Original Research

Notes on memory culture and the (un)translatable, with illustrative reference to Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Kinder der Toten (1995)

Cilliers van den Berg
Literator | Vol 40, No 1 | a1617 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/lit.v40i1.1617 | © 2019 Cilliers van den Berg | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 24 April 2019 | Published: 26 November 2019

About the author(s)

Cilliers van den Berg, Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, German and French, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa


Some commentators regard Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek’s major work, Die Kinder der Toten (1995), not only as a difficult novel but also as an untranslatable text. Various aspects of the novel seem to support this: not only does the text include a great many denotative and connotative ‘untranslatables’ but Jelinek’s deconstructivist understanding of language also suggests a philosophically orientated slant to its untranslatability. The latter is first and foremost illustrated by her use of ‘Sprachflächen’ that subverts a linear reading of the novel. However, the very ‘untranslatability’ of the text should not be understood as an obstacle that defeats any and all attempts at its translation. As Apter (2014) and Cassin (2016) suggest, the untranslatable is precisely that which one does not stop (not) to translate. Viewed from this perspective, it seems as if the very untranslatability of Die Kinder der Toten can be understood as an invitation to engage with the complexities of the text and the memory culture it represents. These complexities can be related to the historical particularities of the Austrian memory culture that Jelinek presents and criticises in her novel. The untranslatable nature of Die Kinder der Toten illustrates that memory culture and its discursive artefacts have no definitive meanings that can easily be translated. And because the engagement with difficult pasts is continuous, no translation of the works created in its wake can be definitive. To a large extent, the untranslatable becomes the catalyst of continuous attempts to engage with a difficult past from an outsider perspective.


Untranslatability; translation; memory cultures; Elfriede Jelinek; Die Kinder der Toten; Austrian vergangenheitsbewältigung.


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