Translating Myself and Others

Translating Myself and Others coverTranslating Myself and Others
Jhumpa Lahiri
Princeton University Press (May 17, 2022), 203 pages
Kindle edition $9.44, Amazon hardcover $19.79

When I read several years ago that Jhumpa Lahiri was moving to Italy and was going to start writing in Italian I had a couple of reactions. I wondered whether we were being deprived of one of our best storytellers in English. And I scratched my head, thinking that this was a rather odd decision. In Translating Myself and Others, Lahiri fills us in on why she made that decision.

The specific dates across the introduction and the various essays don’t sync up and had me somewhat confused, but the sequence of events is still clear. Lahiri decided she was in love with the Italian language so she moved there and began to write in Italian. She also became friendly with Italian authors whose work she later translated into English. At some point she returned to the United States to teach translation at Princeton but returned to Rome whenever academic holidays or sabbatical permitted.

The title of the book is an exact description of its contents. She writes about overcoming the fear of translating her own work from Italian into English, and she discusses translating the work of others, in particular novelist Domenico Starnone. Having lived in Italy, Lahiri has a fascination with the Roman poet Ovid and his work The Metamorphoses. She refers to passages from Ovid throughout the book and describes how she is working on a new translation with a Princeton classicist.

Lahiri is open to the criticism of her work. She writes that critics said that her Italian was not idiomatic. That is not the word they used, but that was the essence of their evaluation. She describes how American critics thought she was arrogant to write introductions to her translations of Starnone.

When she writes about the process of translation Lahiri includes the passage in its original language before providing the English version. She really wants the reader to understand what she is doing.

About translation Lahiri writes:

quoteTranslation has always been a controversial literary form, and those who are resistant to it or dismiss it complain that the resulting transformation is a “mere echo” of the original — that too much has been lost in the process of traveling from one language into another.

When I read those words this seemed like a rather narrow perspective, but if I am honest I know I can be guilty of taking such a view. Maybe that’s why most of what I read are books originally written in English. That is limiting, however. One book I thoroughly enjoyed was Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski. I very much liked the writing, but the book I read was a translation into English from the original Polish. I do not know how well translator Klara Glowczewska reflected Kapuscinski’s Polish, but that didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book.

Another case in point: Isabel Allende. I know she writes in Spanish and her books are translated into English. I don’t know if she translates any of her work herself or if a translator is responsible for the English versions. What I know is that her literary fiction meets with high regard and that I am missing out on some good reading by overthinking these questions.

So, about translation: If the topic interests you be sure to read Translating Myself and Others. You’ll be glad you did.

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