Being Me Being You: Jhumpa Lahiri discusses her new collection of essays on translation
An interview with Carolina Iribarren
“[W]hen I am translating, I am aware that what I’m doing is in some sense challenging the order of things.”
Samuel Beckett decided to start writing in French, so the story goes, in order to escape the easy, constraint-free relationship he had to the English language. “It is indeed getting more and more difficult, even pointless, for me to write in formal English,” he wrote to his friend Axel Kaun in 1937. “More and more my language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it.” This eschewal of linguistic mastery, on the part of a modern writer, is less paradoxical—and unique—than it may at first seem. Numerous twentieth-century writers, from Pirandello to Rilke to Joyce to Calvino, not only flirted with the idea of constraint as a source of heightened creativity in their own works, but also tested its power by trying their hand at the peculiarly recursive and exacting practice that is translation.
Among these constraint-bent writers and rewriters—for what is a translator if not someone who transfers and transforms a text from one tradition to another by recreating it, by rewriting it, as Mary Ann Caws has put it—we can now count Jhumpa Lahiri. A novelist, a translator, and now a collected essayist, Lahiri began her career in English. Her first collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, was originally written in that language, for instance. But then something happened: in 2012, after many years of studying Italian, Lahiri decided to pack her bags and move her family, together with her creative practice, to Italy. Since, the writer has produced a novel (Dove mi trovo), a memoir (In altre parole), a book-length essay (Il vestito dei libri), and a book of poetry (Il quaderno di Nerina) in her adopted tongue. With her transition to the Italian language, Lahiri has also become increasingly vocal about her interest in what she calls, in In Other Words (the English title of In altre parole), “the paradoxical relationship between freedom and limits.” Indeed, Lahiri’s belief in linguistic “poverty” or “blindness” as a stimulus of inspiration and authenticity lies, by the author’s own account, at the heart of her resolution to distance herself, à la Beckett, from the language in which her identity and success as a writer first took shape and to abandon herself instead to another, fascinating but essentially foreign, language.
An affinity for constraint, for “leav[ing] the shore” of linguistic expertise and self-assuredness, is likewise behind the writer’s recent shift towards translation. Responsible for the translation of Domenico Starnone’s three latest novels (Ties, Trick, and Trust) as well as numerous short stories (some of them gathered in The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, edited by Lahiri in 2019), Lahiri has become a translation enthusiast, teaching multiple courses on its theory and practice as director of the creative writing program at Princeton University and publishing colorful first-hand accounts of its many pleasures and difficulties.
In her new collection of essays, Translating Myself and Others (Princeton, $21.95), Lahiri continues to reflect on what it means, practically and spiritually, to write with a “weaker hand”: that is, exophonically and in translation. Dealing with topics as far-flung as Ovid’s myth of Echo and Narcissus, the identarian pitfalls and editorial benefits of self-translation, ancient Greek’s optative mood, and Gramsci’s Letters from Prison, but always through the lens of translation, Translating Myself and Others feels at once ambitious and safe, playful and formulaic, variegated and quasi-myopic. In the end, translation—which Lahiri tellingly calls her “primary heuristic key” as well as her “nourishment”—is the true centerpiece of all the essays, of all their striking metaphors and novel references.
In May, I spoke with Lahiri over Zoom about her new essay collection, the political stakes of translation, the importance of constraint in her creative practice, and Ovid. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carolina Iribarren: To start with, could you talk about the process for making this new essay collection, Translating Myself and Others? What went into it and what was left behind?
Jhumpa Lahiri: I’ve been accumulating a lot of these pieces about either the practice of translation or some thoughts on translation—teaching translation, the authors I’ve translated, reading some authors in translation in general—and so it occurred to me at a certain point that it might be interesting to put some of these pieces together to create a more complex conversation.
I left some pieces out that I’d been writing over the past few years that, in the end, even though I am talking about writers mostly in Italian, I decided for whatever reason not to include because I am not thinking about them as a translator per se. There were pieces on Dante, on Manzoni, and Primo Levi, which maybe will be part of some other book some day, I don’t know. But I wanted each piece in this book to have something to say about translation in a very clear sense, not in a tangential sense.
CI: I think that really comes through, especially perhaps in the piece on Gramsci, who is known for his political ideas, and yet your reading of him focuses on this question of translation. Now, over the course of the book, you provide different definitions of translation. Three of these—all found in the sixth essay, “Where I Find Myself”—particularly struck me. The first reads, “translation is the most intense form of reading and rereading there is.” The second posits translation as “the process of dismantl[ing] and reassembl[ing]” an original, be it a book or a language. The third says, “to translate [is] to press up as closely as possible to the words of another, to cross the threshold of one’s consciousness.” Do you mind saying more about these interlocking definitions or faces of translation?
JL: To start with the last point, I think there is a form, a mode of intimacy that I feel when I am translating and also when I am translated. To understand that another person has gone into the way that my brain has selected those words, put them in a certain configuration and created the story, to think about someone else being so fully inside of that—it has an impact on me, both as a writer who is translated and as a translator myself. I think that’s one of the more beautiful things about translation, because it is a way out of a certain solitude, and the discourse of solitude in terms of writing, but also the solipsistic aspect, because I think translation necessarily breaks that idea of you with yourself and you with your thoughts and you with your words, even if the author is not living. There’s an intense connection, and it’s even more intense in a way if the author isn’t living because you are crossing so many boundaries: time, the life/death boundary, the silence of the author, and also, conversely, the verbal reality of the author beyond the grave that you are able to still read and bring to life. It churns up a lot of interesting thoughts about what reading means, what it means for us to read texts, what it means to be read, about authors whose works survive them.
CI: You also mention dismantling and reassembling—how, when translating, you have to take apart the words and the language of another and then kind of put them back together.
JL: Yes, I feel that very much. That has to happen in a way. Or it often has to happen, and when it happens it gets just really rigorous and fun, not simple like, “Oh, okay, I know how to do this.” It’s when you don’t know how to do it immediately, when it becomes a puzzle—I like that. And I think one has to get used to doing that so that translation can be unexpected and fresh, and surprise even you, even if you think, “Oh, I know how to translate this,” and to realize that there are perhaps so many other ways to reconfigure the sentence. I think that also indicates a very dynamic and in some sense—I wouldn’t say aggressive—but very active process that gets beyond the more conventional idea that the text, the language of the text, is somehow dominant and sacred; we have to wrestle with it as translators, and also respect it inherently, respect the meaning and the way the sentence is operating even if we cannot possibly replicate it to our satisfaction in the other language. I guess it opens up the idea of, how can we respect the text in imaginative ways? Are there other ways to respect the text and look beyond the immediate definitions or solutions?
CI: I feel that the act of reading also touches on the intimacy you were just talking about—and also the activity, right? I think that this is something that comes up again and again in your essays: that translation is reading, but it is a really active, as you were saying, vigorous form of doing that.
JL: It’s kind of addictive too. Regular reading now feels so easy, so passive, you know? I think translation is its own pleasure, in spite of how incredibly rigorous it is.
CI: In “Containers,” your introduction to Domenico Starnone’s novel Ties, which you translated in 2017, you talk about the “great sense of responsibility” you feel towards the preexisting text, the spawning author, the original language when translating. In “In Praise of Echo,” you give expression to the same feeling, yet there you also affirm the creative dimension of translation. “Far from a restrictive act of copying, a translator restores the meaning of a text by means of an elaborate, alchemical process that requires imagination, ingenuity, and freedom,” you write. How do you strike a balance between fidelity towards the original, on the one hand, and transformation, potential, metamorphosis, on the other? What does this balancing act look like in practice?
JL: It’s a wonderful question. I think the word “fidelity” continues to betray us, if you will. Because I do think that the best way to respect the original text, which I think is maybe a better word than this idea of fidelity, is to be aware—deeply, keenly aware—of the limits of the language you’re translating out of and the limits of the language you’re translating into. To realize that they are two different domains. Domenico, for example, he’s playing with a certain register, he’s playing with words themselves, he’s playing with texts, as he does in Trick. I have to do that too, but I might not be able to do it in a way that’s equivalent but as a parallel, or as a refraction, of what he’s doing. I think that’s what’s important because otherwise if you try to be true, oftentimes the translation goes flat and loses meaning, and that’s where the infidelity for me comes in.
But again this word “fidelity” is very, very problematic in terms of the translator’s practice. And I think it has gotten us into a lot of trouble, this idea of, “oh, it’s a faithful translation,” because people are so inherently wary of translations, suspicious of translations, and then we have this word “faithful” to say, “oh, no no, it’s very faithful, we can rest assured.” What is clear to anybody who’s been translated is that, even if the translator’s approach is, “oh, I am going to be ‘faithful,’” the translation can’t possibly be faithful to what you’ve done, because it has to privilege and lean into the other language, which is nothing like your language, it just isn’t. It’s a totally different creature.
I think translation is so important, and beautiful, because it insists on recognizing difference, from the translator’s point of view: it insists on appreciating the difference of the other language, the culture that you’re translating—and also creates difference, creates a different text, which reads and operates according to different rules and different means. That’s how I explain it to myself; I think, “well, I am being creative, and I am taking risks, and I am stepping away from the sum of the granularity of the text to recreate it, in my own way, in order to be respectful of what the author’s done.”
CI: Arguably, there’s a political dimension to this creation of difference, this crossing from one language to another, from one tradition to another. In the Introduction, you recount how, in the process of putting together The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, to which you contributed not only as editor but also as translator, you made an important discovery. “I was struck,” you write, “by how many Italian writers of the previous century devoted considerable time and energy to practicing and promoting the art of translation, not only for personal mentorship and influence, but for furthering the essential aesthetic and political mission of opening linguistic and cultural borders.” I am interested in this last part about the political import of translation and perhaps writing more generally. In “In Praise of Echo,” you touch upon the politics of translation by pointing out the way translation has been deemed “secondary,” “imitative,” and thus “creatively inferior” to creative writing as such, and how this hierarchy has historically made translation a highly gendered form of labor, with women doing, like Echo in the myth, the work of repeating. Yet, in “An Ode to the Mighty Optative,” you advise, explicitly and emphatically, against politically motivated art making. Could you say more about how the political and the creative come (or do not come) together in your translation—but also your creative writing—practice?
JL: I think that translation inherently has political meaning and value and importance, in that we are talking about difference and resistance, as with Gramsci. Also, in the Italian context, a writer like Pavese was often translating these writers who were sent, for their political differences or their opposition to the regime, into exile, in confino (or internal exile). And it’s often there, interestingly enough, that their activity as translators really gets going. It’s really interesting to think about this connection too, the state of being in political exile and what that creates and why that might trigger more translation-related activity. I touch on this a little in the Gramsci piece, but I don’t bring in any other authors. Pavese is certainly one of them: he translated Homer when he was in internal exile, for example.
I believe that this is true, and exciting, and personally very rousing, this idea of translation being an inherently political act, but not an exclusively political act. But it has a political strand, because of historically what happens in terms of dominance and dominant culture, dominant language, dominant thought patterns, etc. There have been so many examples across time of how language and power intersect and what happens when power shifts and language needs to shift along with it, and how subversion is equated with the less powerful languages and with the act of translation. And obviously because of my growing interest in Italian literature, especially of the twentieth century, that was something I really started to discover when I was putting that Penguin anthology together.
I find that, in a way, translation is my political act, my way of fighting against that sense of social and cultural closure, of being open to the other. Which forms part of my personal philosophy and my personal politics, if you will. Needless to say, it fits in very much with this idea of migration, of movement and moving across, of negotiating borders, of being on the outside, being in the margins, as opposed to the center of power.
But then, yes, in the “[An Ode to the Mighty] Optative” essay I do say very emphatically that my creative philosophy is that art can have political resonance—it often has political resonance—but I believe the creator and the act of creating exist outside of political discourse. At least this is true for me. I think it’s very dangerous for the artist to turn toward political objectives in the making of art. That’s my position, and I know that other artists feel very differently, and that other artists feel that art-making is inherently bound up with protest, other forms of political expression. But, for me, I have always been very wary of that.
So there are two things. One is me speaking more as an artist, and what is driving my art, what my philosophy of being an artist is—which again can be interpreted, can be read, can be understood through political filters, but that’s never what is driving me personally to make the work. Whereas when I am translating, I am aware that what I’m doing is in some sense challenging the order of things. I also feel that now that I’ve been writing in Italian for basically a decade, putting English on a very long pause or whatever it is that I’m doing, I am pushing back against this colossal linguistic superpower which is the English language. This very circuitous path of now writing in Italian and being translated back into English is, I think, making its own point. Though, I’ll repeat, I don’t write in Italian in order to make that point, but there are ramifications that can be read politically. And that’s the thing, I think the ramifications are like ripples, and when the artist is throwing that stone into the pond, that creative act, for me, should be completely free of any time-related, contextual mission. Because all politics is contextual; you are reacting to a situation in time.
CI: That makes sense, and I think another ripple or ramification of both translating and writing in Italian is that you’re introducing readers, whose Italian references are limited, to women writers such as Lalla Romano, Fabrizia Ramondino, and countless others, and I feel that there’s something of a political gesture in that, even if you don’t mean it as such.
JL: Yes, I think that I did present the [Penguin] anthology with some very obvious political filters for the reader, and whether that’s talking about the issue of translation and what translation meant in twentieth-century Italy: the fact that so much translation activity was banned, the fact that the idea of promoting foreign authors, foreignness, was all counter to Mussolini’s vision for the Italian language, which was supposed to be increasingly dialect-free and standardized and bleached of its difference. Because what makes a language interesting is the fact that all languages have these wonderful hybrid elements and foreign words and foreign expressions; it’s those wonderful seeds of otherness that make every language so rich.
Certainly there’s much to be unpacked in the question of women writers and women translators. And that’s sort of what gave birth to the course I taught [at Princeton] with Sara [Teardo], called “To and From Italian.” A bit like Jenny McPhee, who only translates women now—I’m now translating a man, Ovid, and I’ve translated mostly men actually—but this course was born because I was increasingly, and I am increasingly, motivated to focus on women as writers and as translators and as theorists of translation and sort of the whole ecosystem.
CI: That’s interesting. In “Why Italian?” you discuss at length your choice to engage creatively with Italian, and one of the reasons you articulate with the help of Romano is, “In order to develop another pair of eyes, in order to experiment with weakness.” In Other Words, your 2015 memoir of your experience of learning—and falling in love with—Italian, gives voice to a similar sentiment. There you write in praise of constraint. “I prefer the limitations,” you say. “I know that in some way my ignorance is useful to me.” And when moved to find out why, you conjecture, “Maybe because from the creative point of view there is nothing so dangerous as security.” What do you mean by that?
JL: I mean that art is not a comfortable state of being, nor should we aim to comfort with our art. I think the opposite: that creativity is highly unsettling, disconcerting, upsetting—it’s literally upsetting for me, when I’m writing. It’s upsetting preconceived ideas of whatever it is I’m writing about. It’s looking at the world in a way that goes back to that idea of dismantling: the writer is dismantling reality in some sense, dismantling memories, dismantling impressions, and then reconstituting everything in language through the creative vision. From the creative point of view, it is crucial to feel on the precipice, of knowing what you’re doing and being terrified that you’re going to fail and fall. That’s the point, that fulcrum is where the real work is born.
When I just think about my life, the experiences that are comforting, that are tendenzialmente good—positive, pleasurable, easy—they don’t make very interesting stories. What makes interesting stories are the things that we as a human race have a harder time coming to terms with, or understanding, or accepting; that’s why stories are important for us, as people. The artist has to access that uncomfortable space to be able to think about the big ideas that literature is built on. Loss, change, miscommunications, miscomprehensions, lost opportunities, frustrations—whatever it is, this is the cellular make-up of literature. That’s not to say that it’s all bad, and it’s all this pessimistic difficulty; there is beauty and joy and happy moments that are present in all kinds of literature. But often it’s the lack or loss of those things that is driving the poet. If we just go back to the simple nature of elegy and what that means—the mourning for a life past, for happy days that are behind us—those require you to be on that precipice. The more limits you have and the less comfortable you are, the more interesting the work is going to be.
I think it is very dangerous when the creative person starts to feel secure in what they can do. It’s not like driving a car, it’s not like another kind of skill where the more you do it, and the more confidence you have, the better you are at it. It’s not like that, it’s another kind of activity, where, even with experience—with years and years of experience, and now I’ve been writing for a long time—I still look for that place where I am not quite sure, I am not quite steady, and I’m questioning whether I should be writing this, whether I can be writing this, whether it is possible for me to write this, whether exploring this world will yield a positive result, and whether the text will actually have sense, whether it will actually have meaning and beauty or be pleasurable for the reader. I have to be questioning those things very actively in order to get inside of my creative practice, which is full of shadows and pitfalls and things like that.
CI: Speaking of shadows, I was struck by the centrality of Ovid in this new collection. You call the Metamorphoses “your sun” in the Introduction and later, in “In Praise of Echo,” you return to it at length in an elaborate reading of the myth of Echo and Narcissus. Could you say more about your attachment to this particular work of literature and how your new translation of it [pursued in collaboration with Yelena Baraz, professor of classics at Princeton] come into being?
JL: Yelena and I had taught together a different class at Princeton during the pandemic, and she knew that I loved Ovid—because we taught Ovid as part of our course—so she just said, “Modern Library is commissioning a new translation of the Metamorphoses, they don’t have one in their series, they want one, they’ve approached me, and I’m approaching you, and would you like to do this together?” And I said yes. So that’s how it started.
As for my fascination with the poem, it just deepens and deepens, it becomes more and more central, and I just feel so much gratitude for it and the fact that I am able to have an opportunity to engage with it so intensely as a translator. That has been such a gift, even though we are still just barely one third of the way into the first draft. It’s a long and slow journey, but it’s letting me learn so many things all over again. One can’t read Ovid in a vacuum, because Ovid is of course himself borrowing and translating from so many other authors. It means, then, engaging with so many other Greek and Latin writers, rereading texts that I thought I had a sense of what they were doing and I could move on, but Ovid is pulling me right back. You know, last night I was reading these hymns by Callimachus and his influence on the Roman poets.
In going so deep inside of Ovid, I feel that Ovid is then bringing out this whole new universe for me that I just think is so exciting. I love this more than anything, I love feeling that I have so much to learn and understand. And the poem itself is so magnificent and fun. There are these bits of it that are really long and kind of overwrought—even those bits are like life. The poem is like life, it really is like life. I say in the book [Translating] a little how, even with something as overwhelmingly painful as losing my mother, the fact that I’ve come back to Ovid at this point of my life, after all of my journeys and my migrations and my wanderings, from being a twenty-year-old in college reading him in Latin for the first time to now being almost fifty-five, feels very bright and very powerful for me.
CI: Besides your reading of Ovid in “In Praise of Echo,” there are other relatively straightforward pieces of literary criticism in this book—I’m thinking of your essay on Calvino, and the one on Gramsci’s Letters from Prison. What drew you to write at greater length on these texts and authors?
JL: The Gramsci piece grew out of a Zoom conference, where I was supposed to say a few things about his prison letters. I was asked to say anything, on the occasion of the new definitive edition of the letters coming out. I don’t even know why I was approached to do this—I must have mentioned to a mutual friend of Silvio Pons [co-editor of the Italian national edition of Gramsci’s complete works] that I had read Gramsci and I was interested in Gramsci… In any case, when I looked at the letters and was thinking, “What can I say about these letters?” the translation question immediately rose to the surface. I don’t discuss the letters in any comprehensive way, and already it’s the longest essay in the book, but I really enjoyed putting it together, I enjoyed playing with the form of the essay in this piece, I liked having these sort of more fragmented pieces that read like notes. I do that in homage to Gramsci, because that’s what he does in the prison notebooks; he has these amazing, fulminating texts. I was inspired by that, by this idea of having very specific clusters of thought in the essay.
That’s what inspired that essay, and it was a very intense experience of, from January, February, to April, going to Firestone Library [at Princeton] every day—and there was nobody there; three people in the whole library—and I was just in his spell, in his world, and thinking about how he thought and contributed to the question of translation. Many people have of course written about translation in Gramsci before me, but I really wanted to look at the letters in particular, and to look a little bit more at the more personal side of Gramsci as a father, as a husband to a Russian woman, and a father to kids who were being raised in Russia, and all of those questions—and also his formation and his training as a linguist, studying Greek and Latin.
CI: What about Calvino?
JL: Calvino was a commissioned piece by Corriere della Sera last summer, so it was one of the last essays I put into the book. Corriere, you know, the big national newspaper [in Italy], was doing a whole series on Calvino, and they asked me to do something. But by then, I was already putting this book together, so I decided it had to be about translation.
CI: Besides your translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, what else are you working on right now?
JL: Well, I just finished my own new book of stories called Racconti Romani. I wrote those in Italian, and they will be coming out in the fall. I also just finished the first full draft of the translation of that book. If this book [Translating] were still in progress, I would add even more reflections on what it’s like to self-translate. What was interesting about this project [Racconti] was that there was a little bit more of an overlap because I was handing in the Italian manuscript and also translating stories in English, and there was a more rapid back-and-forth between the two versions. But the reason I did it this way is because I’ve understood by now a very painful truth, which is that self-translation is the most effective way of editing my work. There is no more radical form of editing than translating yourself to be absolutely aware of everything you’ve written. I used to think it was reading the text out loud, but translation is a million times more than that. It was hard and very exhausting and very labor intensive, but I feel glad that I did it.
Again, I am not sure I will be able to maintain this sort of self-translation in such a simultaneous way, but with this book it’s just how it turned out. And the reason that I did it, honestly, is also because after all of these years of writing about so many different authors, doing the translations, the anthology, and then putting this book together, etc.—now that Ovid has presented himself as a project, I just wanted to clear everything, I wanted to finish all the brain work that I had to do. Because [the Metamorphoses] is its own world, and it’s very distracting to come up for air and think about my own writing or whatever. I just want to maintain this diet of Ovid and reading related to Ovid. That’s really what I feel like I need to do right now.
 Samuel Beckett, The Letters of Samuel Beckett, vol. 1: 1929-1940, eds. George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn, and Lois More Overbeck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 518.
 Mary Ann Caws, Surprised in Translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 6.
 Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words, trans. Ann Goldstein (New York: Knopf, 2017), 215.
Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of, among many other celebrated books, Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and is the editor of The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories. She writes in both English and Italian and has translated three novels by Domenico Starnone. Her most recent book prior to Translating Myself and Others is a book of poems in Italian, Il Quaderno di Narina.
Carolina Iribarren is a PhD student in French at Princeton. Her first translation—a book on Deleuze, Peirce, and Bergson, cotranslated with Noah Rawlings—is forthcoming. She is currently an associate editor at Post45.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, June 14, 2022