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On the record with Jhumpa Lahiri: translation, transformation, love for Italian, and a move to Barnard

<h6>Liana Miuccio / Courtesy of Jhumpa Lahiri</h6>
Liana Miuccio / Courtesy of Jhumpa Lahiri

Pulitzer-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London to Bengali parents from Calcutta, and was raised in Rhode Island. Her works often reflect on the experiences of immigrant and Indian-American families in the United States. Lahiri sat down for an interview with The Daily Princetonian in anticipation of her new collection of essays, “Translating Myself and Others.” Though currently the director of the Creative Writing department at the University, Lahiri will join the faculty at Barnard College next year.

This interview has been edited slightly for clarity and concision.

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The Daily Princetonian: What would you say inspired you to write these essays on translation? 

Jhumpa Lahiri: In large part, my experience of teaching translation here at Princeton; many of the essays grow out of the first class I taught — one of the literary translation workshops, and I had never done that before. I had done a little bit of translating long ago, but I hadn’t thought about translating for a long time. Essentially, I was taking the class, as well as teaching the class, and I quickly discovered how engaging it was for me to think about translation in the classroom. 

DP: How would you say that translating the text changes it? Is it ever possible to get an “accurate” translation of a text?

JL: “Accurate” is a reasonable word to think about when we talk about translation, but it’s often not the main goal because it isn’t really possible. Languages don’t correspond neatly to one another; words and phrases don’t find matching, equivalent ones. It’s not about equivalence; it’s about imagination and recreation. These slippages that exist between languages are why we spend time translating. They’re why we talk about translation: because they’re the heart of the game, a game that is never definitively won. It’s a version, it’s an offering, it’s an interpretation, that will be replaced by someone else. But then again, there are inevitably going to be things that cannot be reproduced in the new language in the same way and with the same resonance, and that has to be accepted and embraced from the onset.

DP: What is the difference between translating your own work and translating someone else’s work?

JL: It’s easier in some ways and harder in others. When I’m translating another’s work, there is a sense of extreme responsibility — I would really hate to misrepresent the work in any way. When it’s my own work, that drops away and that pressure is not the same, but what’s incredibly challenging about self-translation is the awareness that begins to emerge. One enters into an interesting loop with the previous text and the new translation, and the two of them start to enter into this interesting exchange because each translation will jostle the original text. If it’s your own text that’s being jostled, you begin to question the original texts that you’ve written in ways that you would never have if you weren’t to translate it. In all of my years of writing, I’ve never discovered a more rigorous and effective way of editing myself than translating myself.

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DP: Does translating your own work offer more insight into what you actually meant?

JL: It does; it casts a very intense light on the text. It’s not easy, because most of us authors don’t really like to go back in such a profound way into our books that we’ve already written. It requires a certain stamina on the author’s part to go back into a book and to put back all of that energy into the very same story. It requires a certain formal estrangement, being able to acknowledge two selves that are creating two different works.

DP: Does the process of translation change what you wrote? Do you find yourself preferring the original over the translated version?

JL: They’re two different texts in two different languages; any translation is a radically different work from the text of departure. I want to make sure that both the original and the translation are sound, but I don’t prefer one to the other. I suppose I’m more creatively bound up with whatever language I write a book in first. If we look at my Italian works, I’m probably still more emotionally bound up to the Italian texts, because it was in Italian that I gave birth to the book. 

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DP: Some people say they think in different ways in different languages, or find themselves changing their personality. Do you feel the same when writing?

JL: I’m more myself when I write in Italian. I write things I would probably have been inhibited to write in English. I think I’m more daring and apprehensive in Italian because it’s not my dominant language. What drove me into a new language in the first place was to access things that I hadn’t been able to access before. 

DP: What made you fall in love with Italian, and why did you choose to write in it?

JL: I moved to Rome in order to improve my Italian. I had already been studying it for many years in the United States, starting in graduate school. I would practice it sometimes. And then it became more and more important to me and began to take up more energy, which is why I moved to Rome with my family — because I wanted to really be able to speak the language. I never thought moving to Rome would inspire me to basically stop writing in English and to do all of this experimentation in Italian. Things really began to shift, and I started to write in Italian without really thinking about what was going on; it was very mysterious, abrupt, and bewildering. 

DP: What made you originally want to start learning Italian?

JL: It was for my doctoral dissertation work. I was writing about English Renaissance drama but was looking at Italian architecture and art, so I learned [Italian] just because it was part of my scholarship at the time. I studied Latin in college, so [Italian] was an interesting language to start learning because it was born from Latin. I learned enough of it to pass a comprehensive exam, and I could have remained with that level of learning that I have with other languages, but Italian had a very different effect on me.

DP: How do you think that your life would have been different if you didn’t learn Italian?

JL: My life would not have been fulfilled if I hadn’t devoted close to 30 years to studying a language to the point where I can now work and live in it and have another life in that language. I was drawn deeper and deeper into the language.

DP: How closely would you say language is tied to identity? 

JL: I think language is identity. We are what our languages are at the end of the day because they’re so much a part of our spirit, soul, and perspective. But having said that, I’m a person who has never had any kind of fixed identity nor fixed relationship with any language, so I’m always both inside and outside of the languages that I know.

DP: Have you ever tried to translate from Bengali to Italian or to English?

JL: I translated from Bengali to English, and I talked about that a little in the introduction to “Translating Myself and Others,” where I refer back to my master’s thesis, which was a translation from Bengali into English. I didn’t know Italian, and back then, Bengali and Italian had no relationship in my head. Now that I know Italian, it’s interesting to me to read Italian translations of Bengali literature, since that’s something I can now evaluate.

DP: Does translation feel different to you from Italian to English compared to Bengali into English?

JL: Very different, because I don’t have a literate relationship with [Bengali], and I can only read it in a very basic way. When I translated out of Bengali, it was thanks to my mother, who was tape recording the stories that she would read out loud, and I was listening and translating them based on her recording. It was a totally different experience than with Italian, [which] I have much greater literary fluency in, and therefore feel more equipped to translate out of.

DP: Have you ever tried translating something non-literary, like conversations?

JL: Not formally, but I’ve been translating my entire life. I was born to two people who never spoke English to me but who lived in the United States, so I was constantly translating things for them, and they were translating things for me. I was translating my life. That’s what I say in my book: that I’ve always been a translator and that I know no monolingual reality. The need to translate everything has been a constant need in my life. India is a plurilingual nation with many different languages coexisting. I was well aware of that from a young age and noticed what language was being spoken, whether people would switch languages. There was so much linguistic richness in my upbringing, and with that always comes the need to translate.

DP: Do you see two aspects to translation — translating the culture and translating the actual words — or would you say they are more intertwined?

JL: Translation bleeds into interpretation and imitation, and all of these things are connected. We can’t just say there’s literary translation and everyday cultural translation, there are all kinds of translations — if you make a movie out of a book, that’s a kind of translation. These are all forms of transferring a work into another language, whether literal or artistic. In the end, translation is a transformation. It is a metamorphosis, which is why the translation of Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” is so powerful at this point in my life.

DP: How does translation and new writing differ for you?

JL: Translation is new writing. Even though it’s growing out of a pre-existing text, you still need to rewrite and arrange everything. But when writing new stories, I’m also creating the actual substance of the piece in addition to paying attention to the language. I don’t need to worry about deciding the plot and characters when translating. In a way it’s liberating, because I can just focus on what I think I actually love most: working with language.

DP: Is there an essay in the book that you have the closest connection to?

JL: The last essay is a very personal piece about my mother dying, and how translation enabled me to move through that time and to interpret what was happening to her in a way that I may not have had otherwise.

DP: So translation gives you solace, and in a way it gives you comfort?

JL: I think it gives me perspective. I don’t think solace is the word I would use, but it gave me a way of reading her. 

Shortly after the ‘Prince’ interviewed Lahiri, Barnard announced that she is joining their faculty in July 2022 to become the Millicent C. McIntosh Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing. 

“The past seven years at Princeton have been extraordinarily stimulating and productive for me. As I explain in ‘Translating Myself and Others,’ Princeton is the place that really turned me into a translator,” wrote Lahiri in a follow-up email.

“I am excited to return to Barnard, my alma mater, to carry on the work of passing down my love of literature and writing and translating to new generations, and to do this in the very place where my intellectual and creative life took root. Fortunately, it’s not far from Princeton, which I will miss and where it has been such an honor to teach,” she added.

“Translating Myself and Others” is available wherever books are sold starting May 17.

Maria Khartchenko is a Staff Writer for The Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at mk38@princeton.edu, or on Instagram at @masha.khart.

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