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Linguistic Oddities

By Srutokirti Basak

Speaking at the London Review Bookshop in 2019, Jhumpa Lahiri described the first short story she had written in Italian as a ‘Frankenstein’s monster,’ the same year her Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories graced shelves. I was struck by her invocation of this metaphor because Lahiri, unlike in the original Shelley novel, was not rejecting the new life she had created. Rather, by deciding to immerse herself in the language by moving to Rome in 2012, Lahiri had ‘renounced’ English and would thenceforth only read and write in Italian. It was with her article ‘Teach Yourself Italian’ in The New Yorker that Lahiri debuted as an Italian writer, three years post-move. Her ‘linguistic autobiography,’ In altre parole, was published in the same year. And while the book was translated into English, Lahiri refused to do this task herself. Recruiting Ann Goldstein, who would later also translate Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, In Other Words was released so that Lahiri’s Italian could be preserved ‘without smoothing out its rough edges, without neutralising its oddness, without manipulating its character.’

Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003) had been a formative novel in her career, encapsulating the diasporic experience of Indians living abroad in measured, if sometimes melancholic, prose. Lahiri came to be best known as an Indian American author interested in forms of alienation – linguistic, social, interpersonal. So, while reading In Other Words, it came as a surprise that Lahiri was writing in Italian. My copy included Lahiri’s Italian on the left page with Ann Goldstein’s English translation on the right. Reading her words – or at least, their translation – feels restless, incurs impatience, like when a friend tells you they have a secret which they can only tell you about later. I wanted to know, why Italian?

The recent publication of Translating Myself and Others (2022) presented the opportunity to answer that very question. This collection of personal essays marks a journey in Lahiri’s career following In Other Words. In 2015, although knowing she ‘would be the natural translator,’ Lahiri didn’t have ‘the least desire to do it.’ Comparing her re-encounter with English to an awkward run-in with an ex-boyfriend from years ago, Lahiri wrote that the language ‘no longer appeals to [her].’ In 2022, Lahiri not only describes herself as, but champions the cause of, the writer-translator taking on challenges from self-translation to the translation of classical texts with equal fervour. Our conversation was shaped around the variety of these linguistic journeys – growing up speaking Bangla with her parents, a life-long remoteness from English, her love affair with Italian, and now her relationship to English as a translator.

Lahiri’s immersion in Italian did not come easily. A distance always remained between her love of Italian and her sense of belonging to it. Describing it as an encounter with a border, a wall she could never hope to cross, Lahiri writes, ‘because of my physical appearance, I’m seen as a foreigner.’ ‘Sometimes when I speak Italian in Italy,’ she feels a sense of deep alienation, of unbelonging: ‘I feel reprimanded, like a child who touches an object that shouldn’t be touched.’ For Lahiri, this wasn’t her first confrontation with linguistic alienation. She had been thinking about translating her ‘entire conscious life’ as an Indian American living in the United States. Lahiri thinks her Italian will always have a ‘strangeness’ to it, but that is the point. Uninterested in being accepted as a ‘native’ speaker, her ‘strange’ Italian is an assertion of her status as an outsider. She tells me during our conversation, ‘I am at a point in my life, at least creatively speaking, where I really do see the advantage of longing for this one point of origin and pushing back against this origin myth.’ Questioning the assumption that people can belong to one place alone and always have, Lahiri finds any claims to originality to be fallacious. This does not take away, however, from the enduring desire to nonetheless belong to the places, the people, the languages one loves.

While the melancholic nature of some of her earlier diasporic work manifests in an overt and at times autobiographical manner, Lahiri now finds herself in a position where she is ‘armed by the sense of not having solid ground in terms of identity, belonging, place, language.’ She derives this positive relationship with her outsider status, and her embrace of linguistic alienation, from novelist Lalla Romano’s formulation ‘my near blindness = a point of view.’ Romano conceived the formulation as she was losing her eyesight in the final years of her life, and instead of viewing this blindness as an impairment, Romano ‘saw’ the ways in which it allowed her to experience the world anew. Thus, Italian, for Lahiri, is akin to developing another pair of eyes, an experiment in weakness. Italian enables her access to a novelty of experience. Fallible Italian allows for Lahiri an insight into the language and its literature that native speakers aren’t attuned to.

Her lifelong experience of linguistic alienation also attuned her to understanding language, translation even more so, as political. Setting out to explore the landscape of the Italian short story in the twentieth century for The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, Lahiri stumbled upon a community of writers, which included authors such as Italo Calvino and Natalia Ginzburg. All majorly influenced by literary works in other languages, particularly American literature, these ‘hybrid individuals’ actively participated in acts of translation. The crucial backdrop to this project of translation was the rise of Italian fascism under Benito Mussolini, an important aspect of which was enforcing a ‘pure Italian’ free from foreign words and expressions. Thus, for the writers in the anthology, their work as translators was subversive in attempting to connect Italy to the world, as was their insistence on the existence of a diverse world within Italy, when Italy was most interested in defining itself through an ‘origin myth’ instead. If there is a cultural wall that insists on a distance between Lahiri and her love of Italian because of her race, then there is also the possibility for linguistic translation to ‘broaden the literary horizon, open doors, break down the wall.’

Translation is not just artistic but has a crucial practical element. Lahiri agrees with Walter Benjamin’s conceptualisation of the role of the translator. In his essay, ‘The Translator’s Task’ (1923), Benjamin makes the case that the role of translator is to ensure the survival of literary texts in the contemporary moment. Susan Bassnett writes, ‘In his 1985 essay ‘Des Tours de Babel’, that Derrida took up Benjamin’s idea that translation is about ensuring survival: 'for a translation comes after the original and, for the important works that never find their predestined translator at the time of their birth, it characterises the stage of their survival… A translation therefore ensures the continuity with ever-replenishing of a work by bringing it to new generations of readers.’ More importantly, however, the task of the translator is to discover in the translator’s own language ‘the latent structure which can awake an echo of the original,’ which chimes with Lahiri’s point that ‘language is the substance of literature, but language also locks it up again, confining it to silence and obscurity. Translation, in the end, is the key.’ Translation is the only possibility for meaningful connection across cultures in a world that is reeling from an increasingly globalised world.

In her journey towards becoming her own translator, Lahiri was hesitant to engage in an editing pursuit where she was the sole authority, being wary of ‘the risk, for the author who self-translates, to rewrite more than translate.’ It was also a concern that staring too long at her own work would unravel the text, unravel herself. This mode of self-reflection – perhaps more aptly called self-destruction – would reflect the Narcissus myth, swapping the Greek hunter’s face for the American novelist’s letters, ending in Lahiri proclaiming, ‘I am he!’ just as Narcissus says ‘iste ego sum!’ in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. However, having taken on this challenge, Lahiri discovered that self-translation allowed her to escape ‘from the false myth of the definitive text.’ Lahiri has come to appreciate that the most dynamic state of writing to exist is that of the work-in-progress, which self-translation lays bare.

However, she often finds herself demanding more from her newfound identity as a writer-translator. When ‘the back and forth between Italian and English feels static,’ Lahiri finds other ways of linguistic fulfilment. Having embarked on translating the Metamorphoses into English with her colleague Yelena Baraz, she is placed in a triangulation of languages: Latin into Italian, Italian into English. This interplay of languages is not only logistically convenient, given Italian’s Vulgar Latin derivation, but also allows Lahiri the space for ‘productive’ playfulness, and reconfigures the pedestal where she used to place the two languages she knows best. ‘The third language takes away any hierarchical relationship between the two pre-existing languages and brings forth the variable possibilities of how languages relate to one another.’

Lahiri’s relationship to language has always been a triangulating one. Her knowledge of Bangla and English, coupled with an early interest in Italian after a trip to Florence, has been mediated, at various points in her life, through an interlocutor who exists between her and the language. In Bangla, she could rely on her parents for translation and interpretation. In fact, Lahiri’s Master’s thesis was inspired by her mother’s tape recordings of the short stories of Ashapurna Devi, a prominent Indian woman novelist. Lahiri was captivated by Devi’s ‘understanding of human nature, along with her ability to peel away the layers within the family,’ and went on to translate her stories into English from her mother’s recordings. However, as an American, Lahiri conducted her daily life in English, despite the prevalence of Bangla at home with her parents. And while she found herself falling in love with English literature at a young age, Lahiri would, in her later life, describe English as a ‘stepmother.’ Italian, for her, became ‘a flight from the long clash between English and Bangla.’

Given her own experiences of linguistic alienation from both Bangla and English, Lahiri was ever cognisant of the fact that linguistic divides can introduce a ‘schism’ between parent and child. Thus, the necessity of translation – perhaps most importantly self-translation – became obvious to her. Tensions still remained in her newly found identity as a writer-translator. Lahiri states, ‘as a writer I am much less concerned about the audience, or the readership; I am concerned about how something sounds to me. Whereas as a translator, I am constantly thinking about how this sounds out loud.’ Therein lies a dual responsibility for the hyphenated creative: where the writer is committed to creating art, the translator is invested in the excavation of meaning and the practical process of ensuring that this meaning can be conveyed across language. Thus, her concerns surrounding translation as a means of overcoming linguistic divides are as much a personal concern as it is a political or literary one.

I end my conversation with Lahiri asking about her future translatory ventures. She tells me that she would like to translate more of Ovid, particularly the Tristia, a collection of letters written in elegiac couplets during his exile from Rome. She also hopes to translate some of her mother’s poetry, as well as some Bangla poets dear to her mother, such as Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh. Uncontained, Lahiri exists in the linguistic spheres of Italian, English, Latin, and Bangla, and amalgamates them in the same field of vision; her literary pursuits are testament to the expansive linguistic possibilities available to those of us caught up in the navigation of confusing diasporic identities. In championing the cause of translation, Lahiri makes the case for recognising oneself as a linguistic subject, while not allowing our linguistic horizons to be restrictive. Her work as a writer-translator is a reminder that letting go of our own ‘origin-myths’ and embracing our ‘oddness’ gifts us new ways of existing between worlds.

SRUTOKIRTI BASAK reads for an MSt in Global and Imperial History. She is trying to make her life as difficult as possible by wanting to stay in academia.

Art by Yii-Jen Deng


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