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Jhumpa Lahiri explores the world of translation and languages ​​: NPR

Princeton University Press

Jhumpa Lahiri explores the world of translation and languages ​​: NPR

Princeton University Press

In the mid-2000s, American novelist Jhumpa Lahiri moved to Rome and began to write only in Italian, a language she had long studied and loved.

In 2016, she published a small book titled On paroletranslated into English by In other words, explaining the attractions of writing in a new language. Ann Goldstein, who is best known for translating Elena Ferrante, author of the Neapolitan novels, translated it into English. At the time, Lahiri writes in the introduction to his new collection of essays Translate myself and othersshe “put all her energy into writing in Italian, and didn’t translate anyone, not to mention me, into the language I know best”.

But upon her return to the United States, Lahiri found herself “immediately and instinctively drawn to the world of translation”. Translate myself and others is a guide to this world. In it, Lahiri blends detailed explorations of the craft with broader reflections on her own artistic life, as well as the “essential aesthetic and political mission” of translation. It is excellent in all three modes – so excellent, in fact, that I, a translator myself, could barely read this book. I kept putting it aside, compelled by Lahiri’s writing to go sit at my desk and translate.

One of Lahiri’s great gifts as an essayist is his ability to weave multiple ways of thinking together, often in surprising ways. In “In Praise of Echo”, one of the best pieces in the collection, she mixes literary and cultural analysis with her own experiences as a linguistic transfrontier. “I was born with a temperament of a translator,” Lahiri writes, “in that my overriding desire was to connect disparate worlds. I devoted a great deal of energy in my life to absorbing the language and culture of others: my parents’ Bengali. , and then… Italian, a language that I have now creatively adopted.” Her ability and freedom to do the latter is, she believes, key not only to her artistic life, but also to our shared capacity for cultural change and growth.

Intellectual and artistic freedom are major concerns of Lahiri. She explores the former in “(Extra) Ordinary Translation”, a careful reading of Italian communist Antonio Gramsci’s prison letters, and the latter in “An Ode to the Mighty Optative”, which begins with a technical analysis of the translation dilemmas posed by verbs in ancient poetry and works up to a hymn to the “infinite potential” of unconstrained art. Literature, for Lahiri, requires the absence of obligation: it cannot fulfill its “true purpose, which is…to explore the phenomenon and consequences of change”, if writers do not have “the means , the strength, the ability, the permission, the power, and above all the freedom to fill the page.”

Of course, translators need this same freedom. It may seem to outsiders that translation is “a restrictive act of copying”, so indebted to the original text that it requires little thought. It is anything but true. Lahiri writes that “a translator restores the meaning of a text through an elaborate alchemical process that requires imagination, ingenuity, and freedom.” Like many other translators – and their detractors – she relies heavily on metaphor and simile to describe this alchemy. Indeed, this addiction is so common that you can often tell how someone feels about the translation just by looking at their figures of speech. In his excellent polemic book The translator’s turnscholar and translator Douglas Robinson takes aim at a number of common and damaging metaphors that reduce the translator to “a mere tool, like a knife or screwdriver. A medium, like a window (for sight), like air ( for sound ). A vehicle, like a wheelbarrow or a truck. Not a person.”

Lahiri, unsurprisingly, never stoops to that kind of comparison. His descriptions of the translation are much stranger and more illuminating, especially in his more personal essays. She writes from her “center of gravity” wavering between English and Italian; to translate as “look[ing] in a mirror and see[ing] someone other than yourself. » In « Why Italian? », the first essay in the collection, Lahiri first describes learning and writing in Italian as going through a series of doors; then as submitting to a figurative and voluntary form of blindness; and finally as grafting itself, like a branch to a tree, on the tongue. But the best description of the item is the one it barely dwells on. “Reading, writing and living in Italian”, she writes, “I feel like a reader, a writer, a more attentive, active and curious person.” Of course, Lahiri is a reader and a writer, but constantly feeling like one is, as this phrase rightly suggests, rare and precious. Fiction writing and language acquisition require alertness, total concentration, which the routines and pressures of everyday existence can easily dull. Now that Lahiri no longer lives primarily in Italian, she writes, translation has “transformed my relationship to writing” by offering her a route to that focus. It “goes under the skin and shocks the system” to life.

Translate myself and others is a reminder, whatever your relationship to translation, how alive language itself can be. In her essays as in her novels, Lahiri is a writer of great quiet elegance; his sentences seem simple even when they are complex. Their beauty and clarity alone would be enough to wake up readers. “Look”, his essays seem to say: look how badly we have to wake up.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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