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Author Meets Translator with Mithu Sanyal and Alta L. Price

On 20 September 2023, we held our Author Meets Translator event with Mithu Sanyal and Alta L. Price. Together we talked about identity, the different discourses in English and German and the role it plays in translation and the difficulty of writing and translating humour.

Dr. Mithu M. Sanyal is a writer, cultural scientist and journalist who has worked for Deutschlandfunk, Spiegel, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung and The Guardian, among others. She published the non-fiction books “Vulva” (Wagenbach) and ” Vergewaltigung. Aspekte eines Verbrechens” (Nautilus), which was awarded the “Geisteswissenschaften international” prize. Her debut novel “Identitti” was published by Hanser Verlag in 2022. It was awarded the Ernst Bloch Prize and the Ruhr Literature Prize and was shortlisted for the German Book Prize.

Alta L. Price is a translator and runs a publishing consultancy specialising in literature and non-fiction texts on art, architecture, design and culture. She translates from German and Italian into English and was awarded the Gutekunst Prize. Alta’s translation of Juli Zeh’s novel New Year was a finalist for the PEN America Translation Prize and the Helen & Kurt Wolff Prize.

Can you say something about your relationship to the themes dealt with in Identitti and how this relationship influenced your way of working?

Mithu Sanyal: I have always been told that it is an autobiographical novel. The main character has one parent who comes from India and one parent whose family comes from Poland, like me. Otherwise, I share relatively little with the character of Nivedita. I am twice her age. I’m closer to Saraswati’s age. I had to do a lot of research for the novel, for instance, about blogging. It was a research-heavy novel. But, and this is of course the other thing, I wanted to write about people from “my community”. And this community is an imaginary one; it doesn’t exist. It was important to me to write about mixed-race people, about growing up in Germany as a mixed-race person, because there is no book in German that has explicitly dealt with this. In English there is Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi, which was the first novel centrally about a mixed-race person. It was published in 1990, not that long ago. Before that, people like us only ever existed as a deviation, as a human stain, as something so unstable that sooner or later it had to break and go to pieces. And by the end of the book we had pulled ourselves out of the story by dying, committing suicide or going crazy. Those were the plot lines for mixed-race people up to that point. 

Then, of course, when I wrote the book, I realised it was total nonsense. There are lots of mixed-race characters, even in German-language literature, but they are made invisible. Thomas Mann is a mixed-race person, and yet everyone now thinks of Thomas Mann as the most German of all white German authors. His mother was Brazilian. That was a central theme for him. So, in that respect there is a great closeness to the themes. They are all close to my heart. Interestingly, the topic of mixed-race much more than the second topic, which is constantly dealt with in the novel. Specifically: Is passing okay? – cultural appropriation, these issues were very important for me as a catalyst to tell Nivedita’s story. I needed Saraswati, the professor who pretended to be Indian, for that. But the question I was always asked:  “Now you are the expert, tell us, is it okay to do that?” That’s actually not the question I set out to answer when I wrote the book.

Alta L. Price: So my relationship to the text is just that it’s a pretty great book. I read a lot, but I’ve never seen a novel in English that has an exciting plot and incorporates social media and such a variety  of voices. As an American, I studied German and many Americans asked me, why are you studying the language of the Nazis? There are so many stereotypes, still. I loved it when I told people outside my circle of friends that I was translating a book about race, sex and mixed-race people in Germany. 

It was a lot of fun, but it was really a challenge to translate this book. Personally, I also have to say – of course, it’s about mixed-race people in Germany – but the book is also set in Düsseldorf. Not Berlin, not Munich, not Hamburg. I grew up in a village and even though Düsseldorf-Oberbilkbelg is not a village, there are differences to large cities. The most important thing in this book is that we have to talk more about everything it addresses.

MS: I think it’s great that you mention the place, because there were two reasons for me in choosing it. I definitely didn’t want to write a Berlin novel. Not because I have something against Berlin, but because I always have the feeling that Berlin is like the rest of Germany in the future. They’re already so much further ahead and we’re so far behind and have much smaller bubbles. That’s what I wanted to depict, but also this feeling of “we’re not as cool”, “we’re not as great as Berlin” and yet people live here and have the same problems and have to deal with the same things. The place plays a very important role in the novel. Nivedita was always thinking: Why doesn’t she go to Berlin? Because everyone asks her, should she go to Berlin or to London or wherever? And she has the feeling that she is so rootless if she leaves now that she will be completely blown away. That’s also part of her journey in the novel, that at the end of the novel she knows more about herself, is more rooted, and then feels that now she could leave for somewhere else. At the end of the novel, she’s thinking about going to Oxford. I don’t know if she will, but that doesn’t matter because she could by now as the person she has become. I think this lack of beginning new things, that’s one of the many traumas of racism or classism, etc., that we have to overcome. The hurdles to overcome are much higher.

You are already hinting at what I would like to address next. Identitti deals with very complex topics and concepts. In addition, postcolonial studies is still rather unknown in Germany compared to other countries. The characters in the novel, however, use the jargon very intensively. At the same time, the novel also creates an awareness of the elitist character that professional discourse can have. How did you deal with this when writing? What did you assume that the readers already knew?

MS: I tried to write the book in such a way that there are always invisible levels of explanation. In one of the first chapters, Nivedita goes in for a radio programme and she is asked exactly such questions. What does POC even mean? Who is it anyway? And the answers to them are not explanations, but: POC are people who are asked where they come from. Interestingly, what I didn’t think about is that a lot of people don’t know Twitter. Twitter plays a huge role. I’ve done a lot of readings, also at reading clubs, and then people sit there and say: “Hey, I don’t have Twitter, I didn’t understand the tweets.” I didn’t get that at all. Less than 2% of all Germans are on Twitter. It’s not a mirror of society. 

As for the jargon, it’s also the case that the students don’t understand it at all. Well, not not at all, they understand a lot of it, but not completely. This is not only bad because many words, even if you don’t have the complete definition of them, do something to us. A lot of these words like signify or imagined communities are words that everybody interprets and fantasises about. I think that’s also how we deal with knowledge or how we learn language. We hear a new term and don’t look up the meaning in the dictionary first.

Alta, discourses about racism and other forms of discrimination are very present in Germany and in the US, but nevertheless the discourses are sometimes conducted very differently. It always seems as if the USA is simply a few steps further along than Germany is. What role did that play in translating? To what extent did you have to find your way into the German discourse and where did you have to be particularly careful when translating?

AP: I always have to be careful. I think all translators have to be, because the language is just different. In a way, it was a big challenge, especially because Saraswati repeatedly points out in the novel that Germans lack the language to discuss these issues. She makes her students aware that they are using terminology imported from American English. In the end, there was not much I could do in some situations. As with Pritti, Nivedita’s cousin, it was not possible to substitute or reverse language. In the beginning she speaks more in English than in German and then she learns more and more German. Luckily for me, the book was so well-written that the plot still held together without much intervention on my part. It was really just a matter of respecting what was written. I’m glad Mithu did so much research. I did too. For example, Oury Jalloh. I had heard the name before, but I didn’t know the whole story. Of course, I heard about the terrorist attack in Hanau, which plays a major role in the novel. I wanted and needed to know more about it. I also had to translate with the idea that English-speaking readers hardly know Germany, maybe they have an idea of the events but don’t know exactly what it’s about.

MS: I’d like to interject, because I think you’ve done a lot. You didn’t just follow me; the English translation is better than the German in certain points. I love the German too, but the English translation is so much cooler. We talked about it at the beginning. I think it was after you translated the first chapter that I said I was very impressed. I had several sample translations of the first chapter and yours was by far the best. For many reasons, but one of the reasons was that you translated much more freely than the others and so it was much closer to the original. Nivedita a cool young woman who talks with this cool idiom and you did an incredible job of conveying that. If you translate one to one, if you stay too close to the original, it loses that. That’s what I learned from that experience.

AP: Thank you, thank you! I also have to say, I don’t always realise what I’m doing when I’m working. For example with the first chapter, when I read the book, I could hear Nivedita’s voice even without the audio book. Then I listened to the audio books. For example, I used the word herstory, simply because I thought: “Yes, of course Nivedita would say herstory instead of history. Even though there is no etymological reason for that”. 

MS: Exactly, Nivedita is quite linguistically playful and many of the linguistic plays you can’t translate one to one. Where you couldn’t translate it, you just replaced it with others. That means it hasn’t lost its lightness. That was very, very important to me. It’s about really heavy themes. It’s about identity. There is a lot of pain in all of them. But this pain doesn’t translate into a heavy language, the language has a lightness. And the characters keep looking at themselves and thinking: “Seriously?” Nivedita questions herself throughout. You managed to translate that wit along with it. I actually find translating humour incredibly difficult. Well, I find writing humour really difficult. But translating humour is another thing. 

That leads to me to my next questions: How did you manage to walk the tightrope between humour and seriousness? What role do you think your own positioning plays in the effect you achieve?

MS: I don’t know if I can answer the second question. It’s a totally intriguing question. I watch and listen to a lot of British comedy. That’s where I first found a language for race, not just racism, but race as a theme. It was in Goodness, Gracious Me, a British comedy that was first on the radio and then on television. The characters are always called ‘British Asian’, which is  so confusing to me, because in Germany, Asians are Japanese and Chinese, and in Britain, they mean Indians, Pakastanis, Bangladeshis. ‘Asia’ alone, which is clearly a continent, means something different. You can see how complicated it is to translate. 

That was the very first time that we had the opportunity to talk about it together, to laugh about it in some form, without taking the subject less seriously – on the contrary, giving the subject more space.  My big role model is Meera Syal, she wrote Anita and Me and Life isn’t all Ha Ha Hee Hee. Those two novels were an absolute model for how I wrote this novel. She has also part of the Goodness, Gracious Me team. I had written a lot of scenes as dialogue and had to make them four-dimensional scenes, so that you can get to see the characters and locate them in an ironic way. I had written a lot of it more as radio comedy. In humour there’s the difference between making fun of with  something someone or making fun of someone. The humour I’m looking for is one that invites all people to realise we’re in the same boat and say, “Let’s laugh together about this weird issue of racism. It doesn’t make any sense at all.” And not a humour that asks, “Who needs to be ashamed now and who are we laughing at?” Nivedita, after all, is not free of racisms either. She grew up with the same racist knowledge as all of us. She is more affected by it at certain points than others, but she doesn’t do justice to other characters either. That was important to me in the way that there is the possibility of moving on together in shared laughter.

Alta, did the humorous note of the book translate easily into English? 

AP: The easiest answer is an example: Pritti, Nivedita’s cousin and the word “pretty”. That play on words was already there, it was all already in there. A translation is never word for word. So, this word turns into this one other word. It’s the voice, the story, the personality. It’s not easy to translate that, but it’s not easy to explain either. Sorry, I’d like to be able to say, “This is my secret.”

MS: You told me a lot. How you thought about who speaks which sociolect. For example, it was very clear to you that Pritti speaks like a millennial. Those were aha moments for me, because it wasn’t so obvious to me. A lot of the humour is in the dialogue, in how they respond to each other. I wrote most of the dialogue in English, then I translated it, then I threw away the originals, which was pretty stupid. Then you translated it and it’s different from what I originally wrote. What I wrote is like a BBC costume drama, also how the dialogue works. What you wrote is much more rooted in the present. 

AP: But it’s clear that it sounds different. I’m from North America. I don’t know British English. I love British humour, but it’s almost a different language.

MS: Yes, and especially in humour it’s a totally different language. It’s really interesting.

You have already touched on it briefly. Mithu, I noticed that you often use what is called code-switching in linguistics, especially for Pritti. In the beginning she speaks more English than German. Then the students always use the professional jargon, which is in English. Why did you decide to depict Pritti in this way, how her English and German change?

MS: That’s quite exciting because I think Pritti is part of Nivedita’s longing for bilingualism. Nivedita doesn’t know Bengali, the language of her father. When she is nine or ten, she visits Pritti in Birmingham for the very first time, feels at home for the first time, partly because Birmingham is like a kind of substitute India. Many Indian families live in the part of Birmingham where the family lives. But it is also another language that she can almost speak. And that’s why she always has this urgent need for Pritti to tell her, “Yes, you are real”. 

Bilingualism infuses the whole book. All the theories are in English. Many of the quotes at the beginning are in English. That also has a lot to do with the location of where Nivedita is trying to get knowledge. The knowledge is only in England. All the literature about what is broadly called post-migrant in literature. Nivedita is not a migrant, she was born in Germany, but she is perceived as or labelled migrant. What that means for biographies, there is something in the English language, that means she always looks to England. The literature she reads, she probably reads in the original, but the literature exists in Germany as a translation, which opens up new problems. Translations are incredibly important. When I started writing the novel 25 years ago, it was only about Nivedita and Pritti and their relationship to each other, they were just friends. Publishers said quite openly: “We already have an Indian author. Thank you, we don’t need another one.” Who they meant then was Arundathi Roy. Similarly with Toni Morrison. These are translations and we need both. We need books that also deal with the way the world is ordered here in Germany, that is, with the events here. We need translations. What is it like elsewhere? There is something universal about literature that we can all connect to. But really, this aspect of translation is something that’s in there throughout. 

Alta, I read your epilogue, which I found incredibly fascinating. You describe the work on the novel. What I found particularly interesting was that you didn’t always use the original English texts that Mithu translated into German for the novel, but translated them differently or chose other words that fit more into the context of the book. Why did you do that? And can you give us an example?

AP: Exactly, for example the book Black Skin, White Masks. I knew that Frantz Fanon had written in French and I thought that would be ideal for the English-speaking readers of Identitti. The German original has so many languages in it, and I didn’t want to write everything in English. I knew from Black Skin, White Masks that it was called Peau Noire, Masques Blancs in French. It was very simple. I thought: “Of course I have to use French”. With Enid Blyton and the other books mentioned by Nivedita, it was something else. In the beginning I thought, I know Nivedita reads these books in German. Maybe I should mention the translators in my translation, but it was too didactic and academic. It was not good enough. I did all this research and ended up not using it. That often happens in translations. Peau Noire, Masques Blancs has two translations. It was published in French in 1952 and the first English translation was by Charles Markman in 1967, but I personally read the translation by Richard F. K. which was published in 2008. 

Another example. Here is a quote from the German version: “wie Gussy, der verweichlichte südländische Prinz, der in Der Zirkus der Abenteuer von den mutigen Enid Blyton Kindern gerettet werden musste”. He’s not called Gussy in the English version, so I translated it as “like Gustavus, the sissy prince from some ostensibly eastern land, whom the plucky British kids had to save in The Circus of Adventure.

MS: Yes, and that’s totally interesting. I wrote an essay on Enid Blyton and the politics of how names have been translated is crazy. Why don’t they leave the names? Things that are clearly located somewhere else. In German, towns have been renamed to sound like German towns. And nothing about it fits, nothing works, because everything feels completely wrong. The worst thing is, they’ve adjusted the decimal system. It’s terrible. Nobody has a problem with the fact that they had the duodecimal system for money for a very long time. Translating becomes a kind of colonising. We make it our own. That’s part of the new struggles with translation. How can we avoid exactly that? How can we, by translating, open a window. Translating is always transforming. In Shakespeare it is “he was translated”, which means he has been transformed into an ass. So someone has really been given a new form.

Alta, do you often write epilogues for your translations? When and why are epilogues important?

AP: Not always. Sometimes there is no time, but here in this case it was important to me. Postscripts are useful because they give me the opportunity to explain my point of view or my way of working. For the American publisher, it was clear to me that they didn’t want to be sued. They simply said: There is this name Jordan Peterson in it. What do we do? Should we take it out? And I said we can’t take it out, but: It’s all fantasy. The European publisher let me have more fun in my epilogue, let me mimic the novel itself to explore what translation can do. It’s such a fun and thought-provoking book that it deserves a fun and thought-provoking postscript. I really wanted to show English-speaking readers: here’s roughly what Mithu does in German, but I’ve done it in English now and imitated it. I also write fake tweets and so on. I think it was important. Not only for the lawyer, but also on a philosophical level. It’s important that it’s an epilogue and not a prologue. Readers can just skip it if they don’t want to read it. I want people to read the book, maybe think about it a bit more, and then they can read the epilogue.

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