Degrees of Separation

In 2015, the American writer Jhumpa Lahiri published an essay in The New Yorker titled ‘Teach Yourself Italian’. Proceeding in a present tense of terse sentences, it detailed Lahiri’s relationship with the Italian language – an ‘infatuation’, which at various stages of her life she had pursued for ostensibly practical reasons: a doctorate on Italian architecture in English Renaissance drama; a holiday; a book tour. Finally compelled to relocate to Rome, Lahiri describes how she soon began writing in Italian, renouncing the language in which she had enjoyed a successful career as a writer ever since her Pulitzer-winning debut Interpreter of Maladies (1999). The essay’s conceit comes in the penultimate paragraph, where Lahiri notes in passing that she is ‘writing this sentence in Italian’. An editorial note confirms the article had indeed been translated. Lahiri’s journey into Italian was thus certified; for her English readers, she was now on the other side of a gauze.

Lahiri subsequently returned to the United States to take up a professorship at Princeton, but her work has remained – both linguistically and intellectually – on foreign shores. She writes her literary work in Italian, sometimes translating herself, while any writing in English takes the form of criticism and translations of Italian and Latin writing. This striking and unusual new course has however remained hard to make clean sense of, or, perhaps, to narrativise. A memoir, In Other Words (2015), written in Italian and published in a bilingual edition, gives a vivid sense of Lahiri’s experience of living in Italy and Italian, as well as what writing in another language has offered her – namely a freedom which is paradoxical, both permissive and restricting. Yet what drove her decision, and what sustains it, is left tantalisingly unarticulated.

Lahiri’s latest book, Translating Myself and Others, follows In Other Words in presenting a kind of composite picture of her writing life since she began working in Italian. It collects recent essays that have dealt with translation both as discipline and a theme. Three essays on novels that Lahiri has translated by Domenico Starnone, first published as companions to them and slightly unbalancing the collection, are nonetheless among the best, demonstrating the well-rehearsed idea that translation is the most intimate form of reading. This is in keeping with all the essays: these are records of intense relationships rather than holistic critical appraisals. Lahiri uncovers resonances with translation throughout Starnone’s novels which, given the terms of her encounter, feel inevitable. Lahiri’s responses to other writers ­– Calvino, Gramsci, Ovid – are similarly focused, a priori, on translation. The essay on Gramsci’s Prison Letters comprises a set of fragmentary observations that circle around doubles, imitations, and responses. Lahiri’s attention to Gramsci’s ‘readings’ of others – including Dante, Dostoevsky, and G. K. Chesterton – develops into a reading, perhaps even a translation, of Gramsci himself.

The essays also contain personal anecdotes and reflections, which are typically forthright, even defiant, in their contentions – ‘I didn’t think that my growing dedication to the Italian language was anything unusual before coming to Italy. I’d never paused to consider what it meant.’ Lahiri is consistently present in her particular critical sensitivities and recurring attention to subjects such as exile, etymologies and ghosts. Yet her presence is nevertheless oblique. In The Clothing of Books (2015), a lecture given in Italian and translated by her husband, Lahiri recalls collaborating with the photographer Marco Delogu on the portrait that would appear on the cover of In Other Words, ‘the first time…I was able to participate in the creation of a book jacket’. In the portrait, Lahiri sits in the reading room of a library in Rome with a large anonymous volume in front of her, her head resting on one hand and her gaze facing, inscrutably, away. The portrait, and her pleasure in directing it, is indicative of a certain distance that Lahiri maintains. Her self-presentation is clear yet ambiguous, an evocation of reticence and indirection as much as an assertion of character. Translating Myself is similarly calculated and precise, and however open it may appear, it is never straightforwardly confessional.

Central to Lahiri’s self-presentation is the notion that translation has always been a part of her life. Lahiri was born in 1967 in London to Bengali parents and moved to Rhode Island, where she grew up. ‘I was raised speaking and living, simultaneously, in English and Bengali, and this meant translating between them, constantly, for myself and for others.’ She went on to study at Columbia and Boston University, pursuing a master’s based around translations of Ashapuna Devi from Bengali, and then the doctorate that prompted her to study Italian. ‘I was a translator before I was a writer’, she has stated. Translation is indeed there in the title of her first short story collection. The story that gives Interpreter of Maladies its title is a kind of fable of translation, turning on the relationship between a tourist visiting Calcutta and her guide, who normally works as a translator at a doctor’s surgery.

Moving between Bengal and the north-eastern United States, the collection is also preoccupied with translation in a wider sense – of people, traditions, and cultures. Lahiri portrays this adroitly from multiple generational standpoints; the social milieu – the middle-class families of university employees – is the more or less unbroken constant. The novel that followed, The Namesake (2003), begins with a quintessential example: a Bengali woman, Ashima, is trying to recreate Calcutta street-food from Rice Krispies and peanuts in her kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Within a couple of pages, we are back at the intersection of wellbeing and language, in a hospital where Ashima struggles with her limited English as she goes into labour: ‘What does it mean, dilated?’

Here and in Lahiri’s next short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), an attraction to other languages – that is, languages to which the characters have no familial or circumstantial relation – develops into a recurrent motif. The Namesake follows the fortunes of Ashima’s son, Gogol Ganguli (named after his father’s favourite author), as he moves through relationships, jobs, living situations, and, emblematically, names. Experimenting with degrees of distance from his upbringing, he is drawn to Italy, in particular its architecture. The figure who more directly seems to pre-empt Lahiri’s future though is his friend Moushoumi, who moves to Paris: ‘Immersing herself in a third language, a third culture, had been her refuge – she approached French, unlike things American or Indian, without guilt, or misgiving, or expectation of any kind.’

By the last story in Unaccustomed Earth, events have moved to Rome. The city is presented as a place where two estranged childhood friends from intertwined families are able to forget their origins – at once a non-place, a world away for the characters, and a real place, rendered with the equanimous detail with which Lahiri portrayed Rhode Island or Massachusetts via Calcutta. The Lowland (2013) reads as a transitional work. It follows the lives of two brothers who are drawn between the familiar pulls of tradition and reinvention, as well as, on this occasion, political and ideological forces, including the Naxalite movement of the 1960s. The novel’s pared back style, like these departures, feels more searching than resolved, palpably on the hunt for a new groove. The book’s Italian epigraph, by Giorgio Bassani, points to where Lahiri would eventually find it.

Lahiri published her first Italian novel, Dove mi trovo, in 2018, later translating it herself as Whereabouts (2021). Its spareness has something in common with The Lowland, but two features distinguish its style: in place of the specificity of geographic and cultural coordinates, there is an absence of proper nouns; and Lahiri’s usual close, but discreetly removed, third-person narration is exchanged for first person, previously only employed in a handful of short stories. All of Lahiri’s Italian writing published to date has been in the first person; one of the freedoms Italian grants her seems to be to write as an ‘I’, fictional and her own.

Whereabouts is narrated by an unnamed woman living alone in an unnamed city. It moves episodically through encounters with friends, family and strangers. Each chapter has a prepositional title – ‘In the Piazza’, ‘On the Balcony’ – which combined with the chapters’ briefness gives them the feel of verbal exercises (especially considering the struggles with Italian prepositions recorded in In Other Words). Other facets of its style indicate Whereabouts’s unusual lineage. Chains of near-synonyms suggest an author entranced by her vocabulary book – ‘Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, severed, turned around. I spring from these terms.’ And the odd phrase that jars – ‘a sizable clump of glue’ – suggests a source text in which it probably did not. But what is unusual about these falterings is that they act as markers of authenticity. Lahiri recalls in Translating Myself her insistence on having ‘translated by author’ alongside a story when it was published in The New Yorker, against the reservations of the editors. In her essay on Ovid, she notes: ‘The moment a translation “feels” or “sounds” like a translation, the reader jumps back and accuses it, rejects it.’ In Whereabouts, these moments – the clump of glue – act like the editorial note, stamping it as the genuine article, but also throwing the whole style into relief.

The scholar Rebecca Walkowitz has identified a strand of contemporary literature that aims to resemble translation, which she calls ‘born translated’, in reference to ‘born digital’ images, and which she relates to the dynamics of globalised literary publishing. Her examples include J. M. Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy, which pretends to unfold in Spanish, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, which pose as unoriginal copies, Junot Diaz’s New Jersey-via-Santo Domingo idiolectic narration, and Haruki Murakami’s Japanese processed through his work as a translator of English. Whereabouts fits into this company in its themes and voice, as well as being ‘born translated’ in a more literal sense. As Walkowitz writes of Coetzee, in Whereabouts, Lahiri ‘creates a text in which…English readers are blocked from imagining a direct, simultaneous encounter with a language that is their own.’

Perhaps this is not such a departure from Lahiri’s English fiction. Her earlier books, preoccupied in their quieter ways with translation, also withhold a ‘direct, simultaneous encounter with language’. Reviewers experienced this as a kind of disjunct between text and effect: a Guardian review of The Namesake celebrated the book’s ‘guileless vocabulary and an appealing lack of stylisation’, which ‘somehow conjures a bleak, arm’s-length mood’. It went on to express a kind of mystification, which has become a trope of Lahiri’s reception: ‘Peer closely at any single sentence, and nothing about it stands out. But step back and look at the whole and you’re knocked out.’ The response may have something to do with the showier, rambunctious novels of the time which dealt with similar concerns – Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), for example, out of which a character named Gogol Ganguli might easily have stepped. In contrast, Lahiri’s narrator is strikingly reserved; as Lahiri would observe and admire in Starnone much later, she never shows her full hand.

These traits have now found fuller realisation in her Italian work. Whereabouts is written ina straightforward syntax extended by paratactic clauses, adjoined with commas, which develop or revise the preceding statement, often sounding like nothing other than translations: ‘She’s in her forties like me but she’s always rushing through life, she’s always harried’. Phrases and adjectives that smack of the thesaurus – ‘is he the hale and hearty son of the pallid young girl?’ – have a similar effect. In a 2018 afterword written for a new edition of The Namesake, Lahiri admits that ‘the prose, from my current perspective, is a bit unruly, refusing to “lie flat”’. Her Italian prose can be seen to achieve this flatness, and yet it is a flatness that estranges rather than producing transparency.

The translator and critic Lawrence Venuti coined the phrase ‘the translator’s invisibility’ for the way in which the translator is routinely ignored or forgotten. Lahiri joins the chorus of voices rejecting this invisibility: highlighting the chastisement translators can expect when they make themselves known, she recounts how one critic resented her introductions to the Starnone novels and advised that next time she ‘let Starnone do all the talking’. At the same time, there is also plainly something that appeals to Lahiri about this status. In the original New Yorker essay, she writes, ‘All my writing comes from a place where I feel invisible, inaccessible.’

We could speculate that this place corresponds to the between-worlds, suspended-in-translation state of Lahiri’s childhood, yet it seems to offer something more actively nourishing than just a symbolic return. With its intimate considerations of translation, articulated with metaphor upon metaphor, Translating Myself appears to be addressing the question of what a translated voice, with its particular invisibility, affords Lahiri. The answer remains elusive. A second, connected question constantly in contention is ‘why Italian?’ This is in fact the title of the book’s first essay, in which Lahiri describes being repeatedly asked: ‘Why Italian instead of an Indian language, a closer language, more like you?’ Sometimes Lahiri appears directly to answer the question, but in fact offers a closed loop – ‘I began writing in Italian to obviate the need to have an Italian translator … something was driving me, in Italian, to speak for myself’.

There are fragments of a more specific answer to be found elsewhere, as in Lahiri’s introduction to her edition of The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories (2019). Though she begins by explaining how she was propelled toward Italian by ‘an inexplicable urge to distance myself, to immerse myself’, the condensed history of the language and its literature that follows suggests more explicable points of affinity. She describes the imposition of Italian – ‘an invention in and of itself’ – on a population that spoke diverse dialects during unification; the way in which Italian Fascism was ‘declined linguistically’ – how the regime defined the language by creating all-Italian neologisms to replace words imported from foreign languages. It was also under Fascism, Lahiri suggests, that confinare – to confine – came into use as a transitive verb, indicating a punitive act. Within this context of imposition and confinement, she is drawn to the work of writers who worked within and in tension with the language’s strictures. She also celebrates Italian’s history of translation, through figures like Cesare Pavese who were translators as much as writers. If her relationship with Italian begun as an inexplicable infatuation, it has developed and been emboldened by its particular histories.

Lahiri is notably sensitive in her fiction to architectural spaces – a house, an apartment, or a room is often the dominant impression a story or chapter by her leaves. She also describes language in spatial terms – ‘Every language is a walled entity’ – as an environment to be negotiated, obeyed, pressed against, through which a situated kind of expression becomes possible. She shares with Beckett, whose influence on Whereabouts, not to say the whole of her move into Italian, is conspicuous, this spatial conception of language – the one Stanley Cavell perceived when he wrote that while begrudging language Beckett understood ‘there is nowhere else to go’. Analogising Italian to a succession of doors, she writes: ‘An unconditional opening, without complications or obstacles, doesn’t stimulate me. Such a landscape, without closed spaces, without secrets, without the presences of the unknown, would have no significance or enchantment for me.’

Is it simply a matter of making things difficult, then: creating obstacles, setting exercises, tangling with etymologies and prepositions? After ten chapters evincing an interest in translation in these terms, the afterword to Translating Myself suggests a more personal set of stakes, of a kind that Lahiri has rarely clarified before. In a manner that not incidentally recalls her earliest English fiction, Lahiri narrates her mother’s declining health and eventual death during the years in which the preceding essays were written. Four days before her passing, Lahiri brings two potted plants to her mother’s bedside. Her mother remarks that she would like to dwell inside them, and these words, Lahiri states, in closing, ‘enable me to translate her unalterable absence into everything that is green and rooted under the sun’. As an endeavour, translation is an acknowledgement of what can’t be changed or even reached, examples of which might include ourselves, our parents, the places we came from, the lives we build, absences, and ghosts. An attempt to carry across something like this into any language can never quite succeed, but achieves its own kind of understanding, its own expressive failure. At her mother’s bedside, back among the relation of language and illness, the delicate presence of interpretation across Lahiri’s writing looks less like arm’s-length detachment and more like a kind of ministration.

Read on: Pascale Casanova, ‘Literature as a World’, NLR 31.