The N-Word Lover: A Domestic Terror Tale from the “Before Times”

This is a piece from the “Before Times.” The “Before Times”:  That’s my term for the “good old days” when Dubya’s reign as worst US president in history seemed secure. When people were comparing him to Hitler. When others, myself included, were saying Bush was worse than Hitler. When Dick “Darth Vader” Cheney held the world champ title as most evil villain on the planet. When human rights groups the world over were going after Donald Rumsfeld for crimes against humanity. When we thought we’d hit rock bottom. Long before we had an inkling that the worst was yet to come, and what that would look like.

Two prominent European Nobel Laureates—Elfriede Jelinek (2004) and Harold Pinter (2005) ranked among the most credible voices drawing parallels between Bush and Hitler. As a translator for Elfriede Jelinek’s work, I inadvertently had a brush with that Old Dixie darkness signified here in the title “The N-word Lover.”

On its face, the title is a direct allusion to the delightfully iconoclast Hungarian Jewish playwright George Tabori whose playlets “The Demonstration” and “Man and Dog” were staged off Broadway at the Orpheum Theatre in New York in 1967 under the title “The Niggerlovers.” The event likely would have sunk into total-eclipse oblivion were it not for the fact that it was this production that gave actor Morgan Freeman his first major role.

Morgan Freeman in “The Niggerlovers” (1967)

The N-word Lover: Or Why I Think I Can’t Fly

It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening, it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.

—Harold Pinter, “Art, Truth and Politics”, Nobel Prize for Literature Acceptance Speech, 2005

There are words in the English language some people believe ought be banned. But after several decades of dictionary scouring and vocabulary accumulation in German, English, and French, Salia Malachai could not conclude the same. There are enough words in the world that any moderately well-read human being should be positioned to place self-imposed limits on usage.

In her opinion, the F-word was not a bad one, nor was the B-word, but the N-word was. In her classes on urban black culture, it was next to impossible to avoid any one of these three.

Salia had inherited the class as a course on hip-hop from another professor. The first semester she taught it, she handed out 100 pages of profanity—in the form of hip hop lyrics—as part of the course packet. Even after she’d transformed the class into a horse of an entirely different color—with a “post-hip-hop” curriculum that explored the question, “how did we go from ‘fight the power’ to ‘get rich or die tryin’,’ and if get rich or die tryin’ is the only option, what do you think is more likely to occur?”–Salia still could not avoid these words altogether.

The way she explained her position to students was, “Look, I’m no fan of the N-word, and I choose not to use it myself, but my opinion on that word and its use doesn’t matter. It’s not my call to make.” She was also careful to explain the world of difference she saw separating profanity from obscenity.

“I don’t have a problem with profanity,” she would say, “I cuss like a sailor, and so does Theresa Heinz Kerry; as do many of your professors, behind closed doors. But I do have big problems with obscenity.”

She would pause to let words sink in before she continued, “In my life, I’ve seen more than my share of obscenity—I remember, for example, one time in Africa, watching this kid who was hit by a car on the road. I didn’t actually see him get hit, I came upon the scene just after the fact. His leg was broken in two—literally, bent back on itself, with bone protruding from each end, and dripping with blood. I offered to help the people milling around him—offered to pay for the taxi ride to the hospital, and the hospital bill, too. They turned me down, packed the kid on the back of a moped between two adults, one in front and one in back, then drove off, with the last of his blood trailing behind, mingling with exhaust and stirring up the red sand of the pista. It wasn’t until years later that I understood: the hospital ‘care’ the child would have received would have done more harm than good—locals knew the city’s hospital care was worse than no medical treatment at all. So it wasn’t even about having enough money to pay. The kid was already as good as dead. The only good deed to be done was to take him home to die in his mother’s arms. To me, that was obscene.

As a kid growing up, I once witnessed a similar scene from my second-story tenement window as the driver of a fourth-generation Chevy Impala Super Sport with tinted windows hit my childhood friend, Julio, sent him sailing across the street, then drove off. Julio landed in the gravel his mother’s front yard. By the time the ambulance arrived, Julio was dead. Fatality hit and run? No charges filed, and that was the end. To me, that, too, was obscene.”

“But even these degrees of obscenity,” she assured her students, “pale in comparison to the most obscene thing I have ever in my life seen: the United States’ response to Hurricane Katrina. If that is not the epitome of obscenity, then I don’t know what is.”

This wasn’t hyperbole. It wasn’t hysteria. Salia was merely telling her truth.

As a pedagogical strategy, it was an introductory salvo: A set-up.

Sometimes you have to fight fire with flames.

She continued, “There are times when only one word in the English language does the trick—and that is the F-word. Now. I don’t know how many of you caught this, but one of the most memorable moments of the Katrina fiasco for me was Dick Cheney’s press conference in New Orleans on September 8, 2005—about ten days after the storm. Dr. Ben Marble, a young ER physician whose Gulfport home was destroyed by the Cat-5 surge, rode by on his bike and blurted out—on national television—‘Go FUCK yourself, Mr. Cheney!’. This, in my opinion, was an altogether appropriate use of the F-word, especially in consideration of the fact that then-Vice President Cheney had used these very words himself in his role as President of the US Senate. He did not shout them out on the streets of a devastated city whose claim to fame was not exactly its ‘Queen’s English’: VP Cheney used precisely these words to disparage Senator Patrick Leahy by telling him to ‘Fuck himself’ on the Senate floor. Yes, on the Senate floor, addressing a senior US-senator who dared to question Cheney about his ties to the Halliburton Corporation that has been embroiled in controversy over no-bid contracts in Iraq, bribery in Nigeria, and a litany of other multi-million/billion dollar criminal offenses. Dr. Ben Marble’s use of this term to express his dissatisfaction with the US government response to Hurricane Katrina was not only justified by a precedent set by Cheney himself on the Senate floor, it was possibly the only response that made any sense at all.”

The propriety of the F-word in political discourse and in American public life has since been further confirmed by John Boehner’s use of the phrase “Go fuck yourself!” addressed to Senator Harry Reid on December 28, 2012 outside the Oval Office. As language professors and writers know, the F-word is a versatile animal that may be deployed as an insult in this way—but an F-bomb need not be an insult because Fuck can also be used as an adjective to modify a noun—as Vice President Joe Biden was caught muttering to President Barack Obama at the signing of the 2010 health care reform bill into law: “This is a big fucking deal.”

Salia thought the way she’d turned her own life around was a big fucking deal, too, and most people who knew the story agreed. But there weren’t a lot of people who knew. On rare occasions, someone would ask: “So, how did you do it?” And she would say, “While doing time as a juvenile, I realized that prison was not where I wanted to be, and I promised myself ‘whatever I may or may not do with my life, I will never do anything to let ‘them’ lock me up again.”

Only once had she faltered, and that was under the most unlikely circumstances. Salia had been invited to offer a lecture at a prestigious private university in the Deep South. She’d recently completed translations from the German of a Nobel Prize-winning literary figure—a radical, pinko-commie feminist author whose propensity for impropriety, foul language, salacious imagery, and political provocation caused a member of the Swedish Academy to step down, saying that this particular author’s work was a bunch of shit shoveled together. By the time Salia had translated that Nobel Prize-winning author’s work into English, she was inclined to agree, but that didn’t change the fact that—even after having slogged through said mass of shit in German, and shoveled it back together in English—she remained on the same page with the author. Seems the Nobel Committee recognized that a lot of shit going on in the world was in need of some hardcore shit-flinging. Elfriede Jelinek was a shit-slinger. And a good one.

Salia had been contracted to complete one of the Nobel Laureate’s most anti-American works: a scathing, brutally forthright critique of the Iraq War, and the media’s representation of the same. The literary work included references to such political figureheads as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair and others, by name: this author did not beat around the bush—she beat the living literary shit out of Bush, and exposed the shitstorm of the war for the shitshow that it was. Part of what made the work so sensationalistic was that it was written, published and performed as the Iraq War was ongoing: it involved live literary coverage of the shit as it went down, much in the same way Aeschylus’s Greek tragedy “The Persians” covered Xerxes’ defeat at Salamis.[i] There was a lot of shit to shovel through there.

Salia had prepared a lecture which included a detailed account of her work on the translation not only of the Bush-bit, but several other works from the Nobel Laureate’s oeuvre. One section of Salia’s lecture was titled “Professional Bush Bashing at the Nobel-Prize Level.” The lecture itself went off without a hitch and could have been declared a spectacular success. In another lifetime, it might have landed her a job at the Ivy League school—had it not been for what came next. The organizers at the college had arranged for a number of other readings and events, paid for her plane ticket, her hotel stay and meals—all adeptly booked in advance by the department secretary. There had been luncheons, and dinners—good food, good wine, good company and pleasant conversation in ample supply. It was an informal job talk.

In preparation for her trip to the Deep South, Salia had to select from her wardrobe an overcoat—one that was neither too light nor too heavy, and one she could comfortably fit over a suit jacket with padded shoulders. The only coat in Salia’s closet that fit the bill was a tailor-made, knee-length, broad-cut mudcloth coat she had acquired on one of several trips to West Africa, where the hand-made cotton fabric dyed with fermented mud was known as bogolanfini and was rich with cultural significance. Traditionally, in Malian culture, the fabric is worn by hunters—often as a form of camouflage, ritual protective gear, or as a badge of honor. Standing before the full-length mirror in her home office, sizing up the Dana Buchman brown linen suit she planned to wear for the presentation, she pulled the mudcloth coat over her professorially padded shoulders—“This will do nicely,” she thought, and checked “pick and pack lightweight coat” off her trip-preparation to-do list. In retrospect, she would recall hesitating briefly, questioning the wisdom of traveling to the Deep South garbed in her fair skin and that Afrocentric gear. She had dismissed the concern as trifling, paranoid even—a decision she would come to regret.

Upon completing the exhilarating, albeit exhausting three-day whirlwind tour, Salia arrived at the airport for the return trip. At the taxi stand, she stood on the curb to smoke one last cigarette before entering the terminal, and witnessed the way a sharply-attired African American woman—obviously a professional of some sort, whether doctor, lawyer, professor, or corporate executive—was berated for some minor offense by a slight white male cop with a crew cut. Salia stood just out of earshot, so was not privy to the details, but from the gestures and tone of the brief exchange, it was apparent that the altercation probably had as much to do with the color of the woman’s skin as it did with the trappings of privilege she so deftly displayed.

Salia shook the chagrin from her head, deposited her snuffed-out cigarette in the smokers’ outpost, and proceeded toward the revolving glass doors. As she approached them, she found herself shoulder to shoulder with the well-dressed woman. It didn’t take much to read the more-things-change-sigh on the woman’s face. After giving the woman right of way to pass through the doors ahead of her, Salia said, in a pathetically inadequate way, ”I am so sorry you had to go through that.” Salia did not fault the woman for brushing her off with a brusque, “Whatever.”

Salia was wiped out from the weekend. She wheeled a basic black 26-inch American Tourister soft-side bag behind her which she checked at the ticket counter without incident, but had stowed her valuables in an overstuffed black leather carry-on bag—the vintage Rolex she’d inherited from a millionaire friend who had discarded it as junk (Salia would discover a decade later that the thing appraised at nearly $6,000 and was in perfect working order); hand-crafted, authentic, one-of-a-kind American Indian sterling silver earrings (inlaid with the blood of her ancestors known as Pipestone) and electronic devices—a digital camera, a hand-held video camera, orange Nokia phone. The bag was bulging with pens, reading materials, and all manner of stuff: the chicken-dumpling soup for her soul. Salia had never been one to travel light—she carried her cultural baggage with her wherever she went in the same way the turtle carries her home in a shell on her back.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, Salia had found it increasingly difficult to fly. The noise level alone was insufferable, especially at US Airports: Blaring, in an endless loop, over and over again, from 10 separate monitors in a monotone, mechanical, brutally white male voice: ATTENTION ALL PASSENGERS: DUE TO INCREASED SECURITY, REGULATIONS CONCERNING CARRY-ON ITEMS HAVE CHANGED. PLEASE REMAIN BEHIND THE YELLOW LINE UNTIL THE PASSENGER BEFORE YOU HAS PASSED THROUGH THE SECURITY CHECKPOINT IN FRONT OF YOU. PLEASE REMOVE YOUR OVERCOAT, ALL METAL ITEMS, CELL PHONES AND ELECTRONIC DEVICES AND PLACE THEM IN THE RECEPTICLE PROVIDED. PLEASE PLACE ALL HAND LUGGAGE ON THE CONVEYER BELT. LAPTOP COMPUTERS MUST BE REMOVED FROM THEIR CASES AND PLACED ON THE CONVEYOR BELT. ANY LIQUIDS, AEROSOLS, AND GELS MUST BE IN THREE-OUNCE CONTAINERS. THESE MUST BE SAFELY KEPT INSIDE A ONE-QUART PLASTIC ZIP-TOP BAG AND PLACED ON THE CONVEYER BELT. THIS INCLUDES COMMON ITEMS SUCH AS TOOTHPASTE, SHAMPOO, LOTIONS, LIPSTICKS AND MOUTHWASH. ON THE CONVEYER BELT. ON THE CONVEYER BELT. ON THE CONVEYER BELT.

The racket itself was enough to drive Salia near to the edge. The relentless bark from the monitors: the banter of 100 people—most of them Americans, notorious for their loud speaking-in-public voices—all talking at once, each engaged in a personal conversation on a cell phone with spouse, sister, uncle Sam, auntie Sue, some cousin twice-removed, or in tenuated brabble with the automated voice messaging system of their credit card companies. Salia developed what she called her “listen-lady-I-really-don’t-want-to-hear-about-the-color-of-your-baby’s-shit-today”-look, but it rarely produced results because it just looked like the same old run-of-the-mill ugly American glare most passengers wore on their faces as a matter of course. She was trying to look mean; instead, she merely came off seeming like she was having a bad hair day!

Salia made it through security, arrived at the gate, plunked herself and her bulging bag down on the floor because all the seats had been taken. Then it happened: Flight 302 to Chicago O’Hare was cancelled. Due to the weather. Weather? What weather? Heavy snow in Chicago. Great. She approached the American Airlines personnel at the gate, was able to secure a standby ticket on a later—much later—flight. She left the gate area in search of a restaurant or some sort of retail therapy to pass the time until she could finally board the plane and extract herself from the querulous push and shove of the terminal. On the way, she discovered that this airport was perhaps the last in the country with a smoking lounge. That was at least something. In the smoking lounge, she lit up, and got on the phone with a friend to piss and moan about the situation, but could barely hear herself think, much less speak, above a din rising across the room behind her. She turned to see what the commotion was. A group of young US-soldiers was standing around, handing out Marlboro cigarettes, explaining to the crowd that they had just returned from Iraq, where these American cigarettes were available at bottom dollar on the black market in Baghdad.

That’s when Salia lost it. She raised her voice, raised it far above the decibel-level most Americans considered normal. Salia shouted into the phone, “Oh wow. Hey, guess what? I finally figured it out. Why we are at war in Iraq? It’s not even about the oil, or the no-bid contracts for Halliburton. No. IT’S ABOUT THE CIGARETTES! Yeah, girlfriend, there you have it—we went into Iraq, bombed the fuck out of them, put the lives of our troops, our country’s reputation, and a whole lot more on the line so we could bring back these cheap cigarettes from the black market in Baghdad. All hail the Marlboro Man!”

The smoking lounge fell silent, if only for a moment. In the faces of the returning soldiers, most in their early twenties, Salia saw but one thing: young people, like the young people in her classes, young people with few options in life—and even fewer in death. Salia was too much a born teacher to resist the teaching moment. She turned off her phone, heaved a heavy sigh, marched over to the group of young soldiers gathered there, still sucking on their Marlboros, glaring at her, staring—not least of all at the knee-length, broad cut mudcloth coat camouflaging the soft brown linen and the puffy padded shoulders of the professor suit beneath it. With as much composure as she could muster, she tried to explain her objections to the US invasion of Iraq and how, if nothing else, these young men, casually kickin’ it and passing out cheap Marlboro cigarettes to passengers in a smoking lounge at an American airport were engaging in conduct unbecoming of any American citizen, much less any Private First Class or Officer of the US Army.

Their response: “We’re Marines, you fucking Bitch! What kind of fucked-up Nazi asshole you think you are?”

Salia shot back: “I’ll tell you what I am: I’m a PhD’d fucking professor and I’ve got kids in my classes whom I’m passing when by all rights and means I should be flunking them, but I know serving in the military may be their only other option because the educational system in the country has failed them–miserably. I’d almost rather see them get rich or die tryin’ than risk death by IED in some security convoy in Iraq or by PTSD on some battlefield closer to home.” She punctuated her statement with the sweeping gesture of an emphatically balled fist drawn dramatically from her right shoulder to her left side. Her students were familiar with this theatrical clenched-fist conviction, and, while it may have frightened them at first, they’d since learned—from her—to distinguish between anger and outrage, between commitment and apathy, indifference and love. If students completed her courses learning little else, it was this much they knew: Dr. Salia Malachai was passionately committed not only to her students, but to her country, and was possessed by the courage of her convictions. This pack of puppy-dogs in uniform who dared call themselves Marines doing duty for Philip Morris and Leo Burnett had no idea who they were dealing with.

A law enforcement officer arrived promptly on the scene to break up the quarrel. He pulled Dr. Malachai off to the side, escorted her back to the waiting area designated for the flight to Chicago, whereupon she learned that she had not only thus forfeited her standby spot on the flight to Chicago, but that—furthermore—all subsequent air traffic to Chicago had been cancelled, due to the weather. Salia would not be sleeping in her own bed tonight.

Salia sat herself down in one of the last available plastic-backed, poorly contoured chairs in the waiting area, pausing to contemplate whether it was worth venturing out to book a room for the night, or better to simply suck it up and crash there on the floor, when she was approached by two uniformed officers who began questioning her in earnest. She recognized one of them as the cop who had harassed the African American female professional at the taxi stand just hours before.

They grilled her, menacingly: whether she was currently taking any medication? Whether she had now, or ever, received medical treatment for any sort of mental health condition? Salia had never learned to lie, and saw no harm in telling the truth. Besides, if they decided to search and/or seize, they would find the prescription meds buried somewhere at the bottom of her bulky black bag. Yes, she had been prescribed by her physician a mild sedative to treat the anxiety associated with the fear of flying brought on by the stress of modern-day travel. And yes, she had, in the past, received treatment for a mental health condition—PTSD—resulting from years of early childhood trauma, rape, domestic abuse, incest, poverty and neglect, compounded now by culture shock, anxiety and an overall inability to cope with disaster capitalism.

It wasn’t until they placed her in handcuffs that she realized honesty may not have been the best policy today. Handcuffs. White guy in a crew cut with a handgun, oh boy! For the first time in her adult life. For the first time in over forty years, Dr. Salia Malachai was being hauled off in handcuffs. Escorted by the same racist white cop she’d seen harassing the African American woman outside the terminal just footsteps from this scene. That’s when it dawned on her. The coat. The conversation with the woman as they passed through the revolving door. The concerns she had dismissed as paranoid delusions while standing before the floor-length mirror in her office now cascaded down her cheeks in humiliation, and fear. She had no idea what was about to come next.

There is only one thing that Southern white racists hate more than an N-word: their disdain for ”them N-words” was surpassed only by their hatred of “them N-wordlovers”. The N-words had no choice but to be as lacking in color as the six-foot long raw silk scarf dangling delicately now from Salia’s soft shoulders. These N-wordLovers, on the other hand, they had made a choice. Salia had revealed her decision by daring to wear that damn coat and by the laying on of hands in the brief quip exchanged with the woman as they passed through the revolving door, witnessed by the racist white cop, from behind. She’d made her choice, now she was staring down the consequences as the sum of all colors drained into her face.

As they exited through a drab gray steel-plated door in some remote, unpeopled corner of the airport, she pleaded with the officer, “Please, can we just let this go? I’ll catch a cab and get a room for the night.”

“No, ma’am, we can’t—you are coming with me.”

From the back seat of the squad car, in the sweetest, most unfeigned helpless-female voice ever issued from her own gullet—Salia sobbed one final appeal through the steel mesh cage confining her now: “Please, Sir, would you at least do me the favor of calling my husband?” For whatever inexplicable, god-blessed reason, the officer honored this one request. She gave him the number. He dialed. Salia could not hear her husband’s voice on the other end of the line, and struggled to repress her own as the officer explained to Salia’s husband that there had been an incident at the airport and his wife was now being transported to the hospital for examination. To the hospital. Yeah right.

Salia’s husband was a man who had never in his life had any contact with the law. He’d been raised in a strict Baptist household. His mother held Bible-study classes in the basement while his father preached from the pulpit with all the same driving passion and courage of convictions that Salia’s husband found so attractive in his own wife. There was no way her husband could so much as imagine his wife’s hard-handcuffed plight, there in the back seat of a squad car on her way to the piss-and-puke stained cement floor of a 10-by-10 foot-holding cell in a county jail. In his mind, she was lying somewhere on the crisp white sheet of a hospital emergency room, being tended to by doting physicians and nurses, waiting for him to come take her hand in his, and bring her back home. She had probably passed out from exhaustion at the airport, or fainted from the stress of an overbooked and cancelled flight. He had no idea. This much she knew, and there was nothing she could do but finally, finally shut.the.fuck.UP. So she did.

The cop had no way of knowing that the other thing she’d just learned was the value of little white lies. The man at the other end of the line wasn’t really Salia’s husband. Not yet. In intimate circles, she sometimes referred to him as ”My husband, if he would ever marry me.” They’d been together for over a decade, but had not yet jumped the broom.

Based on statements Salia had made concerning her medical history, the cop knew that Salia could be detained for 72-hours, subjected to involuntary psychiatric examination by the department of corrections. Recounting the incident now, ten years hence, the precise chain of events blurred into a muddled stream of bleepity-bleep-bleep-bleepity-bleebs. It mattered little what happened first—whether she was stripped of her belongings before or after the mug shot was taken, how she had managed to hang on to the pearls, whether she’d given her share of water to the homeless woman on the floor beside her or to the 16-year old hooker who came in later, whether she’d been able to chuckle about being the best-dressed bitch in the county jail at the time, whether she’d managed to laugh about always having been the lightest and the loudest thing in the room before or after her Rosary-like fingering of the pearls began,—as a 72-hour stream of salt, sweat and tears spattered the black raw-silk scarf she’d also been allowed to keep, along with the coat, for which her gratitude grew with each passing hour. Lightest and loudest thing in the room: this much was true. All of the other inmates in this county jail were very dark Brown. All of them. She remembered the subdued decibel level, first in the holding cell, then later, after she’d been transferred by paddy wagon for processing and entered the general prison population of several hundred others, most of them men. It was a welcome relief from the glaring white noise of that heavens-to-Betsy-forsaken airport.

            Only later, much later, did Salia learn what was happening on the other end of the phone line, back home where her husband scrambled to keep his wits about him, gathering information, thoughts, and whatever else he would need to head south and get her out of jail. She knew only that he would be pissed. She could not even be sure he would come. He would have been entirely justified in leaving her to find her own way home from that county jail. She knew that. At some point in the ordeal, somewhere between those godforsaken hours spent lying on the concrete floor of the holding cell and the wee hours of the morning spent in quiet isolation teetering horizontal on an eight-by-two-and-a-half-foot hardwood bench of some other room just hours away from her appointment with the shrink, her imagination ran wild with nightmarish visions of suddenly being released into the dawning day, standing on some street corner hoping to hail a cab with nothing on her but a US-passport, a brown linen suit, that mudcloth coat with its raw silk scarf, and those white pearls—no credit card, no phone, not a dime to her name—not even a map to tell her where the hell she was.

Salia’s husband didn’t know a thing about county jails, and even Salia was confused as to where this one was—but she knew enough to know that wherever it was, it could not be located in a good part of town. All she could do was hope and pray that her husband would not abandon her. That this would not be the start of an unprecedented pre-nuptial divorce. She beseeched every God she knew by name—called upon her husband’s mother and father in heaven to reach down to shower him with all the brimstone of unconditional love he was going to need to do whatever he had to do to bring Salia home. A mad chorus of Migwitch-Gitcheemanidoos, Nam-Yo-HoYahwehAllahBuddahRenGeKyos, JesusMaryJosephs, AsalaamalaikumAndThenSomes sprinkled with a few refrains of GodBlessTheChiles, MotherMaryComfortMes and Don’tFenceMeIns helped pull her through this darkest night. She sent silent thank you notes to a string of Kris Kristoffersons, Dusty Springfields, Bobby Dylans, Arlo Guthries, Soundiata Keitas and not least of all to tenor saxman Trane.

            One thing Salia knew about prisons was that someone was always watching. Every move, however slight; every word, however softly spoken, was caught, not only on tape, but by the careful eyes and ears of any officer worth his or her salt. She knew that. So she spent her time sending smoke signals to the prison staff, 90% of whom were as sable brown as the 100% African American prison population they were charged with keeping in check and in chains. She had seen the look on their faces when the racist white cop first brought her in. They knew this guy. They may have even been thinking to themselves, “Shit, ‘bout time you bring some white bitch up in here!” And she couldn’t fault them for that. But she knew, too, that it soon became apparent to them: this was not the first time Salia had been the lightest and the loudest thing in the room, nor was it the first time this woman had been hauled off in cuffs to spend a night in the county jail. This was a place where information passed from eye-to-eye. Where you didn’t need ears to hear what someone was saying. Here, on the inside, Salia didn’t need a mudcloth coat as a signifier to identify her as an N-wordlover. Especially in prison, actions speak louder than words.

            She was grateful, then, to the prison staff for tidbits of comfort served surreptitiously up to keep her from losing her mind. Eternally grateful to the female corrections officer who raised her voice just enough to notify the driver of the transport, as Salia came within earshot, “That one won’t be processed, her husband’s on his way to get her.” The officer who kindly offered her an apple while escorting her in the elevator to that isolated holding room with its hardwood bench, four stark walls and the slit of a window to help her tell time. Toward ordeal’s end, after she’d spent 15 minutes with an East Indian teak-faced shrink who apologized profusely, “I’m so sorry, Dr. Malachai, that you had to go through this, we’ll try getting you out as soon as we can,” the uniformed cops making jokes about Chicago’s south side, loudly enough to be overheard, talking about Daley’s on 63rd, and Joe’s jerk chicken joint further south on Cottage, thereby letting Salia know that, even here, in this heart of darkness of the Deep South, she remained among friends. Family even. Kith, perhaps even kin.

            In retrospect, it was hard to re-construct a chronological account of the events that followed. One failed attempt to place a collect call to her husband’s cell. Had he decided not to accept it? Maybe he’d run out of bars, or was he on a plane en route, just out of reach? Oh God, please let the latter be true. What was taking so long? He would later explain that he’d tried to book a flight the very same day, but all flights in and out of O’Hare had been cancelled. Where the hell was all her stuff? Would she get any or all of it back? The watch. The camera. The sacred silver. Everything else she had in her bag. And what about the suitcase she had checked to Chicago?

As was his habit, her husband had been sure to cover all bases, asking once, then asking again. The racist white cop had placed that first call from his private cell phone, and Salia’s husband had captured the number on his caller ID. They’d been calling back and forth the whole time, playing out the lie that Salia was receiving treatment in some department of corrections hospital bed. Salia’s husband spoke an impeccably proper English without a hint of Ebonic ring to it, so the cop assumed all the while he would be delivering this N-wordlover-bitch into the hands of some smug little white dude with his twisted head stuck so far up his ass he could see the backs of his teeth without looking in the mirror. Each time he put the receiver down, her husband had gone back to check on the details, to verify, filtering fact from fiction, extracting truth from the lies: the cop had given him any number of bits of false information, and that’s what had tipped off Salia’s husband-if-he-would-ever-marry-her. His wife was in deep shit, and he had to keep his wits about him, contain his own outrage—mostly toward her and her inability to keep herself together, especially at the airport. But he would buck up and wrack up debt on his credit cards. He knew better than anyone how much Salia hated to fly, how she could not stand the airport routine—the push and shove of it, the people who did not know what it meant to take their own turn in line. The barking, yes, above all the barking and the blaring. He knew she would not be able to fly coach. Not this time. The tickets had to be first-class. Bose headphones to block out the blather. She would probably need her contacts—addresses of allies, if nothing else to call in sick if she needed. So he grabbed the laptop she’d left lying asleep on her desk. He thought of everything. Absolutely everything. He always did.

Those interminable last five minutes, standing in line against the wall with the rest of the prisoners who’d been prepared for release, singing softly to herself songs of blacksmiths, of brave men, living and dead, a whole sable army of African descent. The memory of a hot African sun warming her from within, taking her back to the day she had picked up that coat from the tailor’s stand in Conakry. The chestnut-brown cop who called her to the counter at the last station she had to pass before hitting the outside, how she had asked, “Is my husband out there?”, and was so terrified of the answer that she slipped on her tongue one last time.

“White guy or Black?” he wondered. She flapped back: “Pardon me, Sir, but do I look like the kind of woman who ‘d go marryin’ a white guy?” Her relief at the sight of him swallowing a laugh. Thank you, Sir, thank you for that. Even in her darkest hours, Salia prided herself on her ability to bring smiles to other people’s faces.

The dinner in the hotel restaurant, clad in the one blouse she had left on her back, which still stunk of piss, but with nails, skin and hair freshly showered, underwear turned inside out and the soft pastel polish of those pearls shining at his seated across the table. He could not guarantee that this would not spell The End. No, he could not. He had come to bring her home. That was all. She seriously did not know whether he would stick around to see what came next.

She let him do most of the talking, restricting herself to a series of apologies: “I’m sorry baby. I’m so sorry.” He hadn’t known the first thing about bail bonds, or the blueprints of a county jail before this. First stop upon landing: airport security, where he’d asked for Officer R.F. Krupptkey. She suppressed a grin as she imagined the look on the faces of the guy’s African American co-workers as they summoned Officer K. to the front desk, even more when she imagined the surprise besetting Officer K. the moment he first laid eyes on the man he’d been on the line with over the past 72 hours, a man whose deep chocolate brown face was set squarely on Chicago-broad shoulders that just about met Krupptkey’s hairline.

“Oh. You are that woman’s husband? The guy I been talking to all this time?”

“Yes, Sir, I am. Now, can we get a few things sorted out here? You told me this was the address and these the hours of operation for property pick up,” Salia’s husband tapped his left pointer finger on the address printed on his list, “but the State Department of Corrections website says something else. Can you confirm for me which one is correct? And what time did you say they open on Monday?”

Her husband had stood there, interrogating Officer K., methodically checking each question off his hand-written list. “What about this recovered property receipt? Isn’t she supposed to have that on her person, or where is that? We are going to need it.” Krupptkey thumbed clumsily through the papers on his clipboard, pulled out the crumpled pink page and handed it to Mr. M.

Listening to her husband relate this series of events, Salia had to force back the smile that threatened to shimmy in above her chin. She knew that one false word uttered from her loose lips might prompt him to unceremoniously hand her a big fat pink slip. She sniveled instead, raising a Kleenex to her nose. The man sitting across the table from her was in no frame of mind to translate even the slightest trace of a grin into an expression of a love this supreme.

“Do you have any idea what this is costing me? $1,500 bail. First class tickets on American Air. Car rental. Hotel. We are going to have to find—on a Sunday afternoon—an attorney to get your ass out of this hot ghetto mess!”

Her meekly muttered “I’m sorry, baby, I promise, I’ll pay it all back,” plopped into the mashed potatoes growing cold on her plate.

“Both of us are going to have a hell of time making it back in time for work on Monday.” She couldn’t remember when he confessed that, as he was approaching the county jail, he had looked up, scanned the black, bullet-proof rectangles dotting the towering concrete above, on the slight chance she might see him coming, and waved. He had no way of knowing that, once you make it that far to the top of any county jail in the country, there was no way in hell you’d so much as come near one of those windows—not unless you were a doctor, lawyer or cop! But that was the first shred of hope he gave that he was in this for the long haul.

He hadn’t reckoned with the court date. His wife had been charged with two counts of disorderly conduct: Charge one, fighting. Charge two: violent act with another. Both of them misdemeanor charges, criminal violations of the same section of a city ordinance. Back in the hotel room, she perused the arrest citation. She could barely make it out:

Subject was inside secure area on I-Concourse in the smoking room. Subject attempted to verbally assault four army soilders, then continued to yell and act out towards passengers. Subject stated she is PTSD and on 5 mg Valium, three times a day. Subject acted out inappropriately when telling me about serving men, getting extremely angry, clinching her fists. Witness stated subject got up—went across room—at the soilders. Salia stated: I’m a fucking PhD to soilders.

Not a word about the “fucking Bitch” and “Nazi asshole” barked at her from the soilders’ mouths. Not a word about the Marlboro cigarettes that had triggered the attack. Salia was struck, too, by the absence of any reference to the subject’s height, weight, or gender: 5’1”, 100 lb female attempting to assault four helpless army soilders, and that with clinched fists, how about that?

She lay on the bed in the hotel room, reminded of the previous morning’s wee hours on the hardwood bench, how she had hoped and prayed her husband would be smart enough to grab the laptop. Without it they were fucked. All Salia’s belongings had been confiscated. She had nothing. But he had grabbed it. She’d hooked up the laptop, shot off an email to a good friend who was an attorney out east. The friend in turn placed a call to a local attorney on the ground—the best criminal defense attorney in town, who happened to be available to take the case. By late Sunday afternoon, her husband was busy hammering out the details of what had to happen next.

 The first thing he learned. Those first-class return tickets for two that evening? Fuggedaboutdat. These would have to be re-booked. Before they could appear in court Monday morning, they would have to go shopping because Professor Doctor Salia Malachai would have to look sharp as the professorial tack that had been called a fucking Nazi asshole bitch in the airport smoking lounge: if she ever hoped to defend her own reply, she’d best look the part. No one knew whether she would have to look the judge in the eye and admit that she had indeed said, “I’m a fucking PhD’d professor!” Salia and her husband would have to be first in line when the property dispensary opened promptly at 8 (not at 9, as Krupptkey had claimed) because even the slightest delay could cause them to get caught in traffic, or otherwise manage to lose their place in the docket and miss the court appearance scheduled for 10 AM. Oh, and the lawyer’s fee? About double the $1,500 bail, but that would include subsequent expungement of the arrest from her record.

As it turns out, both charges were dismissed because the victims of the crime—that is, the Marlboro Man-PFC’s–never showed up in court. Of course they didn’t. Everything that had transpired had been caught on tape. The Marlboros. The fucking bitch, the fucking Nazi asshole. All of it, conduct unbecoming. Salia took some measure of satisfaction in the look on Officer R.F. Krupptkey’s face when he entered the courtroom to see her sitting there in full professorial garb. She was smartly sandwiched between the best criminal defense attorney in town—a tall, slim white guy known for getting bogus cases like this thrown out of court, especially where young African American males were involved—and her husband, the big Starbucks-Dark-Roast-Coffee-Colored guy who’d come through to rescue the dizzy damsel in all her fine dress.

            She knew what the racist white cop thought he was doing when he came after her with the cuffs and a legal technicality that allowed him to haul her off to the county jail. “OK, N-wordlover, let’s see how much you really love them N-words.” When she finally met him face to face in court the following Monday, she bit her tongue. Gagging on the stench of Old Dixie after dark, she thought to herself: “You know what, you stupid racist fuck, I stand with Sharon Olds, and just about every poet and writer I know on this one: I’d rather spend a night-and-a-half on the floor of the county jail with these N-words than sit down at the table with you for a liter of Weizenbier in some Munich beer hall, and if I had the money, baby, if I had the time, if I had me a million dollars–yes, I would send your sorry ass right back where you came from!”

Even if Salia’s victims had appeared in court—the case would have gone nowhere: In his zeal to put that fucking N-wordloving PhD’d Nazi professor bitch in her place, Officer Krupptkey had fucked up. He had forgotten to secure her signature on the recovered property list. That was the clincher: this had been the attorney’s ace in the hole. The card they never had to play because these Marines could not admit that they’d been driven to the edge by a five-foot-one female armed with a bag full of chicken-dumpling-soup for the soul and the courage of her convictions all balled together in one emphatically clenched fist.

Salia had never flown first class before. Nor had she ever tried to tackle the constant stream of TMI’s by placing Bose headphones on her head. She reclined in her seat, and pulled the property list from her bag. By sheer force of habit, she dug around in her bag for a fine-line red pen, but could only procure a thick-pointed Sharpie, black as the circles and arrows fermented in the tapestry of her rusty-brown mudcloth coat. With this pen in hand, she went over the list one more time:

Nokia cell phone

3 books + address book

Cannon S-40 digital camera w/case and three batters

Rolex watch w/ brown band

Kenneth Cole watch w/black band

Jewery – 2 necklesses (costume set)

Silver earrings/red earrings

Jewery– silver neckless

2 dimond earrings/dimond neckless w/ 3 dimonds

misc college ids – library card

Cannon Z R60 camcorder w/microphone

Black purse—larger w/nine pins

There it was: the Jewery, present and accounted for; batters, all charged up and ready to go; the cannon, loaded and locked. The necklesses, the dimonds: all crystal clear, but “pins”? What the fuck were these pins? Pins? I don’t carry pins around in my bag. She flipped through the individual 5X7 envelopes that had contained the items. There it was again, “pins”. Her left nostril curled in confusion.

Then it dawned on her. She turned to her husband and said, “Honey, I think I’m gonna need another glass of this fine first-class American Airlines wine.” She sat back with a sip, and let it sink in: the Pinteresque truth of this thing that had never happened. She had just been arrested, thrown in jail, gone to court, and had a criminal arrest expunged—in the course of one $7,000 three-day weekend fling—hauled off in cuffs to the county jail by a racist white cop with a handgun who could not even spell this simple four-letter word: P. E. N. S.

            “You can’t make this shit up,” she thought, as she sat there writing it all down with the broad brush of her fat black Sharpie pen, “We are handing out handguns and handcuffs to people who cannot handle the four-letter word P.E.N.S., then giving them license to cuff and haul off fucking PhD’d professors suffering from PTSD?”

By the time they landed in Chicago, a poem had written itself in her head, and this is what it said:

White noise at daybreak we hear it in mourning

We hear it on this day and that day we hear it at night

We shut up and listen

We shovel their shit in the air where it stinks like their crap

A man with a handgun, with a handcuff armed with a pen

A man with a handgun, a handcuff, it’s off to the pen

He bashes a white bitch, bankrupts a black man

And takes it all down, yes, he takes it all down

The diamonds, the necklace, the earrings, the pins

In the purse, in the purse on the conveyer belt

conveyer belt, the belt on the conveyer belt

the belt and the bray of it, the blare and the bark

the push and the shove, can you say wtf?

white noise at daybreak white noise at night

white noise oh white noise will you shut the fuck up?

The jewery the jewery can we call dr freud?

The jewery the jewery did you get back your droid?

White noise at daybreak on Indian land

White noise in water on Indian land

Poverty, poverty, Indian land?

Poverty, yes, poverty, on Indian land.

White noise and war on Indian land,

Dig your debt deeper, pile your shit higher

Higher and higher and higher you go

Postscript: Salia’s husband eventually got over his anger. They were later married, in a ceremony performed by a pastor in their own home. She officially changed her name to Salia Malaikum. He placed his mother’s ring on her finger, and she knew they were both in it for the long haul.

 But that didn’t happen until he made a thing or two perfectly clear. Storming round the house, staring dispassionately at the breakfast table, huffing off to work in the morning without a kiss goodbye. He repeated it over and over until it finally sunk in.

            “You have got to understand that, in the current climate of the United States, as soon as you set foot on airport property, you are already in the hands of the federal government: you are already in the pen, already in the hands of law enforcement, the TSA. These people do not fuck around, and you must conduct yourself accordingly. I hope you get that now.”

            She did. And that is why Salia Malaikum cannot fly. It goes all the way back to that adolescent pact made with herself. No matter what. Never. Do anything. Nothing that will allow them to lock you up again. She knew now that the airport was not far removed from that cold tile wall she’d leaned up against, waiting in line with the rest of the prisoners who’d been prepared for release.


[i] Jelinek, Elfriede. Bambiland. Tr. Lillian Friedberg. 2005-07. 31. March 2013. http://www.elfriedejelinek.com.

—-. Theater 39.3 (2009): 111-43.

The Lecture, in its entirety, is here. At a later date, I will be supplementing this with additional information about Elfriede Jelinek and my translations of her work

Translating the Untranslatable: Elfriede Jelinek in Translation

Lilian Friedberg©2006

Invited Lecture, Emory University, November 9, 2006

When the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, I wasn’t much more familiar with this  radically feminist author than the rest of the international literary community that was sent scrambling to its web browsers and library catalogues in search of an answer to the question “Who is Elfriede Jelinek?”

I completed my first translation of Jelinek about a year before the Nobel decision—it was the essay, “Ein Volk. Ein Fest.” “One People. One Party”– Jelinek’s 1999 published response to the re-election of proto-fascist rightwing politician Jörg Haider as governor of Carinthia. Like most of Jelinek’s writing, this op-ed is peppered with allusions to current events–to local, regional and specifically Austrian political currents; it is peopled by literary figures and figurations, interlaced with fictions and facts often rendered indistinguishable as they are interwoven in a complex tapestry of wordplay and puns, many of them delivered in a uniquely Austrian dialect—so the “translator’s note” and footnotes turned out to be three times the length of the piece itself.

Last year, I established contact with her agent at Rowohlt. then completed sample translations which were enthusiastically received by the author and her agent. Last November, my translations of “Rosamunde” were on display on six-foot panels in an exhibition at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York—and there were staged readings from Bambiland at Scena Theater in Washington DC, sponsored by the Austrian Embassy. Another staged reading from Bambiland is scheduled for the HotInk Festival in New York in January 2007. The full text of Bambiland is slated for completion by mid-February, 2007, commissioned by the Goethe Institute in New York.

Several commentators have stated that this author’s work is so culturally-specific that it must first be translated into German. In interviews conducted upon receipt of the Nobel prize, Jelinek commented on the essential “untranslatability” of her work. Asked whether any reader unfamiliar with the uniquely Austrian backdrop of her writing could even begin to grasp it, she said: “Certainly, that is the biggest problem. It is one reason I am so baffled by the receipt of this award—because I am actually a provincial author, working in a very specific way with a very specific language that is incomprehensible even in Germany! I am firmly rooted in the tradition of the Vienna Group, in a line running from the early Wittgenstein through Karl Kraus to the Vienna Group, a literature centered on language that works less with meaning and more with the phonetic power of language, with the sound of language. And that cannot be translated. […] I play with the sound of language,” she said. “That can hardly be translated into another language. Each language has its own face and its own fingerprints, which are not identical with any other language.”

In “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin addresses the issue of translatability: in his reading, “translatability” is contingent on two factors: whether an “adequate translator will ever be found among the totality of readers” and (more pertinently) whether the nature of the work lends itself to translation. He goes on to say that a work may be essentially translatable even if the task of translating it lies beyond human capacity, which is not to say that it is essential for an essentially translatable work to be translated.

By the author’s own assessment, Jelinek’s works are essentially untranslatable—but at the same time—if for no other reason than by virtue of the imprimatur of the Nobel Prize–it is essential that they be translated. When interviewed by the New York Times in November, 2004, she was asked whether she’d like her work to be more widely read in the United States:

“Yes,” she said, “that would be very nice. Americans would understand my irony and wit because, well, there is still a Jewish culture. Here, and especially in Germany, people hardly understand me because this Jewish world was destroyed by the Nazis. So I’m falling between all stools, as we would say here. People no longer understand my wit, and people in America don’t understand the language in which I am writing.”

The American translator is thus presented with an impossible, but nevertheless essential task: translating the untranslatable.

Already in the early 90s, when the feminist literary journal Trivia published my first translation of Ingeborg Bachmann, I had begun speaking in terms of “trans-posing literature,” and today I realize that this resonates very closely not only with Benjamin’s remarks on translation, but, more importantly, with Jelinek’s statements on the significance of the sound of language in her work. While the sound of language may be untranslatable, it may be possible to trans-pose it–as one might transpose a musical score from one key to another.

In some circles, it is considered bad form for a translator to leave footprints all over an author’s text. In others, however, the opposite is true: for example, the French Canadian feminist translator, Barbara Godard, advances a theory of “womanhandling” a text in translation, stating that:

The feminist translator, affirming her critical difference, her delight in interminable re-reading and re-writing, flaunts the signs of her manipulation of the text. […] The feminist translator immodestly flaunts her signature in italics, in footnotes—even in a preface.

The Canadian feminist translator Luise von Flotow similarly advocates footnoting and prefacing as feminist translation strategies, but I am not especially beholden to translators’ notes, and certainly not to prefaces: footnotes introduce a disruptive element to a literary text not present in the original, and I find little more laborious than commenting on my own translations, as, for example, in a preface—so my strategies for “womanhandling” tend to avoid extraneous commentary in these forms—I flaunt my signature, my fingerprints, my footprints–at times boldly, at times more timidly—between the lines of the text itself.

The nature of Jelinek’s writing is hard to define—she shifts between prose and poetry, incantation and hymn, paean and polemic, dialogue and diatribe. She is a flagrantly, flamboyantly, and—since 2004 at the latest—now famously feminist author: one whose own comments on translation invite the feminist translator to womanhandle the text, to immodestly re-configure it with fingerprints, footprints, signatures and keystrokes. Based on what I have seen of this author’s works, I am convinced that even the most “liberal” of translations is an inadequate vehicle for transmitting their sound and their sense. Radical translation, radical feminist translation is required.

Any act of radicalism involves the perpetual risk of “going too far,” so the act of radical translation must be tempered by some sort of tether. The guidelines I have put in place to temper the radicalism of my translations of Jelinek are the author’s own statements and, equally as “authoritative,” the words of the Swedish Academy. In its announcement for the Nobel prize, the Academy cited the “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.”

I see my translator’s task, then, in reconstructing this musical flow, these voices, those counter-voices with the same extraordinary linguistic zeal that compelled the Swedish Academy to award this author the most coveted form of acknowledgement available to any artist. Harking back to Benjamin’s “task of the translator”: my task is to liberate Jelinek’s language from its provincial confines, to set it free so that it may reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power to audiences outside Austria. If Jelinek is correct in stating that each language has its own “face” and its own “fingerprints,” then any translation of her work must involve a radical facelift and the translator must be willing (and, by Benjamin’s account, able) to leave fingerprints, footprints and imprints all over the scene of the rhyme.

What I mean by this is perhaps best illustrated by examples from the translations.

The Princess Plays: “The Wall” and “Rosamunde”

“The Wall” and “Rosamunde” are two in a series of 5 dramoletts titled the “Princess Plays,” subtitled “Death and the Maiden,” all of which deal with the constraints placed on women’s lives by the stereotypes—straitjackets, if you will—of corporate consumer culture’s fairytale version of women’s lives.

Let’s begin with some examples from The Wall.

The two main protagonists in The Wall are Ingeborg Bachmann and Sylvia Plath, performing ritual slaughter on a male ram from the underworld. One of the  play’s “invisible” protagonists is Marlen Haushofer, the Austrian author of the 1961 novel, The Wall, present in voice alone and solely by allusion to this novel whose female protagonist awakes one day to find herself cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible wall. The characters of “Inge” and “Sylvia” are spattered in blood, and the play chronicles their conversation as they “work up” this male ram. Much of the dialogue revolves around woman’s traditional role of cleaning up messes and other housewifely tasks, mostly with reference to Haushofer’s invisible glass wall.

The opening line sets the tone more readily in English than in German simply by virtue of a homophonic association not present in the original:

Oh just settle down. It’s not like you’re pulling balls out Uranus, ripping rungs from the ladders of upward motility, those tumescent tubes teeming with sperm cells ready to jump at the chance to finally knock some fertility into us!

Reg dich ab. Das ist nicht Uranos, dem du da den Samen mitsamt seinen Leitern wegreißt, auf denen er steht, um uns endlich fruchtbar zu machen.

This is a classic example of Jelinek’s strategy of “associative streaming”: the “Leiter” to which she refers are the “spermatic ducts”— “narrow muscular tubes” that transfer sperm from the epididymis to the ejaculatory ducts to release sperm in the climax of ejaculation in a process described in medical terms as “motility.” But a “Leiter” in German is also a “ladder”—a homograph called to the fore by Jelinek’s use of the phrase “auf denen er steht.” Here, I have reconstructed Jelinek’s associative streaming by utilizing the play on words in “ripping the rungs from the ladders of upper motility” along the lines of “tumescent tubes teeming with sperm cells.”

Another example:

Double back salto over the fence, up and over the wall you go, and before you know it, you’re falling fast—in any case, it’s the usual case for any case that would fall from the face of the earth should it land in a court anywhere outside the field of psychiatry. That thing we’ve been lusting after all these centuries has itself become obsolete, just as the notion of cognitive dissonance went out of fashion long before the cog ever got stuck in the wheel.

Ein Flic-Flac über den Zaun, rauf auf die Wand, im Fallen dann, wie üblich, alles was der Fall ist, für niemanden sonst ein Fall, außer für die Psychiatrie, so einfach geht das. Das Ding, das wir so lang suchten, ist doch längst überflüssig geworden wie die Erkenntnis an sich schon längst überflüssig geworden ist, bevor sie stattgefunden hat.

My formulation, “just as the notion of cognitive dissonance went out of fashion long before the cog ever got stuck in the wheel” departs radically from the content of the German original. However, it manipulates the “epistemological theory of cognitive dissonance” and alienates idiom much in the same way that the source text does with “Erkenntnistheorien.” The content is essentially irrelevant, but the “aphoristic” nature of the formulation also establishes a connection to the tradition of Wittgenstein and Kraus and participates in the same kind of deconstructive performance and punning present in Jelinek’s original.

Bullshit. You can only look into something once the thing itself is in view. And it’s not necessarily always the same thing! That is to say, if I can describe the thing, let’s say, a wall, as if it were actually there and designed to act as a tool for making some sense of something, as a sort of a tack to take or a tool to tackle some problem, no, as a tack to tackle, no, a tack to be taken to the taxidermist’s rack. Then we could go out and stuff ourselves all by our ourselves.

Blödsinn. Die Anschauung kann doch nur stattfinden, sobald uns ein Gegenstand dafür gegeben ist. Und zwar nicht immer derselbe! Beziehungsweise wenn ich den Gegenstand, die Wand, so beschreiben kann, als wäre er vorhanden und als Gerät bereitgestellt, daß man sich ein bissel Denken abzwacken kann, als Zweck, nein, als Reißzwecke, nein, zum Einwecken. Da können wir uns selber einwecken gehen.

This is a radical facelift on Jelinek’s free-associative play with the sound of language. There is nary a taxidermist in sight in the source text, but the taxidermist’s rack introduced to the text solely on the basis of its phonetic compatibility with the alliterative string of tools, tacks, tackling and takes is a felicitous fit for the German idiom “uns einwecken gehen”—to go “stuff ourselves.”

Another example which is absolutely essential to the task of translating the untranslatable because the “soup” analogy is re-cast and reappears later in the text:

Oh puh-lease, you think I just fell off the turnip truck? Or, as we say in Austria, you think I just floated in here with the noodles in the soup? Squeaky clean windows are so clear you can see right through them. But it beats being clear as noodles swimming in a can of Campbell’s soup with our fate hanging in the ladle if our hungry man husbands can’t handle the taste. Don’t forget, that’s one thing we do have a handle on! And while you might drown in a sea of sorrows, you’ll never land on your can in a can of Campbell’s soup!

Ich bitte dich, gutgeputzte Fenster sind schließlich immer klar wie unsichtbar. Das ist doch viel besser als klar wie die Nudelsuppe, auf der wir jeden Tag unter dem Tosen und Brausen der Maggi-Gischt dahergeschwommen kommen! Ertrinken kann man in der nicht. Unser Schicksal liegt in einem Löffel, wenn es dem Mann nicht schmeckt. Da kennen wir uns doch aus, erinnere dich! Erinnere dich, daß es wenigstens uns Menschen klar sein muß, daß etwas unsichtbar sein kann.

The operative element here is the Austrian idiom: “Mit der Nudelsuppe dahergekommen sein”; in English, “just fell off the turnip truck.” The matter is complicated by Jelinek’s introduction of the brand name “Maggi”—a manufacturer of instant soups that has since merged with Nestle and is also available in the US under the same name. However, a closer “cultural equivalent” of Maggi in the US would be Campbell’s, whose advertising slogan for its “Manhandler” product line was [SING] “How do you handle a hungry man? The Manhandlers” seems tailor-made to accommodate the idea that a woman’s fate hangs in the balance if the dinner served does not suit her hungry man’s tastes. It is at the same time an ideal vehicle for incorporating the image delivered by the Austrian idiom, and thus allows me to incorporate the specifically Austrian flavor of the text without the disruptive element of a footnote.

Another example:

She scrubbed that wall so clean no one could see the thing. ShineRite through and to thine ownself be true! Don’t forget the Ajax, the Comet and the Lysol-Basin-Tub-and-Tile Cleaner, just steer clear of the Soft Scrub, dear.

Sie hat ja diese Wand geputzt, so lang, bis man sie nicht mehr gesehen hat. Tuklar und scheue niemand. Auch Ata, Vim und Zisch, ich meine Cif nicht.

Here, Jelinek comments on the absurdity of a consumer culture that would offer its women more “freedom of choice” with regard to household cleaning supplies than career options: Ata, Vim, Zisch and Cif are brand name cleaning products, as is “Tuklar.” She manipulates the proverbial saying, “Fürchte Gott, tue Recht und scheue niemand.” famously cited, among others, by Friedrich Schiller.  The Shakespearean reference reconstructs this literary allusion, and the brand names have been replaced by their American equivalents. But the dialogue also reveals that one of the protagonists has used the wrong product for scrubbing her wall squeaky clean, presumably because she failed to follow the manufacturer’s instructions on the label. In English, I suppose it would amount to using SoftScrub instead of Windex to clean a window.

            I understand there is a volunteer in the audience willing to sing the German version of this line from a well-known German children’s song? [ASK VOLUNTEER TO SING]

Die Affen rasen durch den Wald, der eine macht den andern kalt, wer hat die Kokosnuß, wer hat die Kokosnuß, wer hat die Kokosnuß geklaut?

Felicitously, there is an English-language equivalent ready at hand:

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree, merry, merry king of the bush is he. Stop, Kookaburra, stop Kookaburra, save some scum for me!

Rosamunde:

Already the title of this third in the series of “Princess Plays,” presented the first problem in translation: Rosamunde refers, on the one hand, to the character of “Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus” in Franz Schubert’s famous Rosamunde Overture.

[PLAY AUDIO SAMPLE]

But “Rosamunde” is also the title of the Czech folk song, composed in 1927, with words written in 1934, a German text in 1938, and finally, later, in English assigned the title “The Beer Barrel Polka.”  Famously recorded by the Andrews sisters in 1939 and by Bobby Vinton in 1991—perhaps less famously by the Grateful Dead in 1974, by Willie Nelson in 1999, Billy Holiday in 1956, and Luciano Pavarotti in 1994, I’m sure you’ll recognize it even in my rendering:

SING: Roll out the Barrel.

Roll out the barrel, We’ll have a barrel of fun

Roll out the barrel, we’ve got the blues on the run

Zing Boom Terrara

Join in a glass of good cheer

Now it’s time to roll the barrel

For the gang’s all here (Spoken: Take it away boys!)

So in my English translation, each time the character of Fulvio addresses Rosamunde by name, he says: “Roll out the barrel, Rosamunde.”

Here is another example of how nothing can be taken at face value in a Jelinek text. The character of Fulvio, Rosamunde’s “suitor,” says:

Fulvio: Also ich wäre froh, wenn die ganze Welt schnackselt, dann wären alle in a good mood.

Simple enough for anyone familiar with the Austrian verb “schnackseln,” which means “fool around,” “screw around,” “fornicate.”

What may not be immediately apparent, however, is the political allusion to a statement made by Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis in May 2001 on the nationally broadcast Friedman talk show in which she stated that the people in Africa are dying of AIDS “weil sie zu viel schnackseln, der Schwarze schnackselt gerne/ because they’re all too busy making whoopie, as the Negro is wont to do.”

I have attempted to re-construct this allusion by employing the euphemism “discussing Ugandan affairs” that was originally coined in the 1970s by the British satirical magazine Private Eye.

Fulvio: I’d just as soon see the whole world out there discussing Ugandan affairs—then everyone would be in a good mood.

One additional example  from Rosamunde I consider particularly successful in translation:

O my thighs, my ass, forgive me for making you what you are! Forgive me for having shorn a woman scorned! O the ground where women dare to tread, forgive the fluffs of her feet that missed their cue when the stage was set for her grand entrance! O martyred Maries foraging at my breast, forgive me! Forgive me first and foremost for the fact that you found nothing there! Foreign man, forgive me for becoming your one and only! Foreign man, forgive me for not being there to become your one and only! I’ve done it my own way, may the road I have taken forgive me for the fact that it has always already been a road already taken.

O meine Oberschenkel, mein Po, vergebt mir, daß ich was ihr seid aus euch gemacht hab! Abscheu über Verschmähtwerden, vergib mir! Boden, wo Frauenfuß auftritt, vergib ihm den verpatzten Auftritt! Martern, die mir die Brust durchwühlen, vergebt mir! Daß ihr dort nichts gefunden habt, vergebt mir erst recht! Fremder Mann, vergib mir, daß ich die deine werde! Fremder Mann, vergib mir, daß ich nicht da bin, um die deine zu werden! Ich habe meinen eigenen Weg genommen, der mir bitte vergeben soll, daß er immer schon an eine andre vergeben ist.

Bambiland: Professional Bush-Bashing at the Nobel Prize Level

Jelinek acknowledges Aeschylus’s The Persians  as an important literary antecedent to Bambiland, and she is not the first to have seen in this ancient Greek tragedy telling parallels to the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. In June of 2003, Ellen McLaughlin was commissioned by the National Actors Theatre to do an adaptation of Aeschylus’s The Persians in response to the Iraq war, and the National Theatre of Greece recently (September 2006) staged a production of The Persians at the City Center in New York. A reviewer in New York Theatre Wire writes, “watching the production, it is difficult not to hear criticism of the American presence in the Middle East.”  Charles Isherwood’s review in the New York Times reads:

The ruler of a rich and powerful empire leads his countrymen into a disastrous war on foreign soil […]. It seems the guy was acting on advice from bad counselors. And trying to finish some business started by papa, who ruled before him. Ring any bells?

The New York production was performed in Greek, with English titles projected above and to the side of the stage, and the reviewer writes: “you might expect the experience to be like listening to a long series of speeches in a foreign tongue.”

But one cannot come away from Jelinek’s Bambiland saying “It’s Greek to me,” for she does not satisfy herself with allusion and innuendo, and describes the play as the product of a “press that’s all dressed up like an emperor with no new clothes.”

Bambiland is a scathing indictment of the policies of the Bush administration—it cites Bush, Blair, Cheney and Halliburton by name—and at the same time implicates the international news media as co-conspirator in the crime of outrageous proportion that is the Iraq war.

I freely concede that my interest in this piece is more political than literary. I stand together with the two penultimate recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature in their critique of the current administration in Washington. Elfriede Jelinek, in a November 2004 interview with the New York Times stated:

I consider the current presidency dangerous to the world. I am really afraid of Bush, actually less of him than of the deputies standing in the shadows behind him. Compared to their activities, even Thomas Pynchon’s paranoid conspiracy theories are just children’s books.

Similarly, Harold Pinter, the 2005 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature stated, already in 2003:

The US is really beyond reason now. It is beyond our imagining to know what they are going to do next and what they are prepared to do. There is only one comparison: Nazi Germany. […] Nazi Germany wanted total domination of Europe and they nearly did it. The US wants total domination of the world and is about to consolidate that.

So, I translate Bambiland with all the “extraordinary linguistic zeal” of political conviction, in the interest of revealing this society’s clichés and their subjugating power as we experience them today in “real time” here in America at “ground zero” of this utterly contemporary tragedy.  I have described this task of translation as “professional Bush-bashing at the Nobel Prize Level,” and conclude this presentation with a brief reading from that translation.

So where did all that oil go, unspent? Burning. Burning. Explosives set round the rigs where the oil wells up, where it goes up in flames and goes to waste. […]You can set fire to our homes, set fire to our icons, just keep your fires off our oil and our television sets, these are ours to keep, our altar—one that cannot disappear without a trace, for it is itself the trace! The tracer bullets that let us see in the dark. Let us see in the dark the way lightning strikes straight into the hailstorm of enemy fire.

Wo ist jetzt das ganze Öl hin, ungenutzt? Es brennt. Es brennt. Sprengstoff rund um die Quellen, wo das Öl sich staut und nutzlos verbrennt. […]An unser Haus können Sie den Brand legen, an unsere Götterbilder können Sie auch den Brand legen, aber nicht an unser Öl und nicht an unseren Fernseher, den behalten wir, unsren Altar, der darf nicht spurlos fort, der ist doch die Spur! Der ist unsre Leuchtspurmunition, damit wir im Dunkeln sehen können. Damit wir auch im Dunkeln sehen, wie  einschlägt der Blitz im Strom des feindlichen Heers.

[…]

They’re no longer content with dashing together the bronze prows of their cumbersome seafaring galleys. […] Those who believe in God. But it’s not enough for them. They’re out to free the fatherland. But they can’t because […] we question religion and we question the stones and we question the sand and we question the water, we alone know God and have realized that we want nothing to do with Him, we who can lead no one into temptation, we who are tempted by images alone. As soon as we walk in the door to the house, the first thing we do is turn on the tube. Seductive eyewash. The show must go on. And it does. Immediately. They never leave us without a trace, these images of our deity that we see, the ones only we can see there on the glowing screen. So we’ll just march in there and strip those people of their faith, and we’ll finally force these icons of ours down their throats, and that’ll be that. All’s well that ends well. Then those people will be washed up once and for all.

Schnabelstöße gegen unlenksame Schiffe, das spielen sie heute nicht mehr. […]Wo sie doch an Gott glauben. Das genügt ihnen aber nicht. Sie wollen das Vaterland befreien. Können sie aber nicht, denn nur wir halten dem Verführer, der uns nur aufhalten würde, stand und stellen die Religion in Frage und die Steine stellen wir in Frage und den Sand stellen wir in Frage und das Wasser stellen wir in Frage, nur wir kennen Gott und haben erkannt, wir wollen ihn nicht, wir Verführer von niemand, wir Verführer des Bildes allein. Wenn wir ins Haus gekommen, dann drehn wir das Bild sofort auf. Das muß funktionieren. Und es funktioniert auch. Sofort. Nie spurlos fort unserer Gottheit Bilder, die wir dort sehn, die nur wir dort sehn auf dem leuchtenden Schirm. So, wir entfernen dieses Volk vom Glauben, geben ihm dafür endlich unser Bild und aus. Dann wir es gut sein. Dann wird  dieses Volk vollkommen am Ende sein.

[…]

The British people, the American people, for example, who set out on their crusades. They’re the ones, hording the riches in their gold-gilded mansions. But of course they want even more. They always want even more. If you got it, you got it. If you got it, flaunt it. But not everyone who wants to will get some. Those who get some will not get it from the molly-coddled masses, and that is why they’ll get some. Winner takes all. Do you know the one I’m talking about? Have you ever heard the name of that corporation, Halliburton, and the name Cheney, the High Almighty Lord, scion of so-and-so or such-and-such, I know not what, son of a mother, or the mother of all sons I suppose, and he’s been battling the emotional whirlwinds of wishy-washy weal and woe since the day he was born. Dick Cheney. But his weal and woe won’t win. Halliburton will win, the corporation that can even build cages in Cuba, well, even I could manage to build a cage if I had to, but it would barely be built tough enough to contain a rabbit, if that; they managed to build Corpus Christi in Texas, too. And the place sure lives up to its name! He’s just going to rebuild everything, Lord of the Energy Industry, Lord Chairman of the Board, Lord of the Cooked Books, Lord of Cronyism. But Cronyism is an Arab thing. You can bet your bottom dollar on it: this company will come out the winner no matter who actually wins this war.

Die des Engländer- und Amerikanervolks, die auf Heerfahrt zogen, zum Beispiel. Sie sinds, reichen Horts, goldbergende Burgen. Aber sie wollen natürlich noch mehr. Sie wollen immer noch mehr. Wer hat, der hat. Wer kann, der kann. Nicht jeder, der will, der bekommt. Dieser bekommt, nicht aus verweichlichtem Volk, deshalb er bekommt. Der bekommt. Kennen Sie den schon? Haben Sie gehört den Namen der Firma Halliburton und den Namen Cheney, den heiligen Herrn, den Sproß von ich weiß nicht was oder wem, gewiß von einer Mutter, und seither kämpft er gegen die zahlreichen weichen Gefühle. Dick Cheney. Aber seine Gefühle werden nicht gewinnen. Es wird gewinnen Halliburton, die Firma, sogar Käfige auf Kuba kann sie bauen, na, das würde sogar ich notfalls noch schaffen, einen Käfig bauen, aber höchstens Kaninchen hielte der stand, Corpus Christi in Texass haben sie ja auch gebaut, das haben sie gekonnt. Das hat seinen Namen verdient. Er wird das alles wieder aufbauen, der Herr von der Energiewirtschaft, der Herr Vorstandsvorsitzende, der Herr der Bilanzfälschungen, der Herr der Vettern.  Aber Vettern gibts nur in Arabien. Drauf könnt ihr euch verlassen, daß diese Firma gewinnt, egal wer gewinnt.

[…]

They just hauled their asses on in there, like a walking mirage of the avenger incarnate, into a foreign land, where many of them bit the dust in the sands, and now you’re saying they’re not going to get anything out of it? Well. I told you so. They’ve got to get their contracts, and none too few. They haven’t gotten any yet. But they’re still negotiating hard. The construction companies will come running after the spectacular real estate, sister concubines and condominiums, two of a kind. They’ll come running, one after the other, with strict rules to determine who’s first in line. I told you so. They landed the deals, founded the fatherlands—by luck of the draw—no, it wasn’t luck, it was the law of the land: connections, lobbyists, family ties, tradition, who gives a hoot how, at any rate, the first ones in line got the fattest contracts. The purchase order is already blowing in the wind like a willow, but not a weeping one. First come, first served.

Da haben sie sich als leibhaft Trugbild des Rächers ins fremde Land, in dessen Sand sie zu mehreren beissen mußten, geschleppt, und die sollen jetzt gar nichts kriegen? Na eben. Ich künd es euch. Die müssen auch Aufträge kriegen, und nicht zu knapp. Noch haben sie keine. Aber sie verhandeln noch fest. An Schönheit sonder Makel, Schwestern gleichen Stamms, werden die Baufirmen antanzen. Eine nach der anderen, und welche zuerst, das ist streng geregelt. Ich künd es euch. Als Heimat hatten sie – durch Los erlangt – nein, nicht durch Los, durch Gewohnheitsrecht, Beziehungen, Lobbies, Verwandtschaft, Tradition, ist ja Wurst, also erlangt haben die ersten jedenfalls die dicksten der Aufträge.  Der Bestellzettel biegt sich schon wie eine Weide, aber keine, die trauert. Wer zuerst kommt, mahlt zuerst.