We tend to believe that some things get lost in translation, but perhaps, as Jhumpa Lahiri suggests in her absorbing new collection of essays, Translating Myself and Others, some things are also gained. Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, and has subsequently enraptured readers with her penetrating novels and stories. She famously moved to Rome in 2015 and began writing in Italian, publishing in Italian and translating the work of Italian novelist Domenico Starnone into English.
This linguistically bifurcated existence has inspired much thought on the art of translation, which Lahiri says has always been a controversial literary form. The short essays she collects here—some written in English and some translated into English from Italian—explore her passion for translation, a subject she previously taught at Princeton. Yet interwoven with some of the more arcane nuts-and-bolts issues that face the literary translator are other things that Lahiri, as a writer of fiction, has learned from the process of rendering the words of other writers, as well as her own, into a new tongue. “Now that I have become a translator in addition to remaining a writer, I am struck by how many people regard what I am doing as ‘secondary’ and thus creatively inferior in nature,” she writes. “Readers who react with suspicion to a work in translation reinforce a perceived hierarchy in literature between an original work and its imitation.” Indeed, translators rarely even get recognition on a book’s jacket, or enduring recognition outside of academic circles. And yet, so much of the world’s literature would be inaccessible to us without their intensive work. Throughout these essays, Lahiri shows how painstaking and full of care the process of translation is.
Essays on translation might seem an unlikely conduit for a writer’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, but Lahiri is an engaging guide, and her pensive ruminations provide a window into her soul. In “Why Italian?” she ponders the longstanding connection that she, a woman who was already fluent in English and Bengali, felt to Italian even before learning it and why she was compelled to write in it. “Where I Find Myself,” fulfilling the clever double meaning of its title, examines how Lahiri finds new intentions when she translates her own work from Italian into English (something she long avoided doing but has now embraced), sometimes revising the original Italian in the process in a kind of reverse engineering that she compares to a tennis game. In a very moving afterword, “Translating Transformation,” she reconsiders her mother’s recent death through the prism of Ovid, whose masterwork she is currently co-translating. “In the face of death,” she writes, “the Metamorphoses had completely altered my perspective.”
Translating Myself and Others is a subtle yet ultimately engrossing work, somewhat academic at times, yet infused with the kind of understated, often startling capacity for observation that has always been Lahiri’s literary superpower.