Jhumpa Lahiri on the Joy of Translation as Discovery
"I can no longer imagine not working on a translation."
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Translating drives me to reconsider, radically, how I write, and why. The books I have written since In Other Words — the novel Dove mi trovo, a book of poems called Il quaderno di Nerina, and a story collection entitled Racconti romani — have been running on a parallel track with my translation, by now, of three novels by Domenico Starnone (Ties, Trick, and the forthcoming Trust), various stories I translated for The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, and now, from Latin, a co-translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Translation shows me how to work with new words, how to experiment with new styles and forms, how to take greater risks, how to structure and layer my sentences in different ways. Reading exposes me to all this, but translating goes under the skin and shocks the system, such that these new solutions emerge in unexpected and revelatory ways. The particular ecosystem containing Latin, Italian, and English renders Italian more familiar, and English more marvelously strange. The attention to language that translation demands is moving my work not only in new directions but into an increasingly linguistically focused dimension: I would never have begun writing poetry without the intimate exposure to the Italian language that only translation can provide; this shift was particularly surprising given that I have never written poetry in English.
Translation also operates at a different speed compared to writing — the first draft can move quite swiftly, but once I begin revising, I can spend hours playing with a single sentence, or meditating upon a single word. It establishes new rhythms and approaches that cross-pollinate the process of contemplating and crafting my own work. Translating others prepared me to translate myself, and that experience has redefined notions I previously had regarding words like “original,” “authentic,” and “authorship.” I feel less anxious and self-conscious about writing now that translation accompanies it.
The conversation I have been seeking to have with literature for much of my life now feels more complete, more harmonious, also far richer with possibilities. I was struck by the number of Italian writers in the Penguin anthology who devoted considerable time and energy to translating, not only for personal mentorship and influence, but for furthering the essential public and political mission of opening linguistic and cultural borders, and introducing readers to works they would not be able to access otherwise. I am proud to be in their company.
At this point, I can no longer imagine not working on a translation, just as I can not imagine not working on — or thinking of working on — my own writing. I think of them as two aspects of the same activity, two faces of the same coin, or perhaps it is better to describe them as two strokes, exercising distinct but complementary strengths, that allow me to swim greater distances, and at greater depths, through the mysterious element of language.
Read more on rediscovering language through translation:
David Shariatmadari on the power of untranslatable words.
Susan Harlan on reconnecting with a forgotten language.
Anne Posten on how translators follow their intuition.
Kaori Fujimoto on accepting imperfection in a second language.
5 Books in Translation
RECOMMENDED BY JHUMPA LAHIRI
Domenico Starnone, Ties
Domenico Starnone, Trick
Jhumpa Lahiri (ed.), The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories
Andrea Bajani, If You Kept a Record of Sins
Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri is available via Knopf.