writers has taught her an enormous amount for her own language and work: “Fundamentally, I have got more back than I could ever have given” (ibid., p. 105).

Asked in an interview what generally prompts writers to translate other people’s works, she answers:

It may perhaps be a phallic need, a presumptuous claim to push your way into something Other. By that I don’t mean pulling a condom of your own language over the other text; it is more a longing for deep, total penetration of a textual body.


To be sure, the comments presented here come from a period when the author was no longer more or less obliged to take on translation work for financial reasons. That is reflected in the self-confident tone with which she explains her reasons for taking on a translation—and her use of a discourse that recalls her best-known and most scandalous novel, Lust.

Even if Jelinek regards translating as an enrichment for her own work—as she puts it, translating is “an incredibly good way of practising language” (Fleischanderl and Jelinek, 1988, p. 25)—when she compares the two activities she sets up a clear hierarchy:

The problem with writing, which causes me more and more psychological problems as I get older, is getting something out of nothing. But when I’ve finished a piece and translate, it’s an unbelievable relief to really subordinate myself to that.


In later years, a certain change can be observed in this viewpoint as well. In an interview held in 2004, Jelinek distinguishes between one-off translations of great works, where she says she keeps a very low profile, and translating theatrical works that have already been translated several times, such as Oscar Wilde’s plays (Augustin and Jelinek, 2004, p. 101). She adds: “At the moment Karin Rausch and I are translating […] Oscar Wilde’s Ideal Husband—but in such a way that it will be more like Jelinek’s Ideal Husband” (Pohl and Jelinek, 2004, p. 3). As theatre reviews show (e.g., see Letnansky, 2011; Pesl, 2011), Jelinek’s prophecy proved true: the piece, which had its premiere on 23 November, 2011 in Vienna, introduced both gender and financial discourse in Wilde’s satirical comedy and did not spare with obvious hints to real persons of the Austrian political and cultural scene.

Elfriede Jelinek’s Translation Practice

Jelinek began to translate very early in her career. Her first translations appeared in 1973 and were short prose texts, including work by Humberto Arenal and Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Poetry translations from Spanish and from American English followed in the 1980s. Particularly notable are the translations I have already mentioned, of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, which left a lasting mark on Jelinek’s attitude to the act of translating, and her numerous translations of theatrical texts, especially those by Georges Feydeau and Eugène Labiche in the 1980s, Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta [Der Jude von Malta] (2001), and finally Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest [Ernst ist das Leben] (2004).

In what follows I will re-examine the points made above on Jelinek’s concept of translation in the light of her translation of Marlowe’s (1564-1593) The Jew of Malta. The play, first performed in 1592 in London, deals with the conflict of the three monotheistic world religions, and has often been described as anti-Semitic by literary critics. In the German-speaking world, the play was translated for the first time only in 1831; in very recent times there have been some productions based on Erich Fried’s 1991 translation. In 2001 the well-known director Peter Zadek asked Jelinek to make a new translation of the text for his production at the Burgtheater in Vienna. For Jelinek, the play’s taint of anti-Semitism was exactly what prompted her to take on the translation: “If you carry the history of Germany and Austria on your back, so to speak, you have to be interested in anti-Semitism” (Hilpold and Jelinek, 2001, p. 29). Because of her poor knowledge of English and her difficult experiences around the Pynchon translation, she decided to carry out the work in collaboration with the translator Karin Rausch. Rausch provided a basic translation for Jelinek, who is responsible for the particularities of the text, for “sharpening and hurting” it, as Zadek says (2001, cited in Oberger, 2008, p. 25).

The production aimed to create strong links with the present day, addressing themes like the return of Jewish property or religious fundamentalism. Jelinek’s concern to “sharpen” the text finds stylistic expression in her incisive intensifications, especially in relation to political contexts and social criticism. As a whole she delivers an often casual-sounding, witty and ironic translation that, as the following examples will show, does not hesitate to introduce stylistic and discursive ruptures.

For example, while Jelinek’s translation harks back to the “classical” language of theatre, again and again she enlivens that language with modern and colloquial expressions. The opening monologue of the protagonist, Barabas, runs as follows:

-> See the list of tables

When the slave Ithamore sends a letter to Barabas, he thinks aloud:

-> See the list of tables

The wild-west scene evoked in the translation here is further evidence of the switching of register that runs through the entire translation, used by Jelinek to create connections to the present day.

One last example demonstrates Jelinek’s bizarre translation style. The courtesan Bellamira promises the slave Ithamore an hour of pleasure:

-> See the list of tables

The translation met with a very divided reception in the German-speaking media. While some called it a “lacklustre translation” that deletes the “grotesque, the bizarre, the tragicomic” aspects of the original (Gabler, 2001, cited in Oberger, 2008, p. 26) and is both “flippant and banal” (Sucher, 2001, cited in Oberger, 2008, p. 29), others found it “simply dazzling” and “sensational: light, precise […], with a biting poetic directness, arranged for the present day in cynical brilliance without a trace of modishness” (Schwabeneder, 2001, cited in Oberger, 2008, p. 28). One theatre critic sums it up:

In her subjective, headstrong translation, Elfriede Jelinek brings the conflict between antisemitic Christians and excluded Jews to a point with the moralist’s cold fury and her galloping language.

Hirschmann-Altzinger, 2001, cited in Oberger, 2008, p. 25


Elfriede Jelinek’s concept of translation has undergone a substantial transformation over the years. Here, we must distinguish between her statements on translations of her works and her own translational practice. Her comments on translating indicate that she tends to be an advocate of faithfulness to the original and accords the activity of translating a rather secondary status overall. Interestingly, these views are not reflected in her own translations—at least not those of recent years: here she is an innovative, freehanded and highly manipulative agent. One might ask whether this does not give the lie to her own statements and show her to be the author who—to reiterate her own words—follows a “phallic need, a presumptuous claim to push her way into something Other” (Augustin and Jelinek, 2004, p. 105). Either way, Jelinek the artist enjoys a higher status than Jelinek the translator—which brings us back to the contribution of writers to a “creative turn” in Translation Studies. As long as the agents involved in the translation and the reading public, and certainly also the scholarly debate, work with a concept of translation that draws its meaning only from translation’s relation to the original, the hierarchical relationships between original and translation will endure. In a context like this, creativity cannot develop. It requires a concept of translation that, in a poststructuralist frame, regards translating as a continuous construction of meaning that is located within contingent networks and social discourses (see Simon, 1996). A starting-point for a translation concept of this kind is offered by Gentzler and Tymoczko when they write:

Translation thus is not simply an act of faithful reproduction but, rather, a deliberate and conscious act of selection, assemblage, structuration, and fabrication – and even, in some cases, of falsification, refusal of information, counterfeiting, and the creation of secret codes. In these ways translators, as much as creative writers and politicians, participate in the powerful acts that create knowledge and shape culture.

2002, p. xxi

There is, thus, evidently a connection between translational creativity and a concept of translation shaped by poststructuralism. As I have shown elsewhere, an expansion of the concept of translation in the sense of “cultural translation,” which has received valuable input among other things from anthropology or philosophy (see Buden and Nowotny, 2009; Pratt, 2010; Conway, 2012), and which above all has articulated a clear rejection of ethnocentric or national-culture variants of “translation,” has been accompanied by a reinforcement of the socio-political relevance to the agents involved in the translation process, first and foremost the translators themselves. This has given translation and translators more sharply drawn, politically marked features (see Wolf, 2008). In the context of translators-as-writers these aspects gain further momentum in that their “role” as both writers and translators might be “doubled” in terms of their “creative” engagement as social agents within the translating activity. In such a view, creativity helps to go beyond a view of translation as “an activity that people engage in as a kind of second best because they cannot find words of their own” (Pattison, 2006, p. 92) and puts into motion processes of imagination and invention. Thus, a “creative turn” can only get an impetus if creative thinking and writing goes hand in hand with the conceptualization of a wider concept of translation. Within such a concern, the writer who is also a translator—or may I say, the translator who is also a writer? —is no longer privileged once the hierarchical structure sketched above is self-reflexively questioned. This is the case with Elfriede Jelinek; however—and this also points to the complexities implicit in this claim—the contradiction revealed in my paper between Jelinek’s views on her own translation activity on the one hand, and that of the translators translating her work, on the other, illustrates that the cross-fertilisation between author and translator in terms of creativity is still in need of improvement. Elfriede Jelinek seems to be aware of this necessity, when she says, perhaps with a twinkle in her eye: “[whether I am writing or translating I feel] a curiosity that drags me along like a dog following a scent” (Augustin and Jelinek, 2004, p. 95).