Romy Fursland interviews Alta Price about her translation of Mithu Sanyal’s debut novel Identitti.
Romy Fursland: Hello Alta! I’m excited to talk to you about your brilliant translation of Mithu Sanyal’s Identitti, a bold and thought-provoking novel which tackles some hotly debated issues.
How did you come to be commissioned as the translator, and what did you think of the book when you first read it?
Alta Price: It was a combination of connections. I’d heard about the novel from German friends, and saw it covered by New Books in German. My colleague Jeffrey Zuckerman was instrumental: when Astra’s editor was considering the possibilities, he gave them my name. They commissioned a sample, which they and the author evaluated alongside other samples, and my lawyer negotiated the contract. The Goethe-Institut’s support was essential. And I knew Katy Derbyshire from years ago, so when she let me know V&Q had also secured it, and would do the work of Britishizing (Britishising!) I was thrilled: Katy’s experience as a translator makes her a uniquely visionary publisher. I will admit that I’m always slightly uncomfortable when it appears that translators’ samples are pitted against one another in such so-called beauty contests, but we all know the supposed glamo(u)r of this industry is mostly façade.
The first time I read the novel, I thought wow, this is exciting, and a little scary. With each subsequent reading it became more exhilarating, especially as I saw the German edition evolve.
You mention in your Translator’s Postscript that the book is remarkably polyphonic. How did you approach the different voices in the text, especially the slang and idioms of the young people?
I approached all those voices indirectly, at first, through my everyday life: eavesdropping while riding public transit, diving into popular song lyrics from vastly different times and places, reading a lot, listening to all kinds of speech from all kinds of people. I’m tempted to say the characters’ voices just came to me, because they’re so well written in German that I could often hear each character’s exact cadence. But it’s also true that I put a fair amount of work and revision into it. Friends and colleagues randomly sharing media of all sorts – TikToks, memes, tweets, etc. – also helped.
Can you tell us a bit about your collaboration with the author?
Mithu was remarkably generous, especially given the rush we all had to get the book out. I was determined not to pester her too much, so filled my hardcopy of the original with copious annotations and finished a full draft before sharing the translation with her. And the managing editor and copy editors did their work before she saw it, too, which resulted in some intriguing conversations. Mithu’s input was invaluable. And of course we’ve found a few parts we’d like to improve upon, especially since the German edition is in its umpteenth printing and substantive updates have been made. So I’d say the collaboration is ongoing; just wait ’til you hear about the work she’s done since….
The book raises a whole host of issues, including the deeply controversial one at the heart of the novel – what are your thoughts on these issues, and have any of your opinions changed as a result of working on the book?
Within the past fortnight an incident occurred at the University of Chicago where a professor and the administration postponed a class titled ‘The Problem of Whiteness’ (NB: problem in the philosophical sense of the term, people!) because of a social-media-stoked harassment campaign and serious safety threats. Of course my first thoughts were that this is yet another case of life imitating art, and that perhaps this professor was Saraswati/Sarah Vera Thielmann 2.0.
My opinions certainly grew more complex as I worked through the book: I believe part of the translator’s task is to respect the voice they’re translating, even (and perhaps especially) when that voice is controversial. In this case, I had to respect the words coming from Nivedita and Simon and Robert and Saraswati and Raji and Oluchi and everyone else – not to mention all the invented internet trolls – which meant making them sound like themselves, regardless of whether I agreed, disagreed, or was just completely confused by their viewpoints.
One of the strongest things about the book, I think, is the fact that it doesn’t provide any answers. Every character can potentially be read as problematic. There’s such generosity and respect on the part of the author – she doesn’t tell us who we’re meant to be rooting for. I was pleased when one reader told me that neither the German original nor the translation felt didactic. It was important to me that the translation should not feel didactic, because the original certainly doesn’t.
I’d probably need another 400+ pages to address my thoughts on the issues raised in the book, and I hope you and your readers will agree that my time and energy are better spent bringing more work by Mithu Sanyal and other writers into English.
Could you tell us a bit about your translation process? There must have been quite a lot of research involved in this particular translation – and how do you tend to approach first drafts, redrafting, etc.?
Luckily, I was able to do a lot of research on Twitter without having to create an account, so I learned some amazing things there; they’re sprinkled throughout the book, no summary could ever suffice. I was able to track down many of the quotes in “Nivedita’s class notes” in books already on my own shelves, and am indebted to the Chicago Public Library for access to all the rest. This novel didn’t necessarily require any more research than certain works of philosophy or art and architectural history I’ve translated in the past but it was, undeniably, more entertaining.
I don’t have a set approach, since each translation project sets its own parameters, but listening to the audio adaptation on SWR2’s ‘Fortsetzung Folgt’ helped: seeing what they’d chosen to abridge, how the reader rendered different characters’ voices, etc., informed my approach. Redrafting and revising are invariably intense. I always read every single word out loud as part of that process. Had there been time, I’d have loved to workshop this with colleagues – that’s one of the perks of participating in translator collectives and benefitting from keen-eared colleagues’ input – but the production schedule didn’t permit such luxuries.
What did you find most enjoyable about working on this translation?
The element of surprise, which cropped up in plot twists as well as word play. The original is so well crafted – I cannot emphasize that enough. Many times I’d be racking my brain to find the right solution for my translation, only to go back to the original after a good night’s sleep, with fresh eyes, to find that the best solution was right there, lurking in the words, all along.
Were there elements of the book which you felt English-language readers might find particularly easy or difficult to relate to, and how did you handle this in translation?
The book is set in Dusseldorf, and I felt I needed to do something in the translation to spell out the significance of the Ruhrgebiet, since it invokes so many issues and connotations for people living in Germany. I think I do gloss things more than I realise when I’m translating, to make sure nothing gets lost.
I was also very conscious, when translating the part of the book which deals with a terrorist attack, that I was bringing this book into a culture where this kind of thing happens multiple times a year. There are so many mass shootings here in the US – I did have to think about how it would be perceived by US readers.
Also, after the attempted ‘putsch’ at the Capitol on 6 January 2021, there’s been a lot more focus here in the US on right-wing extremists working in law enforcement, which is an issue that comes up in Identitti too.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
It’s funny – so many people have said to me, having heard that the book is about identity politics: ‘It sounds interesting, but is it a good book? Is it literature?’ Nobody’s really asked me that about my other translations. And I think readers also have a tendency to map the main character onto the writer, and that this happens a lot more with writers who aren’t privileged white dudes. Mithu has talked about how common it is for readers to project Nivedita onto her. I wonder why we are failing as readers in this way?
One final point: it’s easy to say that Identitti is a book about race and identity politics, but it’s equally about class and other power dynamics. There are so many elements to it. And for me, one of the most powerful things about it is that it confounds people’s expectations of German literature.
Thank you, Alta, for a wonderful conversation and for being so generous with your time!
Alta L. Price runs a publishing consultancy specialising in literature and nonfiction texts on art, architecture, design, and culture. Recipient of the Gutekunst Prize, Alta’s translations from German and Italian have appeared on BBC Radio 4, Trafika Europe, Specimen, and elsewhere. Alta’s translation of Juli Zeh’s novel New Year (World Editions, 2021) was a finalist for the PEN America Translation Prize as well as the Helen & Kurt Wolff Prize. Alta’s translation of Mithu Sanyal’s debut novel Identitti has been released in the US by Astra House, and in the UK and Europe by V&Q Books.
Romy is a freelance literary translator from French and German into English.
Specialising in fiction but with experience translating academic non-fiction, drama and poetry, Romy also offers general translation services, specialising in arts and culture.