It is tempting to separate the arc of Jhumpa Lahiri’s career in two distinct eras—her early work, sparse, understated fiction of the Indian diaspora, and her later work, in and out of the Italian language and immersed in Italian culture. Yet, upon reading her collection of essays Translating Myself and Others, which focuses primarily on the translation efforts of more recent years, I can see the connections in the eras. Lahiri has always been a translator in its purest sense, learning both Bengali and English in early years, but also in the broader, more imaginative sense she sets forth in these essays. That of interpreter, close reader, devotee, and scholar. I find myself wondering if this too is translation, the act of summarizing and distilling her many thoughts on the matter in a succinct volume. I would not have thought it so before reading this book.
Lahiri’s essays are excerpted from many places. They are the introductions of books she has translated, ruminations on her own work, some of them originally penned in English and others in Italian. Some are even kept in their original Italian towards the end of the book, and these essays I cannot claim to know first hand. Indeed, translation itself is a concept I can only gaze at from a distance. My only language is English, my working knowledge of my ancestral language, Malayalam, limited to phrases here and there and a fairly coherent understanding. I have never thought in a language apart from English, never tried to phrase my sentences in the cadence and structure of another tongue, apart from worksheets in high school Spanish classes. But while Lahiri’s essays can be arcane and dense to those unfamiliar with the craft, the best of them appeal to something broader.
While Lahiri’s three introductions to the works of Domenico Starnone (“Containers”, “Juxtaposition”, and “Substitution”) are fascinating, and delve into the details of individual word choice and understanding the cultural context of translation, the collection reaches its apex in the middle of these essays, with “In Praise of Echo: Reflections on the Meaning of Translation”. Here Lahiri references Ovid’s Metamorphoses, specifically the myth of Echo and Narcissus. Echo, commonly characterized as a nymph reduced to repeating only the final sounds of phrases, and ultimately reduced to nothing but a ‘voice and bones’, is not just the typical doomed damsel of Greek mythos. Rather, her listening, selective repetition, passion, and unobtrusiveness mirror the qualities of a skilled translator. In crafting this argument, Lahiri connects translation to something innately familiar to many readers. Many of us know the story of Echo and Narcissus. Fewer of us are familiar with Gramsci or even Italo Calvino.
Indeed, many of my personal critiques of Translating Myself and Others stem from my unfamiliarity with the subject material, and the projection of expectations onto the narrative. As far as the former, while Lahiri’s essay on political activist Gramsci is detailed and nuanced, it runs far longer than the other essays and touches on so many topics, it almost feels like a distilled book in and of itself. With the latter, in her first essay “Why Italian?”, when Lahiri comments on the surprise of Italian townspeople at her choosing to speak their language, I yearned for an acknowledgement of identity, her status as a woman of Indian origin as an undercurrent of that surprise. This defied expectation can be seen as a search for the ‘old Lahiri’, if such a person exists—she who defined her career on the creation and disillusion of an Indian-American identity. Nevertheless, these criticisms are few and far between. From a writing perspective there is great joy and intrigue to be found in Lahiri’s ruminations on self-translation, the idea of a living manuscript that inherently changes shape when translated from one language to another, both the new text and the original. With her self-translation of Whereabouts, known in Italian as Dove Mi Trovo, we are taken into her innermost doubts, insecurities, and unbridled wonder at the art of translation. Here is the passion of Echo, fully on display.
This is a collection to be read in bits and pieces, some of it most suitable for the translators among us, but others broadly accessible. This is a love letter to not only translation, but to literary criticism as a whole. Its existence as art, science, and craft, something to be deeply appreciated.
Translating Myself and Others
By Jhumpa Lahiri
Princeton University Press
Published May 17, 2022
Malavika Praseed is a writer, book reviewer, and genetic counselor. Her fiction has been published in Plain China, Cuckoo Quarterly, Re:Visions, and others. Her podcast, YOUR FAVORITE BOOK, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and various other platforms