The many selves of Jhumpa Lahiri

Her essays on language and translation are a guide to more than just her writing

Updated - July 11, 2022 05:47 pm IST

Published - July 08, 2022 09:02 am IST

Jhumpa Lahiri’s essays, written over a span of more than five years, help deepen an understanding of her journey as a writer of fiction.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s essays, written over a span of more than five years, help deepen an understanding of her journey as a writer of fiction. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Most readers of this newspaper, it’s fair to guess, are likely to be bilingual in varying degrees — and will understand the disorientation that Jhumpa Lahiri describes in the introduction to her collection of essays Translating Myself and Others (Princeton University Press). She was in her kindergarten class, in the U.S., and the teacher was helping them make cards for Mother’s Day. After their artwork was prettified, they were asked to write “Dear Mom, happy Mother’s Day”, and as a Bengali-speaking child, she felt “embarrassed” to say she called her mother “Ma”. But she was also “reluctant” to follow the teacher’s instructions and use the term “Mom” as she intuited that the English term would have “certainly alienated, even offended” her mother.

We all find ways of translating between the languages we speak, often using two languages in the course of just a single conversation. Lahiri’s essays, written over a span of more than five years, help deepen an understanding of her journey as a writer of fiction, and they also make us aware of the many and varied acts of translation that affect the texture of our own daily lives.

Work in progress

Lahiri has often drawn the arc of her literary career, and in each telling it takes her story further. After her initial burst of some of the most powerful contemporary writing in English, bookended with her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), and the novel, The Lowland (2013), her writing took a turn that her readers at least had not anticipated. She moved to Rome, she “started thinking and writing in Italian only at the age of forty-five”, and went on to write a book in Italian, among other works, on the experience of full immersion in another language (translated into English by Ann Goldstein as In Other Words, 2016) and a novel (which she herself translated into English as Whereabouts, 2021). She put together a collection of Italian short stories, translating many of them into English for the first time, and has translated the last three novels by the Italian writer Domenico Starnone. Each of these Starnone translations was accompanied by an introduction or afterword, and they have been included here as well. These essays are, in other words, a mix of the familiar and the new.

In a 2015 essay ‘Why Italian?’, she reflects on the interrogation, in Italy, of her decision to move to Rome and speak only in Italian. “People told me,” she writes, “you’re of Indian origin, were born in London, raised in America. You write books in English. What does Italian have to do with any of that?” The short answer, says Lahiri, is: “I write in Italian to feel free.”

What the dimensions of that freedom are, and why English was not sufficient to allow her growth as a writer, are questions that continue to be answered in the essay on her experience of translating Dove mi trovo into English (Whereabouts) herself. To translate something she has published in Italian is, she finds, an act or appraisal, to see it as a work in progress. While translating it into English, she finds in the original text some repetitions and inconsistencies, and starts making a list of changes that could be incorporated in future Italian editions.

A second life

“In other words,” she writes, “the second version of the book was now generating a third: a revised Italian text that was stemming from my self-translation.” This act of revision, of making minor changes, heightens her awareness of the fluidity of the concept of a definitive text. And given the deep reading of a work that had already made its way in the world, it also leads to an awareness of her past selves.

As Lahiri says in ‘Why Italian?’, “The Italian language did not simply change my life; it gave me second life, an extra life. Reading, writing, and living in Italian, I felt like a reader, a writer, a person who is more attentive, active, and curious.”

Or as she now recalls what she wrote, back in 2000, about working on fiction in English about characters who spoke Bengali in her head, “I translate, therefore I am.”

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