Why Jhumpa Lahiri says translating is ‘baffling, paradoxical, doomed from the start’
Jhumpa Lahiri is best known for her works of fiction, but she is, in almost equal parts, also a literary translator and professor of creative writing and literary translation at Princeton University. Translate myself and others longs to attend her classes at university – there is a certain seriousness to her tone and she abandons the carelessness that is essential to writing fiction.
In this book, Lahiri’s role as a translator takes precedence over other identities. Translation is serious business, the book declares, and with examples from history, philosophy, and his own life, the author illustrates how translation is also natural to human nature.
Born in London to Bengali parents, Lahiri grew up in the United States and worked and lived in Italy. While Bengali is her mother tongue, English has become a non-negotiable language for a life in the West. In her forties, she learned Italian because she felt a kinship with the language and its speakers.
While Lahiri has primarily written in English, in recent years she has also written in Italian and translated her Italian novel, Dove mi trovo, in English. She speaks Bengali and hesitantly admits to reading it. For her master’s thesis, she recalls translating Ashapurna Debi’s writings from Bengali to English while listening to recordings of her mother’s stories. In retrospect, this seems particularly exciting since two of Lahiri’s novels – The namesake and The plain – have been translated into Bengali as Samanami and Nabal Jomi. The author is no stranger to translations.
Languages and affiliation
The continuous journeys Lahiri undertook as a translator and author, and as a teacher, are only natural given how often she crossed the boundaries erected by language. In the book, Lahiri says it’s not unnatural at all and, in fact, unavoidable – Asians play with multiple languages in their daily lives. Besides the invigorating native tongue, you tend to know a few other regional languages and, of course, one or two global languages as well.
I would like to apply myself to this framework. My mother tongue is Bengali, although I can barely read and can’t write it – I only speak the language. My early childhood was spent in Maharashtra and Gujarat – I can no longer read (or write) either Marathi or Gujarati, but my understanding of the spoken language remains intact. I am fluent in Hindi since I studied the language in school and continue to speak it regularly.
Despite having a basic to intermediate command of four Indian languages, the language that seems most natural to me is English. I don’t speak it at home, but it’s the language in which I read, write and think. Recently, I started translating Hindi fiction into English – two languages which are not “natural” to me, and which I have only adopted through education and work.
Yet this is not an unusual relationship with languages - anyone who has encountered several languages is bound to adopt a few. And sometimes you feel a special kinship with a foreign language and embark on a lifelong journey to make it your “own”. I believe Lahiri also makes such a trip.
It is very difficult to take liberties with one’s mother tongue, as this relationship is paramount and any form of interference with the original seems vulgar. Adopted languages are exempt from such expectations. It’s easier to alter them, leave them behind, and come back to them as you need them. But perhaps the most difficult relationship is the one we develop with a completely foreign language – a relationship in which we identify ourselves regardless of international and cultural boundaries. Because they are, for us, a source of love and inspiration.
Translating oneself and translating others
Lahiri, who translated his own novel Dove mi trovo, and the novelist Domenico Starnone Laci (Ties), Scherzetto (Round), and Confidence (Trust) from Italian to English, says about the comfort and challenges of languages: “Nothing came naturally to me… Paradoxically, I believe I am blind even in English, only backwards. Familiarity, dexterity, and fluency with a language can confer another form of blindness. We tend to feel safe, and therefore more passive, maybe even lazy… Why Italian? To develop another pair of eyes, to experience weakness.
According to Lahiri, there are three stages to “conquering” a foreign language – the first is comprehension; the second, the spoken language; and finally the written language. She compares this journey to the opening of a series of doors, each one hiding behind it a challenge to be discovered and a secret to be discovered. Of course, this is an extremely exciting exercise for Lahiri, as for anyone who “grafts” themselves into a new language. For her, this botanical mechanism is a logical metaphor to be translated as well – a metaphor that implies “connection, fusion, welding”.
Subsequently, she closely examines how she fared as a literary translator. She specifies that the translator’s job is to “repeat” and therefore “double” the text, but not literally. The most important task a translator undertakes is to render the meaning of the text into a new language with imagination, ingenuity and freedom.
Here, freedom should not be confused with creative freedoms. Anyone who translates will agree with Lahiri when she writes that there is a feeling of great “liberation” that comes with not having to “fabricate” a story. Yet one feels a greater sense of “responsibility” – there is nothing to invent but everything to do right.
Lahiri cannot escape his identity as a fiction writer and therefore has legitimate ideas about both methods of creation. Fiction allows the author to detach from the text from time to time – in the sense that, since the text is entirely his, the author is free to create, modify and erase as he pleases. They have only themselves to answer. Whereas in translating, the translator engages with the text more intimately than the author perhaps ever did – to translate, it is not enough to read the text. someone has to study the text, as Lahiri puts it, “evaluates, acutely, every word chosen by an author”.
In a way, a book in translation is not a copy but a version that exists alongside the original. Lahiri corroborates this with his own translation experience dove mi trovoh in Where. She writes that the self-translation is “puzzling”, “paradoxical” and “doomed from the start”. This prolongs the author’s relationship with the book, subjecting it to even greater scrutiny – which is undesirable. However, self-translation also offers a “second act” for a book. “Where will never be a standalone text in my mind,” Lahiri concludes from this exercise.
Translation, imaginative and not imitative
Much has been said (and written) about translation as a creative activity. The popular notion is that translation is the poorer cousin of writing. Questions from Why they translate follow a translator throughout their career. Lahiri, recipient of the National Humanities Medal and the Pulitzer Prize, is not spared either. She reiterates that contrary to popular belief, translation is not imitative but imaginative – it is not secondary to the writing and does not indicate a lack of imagination.
She also expresses her displeasure with how even the publishing industry and readers have created a hierarchy. If I asked a reader what makes a good translator, he would most likely answer, someone who disappears in the text. Compared to writers, translators are advised to have an invisible, discreet and self-sacrificing presence. So much so that their names are often missing from book covers – a pervasive problem that International Booker Prize winner, translator Daisy Rockwell, highlighted by “redesigning” the cover of The Book of Jacob – published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editionswhose translators are regularly acclaimed internationally but who do not feature their names on the cover.
Although the translator is expected to remain invisible, readers are quick to reject a translation as soon as it “feels” or “reads” as such. The expectations placed on the shoulders of the invisible translator are enormous, even more so than the original text and its authors.
Lahiri reminds us that all writing is essentially dated – with the exception of translations. In time, the subject, the language and even the reputation of the author are doomed to fade into obscurity; yet for translations that can never be the case. A translated work is only good insofar as it is contemporary – the translator takes care of making the text relevant for the modern reader. Therefore, it is still a work in progress. A new translation must remain faithful to the original text without betraying the expectations of the time in which it is translated.
In the end, translating ends up being a more solitary activity than writing. Lahiri remembers how, while translating from Italian, she existed in a space where there was only her and the texts. The process can be long, painful and rarely well paid, but it is always very rewarding. There are few greater joys in life than truly knowing and loving a text. This intimacy is almost sacred, and translators are among those who can claim to love a text as they love it.
In the chapter “In Praise of Echo,” Lahiri evocatively summarizes how translation poses difficult questions not only to translators and readers, but to all of humanity. She writes: “…it influences not only how we view literature, but also how we view each other. Who is original, who authentically belongs to a place? Who doesn’t? Why are those who are not from a place – migrants who did not “get there first” – treated the way they are? »
Translate myself and others, Jhumpa Lahiri, Princeton University Press.