Mithu Sanyal’s Identitti, the latest title from V&Q books, is an issues-led novel. More than that it is one in which everyone gets their say on a variety of platforms. Very zeitgeisty with social media playing a key role. Particularly those unavoidable twitter storms. 50% of the tweets in the novel were donated by real people, in some cases following much persuasion from the author. Why should I tweet about something that hasn’t happened is a pretty reasonable question to ask, after all.
But the situation at the centre of Sanyu’s novel is very real. Think Jessie Krug. Sanyal’s professor is Saraswati, professor of postcolonial and race studies. She is idolised by her mixed-race student, Nivedita, a woman who writes social media posts about her Identitti, and whose world is shattered when Saraswati is outed as white. In Sanyal’s words “all hell breaks loose”.
Well, for some, Nivedita’s world without the Saraswati complication might already be hellish. There’s her cousin Priti, over from Birmingham in the process of learning German. Her hopeless boyfriend, Simon. (Why does she put up with him?) Nivedita’s imaginary (?) friend Kali, the ferocious and ofttimes outrageous Hindu goddess on the book cover, who made my head spin, baby right round, like a record, baby, right round, right round. (😉) Add the chip on the shoulder of Saraswati’s adopted black brother, Raji, and contrast with Saraswati’s seductive and humane rationality (indeed). What Sanyal has served up is certainly a most original, polyphonic novel. With lashings of wit, verve, brio and a bit too much information in places. Didacticism is noticeable by its absence although in a recent interview responding to comments that no one is telling anyone what to think, she replied “in 10 years people will think differently”.
Best leave that there. I thought I detected Sanyal’s message, but my spinning head needs a reread to confirm. The question for today is how does the translator cope with so much stimulus? Let’s meet Alta L Price to find out.
Welcome to the blog, Alta.
How did you become a literary translator?
Like many literary translators, I became one through sheer serendipity. The short answer: I studied visual art, and languages on the side, before working in a bookstore and then in the marketing department of an international publisher. One day an interpreter friend familiar with my skill set hired me as a subcontractor for the Italian-to-English portion of a larger translation project. She became the first of several mentors, helping me learn both the craft and ethics as well as professional essentials (e.g., always have a written agreement before starting work, talk to peers and colleagues about best practices with regard to copyright, fee and payment structures, royalties, etc.). I couldn’t have gone full-time freelance without her guidance. That said, it took more than a decade to transition from doing almost exclusively nonfiction work to doing primarily literary work. But I’d say the main criterion that let me become and remain a literary translator is that I bring relevant experience from all my previous lives to every project.
How many books have you now translated? Do you have a favourite? If so, why?
If we include my work from both German and Italian, nonfiction and fiction, the total is over forty books, not including articles, essays, short stories, and contributions to multi-author anthologies. Given the stylistic breadth of the works I’ve translated, I don’t have a favorite; if asked to choose one, my answer would likely change depending on the day and context.
How do you divide your time between running the publishing agency and literary translation?
Deadlines. It’s all related, and highly dependent on the season. I am first and foremost a translator, and my work as publishing consultant covers everything beyond that: liaising with writers, editors, agents, publishers, booksellers, reviewers, institutions of all sorts; planning and presenting events in person and online; occasional reader reports, pitching, matchmaking, and so on. Some days it’s 90% translation, 10% everything else, sometimes the reverse, usually somewhere in between. After the relatively introverted work of translation and editing are done and a book launches, my energy shifts to the extroverted labor of promotion – a key part of bringing a book to a new readership. Because I often handle multiple books at a time, all at different stages, the deadlines determine what each day looks like.
I began 2022 reading Juli Zeh’s New Year. How do you compare translating Juli Zeh to Mithu Sanyal? Chalk and cheese?
First, thank you for reading (and reviewing!). Second, I’m not great with comparisons, although I do love the expression chalk and cheese – I go for savory, whereas one US version of that idiom, apples and oranges, is sweet. Zeh and Sanyal are both magnificent and prolific writers, and I find many similarities: word play, brilliant use of the political implications of everyday language in highly literary prose, hilarious and thought-provoking song references, the way some of their readers fall into the trap of trying to find the writer in the characters, etc. I trust them both to keep writing, and I hope to keep bringing them to more Anglophone readers.
Apropos Identitti – how did you get the contract?
Like many of my projects, it was a combination of connections. I’d heard about it from German friends, and saw it covered by New Books in German. When Astra’s editor was considering the possibilities, a translator colleague generously gave them my name. They commissioned a sample, and my lawyer negotiated the contract. Support from the Goethe-Institut was invaluable. And I knew Katy Derbyshire from years ago, so when V&Q secured it for their series I was thrilled: Katy’s experience as a translator clearly informs her vision and creativity as a publisher.
I understand there are differences between the American and the UK editions. Please explain.
In addition to the usual differences (spelling, punctuation, idiomatic phrases, typeface, trim size, cover design, and so on), V&Q wanted my entire translator’s postscript, whereas Astra opted for a shorter version. So the US version covers the basics, but the UK version shows me mimicking the novel itself as a way of playing with what translation is. (V&Q generously make their version available here.)
I’m intrigued by those differences in idiomatic phrases. US phrases replaced by British ones. That’s quite unusual in a translated text these days. How did the process work?
Here, again, I was lucky to have publisher Katy Derbyshire handle the process of getting my thoroughly North American manuscript into ‘tip-top toodle-pip British shape’. She brought in writer and editor (and fellow former bookseller!) Kate Ellis, who flagged each instance of phrasings Brits would never use. I had expected more changes, actually, and gladly accepted both Katy and Kate’s, as well as Mithu’s suggestions. They’re all closer to the Queen’s English, whereas I’m better at Queens English.
Nivedita’s cousin hales from Birmingham, and speaks more English than German at the beginning of the novel. Did this make your life as a translator to English easier or more difficult?
Neither easier nor more difficult, just more interesting.
You’ve described translating as a process of solving puzzles. Were there any particularly challenging puzzles in Identitti? Puzzles that you haven’t solved before.
Yes, countless. The main one I hadn’t encountered before was all those punning twitter handles.
Let’s talk about the multiplicity of voices. Did you ever count the number of voices? Which voice gave you the most pleasure to translate? And which, if any, was the most difficult to capture?
Yes, 42. No, wait, maybe I’m confusing that with one of the answers on that quiz (surprise: I’m a Kinder Surprise egg…). If you’re confused, see p. 144 of the UK edition, or p. 121 of the US edition. Anyway, I did count – I love style sheets – but then the number depends on whether you want to say Saraswati and Sarah Vera count as one voice or two, ditto for Raji and Konstantin. And would the count include the real people who contributed tweets, or the real people whose publicly spoken words were inserted into this entirely fictional, made-up narrative? So let’s stick with 42 or 144, or 121, or maybe infinity, since the twitterverse in the novel is such an echo chamber.
No one voice gave me the most pleasure, although Kali was extra fun, especially in light of that li’l plot twist at the end. Priti was challenging, for precisely the reason you already mentioned.
The debate at the heart of Identitti rumbles on in the real world, with the new editions of the German novel keeping abreast. Are there plans to keep the translation in sync?
Those plans exist in my head. Mithu’s German edition was already on its twelfth or thirteenth printing when the publisher sent the first edition to translators. Discovering all those differences was a fun curve ball. I wish I could say our present-day publishing world could handle such dynamic situations, but my multiple attempts at getting even basic updates (e.g., replace asterisks with black redaction boxes – details like that) went unheeded. Whether the exciting modifications happening in the German edition are implemented in subsequent English-language editions will depend on forces outside our control, because a vast team is involved. The more people buy, read, and review the book, the more likely that becomes. But even if that doesn’t come to pass, you can rest assured we’ll be hearing and reading more from Mithu Sanyal in the near future