‘Translating Myself and Others’ by Jhumpa Lahiri: A Tradition of the Ages

Amanda Janks

Human traditions subsist on translation. There is no art or philosophy that translators have not helped facilitate across the ages. While translators may often operate discreetly and without thanks, their work remains vital. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri depicts the soul of translation in her new essay collection, Translating Myself and Others (208 pages; Princeton University Press), a dizzying reflection on her personal relationship to language.  She notes early on the fragmentation of her identity—culturally Indian, born in London, raised in America, writing in English—and the ways this has steered her as a writer. An accomplished author in English, Lahiri recently took to Italian as her primary written language, and even goes so far as to translate her own works into the language. Across these essays, Lahiri is in conversation with herself about the philosophical onus of translation and the willful splitting of oneself when multilingual, both of which prove necessary to aptly bring a text to life.

Lahiri orders the essays chronologically with the intent to catalog her love affair with Italian, which emerges recurrently as the crux of her inspiration. She notes the alienation felt while in Rome seeking to improve her Italian, namely the ambivalence of native speakers to understand or permit her commitment to it. Lahiri laments “the grief of being between two worlds,” a state traced back to her childhood when met with the task of intermediating language barriers between her Bengali family and American society. With Italian, however, she chooses to be an outsider, “taking refuge” in her demission from English.

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On numerous occasions, she both metaphorizes and challenges the notion of the translator as secondary to the source material. The myth of Echo and Narcissus is employed to demonstrate the way translation gives the impression of one having sacrificed their voice. Where Echo is doomed to reproduce only the words spoken to her, so is the translator gridlocked in repetition. But Lahiri fundamentally disagrees with translation as a passive state. Given her dual role as writer and translator, she describes translation as akin to surgery in its precision, like an organ transplant—it isn’t enough to have the knowledge and the materials if the body is misunderstood. She questions the possibility of translated works truly mirroring their untranslated states, a dilemma she encountered when translating her own novel Dove mi trovo from Italian to English. She asserts that “every sentence felt like a misreading,” especially when Italian bears singular intricacies that cannot be represented in English.

Too few of the essays address these dilemmas, though they make up the strongest part of the book. The collection also includes introductions published for Italian novelist Domenico Starnone, whose books Lahiri translated, but these pieces often read merely as praise for their authors. Elsewhere, in an essay about Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci, Lahiri makes an unfortunate comparison between Gramsci’s confinement as a political prisoner under a fascist regime to her strictly-enforced time slot at an Ivy League library with reduced access to bathrooms and water fountains during COVID. It reads as a needless insertion of self and does not do much to propel the essay forward as a meditation on translation.  

Overall, Lahiri achieves the task of portraying her profound love for linguistics and the ways languages give new life to one another in translation. It is, after all, the result of great passion and ongoing study that she is able to fluently and evocatively write in a wholly foreign language. One may surmise that the distinct lyrical quality is the result of her multilingual tongue adopting varied tonalities and rhythms. The beat of Lahiri’s writing is impeccably strong.

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