BY Anandi Mishra in Books , Opinion | 11 MAY 22

‘Translating Myself and Others’ Looks at Unspoken Aspects of the Practice

Released this month, Jhumpa Lahiri's new book explores her relationship with the Italian language as a writer and translator


BY Anandi Mishra in Books , Opinion | 11 MAY 22

Written in Italian, Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2016 book In Other Words was the first time the American author (the London-born daughter of first-generation Bengali immigrants, and brought up in Rhode Island) moved away from writing in English. Translated by Ann Goldstein, the book is a series of essays about writing in a new language; together they form a stirring meditation on the condition of departing from a long-known language or mother tongue and venturing into uncharted linguistic territory. In Other Words also masked Lahiri’s vulnerabilities: in not translating the essays herself, she denied herself a chance to interact with her adopted language in a deeper way that translation would have offered. While in Italian she was ‘a tougher, freer writer’, she did not want to know, yet, how she would fare as a translator.

Lahiri was in love with Italian, and exuberantly so. Did her ideas translate well in Italian? Did the people of Italy accept her writing a book in their mother tongue? Six years on, in the author’s latest book, Translating Myself and Others (2022), released this month, she says she wasn’t surprised to learn that they had not: ‘“Lahiri scrive nella nostra lingua” (‘Lahiri writes in our language’) – means that Italian remains, by definition, the language of others as opposed to my own.’ In the otherwise understated and graceful prose of this new book, there is remorse, even traces of dejection.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Translating Myself and Others, 2022, book cover. Courtesy: Princeton University Press 

A collection of ten personal essays on translation and self-translation (Lahiri translated the majority of the book’s content herself, having broken out of her self-imposed exile from English), Translating Myself and Others explores the often unspoken aspects of translation as a discipline; through the course of the book, we see the writer’s interaction with Italian change and intensify. She goes beyond surface-level musings, describing both the grammatical contours of a new language and the challenges of writing in it. Lahiri explains that In Other Words was inspired by ‘the realization that I am a writer without a true mother tongue’, and after the book was published, the number of people asking ‘Why Italian?’ increased. Lahiri’s short answer: ‘I write in Italian to feel free.’

Lahiri has lived in Rome on and off for almost a decade, and learned Italian through reading the works of Italian writers, in particular Lalla Romano and Elena Ferrante, whom she cites as inspirations. In Translating Myself and Others she writes about learning the word innesto, meaning ‘graft’ (in the horticultural sense), from Ferrante’s third novel La figlia oscura (‘The Lost Daughter’, 2006); Ferrante uses innesto against the word’s dictionary meaning, so not to denote hard work, but to indicate ‘an imperfect joint, a failure’. Lahiri explores the use of ‘graft’ not just as a literary device within the context of the novel, but as a form of toil. ‘It explains why each one of us searches for something else, something more,’ she says.

Jhumpa Lahiri; photograph: Liana Miuccio

Lahiri is at her best when she writes about the Italian words that she found particularly difficult to translate – words with overlapping or multiple meanings, the kind that lead to the struggles over choice that are all-too known to every writer. The way out of this, she writes is ‘…to enter, instead, into a more profound relationship with words; we must descend with them to a deeper realm, uncovering layers of alternatives. The only way to even begin to understand language is to love it so much that we allow it to confound us, to torment us, until it threatens to swallow us whole.’ Lahiri also recounts instances when she has directly mistranslated something, and in doing so creates an honest and comprehensive portrait of a translator at work. She uses the myth of Echo and Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a tool to reflect on self-translation, and to unearth what it teaches us about identity, originality and finding one’s voice.

In Translating Myself and Others, Lahiri writes about how translating other people’s work out of Italian prompted her to realize that she is not only translating herself, but that she is also insecure about not being as fluent in Italian as a native speaker. However, this latest set of essays proves her skill lies in the craft of experimenting with what language can do, both in Italian and English, and both as a writer and as a translator. In a New York Times article, published this year, about the need for increased recognition in the publishing industry of the labour and skill of translators, Lahiri states that, ‘Translation requires creativity, it requires ingenuity, it requires imagination. So often, you must radically rework the text, and if that isn’t the work of imagination, I don’t know what is.’

Jhumpa Lahiri's Translating Myself and Others is available from 17 May from Princeton University Press.

Main image: Jhumpa Lahiri; photograph: Liana Miuccio 

Anandi Mishra is an essayist and critic, who has worked as a reporter for The Times of India and The Hindu. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Public Books, Electric Literature, LitHub, Virginia Quarterly Review, Popula, The Brooklyn Rail and Al Jazeera.