Volume 4, No. 3 
July 2000

Michael Roloff



Faster, Better, Easier
by Gabe Bokor
Index 1997-2000
  Translator Profiles
A Hard Way to Make Money
by Robin Bonthrone
  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
In Pursuit of the Cheapest Translation Cost
by Johannes Tan
  Translators and Computers
Reflections of a Human Translator on Machine Translation
by Steve Vlasta Vitek
  Literary Translation
A 30 Year-After Near-Posthumous Note on Peter Handke's "Public Insult"
by Michael Roloff
What is the Word for "you" in Portuguese?
by Danilo Nogueira
  Translator Education
Teaching Translation—Problems and Solutions
by Prof. Constanza Gerding-Salas
  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature XX
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.
  Banking and Finance
German Financial Accounting and Reporting —FAQs and Fallacies
by Robin Bonthrone
  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
  Translators’ Tools
Translators’ Emporium
Translators’ Events
Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
Translation Journal
Machine Translation

A 30 Year-After
Near-Posthumous Note on
Peter Handke’s “Public Insult”

by Michael Roloff

n the late 60s, flying high, I talked my colleagues at Farrar, Straus & Giroux into taking on a pack of work by the Austrian sensation Peter Handke. The package included a set of his early Sprechstücke [1 as Handke called these musically arranged word series to distinguish them from texts that need acting out] and his second novel Der Hausierer2 [The Panhandler]—the full-length play Kaspar added itself during the translation work, providing the title Kaspar & Other Plays [those others being Self-Accusation and Offending the Audience, which I now call Public Insult.]3

We will insult you because insulting you is another way of speaking to you. By insulting you, we can be straight with you. We can switch you on.
Whereas Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick9 puts the reader in the linguistically induced aboriginal state of what is technically known as the paranoid-schizophrenic position—the ill-named depressive position follows on its heels, by which time Goalie Bloch is in the nicely murderous mood of those ants on the hot plate!—Handke's early works all are meant to control anxiety, and exorcise his "I was born to terror," during which exorcism, however, Handke's verbal abilities usually entirely occupy the Wernecke part of our brain, and do not just cast the usual spell but take total charge of our psyche.17—The author's all-knowingness in telling an audience what it undergoes as it experiences Public Insult induces that extreme state of shamed self-consciousness [born of the psychological catastrophe into which humans are born] in that audience so that an analyst who participated at a performance of the piece at the Goethe House15 in New York in 1970 very accurately described the experience as one of the great feats of group consciousness raising—which of course it might be even more if a performance of Public Insult were followed by the audience then describing their experience to each other [as in a way they do in Ride Across Lake Constance (1972)], and not disperse in the usual fashion.

However, before the audience can leave that so unsettling 60 minute crossfire of being told what it is experiencing, it is subjected to those famous insults; it gets what it came for. "We will insult you because insulting you is another way of speaking to you. By insulting you, we can be straight with you. We can switch you on. We can eliminate the free play. We can tear down a wall. We can observe you," is the opening to the dozen calibrated sections of varying kinds of insults that follow.

The insults themselves are not simply discharged as by a hundred wildly farting monkeys but are artfully arted: "This piece is a prologue. It is not the prologue to another piece, but the prologue to what you did, what you are doing, and what you will do... Soon you will move, you will make preparations. You will prepare yourself to applaud... While we insult you, you won't just hear us, you will listen to us. The distance between us will no longer be infinite... We will contradict ourselves with our insults. We will mean no one in particular. We will only create an acoustic pattern... You were the heroes of this piece... You were a sight to have seen..;" the first real invective then being: "ass-kissers"; and the single insult upon the next sequence is: "you small timers"; the next sequence ending in three insults: "you jerks, you hoodlums, you scum of the melting pot"; so that by the end of the next block it's six: "you party poopers, you freeloaders, you fuddy-duddies, you bubbleheads, you powder puffs, you switch-hitters, you dirty Jews." [Last of which certainly had folks squirming at the Goethe House in New York!] "You lonely crowd, you culture vultures, you nervous nellies, you bronco busters, you moneybags, you potheads, you washouts, you wet smacks, you fire eaters, you generation of freaks, you hopped up sons and daughters of the revolution, you napalm specialists... You Vietnam bandits, you savages, you rednecks, you hatchet men, you subhumans, you fiends, you beasts in human shape... you butchers, you buggers, you bullshitters, you bullies, you rabbits, you fuck-offs, you farts... you windbags you..."; with the insults then reaching a voluminous and also quantitative crescendo of approximately 50 insults with the central section on page 31 before the nicely tempered denouement tapers off with: "You who embrace life. You who detest life. You who lack all feeling about life. You ladies and gents you, you celebrities of public and cultural life you, you who are present you, you brothers and sisters you, you comrades you, you worthy listeners you, you fellow humans you. You were welcome here. We thank you. Good night."

Having acquired these plays the question was whom to select for a translator. No one immediately of those with whose work I was acquainted or whom, as editor I had used, came to mind. A painfully arythmic and discordant, literal-minded version by a Texas professor drove home to me the wrong direction one could take in translating Public Insult into a useful [for whom?] academic trot. Particularly when translating the insults I realized I needed to find equivalents not just for each individual invective but for the musical principle according to which these sections had been composed if the "acoustic pattern" was not to turn into a gnashing punk metal junkyard [which, of course, it ought to as well at certain historical moments] were I not to cause grave offense to ear and sense of rhythm.10

That Handke leaves not a single imaginable moment of the theatrical experience, everything from going to leaving the theater, without some form of verbal cover indicates the kind of pedantic and anxiety-ridden obsessive perfectionism which he then turned against himself in the companion piece Self-Accusation, where he takes conscience's self-berating so far over the top as to end up in self-absolution. Yet, covering every possibility, also of viable insults, but not committing himself to a single one, also indicates our author's possible wish to have his cake and a plate full of Viennese pastries while he laughs his head off.—Self-Accusation also contains my own favorite mishap reading, of the implications of the word "Monat": The line that reads "I lay with R. on the floor while she had her period" really ought to be "I lay on the floor during the months with the letter R." Puerto Ricans only go swimming in the Caribbean during the warm months—May June July and August. And Austrians who sleep on the floor during their cold and damp winter months, a variety of colds will seep into their bodies.

Self-evident how dated some time-specific insults are now: "Napalm specialists" [?] "U-2 pilots" [?] "hopped up sons and daughters of the revolution" might just make you wonder about the proclivities of those freedom fighters of 1776!—"Killer pigs"—are they the ones who have run wild in the rice fields of Sri Lanka once the government suppressed its rioting over-educated students and confiscated all the guns [?], "—whereas political riffs, like Eisenhower's "you corporate military establishment," unfortunately have become the forever Ravens of corporate and county and union work- & well-fare; and the political connotation of "nervous nellies," a Pat Buchanan-type insult for peacenicks, has reverted to its aboriginal Victorian status and, for all I know, with all our stupidly unimaginative wishful neo-Victorian make-believe over and above the miasma that is always just one slip away, especially in Seattle, is all the rage again. For in 1965 Handke, being SO prescient, had worked in invectives that were anachronistic even as he composed the text; and put in "fluff"—"powder puffs," which, within the context of in-your-face, presented the most interesting "feathering" problems, and produce the eeriest elevator free-fall effects when you dropped them in amongst the verbal hardballs: the innocuousness of "you befuddled aristocrats... you smarty pants... you claquers... you clique of Babbitts"—that from one moment to the next went from 100 to five m.p.h., while losing none of the focus of the author's ambiguously didactic, sensitizing, controlling, unsettling objective.

So, in adapting the insults of the text 30 years ago and in freshening them in 1999 [but not like that proverbial Mexican wool goat that needs to be biannually so as to keep giving milk] to be kept in mind is the rough and ready but not totally elastic principle of the primacy of rhythm and aural congruity [excepting perhaps during those harsh periods that call for the decrescendo scream of descent into the most painful of atonal hells], and of course the principle of the architectonic of quantity, of not too little not too much, and the need, at all times, to substitute for those 60s and other discards currently fashionable especially stinging taboo examples.18 So that, in feathering the text, historically and in situ, for every imaginable local pidgin, for the millennium change [feathering as in propeller not as in your 19th century goose-down pillow] a director might keep a few of those charming or whatever, and melancholy, thoroughly dated, examples of explicitly late 1960s invective while substituting for most others, and so acquire a more contemporary edge with the likes of: "You hopelessly hypocritical and helpless politically correct pony tails; you forever ostrich heads; you Neo-Victorians; you Reaganite moon-calves; you AIDS sufferers; you hate-mongers; you Bimbos and Bimbettes; you rage addicts, you Ramboette's, you postmodernist Merovingian dark-agers; you channelers of miseries past, present and future; you who have never been nowhere and are going there; you loser's losers; you gnats with attention spans, you ungratifiable instants..."with the ambiguous but pervasive "nerd" being, so I imagine, as inexcludable as "dickhead," "buttheads" of all kind, "Republican Neanderthals" [the latter a true insult to this merged branch of human development], everything in short that is politically wildly magnificently abusively incorrect: "you buttufuckos, cockbiters, muff divers, pornography consuming hypocrites" [which all indicate the extraordinary social progress that that sponge, the human brain, of the many sub-species of Homo Americanicus has made in the past 30 years] and so should raise the occasional hackle in an over-exposed world that seeks refuge in style—Jerry Leiber's already 70s song "Style is back in style," all you can get to cover the miasma of the forever Love Canal, where the sequentia of style need be kept in mind, too: 'tis when a style, say that of Saturday Night Fever, that ratty-tailed hair, those gold chains in sweaty hairy V-necked shirts, those bell-bottomed and no end of other excrudences of fashion have reached a certain abysm of the abysms of ultimate seediness [as great-grandpa & ma's clothes reached around 1912] it is that nadir of a Hegelian moment, that the time is ripe for dialectic redemption into a Golden Oldie word [many 40s words and phrases such as Okey-Dokey which like vintage American cars have weathered well in Mexico] and the time is near to fish in the basement or attic for the cheapest of the cheap, for Mr. Safire's famous "nattering nabobs," that tripped so surprisingly from that most unlikely of Vice Presidents' mouth, and which is bound to be next year's gilded phrase, evoking faint and fond "aha" expressions in the dim synapses; plus that simple and crude assortment to be derived from the world of Hip-Hop; the entire realm of Hollywood trash is up for grabs; as are untold other fertile realms, many beyond my wild imaginings; plus MOST IMPORTANTLY RIGHT NOW that store full of insults deriving from the lips of all those high-minded supporters of selective human right killings, all those now protectors of currently cuddled and sentimentalized Keiko killer whales. With these I made particular acquaintance the past few months while delving into the author's involvement in "deepest darkest Serbia," that entirely Bureau of Tobacco and Fire Arms way of loving the wacky Wacos of this world to death, where Ugly Americans, Russian 19th Century Roulette Players, Cheerfully Bombing Brits, Buggering Bulgarian Arms Traders, that entire host of Narco Trafficantes, Chinga su Madres, Grouchos Marx's murderous "here get your Hutsie Tootsies" are all the rage again, with the following and last list being out of Peter Handke's The Trip in the Dugout Canoe: Or the Foreplay to the Film About the War15 who, as I found out to no great surprise, considering his attenuated autism, also enjoys and avails himself autism's associated syndrome of Gilles de Tourette,19 those ill-surpressed burps of the universal psychosis: "Fuck thy neighbor, kill thy neighbor, cut your neighbor's throat, chinga su madre... You appear in the name of goodness, and you have not one touch of goodness in this land. Helpers? Not once have you helped. There is an indifference that is more helpful than your humanitarian busy-bodied-ness where the right hand pats us like Mother Teresa and the left swings the sword of penal retribution. Little devils of goodness. Humanity hyenas. There are no humans who are less accessible to real suffering than you inaccessible and official governmental humanitarians, who appear as the protectors of human rights."

It is only when arranged into groupings such as in Public Insult—not as when Handke becomes engaged in public controversy in such a very Serbian way as he did in recent years—wildly and vituperatively and enviously and so self- revelatorily projecting his own most self-hated qualities into others20 that, like the "Forest Madman" of Dugout Canoe, this most recent, insult-filled play, that such primal sounds, such insults, as all the other noises that the chattering, degenerate monkeys that we are produce, may become redemptively attractive: and the only truly sweet face [you see, W. C. Fields does make allowance for that one exception!] appears to be that of Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Further noted ought to be that idiot savant Handke has by no means absolved himself either of his early serial methods—they constitute the continuing matrix whence his forever productivity linears forth—nor of the Surprise Symphony method of insult to drumroll the sleepy fat Austrians with a burp or two: "Oh summer and winter, parks and plazas, rows of roofs and wooden benches, arbor walks and trains stations, fiery smoke and planes at night, stillness and roaring—river whose answer I became time and again, river to whose gleaming and rustling time and again came the answer "I"—ah, wide world!—and everywhere in between the clattering, the battering, the snickering, the muttering, the dickering, the sputtering, the cackling, the heckling, the simpering, the scribbling, the groveling, the shystering, the badgering of business; the malodor of business, the malfeasance of business, the malevolence of business; the base hypocrisy of business, the eternal scandal of business, the damnedness of business."14