B.A. Rice is a poet from Texas who lives in Los Angeles.
The impossibilities of translation are seldom as overtly formalized as they are in Damion Searls’s version of Elfriede Jelinek’s 1998 play er nicht als her, and for good reason — the play is a monologue built from the sentences of two writers, Jelinek and Robert Walser, and its obsessive focus is the tension between silence and polyphony. As Searls reminds us in his afterword, the last thirty years of Walser’s life were spent in an insane asylum, but his “sanity” may have been fully intact until he died. This autobiographical ambiguity informs the play’s intense ambivalence about speech as a container for thoughts — just as any number of actors could, according to the vague stage directions, perform fragments of the monologue (and therefore destabilize its presentation as a monologue), the utterances of an individual can be thought of as an endless assertion of newborn voices, as strange to the person who spoke them as they are to the listener. For some this sense of inner multitudes may seem familiar from Whitman, but Jelinek’s tone is turned inward and far from exuberant. She seems curious about what drove Walser to submit to silence within the institution of the asylum, and whether this decision might have more to do with sanity than its pathology-shrouded opposite.
Her Not All Her, the Searls version, changes the play into something even more meaningfully weird. As Searls explains in his afterword, a correct rendering of the title in English would be He Not All He. The transgendered version, then, establishes the work as Searls’s own, an original, analogous to the ways Walser’s originality is collapsed into Jelinek’s in her text. It’s an inspired decision that makes Searls’s own role as translator something of a conceptual performance, an exposure of translation’s inherent failure that perversely enhances the play’s linguistic themes. An element of visual poetry furthers the subversiveness — occasionally, the German sentences appear between the English lines in an impolite orange font, like a clamoring ghost of the original work, placing the author in a submerged role alongside the older author whose ghost hovers throughout the play. This gives new emphasis to the term paratext, and it looks surprisingly nice on the page. It’s a confident move for a translator to make, and it adds to my sense that Her Not All Her is, like Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter, a new work that also functions as a fine translation of an older one, and an opening up of possibilities for more radical forms of literature.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
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