Translating Myself and Others

by Jhumpa Lahiri

Hardcover, 2022


Checked out
Due Jun 11, 2023


Princeton University Press (2022), 208 pages


"In 2016, the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri published In Other Words, the story of her quest to learn Italian, which involved moving with her family to Italy to immerse herself fully in her adopted language. The book builds on that account through eight essays that reflect her early career as a translator. One essay uses her teaching of the Echo and Narcissus myth to reflect on the meaning of translation; another describes her decision to translate her own recent novel from Italian, the language in which she composed and first published it, into English; another addresses the question "Why Italian?," in which she reflects on what attracts her to the language and the reactions she has received from native speakers. Three of the pieces are introductions to novels by Domenico Starnone that she has translated from Italian into English for Europa Editions: in each, she describes the particular challenges and pleasures of translation from different angles. The book will also include a brief preface to frame the book, and an epilogue on what she sees as the next chapter in her life as a translator, a long-term project to translate Ovid's Metamorphoses"--… (more)

Media reviews

The Spectator
When asked what it is we do, translators often resort to metaphors. We liken the act of translation to performing a piece of music, taking on a role in a play, kissing a bride through a veil or building bridges between cultures. But as the peerless Norwegian translator Damion Searls has said, when
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we sit down to work ‘there’s no metaphor at all really. The metaphors are just for interviews, or for talking with people about what translators do’. In this series of passionate, thoughtful essays, Jhumpa Lahiri uses metaphors, and more especially Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to explore the nebulous, almost ineffable nature of living between languages. The book is also a memoir, which strives to make sense of the shape-shifting she first experienced as a child when she slipped between the Bengali spoken by her parents and the English of the United States, where she grew up. As she tellingly observes: ‘I was a translator before I was a writer.’ Language also offers Lahiri a sanctuary, a haven. Her relationship with Italian was not the result of happenstance, as is the case for many translators, nor is it an accident. Instead, during a challenging period of her life, she made the conscious decision to ‘run away’ to Italy, there to ‘take refuge in the Italian language in search of freedom and happiness’. She joins a group of authors (Beckett, Nabokov, Conrad and others) who, having left their homelands, elected to write in their adopted languages. Whatever her personal reasons – and Lahiri does not dwell on them – it has been an artistically rewarding decision. To date, she has written two books in Italian, In altere parole, a memoir of her journey into Italian (translated by Ann Goldstein as In Other Words), and a spare, shimmering novel of exile, Dove mi trovo (Whereabouts, which she translated herself). In addition, she has translated three novels by Domenico Starnone (the second of which was awarded the John Florio Prize for Italian Translation), edited The Penguin Classics Book of Italian Short Stories and taught translation studies as well as creative writing at Princeton. The essays here follow her linguistic journey and, if this is their strength, it is sometimes a weakness. The two most powerful to my mind are those on Metamorphoses, a text which has clearly been a touchstone for Lahiri since she first studied it in Latin. The first of these, ‘In Praise of Echo’, is a lucid yet lyrical extended meditation on the act of translation, in which Lahiri sees the translator in the figure of Echo, condemned by Juno to a mutism in which she can only repeat the words of others. This may seem obvious, if we assume that the translator merely ‘echoes’ the original, but to Lahiri “Echo’s story and her resilience remind us that translation – which simultaneously repeats, converts, reflects and restores – is central to the production of literature, not an accessory to it. The richest periods of literary ferment have always been those in which the identities of writers and translators merged, where one activity reinforced and revitalised the other. More intriguingly, she also sees parallels in the figure of Narcissus, the hunter, since in translation. "a figurative hunt is involved, represented not only by the inevitable toil of hunting down the right words to recreate the text but by a stealthy shadowing – the result of countless readings and reflections upon the work itself – in order to best understand its form, its structure, its meaning". The second essay, ‘Translating Transformation: Ovid’, is a moving and eloquent account of her mother’s illness and death at a time when Lahiri was working on a translation of the Metamorphoses. In sadness as in joy, Lahiri finds comfort in language and imagery, in the act of transformation that is both Ovid’s subject and the very nature of translation. Although her version of the Metamorphoses relies in part on literal translations provided by her colleague Yelena Bravaz, Lahiri felt the need to rekindle her relationship with Latin – only to find it transformed, since she now approaches it through the prism of Italian, which is ‘a direct metamorphosis of Latin itself’. In her mother’s last weeks, when Lahiri can barely write and her speech has dwindled to ‘near silence’, she casts around for some prayer that she might say. Finding none, she offers up Ovid’s opening line as an invocation: In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas/ corpora, ‘My soul stirs to speak of forms changed into new bodies.’ Although the three forewords for her translations of Starnone’s novels contain glittering splinters of insight, shorn of their vital role as prefaces they feel a little insubstantial in this context. By contrast, the essay ‘(Extra)ordinary Translation: On Gramsci’ teems with thoughts and ideas about one of Italy’s foremost linguists that are never fully explored. This is perhaps because the essay was written as a series of remarks for a panel, so the many things that might have been teased out, elaborated on or contested in conversation remain unsaid. It reads like a blazing, brilliant proposal for a monograph or a book, but in its current form the headlong rush of observations stimulate but fail to satisfy. A more revealing essay is ‘Where I Find Myself’, a candid account of what is lost and found, reinvented and reimagined during the process of self-translation, where she finds that ‘the author of Dove mi trovo both is and is not the author who translated them’. But Lahiri rightly argues that self-translation offers a work a second life. On the one hand, re-reading herself in the role of translator forces her ‘to doubt the validity of every word on the page’; on the other, she is answerable only to herself, and could (as Beckett and Nabokov did) choose to alter the original. But Lahiri’s experience is more akin to that of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Both find that translating their own work serves to illuminate and reveal the original. Moreover, Lahiri argues, self-translation can ‘restore a previously published work to its most vital and dynamic state – that of a work in progress’. Original and translation become reflections of each other; the former, paradoxically, becomes ‘the simulacrum, and both is and is not the starting point for what rationally and irrationally followed’. Lahiri has the fierce curiosity of the linguist, fascinated not only by the act of (re)writing, but by the nuts and bolts of words, etymologies, derivations and tenses. (She devotes a absorbing essay to the optative mood in Ancient Greek.) But she also has the passion and precision of the translator, whose responsibility she claims is ‘as grave and precarious as that of a surgeon who is trained to transplant organs’. This book is a welcome addition to a growing number of works that strive to elucidate translation, including Kate Briggs’s impassioned yet intimate book This Little Art and Daniel Hahn’s warm and witty Catching Fire, a frank, forensic diary that describes what happens when we set aside metaphors and begin the Sisyphean task of translation. Jhumpa Lahiri offers an illuminating glimpse into the journey of one who ‘was born with a translator’s disposition, in that my overriding desire was to connect disparate worlds’. WRITTEN BY Frank Wynne
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User reviews

LibraryThing member steve02476
Essays about language and translation, and the author’s own experiences. I liked it, but I’m not sure who else would. Still mourning that it seems she will never again write novels and short stories as she used to, but that’s her choice.


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