Alta L. Price’s most recent project was translating Mithu Sanyal’s Identitti from German into English. Shortlisted for the German Book Prize in 2021 and winner of the Ruhr Literature Prize, Identitti is a playful and polyphonic satire of today’s debate over identity politics. It follows Nivedita, a mixed-race graduate student in Dusseldorf, as she discovers that her beloved postcolonial studies professor, “Saraswati,” is not South Asian but white. Sanyal and Price take readers on a wild ride in which every assumption about race, interpersonal relationships, and academic language is brought under scrutiny. In this conversation with Jaeyeon Yoo, Price describes the process of translating such a linguistically inventive and culturally charged novel.
Jaeyeon Yoo (JY): I loved your translator’s postscript in Identitti. You write, “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.” I’m curious if you have more to say on this idea of intentional misunderstanding in translation.
Alta L. Price (AP): I view the misunderstandable element as part of my job. I read the novel, and I was laughing out loud at certain parts. One framework through which to look at this novel would be a comedy of errors, right? I know it is not all a comedy, but there are elements that the author has treated very funnily. Misunderstanding is in the very nature of how these characters interact, because the author pulls the rug out from under the feet of one of her protagonists. Nivedita thought she knew who Saraswati was, and it turns out she didn’t. Working on this book, I would draft certain passages very quickly; I would say, “OK, I’m pretty sure I got this right. I think I know what this person is doing.” And then I’d sleep on it. I’d go back the next day and see, “Oh, it’s more ambiguous than that.” So I think one of my main tasks as translator was flagging anything I was absolutely certain about and questioning that certainty. What I saw with this novel was that it is incredibly complex not only on a plot development level, but also in terms of the author’s linguistic inventiveness. Given the ambiguity of the language in Identitti, the nutshell here is this: if something is ambiguous in the original novel, I have to—to the best of my ability—maintain that ambiguity in translation.
JY: Right—I think we tend to assume that the best translation is the most understandable, but I found your postscript to delightfully complicate that assumption. You also wrote that there was a lot of English in the German original; I wondered if you had more to say about English loanwords, and translating that type of material into English.
AP: So, it’s not just the presence of English loanwords, but also how much of the original German novel is about who speaks in English and how that is a marker [of identity]. Nivedita grew up in Germany; her cousin Priti grew up in England. They meet because Priti comes to Germany to study the language for several summers in their youth. In the original, you see her command of German develop: she speaks a lot of English at first, and then, as the novel progresses, she’s speaking more and more German. Nivedita comments, “Wow, you know, Priti’s German was really getting good.” Basically, Priti is marked as the most “English” or British—the most not German character starting out. This couldn’t be replicated exactly in English, so I had to look for other little ways to solve it (like Priti mixing German into her speech in the English translation). That was one of the tricky things, and I never know how successfully I’ve solved a challenge. Beyond the character of Priti, I wanted to find ways to make it clear that Identitti originates in another language and then was brought into English. Some novels are inherently built that way because they’re constantly mentioning places or names. There are markers such that the reader never forgets that it’s happening where it’s happening. I didn’t want the North American reader to forget that the story they’re reading is taking place in Dusseldorf, Germany. But I also didn’t want to weigh the translation down with these unnecessary reminders. It was a fine line to walk.
The author never really questioned my translation, but we did debate certain elements, especially parts that she wanted to have a more British style. I just can’t. I always tell publishers and editors that I translate into North American English, because that’s what I speak. I can’t pretend to do British English; it would be like putting on some horrible fake accent. So, I’m always very up-front about that. The two Englishes really are different—if you want to go into down to the granular level, they are, in some sense, different languages.
JY: Speaking about English, I’d love to hear your thoughts—as a translator—on the global dominance of English (which Identitti also gestures to).
AP: I have so many feelings about this! I don’t know if you’re familiar with David Bellos’s book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything. He makes the case that there is a world in which translation isn’t necessary, a parallel universe in which people learn other languages and learn to read them. Of course, I come at this very much through my own filter. I grew up in a monolingual family in a small town. When I was a kid, I knew there was a broader world out there, but my only access to it was through books. Real portals to other ways of being—it was absolutely through the printed word. I remember the first time I saw a book that was printed in two languages, one of which I could understand and the other I couldn’t. I had this early knowledge that “Oh, it’s amazing that my experience of this work of art is through this filter.”
Nowadays, it’s very easy to say that translated literature is inherently virtuous, because it’s supposed to do all these magical things, like make us more worldly and more empathetic toward other people. I honestly don’t know if it can do that. I don’t have a simple, clearly formulated answer about this—but what I can say is that, as a translator, I am always aware that I am bringing a story from another language to this globally dominant language. When I was an undergraduate, I remember a professor teaching the history of writing systems. She posed a question to the class: “What is the difference between a language and a dialect?” I raised my hand, all excited, and gave the textbook definition. She said, “That’s fine, but that’s not really the truth. The truth is that a language is a dialect with an army.” It blew my mind. In retrospect, I think that one comment from that one professor really shaped how I view language. Every language and culture, there’s this hierarchy, right? As a translator, I have this awareness now. What do I do with it? I don’t know. But I think it’s very important for me to have.
JY: Were there any other particular challenges in translating Identitti into English?
AP: I’ll give you a specific point here. One of the elements I knew we would lose in translation—although it’s very important to also talk about what’s gained in translation—was the Gendersternchen [literally translating to “gender star”]. The Gendersternchen is basically contemporary German grappling with gender-neutral language, which, of course, we’re doing in English right now. It’s such a flash point. People get really upset either about gendered language or about gender-neutral language. Or does gender-neutral language—can it—even exist?
In German, there’s linguistic gender: der, die, and das—masculine, feminine, and neuter or neutral. Now, that is different from the gender that we conceptually apply to people. To give you an example, German has “sculptor” and “sculptress.” The gender of the person practicing a trade is built into their title, and the gender of the speaker or the listener is built into how you formulate the language. In several passages, Sanyal deploys the Gendersternchen. [The way the Gendersternchen works is that], in striving to be gender neutral, one inserts an asterisk between the root of the word and the gendered suffix. The Sternchen is the asterisk (though some use a colon). Basically, the idea is to use a graphic, non-letter character to separate the root and the gendered ending, so that the word can be more inclusive. When I first read Identitti, I thought, “Is the author using this in earnest or is this meant to be funny?” Because it wasn’t used everywhere; it’s not that this entire novel happened in gender-neutral language. It was a specific person speaking or a public service announcement or the web or an interaction on social media, where most of this is happening. I tried to recruit that humor, that element of “Oh, in this spot, we have very gendered language happening. And in this other spot, it’s gender neutral.” I tried to mirror that, but I couldn’t do it as obviously as it was done in the original.
JY: On the flip side, do you have thoughts on what’s gained through translation?
AP: I don’t think the English version of Identitti, by any means, could be called a flawless translation. But this was the translation that I did in this moment. Call me five years from now and I’d probably make different decisions. But if you’re reading in English and you’re not fluent in German or can’t read it, you need a translation. So that’s one thing that’s gained.
What I hope is gained—and I’m speaking as a reader now—is really questioning, as I did when I read the German novel: what is our notion of identity? People would ask me what I was working on, and when I said, “A satirical German novel about identity politics,” I could see [a range of assumptions] on my listeners’ faces. Some people asked more questions, and others didn’t. How much fear was there? The fear of “Oh my god, what is this contemporary German novel about identity politics going to make fun of?” I really think this novel makes fun of all of it, all sides. The thing is, we’re all questioning these societal frameworks right now—like race and gender. There’s clearly so much discomfort around these topics, along with this notion that “I grew up speaking this way, of viewing the world this way. There’s a certain contingent of the population that wants to take away how I speak and how I view the world.” I think the main takeaway of this novel is that we all just need to be more patient with each other. One of the great things about Identitti is that Nivedita absolutely had certainties, but then she loses them. Her beloved professor is not who she thought she was. The trajectory of the novel is not that it all falls apart and then gets put back together again. Rather, it does all fall apart and then it keeps growing, and the people are still going.
JY: You end your postscript by gesturing toward discussion as a way of moving forward and perhaps having more patience with one another. What do discussion and collaboration mean to you and the process of translation?
AP: Oh, it’s huge. There are entire translation residencies built around the idea of exchange. I attended one translation workshop once that was so lovely; the premise was that five of the participants worked from German into English and five worked from English into German, and everyone brought their own projects. I translated Identitti solo, but I absolutely benefited from the author’s input. And it is such a polyphonic novel! I’ve talked with translators who will only work in pairs or with a group; they’re not interested in solo translation work. There are also translation collectives that collaboratively work on translation. It’ll be really interesting to see how their projects turn out, and I hope they get out into print. I think the notion of translation—of what it is and what it can do and how it should be practiced—is, like so many elements of the contemporary world, evolving. And that’s very exciting to me.
Alta L. Price runs a publishing consultancy specialized in literature and nonfiction texts on art, architecture, design, and culture. A recipient of the Gutekunst Prize, Price translates from Italian and German into English.
© 2022 by Jaeyeon Yoo and Alta L. Price. All rights reserved.