Jhumpa Lahiri translating herself | Sunday Observer

Jhumpa Lahiri translating herself

2 January, 2022

‘Translating Myself and Others’

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Jhumpa Lahiri, a Bengali-origin American writer, is an extraordinary person. In 2012, she changed her medium of writing to Italian from English. She also moved to Rome leaving behind Boston, America. At the time, almost all her writer-friends criticized her decision to change the language of writing because she was then a well-established fiction writer in English and a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2000.

However, surprising all critics, in 2015, she published a book titled ‘In alter parole’ – an essay collection – in Italian translated into English as ‘In Other Words’ by Ann Goldstein. In 2021, she published her debut novel in Italian titled ‘Dove mi trovo’ which she translated into English as ‘Whereabouts’. Also, she edited the book, ‘The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories,’ the English translation of Italian short stories. She will soon publish a new book in English titled ‘Translating Myself and Others’, a collection of essays. There she discusses how she became a translator and a self-translator writing in Italian.

It is an astonishing feat by a writer to change her medium to a foreign language. There were two previous writers who notably changed their medium of writing to foreign languages. The first is Josef Conrad whose first language was Polish, and the second is Vladimir Nabakov whose mother tongue is Russian. But they adopted English as their writing medium while Lahiri moved from English to Italian.

‘Translating Myself and Others’

Lahiri’s new book is published by Princeton University Press. They announced that the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s ‘Translating Myself and Others’, will be published next spring. According to the press release, it’s an essay collection on the meaning of translation, translating her own writing, and a new translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Lahiri, who has lived in Rome on and off for almost a decade, shares her thoughts about the importance of translation in the new book as follows: “To be a writer-translator is to value both being and becoming.” She adds, “What one writes in any given language typically remains as is, but translation enables it to become otherwise. Thanks to translation—the act of one text becoming another—the conversation I have been seeking to have with literature for much of my life now feels more complete, more harmonious, and far richer with possibilities.”

The book will include several essays, previously published and unpublished, that reflect on Lahiri’s experiences with translation, self-translation, and writing across languages. One essay describes Lahiri’s teaching of the “Echo and Narcissus” myth to reflect on the meaning of translation. Another will describe her decision to translate her own fiction from Italian to English and one will ask “Why Italian?”, in which the author will reflect on what attracts her to writing in the language and the reactions she has received from native speakers. The book will also include a forward-looking essay on Lahiri’s ambition to translate Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

New rhythms

In the introduction of the book, Lahiri notes:

“Translation has transformed my relationship to writing. It shows me how to work with new words, how to experiment with new styles and forms, how to take greater risks, how to structure and layer my sentences in different ways. Reading already exposes me to all this, but translating goes under the skin and shocks the system, such that these new solutions emerge in unexpected and revelatory ways. Translation establishes new rhythms and approaches that cross-pollinate the process of contemplating and crafting my own work. The attention to language that translation demands is moving my writing not only in new directions, but into an increasingly linguistically-focused dimension.”

Jhumpa Lahiri is the director of Princeton University’s programme in creative writing, the reason that publishing rights of the book was acquired by the Princeton University Press. In an interview with Scaachi Koul for the BuzzFeed News Reporter, Lahiri speaks about her love affair with Italian, and what it means to be a writer and a translator: “I’ve always been a translator on some level, even when I wasn’t technically one, I always was.”

She also recounts people’s comment on her new language adoption: “I wrote in Italian and everyone said, ‘You’re throwing your writing career away!’ I never had one, in my head. I don’t think writing is a career. It’s a need. You would do it no matter what. You write because you have to write.”

‘Where I Find Myself: On Self-translation’

Among the earlier published articles in Lahiri’s new book, ‘Translating Myself and Others’, is ‘Where I Find Myself: On Self-translation’ first published on Words Without Borders, the Online Magazine for International Literature. In this article, she elaborates the beginning of her self-translation:

“The responsibility of translation is as grave and as precarious as that of a surgeon who is trained to transplant organs, or to redirect the blood flow to our hearts, and I wavered at length over the question of who would perform the surgery. I thought back to other authors who had migrated into different languages. Had they translated their own work? And if so, where did translation taper off, and the act of rewriting take over? I was wary of betraying myself.

Beckett had notably altered his French when translating himself into English. Brodsky, too, took great liberties when translating his Russian poetry into English. Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, an Argentine whose major works were composed in Italian, had been more “faithful” when rendering his texts into Spanish. Another Argentine, Borges, who had grown up bilingual in Spanish and English, translated numerous works into Spanish, but left the English translation of his own work to others. Leonora Carrington, whose first language was English, had also left the messy business of translating many of her French and Spanish stories to someone else, as had the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi in the case of Requiem, the great novel he wrote in Portuguese.”

Fascinating insights

She also explains self-translation: “When translating oneself, each and every flaw or weakness in the former text becomes immediately and painfully apparent. Keeping to my medical metaphors, I would say that self-translation is like one of those radioactive dyes that enable doctors to look through our skin to locate damage in the cartilage, unfortunate blockages, and other states of imperfection.”

She says: “Some people insist that there is no such thing as self-translation, and that it necessarily becomes an act of rewriting or emphatically editing—read: improving—the first go-around. This temptation attracts some and repels others. I personally was not interested in altering my Italian book in order to arrive at a more supple, elegant, and mature version of it in English. My aim was to respect and reproduce the novel I had originally conceived, but not so blindly as to reproduce and perpetuate certain infelicities.”

Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book provides fascinating insights into the translation process, useful for other literary translators too. One can learn many things not just about the art of translation but about things that trickled down from the translation process, and how to preserve the originality of a book in translation. Thus, this is an important book for readers, especially for those in search of Lahiri’s books to grace their bookshelves.