Translator’s Postscript: Mima Simić on Ivana Sajko’s Love Novel
29 November 2022
Translator Mima Simić
Book cover and author Ivana Sajko
There’s a game I sometimes play in Berlin with my friends, expats from the country formerly known as Yugoslavia; we call it the Poverty Pentathlon. We rummage through our childhoods to come up with the most ridiculous – yet always true! – episodes of growing up in destitution. One of us lived without any heating in the house, warming herself at night with a stove-heated roofing tile. “Yeah, but you had a house to take the tile off!” someone says, and she loses points. Another one had to move every couple of years, from one terrible landlord or lady to the next, intruding into their homes at will, much like swarms of bugs and insects out of the unfinished walls. Here one of us once got bitten by a scorpion, and her mother, a doctor, had to give her a tetanus shot right there, on that bed, a thin two-piece sponge that the whole family of four slept in. The marriage fell apart, there was a lot of shouting and screaming, once there was blood on the mother’s nightgown, right down the middle, in line with her nose. There was no other room to put the kids in, so they watched in silence, swallowing the whimpers of their world ending.
The world of Ivana Sajko’s Love Novel is my world, the world where we are all winners in this wretched competition, clutching our medals as our most precious possession, while they cut into our palms, extending our life lines. Sometimes these lines make for whole books.
Ivana’s world being mine made the work of translation both easier and harder. It is not a long book, but it took me over a year to translate it – I broke many deadlines, too many promises, and finally came through only thanks to the support, eternal patience and grace of our editor Katy (you deserve a shout-out, and a crate of best beer!). But you see, every time I opened the book, it was like a punch in the gut. A punch by someone I knew, a family member.
I would translate a sentence (and Ivana’s sentences, as you have witnessed, are living organisms – each twisting across the page, demanding you harness it, and have it lead you) – and then I would need a break. Sometimes those breaks between sentences lasted for weeks. Going back to the text was like climbing back into the ring with the most intimidating of fighters. (Think Karate Kid meeting Ivan Drago of Rocky IV, if that means anything to you.)
To be sure, a translator needn’t have experienced or lived through any of the events; the political, social/class, or cultural context presented in the book in order to do a good job – in fact, I’m sure that often having all those under your belt can be an obstacle, feeling the text so close to home, wrecked and ruined, so close that you truly believe that no word in a foreign language can absorb the vast world that it is supposed to carry, and birth anew. And this world, you may fear, is just too much, just as it is to live it – it’s too much to take for a language that has no word for tamburica, the instrument embodying the tradition and the deepest darkness of our own version of patriarchal conservatism: How do you translate this sound? Into your language, that does not know pelinkovac, a cheap drink that goes a long way if you want to blackout, yet stay on the “arty” side of the night. (Something like absinth, but not quite). This not-quiteness is something you have to contend with, as a translator, and make peace with, eventually. Befriend, even. Trust that the reader, across the linguistic ocean, doesn’t need to have been slapped to feel the sting of the palm across their face, doesn’t need to have scars to prove that they, too, bleed. After all, their own language, ultimately, is also but a poor stand-in for what, outside of all languages, we all get to experience in the lifelong Olympics of Feelings.
Funny, when I first read Love Novel, just as it was published in Croatian – I read it in a single breath, its avalanche of images and emotions carrying me to the final full stop so smoothly that I barely noticed any words. Funny, I say, because once I started actually looking at the words, as a translator, the whole new world opened up; the incredible network of signals, circular references, obsessive thoughts buried in text to be excavated; the incredible force of the rhythm, carefully curated verbs and nouns, and – my favourite of all Ivana’s writerly manoeuvres – her fervent yet seamless switching of tenses, perfectly reflecting patterns of anxious and distressed thought, throwing us back and forth in time, obsessively. It was only when I was given the charge of mediating this book into another language that I was struck by its intricacies, its complexity, and reminded that the art of great writing is to make all the effort invisible. Ivana Sajko has done just that, and I believe – after many rounds in the ring with Love Novel – that this translation has done it justice and we have all come out as winners, clutching at our paper medals, right here on this podium of words.
Translator’s Postscript: Mithu and Myths and You and Me
A blog by Pay-no-attention-to-that-person-behind-the-curtain!
After finishing this novel, I drank a cup of tulsi sweet rose tea – a herbal infusion, actually, since it didn’t include real tea leaves (Camellia sinensis). The front of the box told me it’s ‘Stress Relieving & Magical*,’ the left side said, ‘the fragrant essence of Rose Petals evokes the mysteries of India*,’ and the right side, under ‘other ingredients,’ listed ‘Organic Egyptian Rose Flavor.’ The asterisks indicate statements that ‘have not been evaluated by the FDA.’ The back of the box gave a caption for the image: ‘Pictured on the front is one of our beloved farmers or a family member.’ It’s from a company called Organic India. I want to ask Kali or Identitti/Nivedita or maybe even Mithu what Egyptian roses have to do with Indian mysteries, but then I see the main ingredients include tulsi a.k.a. holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) in both ‘Krishna & Rama varieties’, (you remember Rama, right?) so I decide to let it slide. Clearly neither the FDA nor the AfD have evaluated a single word of this book, either. Also, the person pictured on the front of the ‘tea’ box happens to look exactly like Saraswati … maybe?.
Then again, maybe not – we never did discover exactly what Saraswati looked like, did we? I hope that, by now, you’ve gone down all the rabbit holes with me. This entire book is mostly a transcript of the author’s novel, ‘just’ translated into English for your reading pleasure and/or displeasure. If you’ve read this far, you already know why I’m always talking to myself, the author, the editor, a few lawyers, and multiple goddesses in various languages, all while remaining totally invisible(ish). My name is Alta L. Price. You can call me IDENTITTY.
Meanwhile, out in the twitterverse:
Average Joan @Anglosphear @Identitti thinks she can hide behind a new handle but now we all know who @Identitty is. #translationISappropriation #namethetranslator
Don Meinmi@TraduttoreTraditore replying to @Anglosphear How do you know that’s not just a typo? Or autocorrect? #machinetranslation #humantranslationIsNotAThing
Average Joan @Anglosphear replying to @Tradut- toreTraditore ‘cause it’s too clever by half. Transla- tors might be traitors, but they’re also detail-oriented reader-writers who dig into every discrepancy, lean into every doubt, and riff on every double-entendre. Also: this whole thing started with tits. #IdenTITTY #comefullcircle
Don Meindmi @TraduttoreTraditore replying to @ Anglosphear OK, presuming you’re right, now we just really need to find out who @Identitty actually is… #takeresponsibility
See Literary Critique @CLitCrit You’re all blind, guys. Or should I make that ADA-compliant? You’re all visually impaired, peeps. @Identitti is not the same as @Identitty: the former is a fictional blogger; the latter translated this fiction. #canturead
Uncle Simon Says @USAy Another f’ing translation? What’s that even mean, anyway?
Possible World @BetterWorld replying to @USAyGo learn German and all the other languages, why don’t you? Then you, too, can have echt experiences. #womenintranslation #necessaryevil
Full disclosure: Except for this postscript, Mithu Sanyal wrote every word of the novel you just read…
Mithu Sanyal wrote every word of the novel you just read, occasionally adapting quotes, tweets, speeches, and other statements originally made by various people in German and English and applying them to her fictional account. The only catch is that she wrote the book in German, and then I did my damnedest to bring all her German into English, which is obviously an impossibility. But it wasn’t even that simple, because her text was remarkably polyphonic, featuring German, English (i.e., British and Indian and North American Englishes), French-via- English-translation, and sprinklings of other languages, not to mention a whole lot of slang and other super-loaded language. Readers of the German edition could witness Priti’s evolving elocution as her English was supplanted by German – an amusing mix that couldn’t be translated ‘exactly’, as that would’ve had the exact opposite effect of the original. So, I struck as careful a balance as I could – lest the character who spoke the least German now appear to speak the most – and if the balance wasn’t successful, that’s on me. The evocative pun on Priti and Prithee, on the other hand – like so much of the humour in this book – is entirely the author’s brilliance.
I opted to restore French West Indian philosopher Frantz Fanon’s book title to its original language as a way of maintaining the ‘foreign’ flavour of the German edition, which featured that and other titles in English. I made dozens of other decisions following that same logic: where colonisation has occurred and capitalism has had its way, one should respect the highly human mess that results (e.g., notions like ‘French West Indian’). You’ll see names like Birmingham and Bombay alongside both Calcutta and Kolkata – Mithu and I went with Bombay not only because the name Mumbai has been so heavily politicised by Hindu nationalists, but also to preserve the alliteration.
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 Saras- wati 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.
My main way of channelling the text involved going overboard and being reined back in, so I’m indebted to the author and editors for the open dialogue and their careful attention to detail and register, especially with the intriguingly inventive social media handles. Made-up social media handles that appear to refer to real people, inserting their statements into this fictional account, are marked by asterisks.
À propos of appropriation and adaptation, both the author and I took great liberties. Allow me to expand on just one such instance: in the German edition of this book, Jordan Peterson’s persona is inserted into an entirely made-up setting. The author watched videos of various public appearances he made over the years, extracted phrases here and there, and then combined them to compose fictionalised responses to the invented scenario of this novel – all in German, of course. Her German translation of these phrases had a certain flow that would have been lost had I transcribed, verbatim, the passages from his public lectures given in English. Therefore, I chose instead to be faithful to the way the author wove his actual spoken words into her fictional story. Similarly, the passage featuring Trump and Modi are based on (in)famous statements made by both of them. But if you still want to track down what everyone said, the sources are all laid out in the bibliography.
Now, let’s talk about sex: specifically, The Joy of Sex, a book by British physician author Alex Comfort first published in English in 1972. The scene where Priti reads from it was based on the German text, but English has an entire spectrum of terms beginning with n, from negro to the n-word, whereas German does not distinguish between them. This is important because writers like James Baldwin, also quoted herein, used both terms with extreme precision in English. I found it plausible that the 1972 edition used the former, but I had to eliminate all doubt as to whether it had used the latter. The argument could be made that it didn’t matter, since the characters were focused on the incendiary language in German, but I still needed to know. The matter was complicated by the fact that no fewer than five revised editions have since been published. The latest is ‘revised and updated for the 21st century’, which means (you guessed it) Oriental has become Eastern and all the titbits Priti and Nivedita marvel at have been excised – well, not all of them. The 1986 edition, heavily revised during the AIDS epidemic, still had what would’ve been the n-word in German, but the English edition had used a French term (I’ll let you do your own digging there, if you so desire). So, was it deemed not incendiary solely because it was in French? And would that have been because the editors didn’t know what it meant, or did know, but thought it was neutral? We’re left with a conundrum, but editorialising or speculating about things I can- not know is not my job; I partially unpack these quandaries here so you can appreciate the complexity of this novel, in whatever language you might read it.
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 under reported 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.
Playfulness and Liberty in Translation: An Interview with Alta L. Price
Gemma Craig-Sharples talks with Alta L. Price about her recent translation ofIdentitti(by Mithu Sanyal), joy in writing, and walking the fine line.
Gemma: How did you come to Identitti?
Alta: I had read part of it in German and heard buzz about in Germany, and then Jeffrey Zuckerman, a fellow translator who works from French, put me in touch with Astra House. It was a happy coincidence that they were considering it and ultimately secured the rights.
Gemma: Could you say some more about your translator’s postscript?
Alta: This is such a fun, challenging, out-there book that it deserves a fun, challenging, out-there postscript. There were certain things I had to say about my translation, because I knew another translator might have approached it differently. I thought I’d like to add something and it felt natural to me that I would echo the style of how the novel starts off, especially because I’d now finished it and wanted to talk about the novel in the same way that the novel starts. I think part of me wanted to inspire readers to start rereading it all over again. The V&Q edition is extra special because it has that playful blog bit, which wasn’t published in the American edition.
Gemma: What’s your understanding of translation?
Alta: My understanding of translation changes by the day. I hope I’m not a translator that has a certain style, because I feel like each book tells you what it needs and what it wants. And this book is absolutely unlike anything I’ve ever worked on. I do have a parallel for how I see translation, and that’s because of my background in the visual arts. I studied printmaking and in hindsight (though this wasn’t in the forefront of my mind as I was studying it) I was trained really early on in my life to know that a lithograph can do something that a woodcut or a burin engraving can’t do. They’re all prints, and you can have the same image conveyed in these different techniques and you can call them the same image, but they’re also radically different thanks to the constraints of the medium. And I do think translation’s like that. German does things English cannot; English does many things German cannot.
Gemma: What’s your working process like?
Alta: Certain decisions I made while working on this book spent a while percolating in my brain. I’d have a few ideas and then over time the right one would sort of bubble to the surface. This kind of thing happened with a lot of the Twitter handles and also when I was working out a creative way to remind the English-language reader that all of this is happening in Germany. I didn’t want to bludgeon the reader with the knowledge the story takes place in a different language, but there was a wonderful variety in the original German where some of the texts were referenced in English and some of them were referenced in German. So at first I thought I could talk about these texts and insert the German title and the German translator for all of this English-language literature, but it kind of bogged it down: it interrupted the flow of the story. That was something where at first I was really proud of myself, and then it just didn’t work – it wasn’t appropriate. But I put Frantz Fanon’s title back into French in my version, for instance, whereas it was in English in the German edition. It was interesting to weigh the options – where I needed to retain what it was in the original and where it’s more appropriate to change it, either back into German or into another language. For instance, weiße Überlegenheit appears once in the German original, but I used it more frequently; that term’s equivalent, white supremacy, appears in both the original and the translation.
Gemma: There’s also English in the German original and this differs subtly from the English you use in your version, such as when Priti’s talking about Saraswati’s ‘pound of flesh’. How did you approach this intra-English translation?
Alta: Part of it is that I speak North-American English. Priti is actually a fascinating character because she’s the one who speaks the least German at the beginning of the book. In the original book, you experience her German getting better and you’re able to see that transition, whereas obviously I can’t just mirror that in English. In my initial draft I tried, but it had the opposite effect: it seemed like she spoke more German than the other characters, which is inappropriate. With each of these characters, I try to become them, in the sense of “They’re saying this, how would I say this?”. Now, is that a different question from “How would I say this if I were them?” It’s a fine line and I don’t have an answer to my own question; I’m just thinking as if I’m in the story, and I’m at the service partially of the author but really of the source text and the end reader in English, so I try and strike a balance. And sometimes little tweaks happen like that, oftentimes it’s not even conscious.
Gemma: This question of where a translator’s responsibilities lie is also interesting in light of the novel’s discussion of identity and the recent discussion around translations of Amanda Gorman’s work in Germany and the Netherlands. Is the whole discourse around translation and identity and the question of who has the right to translate what works something that you consider in your approach to translation?
Alta: Absolutely, and that’s simply because the culture in the US – and especially in the city of Chicago, where I’m based – is incredibly racialised, so there are daily reminders that there are certain expectations, different ways of speaking. I’m fascinated by language, and language is tied to where you’re from and when you’re from and is connected to all these things. But to bring this back to the Amanda Gorman debate and the issue of identity, I’m glad you asked about this. When I was first connecting with the US publisher, I’d been told they were looking for a young translator who works from German. I basically said, I don’t know if I’d be considered young, but I am nine years younger than the author, and I’d be happy to work on the book as long as it’s not going to be a problem for any of you to work with a translator who is WHITE – the all caps were to mimic the German edition’s flap copy. They never said anything about it but I thought I should address it. I can’t easily formulate my thoughts about the whole Amanda Gorman debate… translators have to become other people. We have to: that’s the job description. I think who we are plays a role. Should it be qualifying or disqualifying? That really depends on how we treat the text. Am I able to respect my source text? Am I able to walk that fine line?
Gemma: How involved was the author, Mithu Sanyal, in your translation process?
Alta: I worked more closely with Mithu than with some other authors, but I did the full first draft before sending any questions. I do think there were ambiguities in the original and so many examples of little things that might or might not matter – for instance the skyscraper that the German public radio has its headquarters in is 19 storeys in the original. In the US system of floors that would be 20 – and I get hung up on all these things – like is 19 somehow symbolic?
And then the copy editors queried a lot of things, saying they had to look stuff up, so would it be better to explain it, and I’d say I had to look it up, too. And then Mithu would say no, leave it because Nivedita doesn’t know what it is, either; the character doesn’t have this knowledge at this point in the story so we shouldn’t define it in the text now. It was helpful to have that insight into the characters’ perspectives from Mithu. And that’s another thing about respecting the original. It’s natural for a copy editor to query those things, but to insert explanations where there aren’t any in the original text can absolutely be a violation, so that requires real sensitivity.
Gemma: There’s a whole discourse around footnoting culture and explaining concepts which readers might not necessarily be familiar with. In your translation you build in these explanations or glosses really subtly with just a couple of words. Is this generally how you approach translating cultural elements?
Alta: Again, I think that’s different for every book. I knew that stuff like Tatort and Schimanski would be known entities to the German-language reader. English-language readers who are familiar with German culture are hopefully aware of Tatort, but I’m not going to assume they are – so I did try and gloss that. But my approach has evolved over the 16 years I’ve been translating. When I started out I might have used footnotes. But now I don’t want to interrupt the flow of the original, I don’t want to take the reader out of the narrative. I want the reader to be enveloped in the story, but I don’t want them missing the fact that some of these cultural signifiers are there. So I suppose it’s selective glossing. But I also think that because of the author’s playful approach to the original, I felt at liberty to try certain things.
Gemma: That sense of playfulness is such a strong element of Identitti and it’s set alongside this fine balance of fun and seriousness. What are your thoughts on fun and translation?
Alta: If I hadn’t had fun translating this book, I don’t think the reader would have fun reading it. That was one of the things which was most clear to me: that the author had taken such joy in the writing. And yet the novel is also – and I mean this literally – dead serious in parts. Mithu mentions the mass shooting in Hanau and includes a list of the victims, and that has a gravity to it; the book really shifted for me as a reader and as a translator at that point, because it was like “we’re having fun and games over here, and people are dying over there”. It was just a real awareness of how these things go together. This book needs the levity and the reader needs to be having fun, and then we do absolutely need to be shaken out of that. For me it’s such an honour to think this book is reaching people and that my intense labour behind the scenes is bringing this book to people who might not have been able to read it before. I hope they’ll have responses and reactions.
Gemma: You also write in your Translator’s Postscript about the discourse with readers that the text invites and opens up. Do you see that interaction and conversation as an important part of translation?
Alta: As a translator I’m trying to find commonalities and relate to the characters – that’s kind of my job. Hopefully by applying my trade of translating this literature it helps actual people in the actual world better relate to each other and say to each other “I identify with your experience,” instead of saying “you had it better than I did” or “I wish I had what you had,” because those are all dividing experiences. Because if we want to be divided, we can be, and if we want to highlight our differences we can, but I feel it would be so much better if we seek out those commonalities and points of relation between us.
Gemma: What was it like translating a novel so rooted in contemporary Germany?
Alta: We – and here I mean the author, I as translator, and the editor and publisher – felt that the immediacy and freshness of the story required bringing it to readers as soon as possible, so although we’d talked about getting prominent figures from the Anglophone world to contribute Tweets for the English-language version, all that requires time and we decided against it in the end. I was also aware that some of the Twitter handles had changed, and that a lot of the slang would change. I was worried for a little while, thinking I can go this way or that way with the translation but either way it’s not going to hold up in five years, but then again language will have shifted in German, too. So it was something I was aware of, but that’s how language is, and it’s not for me to change it; it’s a snapshot. If it’s translated into English again in 50 years, it will be completely different.
Gemma: Why should people read Identitti?
Alta: It’s not about reading literature in translation in a sort of eat-your-vegetables way or because reading translated literature is like travelling and will bring you greater empathy. I’d make a different case for why people should read Identitti by Mithu Sanyal translated by Alta Price. You should read this book because it’s a wild ride and it’s fun and it challenges your notions and it doesn’t tie a neat bow on any lessons you’re supposed to learn: it just asks a bunch of questions and you, as the reader, get to live with those and hopefully bring those into your daily life.