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'Translating Myself and Others' is a reminder of how alive language can be

Princeton University Press

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

In 2016, she released a short book called In altre parole, translated into English as In Other Words, explaining the attractions of writing in a new language. Ann Goldstein, who is most famous for translating Elena Ferrante, author of the Neapolitan Novels, rendered it into English. At the time, Lahiri writes in the introduction to her new essay collection Translating Myself and Others, she was "putting all my energy into writing in Italian, and not translating anyone, never mind myself, into the language I know best."

But on returning to the United States, Lahiri found herself "immediately and instinctively drawn to the world of translation." Translating Myself and Others is a guide to that world. In it, Lahiri mixes detailed explorations of craft with broader reflections on her own artistic life, as well as the "essential aesthetic and political mission" of translation. She 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 her ability to braid multiple ways of thinking together, often in startling ways. In "In Praise of Echo," one of the collection's best pieces, she mixes literary and cultural analysis with her own experiences as a linguistic border-crosser. "I was born with a translator's disposition," Lahiri writers, "in that my overriding desire was to connect disparate worlds. I have devoted a great deal of energy in my life to absorbing the language and culture of others: the Bengali of my parents, and then... Italian, a language which I have now creatively adopted." Her ability and freedom to do the latter are, she argues, key not only to her artistic life, but our shared capacity for cultural change and growth.

Intellectual and artistic freedom are major preoccupations of Lahiri's. She explores the former in "(Extra) Ordinary Translation," a close reading of the 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 paean to the "infinite potential" of unconstrained art. Literature, to Lahiri, requires the absence of obligation: It cannot fulfill its "true purpose, which is... to explore the phenomenon and the consequences of change," if writers do not have "the means, strength, capacity, permission, power, and, above all, the freedom to fill the page."

Of course, translators need that same freedom. It can seem to outsiders that translation is "a restrictive act of copying," so beholden to the original text that it scarcely requires thought. This is anything but true. Lahiri writes that "a translator restores the meaning of a text by means of an elaborate, alchemical process that requires imagination, ingenuity, and freedom." Like many other translators — and their critics — she relies heavily on metaphor and simile to describe this alchemy. Indeed, this reliance is so common that you can often tell how somebody feels toward translation simply by looking at their figures of speech. In his excellent, polemical book The Translator's Turn, the scholar and translator Douglas Robinson takes aim at a number of damaging, common metaphors that reduce the translator to a "mere tool, like a knife or a 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 this sort of comparison. Her descriptions of translating are far odder and more illuminating, especially in her more personal essays. She writes of her "center of gravity" wobbling between English and Italian; of translating as "look[ing] into a mirror and see[ing] someone other than oneself." In "Why Italian?," the collection's first essay, Lahiri first describes learning and writing in Italian as passing through a series of doors; then as submitting to a figurative, voluntary form of blindness; and last as grafting herself, like a branch to a tree, onto the language. But the piece's best description is one she barely lingers on. "Reading, writing, and living in Italian," she writes, "I feel like a reader, a writer, a person who is more attentive, active, and curious." Of course, Lahiri is a reader and writer, but to feel constantly like one is, as this sentence rightly suggests, rare and precious. Both fiction writing and language acquisition demand an alertness, a totality of focus, that the routines and pressures of everyday existence can easily blunt. 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.

Translating Myself and Others is a reminder, no matter your relationship to translation, of how alive language itself can be. In her essays as in her fiction, Lahiri is a writer of great, quiet elegance; her sentences seem simple even when they're complex. Their beauty and clarity alone would be enough to wake readers up. "Look," her essays seem to say: Look how much there is for us to wake up to.

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

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