Wonderful Ambivalence: An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri

CJLC editors Meg Young and Campbell Campbell interview Jhumpa Lahiri on her forthcoming essay collection, Translating Myself and Others, composed of introductions and afterwords from her translations of Domenico Starnone’s novels, as well as new pieces on everything from the myth of Echo and Narcissus to Gramsci’s letters. While drawing from her background in classics, Lahiri contemplates translation as an ever-changing and open form.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, received the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. Her novel The Lowland was named a finalist for the Man Booker prize and the National Book Award in fiction, and she has also received the John Florio Prize for Italian Translation, the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Vallombrosa Von Rezzori Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Humanities Medal, among others. Lahiri writes and publishes in both English and Italian, and has translated her own work as well as three of Domenico Starnone’s novels. The Penguin Classics Book of Italian Short Stories, edited and introduced by Lahiri with selected translations, was published in March 2019.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

March 26, 2022. 2pm.

Meg Young: We wanted to start with how, in Translating Myself and Others, you discuss not feeling tied down to a singular language and that being a source of freedom for you, and what inspired your learning Italian. But for our readers, I want to dive deeper into why you were inspired and began learning Italian. Could you tell us more about why you started thinking about Italian in the first place, and when in that learning process you realized you wanted to take it further?

Jhumpa Lahiri: Well it was a slow revelation, I would say, because I had studied Latin in college and then I learned Italian for my doctoral dissertation, which had in part to do with Italy and Italian. I was looking at questions of cultural and architectural translation: the transmission of Italy’s aesthetics, particularly architectural aesthetics, onto the English stage, so I was looking at a lot of images. In any case, I needed to have some reading knowledge of Italian, and so I started a couple of years of it in graduate school. And I originally felt some sort of affinity for the language, but it didn’t really go anywhere. 

I just learned a little bit of it, but then I started going to Italy. I made my first trip when I was a doctoral student, to Florence. I described that experience in In Other Words, of being surrounded by the language for the first time and feeling a sort of mysterious pull toward it. That left a grain of desire to know the language better, and it really just went from there, you know? I mean, I was, what, 24 years old or something like that. And it really was a 20-year-long, slow, not very consistent, unfolding and intensifying of learning the language, and eventually of relearning how to write in it.

Campbell Campbell: We normally ask translators if they’ve developed a translation philosophy over their career and when they transitioned from being a student to an expert in translation. You discuss your translation philosophy in the book, but I was really excited by how you staged the process of being constantly curious and open to new meanings in the language. In other words, you staged that the translator must constantly be a student and constantly be learning new things about the language, because the language is living and shifting. Could you describe your translation philosophy, especially your metaphor of the story of Echo and Narcissus, for our readers who haven’t read the book? And how have you either maintained or revised this philosophy over your career? 

JL: I keep turning back to Ovid, really. And all sorts of myths in Ovid, not just Echo and Narcissus, though that really gave me a window into the double metaphor, if you will, of how to translate, how to think about translation alongside writing, and how interchangeable those acts really are in the end, especially for someone who is a writer and a translator. But there are so many interesting episodes in the Metamorphoses in particular, which are all about radical states of transformation, after all. There’s so much language in that poem about silence and about people losing their voices and gaining voices or having different kinds of voices. So the Metamorphoses, which now has really become a central repository for me to keep thinking about what happens when language — when a text — is transforming, is itself shifting, as I translate it, from one language to another. 

I’m so curious about how other people approach translation, reading about other people’s philosophies, ideas, techniques, and I think that also shifts from project to project and in my case, from language to language. So translating the Metamorphoses now out of Latin is a very different process from translating, say, Domenico Starnone out of Italian. And that is a very different process from, say, the Bengali translation work I did back when I was a graduate student and translated the work of Ashapurna Devi with my mother’s help. 

So I don’t think there’s one way, and I think that there are so many forms of translation as well, whether it’s going to be closer to the text or more of an interpretation. I try to think of each project in its own moment and with its own needs and my own impulses toward that text in any given moment. But certainly the Echo and Narcissus myth opened up a lot for me because it was a way to read translation as the more dynamic and long-lasting of the forms.

CC: I’m excited to hear you say that you’re interested in more modern translation philosophies and classic literature, because I was surprised by your use of classic literature rather than contemporary translation philosophy. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about why that specifically inspired you. For example, was it because that was so integral to your undergraduate and graduate studies? I’m also wondering if you think contemporary translation philosophy is expanding the conversation to include things that maybe classic literature can’t consider in translations. I’m thinking of John Keane’s essay on translating Blackness across different countries — it seems to me that that might not be something that is really explored in classic literature.

JL: It’s certainly where I really began to translate — literally — because you can’t read ancient literature without translating it. So the reading becomes translation immediately, though they were incredibly rudimentary and scholastic translations back then. The point was to demonstrate one’s understanding of the grammar and the syntax. But even back then, reading Ovid for the first time as an undergraduate, I looked at the Latin text and the translations that would emerge in my homework assignments as opposed to other translations. That was already quite revelatory to me, to see the range of interpretation, the range of possibility. 

I think that at this point, there’s been a great circular gesture in my life in that I started out, as a college student, very excited about working closely with language. The study of classics grew out of my interest in renaissance literature and medieval literature (that was very much my focus as an English major at Barnard). Reading authors from those periods pushed me to read Greek and Latin. Now, while translating Ovid, it strikes me that maybe I’ve been working all this time to get back to working with an ancient text, and Ovid’s text in particular. 

Now that I am translating Ovid with Yelelna Baraz, a classicist and Latinist here at Princeton who’s really guiding me through the Latin, I’m heavily leaning on my knowledge of Italian in order to translate the poem into English. So I think that’s probably the most interesting aspect, or the most surprising aspect, of my return to Latin. I no longer am reading Latin with the brain I had when I was 20 years old — I’m reading Latin with a completely different brain, where Italian has now taken root. It’s impossible to read Latin without seeing it through that Italian filter.

MY: This is a slight pivot, but I also wanted to ask about your translation of Domenico Starnone’s novels. You’ve now translated three of his novels from Italian into English: Ties, Trick, and Trust. For our readers, can you tell us a bit more about how you and Starnone began to collaborate?

JL: We met a few months after I moved to Rome in 2012, and we met just as friends, there was no literary occasion or anything. He was the brother-in-law of our neighbors in our apartment building in Rome, and we met at a Christmas lunch the first year we lived there. We became friends, and I was curious about him as a writer. He had read some of my work and taught some of my work in translation in Italy, and then I read some of his work. In the beginning, my Italian was not really at the level of reading him well, because his Italian is so formidable. I mean, he’s really an extraordinary writer in Italian, his language is incredible. So it took a while for me to get to that place.

But then he wrote Lacci, which later became Ties, and I was still living in Italy when he published it. I remember reading it in Italian and calling him and saying, “If I were to translate something out of Italian, it would be this book.” And so the first official translation project of my life was to translate that novel. He’s very prolific, so then he wrote two other novels in relatively quick succession, and I just felt inspired to accompany him as a translator. Translating Domenico, I think, has played a crucial role in my own development as a writer in Italian. 

MY: One of the components of Starnone’s writing that you talk about in your afterword to Trust is how highly skilled he is at calibrating fictional time. I was really struck by how you describe time as this craft, something that can be sculpted and woven and bent. In your translation of Trust, Ties, and Starnone’s other novels, how did you go about translating such a specific and nimbly composed kind of time? Did you find that fictional time functions differently between English and Italian?

JL: Well, there are different tenses that don’t match up between the two languages. What will sound cumbersome in English doesn’t necessarily in Italian — Italian has to play by certain rules, and English plays by different rules. So I tried to layer the English version as best as I could to sort of move back and forth in the way that Domenico does. All of his novels are constantly oscillating temporally. 

One of the other great metaphors for me comes also from the ancient world vis-à-vis translation, and that is the figure of Janus, the two-headed god of transition. I think as a translator, one has to be facing forward into the language of translation and constantly be looking at the text as well; in some sense, I feel like that is so representative of the translator’s state of mind and attitude. It’s interesting because it’s kind of the opposite of Narcissus, who’s looking at himself while the image of himself is looking back at him, whereas Janus is looking in both directions at the same time. And Janus, of course, is really interesting in terms of tense because he is literally looking at the past and the future at once. 

So that imagery, that sense, that iconography which one finds everywhere in a city like Rome, comes up when I’m teaching translation, and I’ll talk about the imagery of someone like Janus to start thinking about what we have to do.

CC: That’s super interesting. You discuss the responsibility of the translator in relation to conveying the original work and writer to a new language community, in your case Italian works into the English language, and it seems to me that there would be even greater pressure when one translates into a hegemonic language and into a more dominant publishing market. I’m wondering, what responsibility did you feel when you translated Starnone’s novels, and how did you overcome that pressure?

JL: Thinking about translating for a public readership or a foreign market, one has to recreate the work. One has to rewrite the work in the new language, adhering to very specific constraints. So one is not inventing specific elements of any given work, but one is reinventing the text in the new language. I believe it is a rebirth of that work, a recreation of that work, or a transformation of that work, whatever language we want to bring to it. It is dynamic, it is active, it is creative. It has to be creative. There are so many points at which you have to figure out solutions for things that just won’t work otherwise in the new language. Either that, or you write it in a very flat or literal or stony way that doesn’t speak to the reader. So creativity is a crucial, crucial element.

For example, I’m teaching a workshop right now at Princeton on Italian women in translation. We’re working with Italian women translators and writers and their approaches and theories, and it’s a lot of fun. The other day we were looking at a sentence by the writer Anna Maria Ortese, who writes this extraordinary, heavily clause-laden prose. And someone said, “Can we interrupt the sentence? Can we put a period in there somewhere?” And I said “Yes, I think we are just going to have to,” because we’re following the way Italian syntax loves to work and to play, that parasyntactical grand architecture of so much Italian prose. Domenico loves to do this. You also see it in epic poetry, even with my translation of Ovid. There are passages where it’s just: and, and, and, and, clause, clause, clause, clause…

We have to at least consider breaking things up, reordering, and losing so much of the fun and games in the original text, but perhaps creating new fun and games in the new text. I think the point is to be aware of the fun and games that are happening in any given text, and to try to exchange in some sense the greatness and specific nuances of the work with whatever the language you’re translating into can provide. That’s very important. In some sense, I teach the myth of Narcissus and Echo with a caveat: we can’t think of translation as a mirroring, because it’s not one. And even a mirroring isn’t really the same thing inside of the mirror, right? It’s a reproduction and it’s an image, and it’s often a distortion. 

CC: I’m wondering how the difficulty in translating Starnone’s novels compares to the difficulty in translating your own writing. What new difficulties arise when translating your own writing?

JL: At the end of the day, I feel much more responsible for another writer. So I care more in some sense about making sure that I’ve done justice in the re-creation of Domenico’s work, or any other person’s work, because it’s such an enormous responsibility to speak for another person. It’s hard to feel responsible toward oneself in the same way, you know? 

If we’re going to move into the self-translation subject, I mean, that’s a very different process. And again, there’s no one way to go about it. Having now come to know and converse with various people who have done this, it’s clear that there’s the road of essentially rewriting and having another go at everything — adding and subtracting and padding and shaving as you see fit, as you’re moving through the text. Or there’s the road of saying, “This is the book I wrote, and this is the book I have to rewrite now in another language,” adhering more to what is there. Even then, creative solutions have to save you, and I certainly discovered that when I was translating Dove mi Trovo into Whereabouts

I think the hardest part for me of translating myself is having to re-engage with work that is no longer creatively alive inside of me, and that’s what’s a bit frustrating or even tedious about it. But it is also intellectually interesting, because there are points where I’m like, why did I do that? Or how can I say this? But I don’t feel the same gratification that I would feel, say, translating somebody else’s work. Also because, you know, I’m not a reader of my own work, I don’t care about my own work in that way. I just make my work because I feel compelled to make my work, and then I forget about it. I don’t go back and read it. I don’t like it in the way I like the work of other authors; I don’t admire it. 

Translating somebody else’s work is a completely different situation, because you’re immersed for weeks and months and years with the poetry or the prose of somebody who is feeding you, who is giving you nourishment. At least, that’s how I feel. Like it’s giving me nourishment as a writer, and as a reader. There’s just a basic sense of gratitude and pleasure that is constantly part of that process. I don’t feel that when I’m translating myself — there’s no gratitude, there’s no pleasure [laughs]. There’s just more of me seeing if I can walk this tightrope.

CC: I want to pivot a little and discuss a theme I was really excited about in the book — I was struck by the theme of multiplicity in the essays, and loved the line: “The highly original work of Gramsci has spawned translations, not just ‘literal’ translations from one language to another but meaningful heuristic offshoots in the form of scholarly analysis, all of which underscores the fact that translation describes the process of one text that becomes many.” This theme continues as you use Niccolo Tommaseo’s dictionary that has multiple English words and associations for each Italian word, and you even write in a way that leans toward multiplicity with lush descriptions and lists of what the implications are for each translation theory. 

I guess one question is, how do you toggle the line between translating and knowing that there’s multiplicity in the original work, but still having to make that final decision of choosing a singular word? And my second question is, did you intend to convey the multiplicity of your own thoughts as well? Or did that happen naturally?

JL: I mean, that’s I think one of the hardest things about translation: in the end, you do have to choose one sentence. Often I think the hardest part for me is the one adjective, because we can just go in circles in terms of what shading we want to give a certain adjective. And because of the inherent, wonderful ambivalence of so many words, the original writer is aware of that ambivalence — that word is there for a reason. But another term in English might not have that double-sided, double-edged meaning. It’s with adjectives that, if I go back and look at a translation, I still think, Well, was that the right one? There’s often a little bit of wistful looking back and reconsidering. And of course, every translation can be reconsidered, which is one of the most exciting and destabilizing things about translation. I actually love that — I love that translation in and of itself is an inherently open form. Translation begets translation across time and even within very specific time periods. There can be a spate of Kafka translations, where everyone’s translating The Metamorphosis for some reason, you know? And that happened! That happened a few years ago, and it was really interesting. 

So it is hard. It is hard to decide in the moment that this is going to be the word order of the sentence, these are going to be the adjectives, these are going to be the verb tenses that I’ll settle on and make my peace with. And then I’ll sign off the galleys, you know, and just accept that. But I think what’s really great about translation is that openness. For instance, I translated Domenico Starnone, but I really do hope someone will come along and re-translate those books and question what I’ve done and say, “Well, she didn’t really get that. I think I can get this a little bit better.” I like that. I like that there is no definitive translation, and I certainly don’t claim, “Oh, well, this is it.”

Then preferences come into the picture. Just the other day, my former advisor at Barnard, Timea Széll, said, “What is your favorite Dante translation?” I said, “Well, I mean, I really like Charles Singleton, but he’s prose, so if you don’t want to read a prose translation, maybe you want to go to so-and-so.” Or, “Well, I really like [W.S.] Merwin’s Purgatorio.” And this goes into the multiplicity question, because you’re multiplying the form of the text as well. Especially if we’re thinking about a poetic text like Dante, or Ovid, we have to ask: are we going to turn it into another type of poem? Is it going to deal with meter at all? Are the lines going to end in spondees or not? 

There’s so many considerations, and I find translators’ prefaces so fascinating for that reason because they’ll say, “This is what I decided. This is how I decided to play this game.” Because that’s what I think translation is: it’s a game, and you have to figure out a way to play it. I think that the point is to kind of get away with it, and to be more or less consistent in terms of what your approach is. If you’re going to set out to recreate the Metamorphoses and use some kind of rhyme scheme or meter or whatever, you have to carry that through and you have to carry it off, you know? 

And to your second question, I don’t know, I just think there are so many ways of looking at these questions and of understanding them. I am constantly considering and reconsidering how to look at things, so I’m not satisfied. For instance, I wrote the Echo and Narcissus essay [in Translating Myself and Others] several years ago, but I don’t feel like that’s it for me. I don’t feel like I’ve arrived at the evidence, and that’s just going to be the way to teach translation from now on. It’s one way. In the intervening years, I’ve translated so much more and I’ve read and thought so much more about translation, and I talk with so many more translators… So it keeps evolving just as language does, and it keeps complicating itself in interesting ways. It has to be reconsidered. I’ve never been interested in any one way of looking at anything. 

I think about someone like Gramsci, whose letters I’ve read, and I sort of traced his interest in translation, the theme of translation in some of the letters. I mean, look at what he does: he writes the notebooks and then reconsiders things in the letters or vice versa. It’s all very interesting because there’s a lot of internal translation happening in Gramsci’s body of work as well, even if we set aside the actual translation activity that he engaged in and that he thought about very carefully. If one is to read a writer like Gramsci, one sees that he in some sense is also self-translating on his multiple platforms.

MY: I love that you’re talking about translation as a game to play, especially because “Play” is our theme for this year’s issue of the journal, so it’s very topical. But continuing on this line of celebrating multiplicity, I was interested in how you talk about certain critiques of your work that label it as “unsettling” or even “wanting.” When you talk about those critiques, you suggest that total assimilation into a new language, similar to total assimilation into a new country or culture, is not your aim as a translator.

That notion made me think about Cathy Park Hong’s essay, “Bad English,” in which she talks about incorporating East Asian mistranslations of English into her poetry. She envisions mistranslation as a way of “hijacking” English and resisting its imperial histories. Do you see any parallels or fissures between this vision and your disinterest in assimilating through translation?

JL: I’ve constantly had to push back, and certainly in Italian. Even now, I have to push back. People will say, “You can’t say this,” or “One wouldn’t say this,” or “One shouldn’t say this.” I mean, for any writer, even when writing just in one language, isn’t that the aim in some sense? To transform the language, or transform our understanding of language? I am very aware of this sort of tension in terms of what I’m “allowed” to do or not in Italian. But I have a feeling that if I were a native Italian speaker, born and raised in Italy, some of the liberties I might take with the language wouldn’t be questioned in the same way. Now it’s kind of too late, because I’ve laid bare my entire process and my ignorance, moving from a state of complete ignorance into some form of partial knowledge. In In Other Words and even in Translating Myself and Others, I make clear that Italian is not my first language by any means and that there are all sorts of gaps and fissures.

To go back to the game — that’s part of the game for me, and that’s part of what keeps me engaged in this game. It’s that I don’t have full knowledge, even as the knowledge grows, even as the sense of familiarity with the game grows. But it is still a very dangerous game, a very risky game. So that is my way of pushing back, in terms of what I’m doing right now in Italian. I think that has to continue, because there is an ongoing sense from native speakers that you can’t possibly know my language better than I do. And then that opens up the really big complex questions of who “owns” language, and who has the right to tell another person how to speak any given language. It just hits such a nerve because we all learn language through imitation, and we learn to speak the way people around us are speaking. Essentially, I learned how to speak Italian from being around people and trying to speak as they were speaking.

But I think it’s very important to keep the question of who owns language and what makes something “my” language as opposed to “not my” language, at the very center of the conversation. In the strange linguistic journey that I’ve put myself on, I’ve insisted on that place and that position of the person who is crossing the border, of the migrant who’s entering in and and trying to survive in some sense. And not just to survive, but to change the landscape. We have so many examples of writers who come into English from other languages — and that opens up a whole other topic we don’t have time for — but even at Princeton I work with two writers, Yiyun Li and Aleksandar Hemon, who have migrated from other languages into English. I think it’s interesting that English, for all of its imperialist qualities, has generally looked upon writers who migrate into it as a really enriching and wonderful thing.

I don’t know if this happens as commonly in a language like Italian. In fact, I know it doesn’t; it’s a smaller world. Even though I’ve had incredible support for what I’ve been doing in Italian and I wouldn’t have been able to continue without that kind of support and guidance, I still find myself constantly bumping up against that idea of checkpoints and what is possible and what is not possible. It’s not a very comfortable sensation, and it’s not a very pleasant sensation. But it keeps me very aware of larger questions of identity and migration that have always been part of my consciousness and my understanding of the world.

Translating Myself and Others will be available from Princeton University Press on May 17, 2022. You can pre-order it now here.

Portrait by Brigitte Lacombe.