TRANSLATING MYSELF AND OTHERS
By Jhumpa Lahiri
Last fall, I made my first visit to London since the start of the pandemic. A routine commuter flight from Europe felt like a great adventure, and once I’d jumped through the bureaucratic hoops, I was excited to arrive. But the city looked disappointingly unchanged after everything the world had gone through. The only thing that really shocked me was something I hadn’t expected: hearing people speaking English. After two years away from it, I had never felt so moved to encounter my own language.
Hearing a mother tongue is like stepping into a warm bath. But one of the disquieting discoveries that studying foreign languages brings is the awareness that your own can be a trap. By providing a steady drip of prefabricated words and ideas, your only tool for thinking and feeling can just as easily become a tool for not thinking, for not feeling; and when forced to do without those words and ideas, you realize how many of your so-called thoughts are nothing more than clichés grafted onto you by the language with which you grew up. In “Translating Myself and Others,” the Indian American writer Jhumpa Lahiri traces a journey away from the automatisms of English.
When she was 45, Lahiri decided to begin writing in Italian. Her choice was considered mystifying, eccentric: “Why Italian instead of an Indian language, a closer language, more like you?” Yet the whole point, of course, was to be less like her — less trapped by unconscious accretions of unthinking. Italian, for her, was an entirely learned language. “Nothing came to me naturally; I had to pay my dues,” she writes.
Lahiri recounted the beginnings of her journey in a book published in 2015, “In altre parole,” which was translated (not by her) as “In Other Words.” She followed this with a novel, which she did end up translating herself. (It became “Whereabouts” in English.) At the same time, prompted by the Italian novelist Domenico Starnone, she became a translator of other people’s work, too; she has now published translations of three of Starnone’s novels. It is the traffic between different languages that gives a theme to this new collection.
With the fervor of a true language person, Lahiri dives into the dictionaries. She savors unexpected etymologies. She offers lists of near-synonyms. She dedicates an entire essay to the optative mood in ancient Greek. She goes beyond Italian into Latin, reflecting on her current project to translate Ovid. She writes about Italian authors, including Starnone, Gramsci and Calvino, and their relationship to languages, their own and other people’s.
Above all, she makes herself at home in the unhomey — unheimlich, eerie, uncanny — borderlands between languages. Some emerge between cultures separated by gulfs of time: Lahiri quotes a classicist who says that “scarcely one in ten of the nouns in the first few pages of the ‘Poetics’ has an exact English equivalent.” But the inability to find a match is not restricted to ancient languages. Translating even something as close to you as your own work, Lahiri writes, “forces you to doubt the validity of every word on the page.”
Psychologically, this can be destabilizing. To spend a lot of time with your head in dictionaries is to understand the extent to which your head is made up of dictionaries. And if our language doesn’t give us a word that another language contains, it may be that we won’t think or feel things that speakers of other languages do. Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
It is a bit demoralizing to realize that every word we speak or write — everything we use to express everything we feel — is not ours but was bequeathed by unseen generations. As infants, we absorb language unconsciously; in learning another language, this process becomes conscious. “The illusion of artistic freedom is just that, an illusion,” Lahiri writes. “No words are ‘my words’ — I merely arrange and use them a certain way.”
For the children of immigrants who speak a different language, this process is inevitably more fraught than for the children of monolingual parents. Lahiri always shuffled between her parents’ language, Bengali, and that of the America where she grew up. It was natural for her to reflect on the meaning of these different linguistic universes — and natural, too, for her to determine that she would bridge this separation. This determination might be called the first emotional requirement of every translator: “I was born with a translator’s disposition, in that my overriding desire was to connect disparate worlds.”
Yet she does not dwell on what one might call the postcolonial or political aspects of her own biography. Neither is she encumbered by the pieties that often surround writing on translation. Instead, “Art is not — should not — be an instrument for change of any kind,” she writes. “Once art weds itself to a social or political purpose it is bled of its true purpose, which is not to change the world but to explore the phenomenon and the consequences of change itself.” The book, instead, is about the consequences of the apparently simple act of choosing one’s own words.
Lahiri knows that no words are “our words.” She is skeptical about our ability to escape the trap of reflexive expression. Yet her book also contains a hope for the liberating power of language. If we have to use someone else’s words, let us, at the very least, not delude ourselves into thinking that they are our own. Let us, at the very least, try to turn the involuntary process of language into a deliberate act.
We are individuals to the extent that we can express ourselves within certain patterns, in accord with specific necessities and relations. Language, like biology or social circumstance, is one of these patterns; and as anyone who has ever tried to lose a foreign accent knows, escape from those patterns is impossible for almost everyone.
Yet that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Hidden in “Translating Myself and Others” is a quasi-mystical project of self-creation: “To translate is to look into a mirror and see someone other than oneself,” Lahiri writes. What is left of us when we strip away the apparatus of inherited expression? If her project, like all extreme schemes of self-invention, seems hopeless, her doomed but heroic quest for freedom lends this book its life. She knows that the illusion of freedom is an illusion. But her pursuit of Italian is about something far bigger than synonyms or dictionaries or nouns. Studying this foreign language is, or can be, a liberation, Lahiri says: “I write in Italian to feel free.”