WAAT #40: WAAT Session: Mithu Sanyal & Alta L. Price on Author-Translator Collaboration


The WAAT Sessions is a new series of video conversations about literary translation. In WAAT Session 01, the German author Mithu Sanyal and the literary translator, Alta L. Price discuss their author-translator collaboration process for Alta’s English translation of Mithu’s novel, Identitti.

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It is my pleasure to introduce a new video conversation series: The WAAT Sessions. This first session is with Mithu Sanyal, a German author of Indian origin, whose novel, Identitti, has been translated by the German and Italian translator, Alta L. Price. The novel is delightfully experimental and polyphonic with articles, blog entries, a quiz, tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts, and more. It has a fair bit of intertextuality, wordplay, and humor too. All of which create interesting translation challenges. Mithu and Alta discuss how they negotiated those challenges collaboratively. They also read excerpts in German and English. And they share their favorite books in translation. Watch or listen to the video below. There’s also a brief transcript excerpt.

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Mithu Sanyal & Alta L. Price on Author-Translator Collaboration

(Note: I’m still getting these video templates systematized so I’m hoping to be able to add full transcripts and closed-captioning down the road as well. Please bear with me. Also, these conversations will be monthly as they take time to prepare, edit, and publish.)

About the WAAT Session Guests

Mithu Sanyal is a cultural scientist, journalist, critic, and author of two academic books: Vulva and Rape, both of which have been translated into multiple languages. Identitti is her first novel and has been translated into multiple languages.

Alta L. Price runs a publishing consultancy specializing in literature and nonfiction texts on art, architecture, design, and culture. A recipient of the Gutekunst Prize, she translates from Italian and German into English.

New to my work? Check out my books and publications.

Identitti is a satire about identity politics. Nivedita, a well-known blogger and doctoral student, is in awe of her supervisor—superstar postcolonial and race studies South-Asian professor Saraswati. But her life and sense of self are turned upside down when it emerges that Saraswati is actually white. Nivedita’s praise of her professor during a radio interview just hours before the news breaks–and before she learns the truth—calls into question her own reputation as a young activist. Following the uproar, Nivedita is forced to reflect on the key moments in her life, when she doubted her identity and her place in the world. As debates on the scandal rage on social media, blogs, and among her closest friends, Nivedita’s assumptions are called into question as she reconsiders the lessons she learned from her adored professor.

In her thought-provoking, genre-bending debut, Mithu Sanyal solicited the contributions and commentary of public intellectuals as if Saraswati were a real person. A darkly comedic tour de force, Identitti showcases the outsized power of social media in the current debates about identity politics and the power of claiming your own voice.

Some Quotes from Identitti by Mithu Sanyal (tr. Alta L. Price)

“The concept of race— which the German language rather misleadingly adopted as Rasse— is a fiction that continues to have a huge, concrete influence on our everyday lives: how we perceive others; how we are perceived; and, last but not least, how we perceive ourselves.”

“Being white is no longer the end all be all. Something is moving and I want to acknowledge that, while at the same time not losing sight of the vastly different opportunities and the lasting legacy of racism. I have been told that some English-language readers might want me to weigh in on who is right and who is wrong at the end of my novel. Or at least to say whether Saraswati was right or wrong in doing what she did. But I won’t. It’s the system that’s wrong.”

Some Quotes from the Translator’s Afterword by Alta L. Price

“I’ll give another example of how, in translation, every word is a decision. You might know Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s song “Mack the Knife” as a “ballad.” However, while the German term Moritat can be “ballad,” it’s no mere Ballade or bland Volkslied—it’s a murder ballad. Duden’s etymological explanation is that Moritat was coined from repeated distortions of Mordtat, an “act of murder” (and now you can see the connection with the TV show Tatort, too). Anyway, I initially had “As the balladeer in ‘Mack the Knife’ once sang,” but then followed a flash of inspiration and alliteration to end up with “As the minstrel in ‘Mack the Knife’ once sang,” nodding to the horrific tradition of minstrel shows and minstrelsy in the United States. Additionally, Brecht added the stanza Saraswati quotes in 1931, for the film version, so if he could rewrite things, why can’t we? I then proceeded to lose sleep over it: Would that make Saraswati sound too outrageous? Would it overwrite the original with medieval or other inappropriate connotations? Was it too much of a displacement? Ultimately, as Tyehimba Jess suggested in Olio, I opted to let you, dear reader, “Weave your own chosen way between these voices.” And in this particular case, “these voices” include interpretations by Lotte Lenya, Frank Sinatra, Marc Blitzstein, Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Turk Murphy, Domenico Modugno (in Italiano), Ella Fitzgerald, Ute Lemper, Nina Hagen, Nick Cave, Sting (auf Deutsch, no less), Theo Bleckmann, and so many more—at least that’s some of the baggage we can safely presume you bring to this tiny detail of the book.”

“I’ve observed a tendency—in the Anglophone world, at least—to lament what is purportedly lost in translation without acknowledging what is undeniably gained. There are many new voices in German that have yet to be heard, and my sense of urgency grew each time I saw people’s reactions when I told them I was translating a German satire about identity politics—the words German and identity produce so many presumptions, everywhere. And then I recalled how, two decades ago, many North Americans reacted to my study of German by asking why I wanted to learn the “ugly language of the Nazis,” instead of a “beautiful language, like French”—as if French speakers had never committed any atrocities, or as if English speakers are somehow exempt from humankind’s unkind, highly fraught history . . . to not even touch upon what it means to read this book from within a culture where, every week, thousands of people experience some form of gun-related violence, and invariably underreported hate crimes are hard to quantify. So here we are. A little like the Wizard of Oz now peeking out—pay no attention to that person behind the curtain!—I remain fallible even as I strive to do this rich novel justice. It’s a story about so many forms of misunderstanding and injustice, but also love—so I tried to make it understandable, and maybe also misunderstandable, and hopefully also lovable. As Saraswati might say to Nivedita and her other seminar students, class: discuss. I can’t wait to hear what you think.”

Watch or Listen to the Session with Mithu Sanyal and Alta L. Price

Edited Conversation Excerpt (Mithu Sanyal and Alta L. Price)

Mithu Sanyal: In the beginning, I really thought: I want the internet in there. So the internet is such a multi-headed monster. And I can’t write the internet. I mean, I can write loads of things. I can write different characters. But I can’t write the internet. And so I wanted to have kind of this polyphony in the novel. Brilliant idea. I ask people and they just write it for me. I don’t have to do it. Problem solved. Easy. And obviously, the opposite was the case.

So everybody I asked said, Okay, I’ve got to tweet about something that hasn’t happened, how do I do that?

Uh, no, not on the real internet. In the internet in the novel.

How do I log into the internet in the novel?

And it’s like . . . because it wasn’t there. Now it’s there, it’s obvious. But it wasn’t there. And I was told nobody had done it before. Which is possible because Twitter isn’t that old. So I don’t believe it’s that original an idea. But at that time, nobody knew what I meant. So every tweet—so there are two-liners usually—took me hours of explanation, long emails, or long phone calls. And it was absolutely worth it because I’ve got all these different viewpoints and they’re all commenting on what’s happening. But they’re all doing it in different languages and different registers. And they’re recognizable, especially in Germany.

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Alta L. Price: I do have a binder, you know. I printed [the novel.] I have all kinds of markup. And it was that going through and, you know, you read it. And then you read with a mind that, oh, I have to translate this now. And some of the characters, as of the very first reading, I’m hearing their voices in my head. So okay, I’m seeing what this person is saying. And this is how they would say it in English. Others, you know, I would have three, four, or five options. And the best solution would not become clear to me until I had sort of let the rest of it wash over me.


Because there was a brief period of my career, before I went full-time into translation, that I was copy-editing. So I do—it’s not a conscious thing anymore—I keep a style sheet for myself. I don’t think of it really as rules, but sort of, okay, I know this person has said this before. But I do also want to say this: Mithu’s writing is crystal clear to my mind, right? So even where I would have a doubt about how to treat something, it was really a matter of going back to the original. And the answer was there. You know, when she’s got the third tweet that says, “Islam has no place in Germany” and it’s coming from a different person. I just know—we all know—that’s the internet troll. That’s the denigrating [talk.] And so those things were very, very clear.

Looking for book recommendations? Check out my ongoing book lists.

Mithu Sanyal’s and Alta L. Price’s Favorite Books in Translation

Mithu Sanyal:
1) Winnie the Pooh, by A. A. Milne, translated from English into German by Harry Rowohlt
2) Draupadi, by Mahasweta Devi, translated from Bangla into English by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Alta L. Price:
1) The Complete Brothers Grimm, translated from German into English by Jack Zipes
2) Amanat: Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan, translated from Kazakh and Russian into English by multiple translators; edited by Zaure Batayeva and Shelley Fairweather-Vega

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Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. Currently, she is a Ph.D. student of literature at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has taught creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Sign up for her free newsletters, We Are All Translators and/or Historical Fiction Craft Notes. Jenny lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas.

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