Jhumpa Lahiri is best known for her works of fiction, but she is, in almost equal parts, also a literary translator and a professor of creative writing and literary translation at Princeton University. Translating Myself and Others feels like attending her lectures at the university – there is a certain gravitas in her tone and she abandons the carefreeness that is essential to fiction writing.

In this book, Lahiri’s role as a translator takes precedence over other identities. Translation is serious business, declares the book and, with examples from history, philosophy, and her own life the author illustrates how translation is also natural to human nature.

Born in London to Bengali parents, Lahiri grew up in the United States and has worked and lived in Italy. While Bengali is her mother-tongue, English became a non-negotiable language for a life in the West. In her forties, she learned Italian because she felt a kinship with the language and its speakers.

While Lahiri has mostly written in English, in recent years she has also written in Italian and translated her Italian novel, Dove mi trovo, into English. She is conversant with Bengali and admits to reading it haltingly. For her master’s thesis, she recalls translating Ashapurna Debi’s writings from Bengali into English by listening to her mother’s recordings of the stories. In retrospect, this seems especially exciting since two of Lahiri’s novels – The Namesake and The Lowland – were translated into Bengali as Samanami and Nabal Jomi. The author is no stranger to translations.

"Samanami" and "Nabal Jomi," published by Ananda Publishers.

Languages and belonging

The continuous journeys that Lahiri has undertaken as translator and author, and as a professor, are quite natural given how often she has traversed the borders erected by language. In the book, Lahiri says that it is not at all unnatural and, in fact, inevitable – Asians play with multiple languages in their everyday life. Along with the life-giving mother tongue, you tend to be aware of a few more regional languages and of course, one or two global languages too.

I would like to apply myself to this framework. My mother tongue is Bengali, though I can barely read and have no ability to write it – I can only converse in the language. My early childhood was spent in Maharashtra and Gujarat – I cannot read (or write) either Marathi or Gujarati anymore, but my comprehension of the spoken language remains intact. I am fluent in Hindi since I studied the language in school and continue to speak it on a regular basis.

Despite basic to intermediate proficiency in four Indian languages, the language that feels most natural to me is English. I don’t speak it at home, but it is the language in which I read, write, and think. Recently I have taken to translating Hindi fiction into English – two languages that are not “natural” to me, and only adopted by way of education and work.

Yet this is not an unusual relationship with languages – anybody who has found themselves in the presence of multiple languages is bound to pick up a few of them. And sometimes you feel a special kinship with an alien language and set out on a lifelong journey to make it your “own.” I believe Lahiri is on such a journey too.

It is very difficult to take liberties with one’s mother tongue – for this relationship is primordial and any kind of interference with the original feels vulgar. Adopted languages are free from such expectations. It is easier to tamper with them, leave them behind, and return to them as and when you have a need for them. But perhaps the most challenging relationship is the one we develop with a completely foreign language – one in which we identify ourselves unmindful of international and cultural borders. Because they are, to us, a source of love and inspiration.

Translating herself and others

Lahiri, who has translated her own novel Dove mi trovo, and novelist Domenico Starnone’s Lacci (Ties), Scherzetto (Trick), and Confidenza (Trust) from Italian to English, says about the comfort and challenges of languages, “Nothing came to me naturally…Paradoxically, I believe I am blind even in English, only in reverse. Familiarity, dexterity, and ease with a language can confer another form of blindness. One tends to feel safe, and thus more passive, perhaps even lazy…Why Italian? In order to develop another pair of eyes, in order to experiment with weakness.”

"Ties", "Trick", and "Trust," published by Europa Editions.

According to Lahiri, there are three steps to “conquering” a foreign language – the first is comprehension; the second, the spoken language; and, finally, the written language. She compares this journey with opening a series of doors, each hiding behind itself a challenge to be discovered and a secret to be uncovered. Of course, this is a hugely exciting exercise for Lahiri, as it is for anyone who is “grafting” themselves into a new language. To her, this botanical mechanism is a logical metaphor for translating too – one that involves “connection, fusion, welding.”

Hereafter, she closely scrutinises how she has fared as a literary translator. She clarifies that the job of the translator is to “repeat” and thus “double” the text, though not literally. The most important task that a translator undertakes is restoring the meaning of the text in a new language with imagination, ingenuity, and freedom.

Here, freedom should not be mistaken with creative liberties. Anyone who translates will agree with Lahiri when she writes that there is a feeling of great “liberation” that comes with not having to “fabricate” a story. Yet, one feels a greater sense of “responsibility” – there is nothing to invent but everything to get right.

Lahiri cannot escape her identity as a fiction writer and therefore has legitimate insights on the two methods of creation. Fiction allows the author to detach themselves from the text every so often – in the sense that, since the text is entirely their own, the author is free to create, alter, and erase as they please. They have only themselves to answer. Whereas while translating, the translator engages with the text more intimately than perhaps the author ever did – to translate, just reading the text is not enough. One has to study the text, as Lahiri puts it, “evaluate, acutely, each word an author chooses.”

In a way, a book in translation is not a copy but a version that exists alongside the original. Lahiri corroborates this with her own experience of translating Dove mi trovo into Whereabouts. She writes that self-translation is “bewildering”, “paradoxical”, and “doomed from the start”. It prolongs the author’s relationship with the book, subjecting it to even greater scrutiny – neither of which is advisable. However, self-translation also affords a “second act” for a book. “Whereabouts will never be an autonomous text in my mind,” Lahiri concludes of this exercise.

Translation, imaginative not imitative

Much has been said (and written about) translation as a creative pursuit. The popular notion is that translation is the poorer cousin of writing. Questions of why they translate follow a translator throughout their career. Lahiri, recipient of the National Humanities Medal and the Pulitzer Prize, is not spared either. She reiterates that contrary to popular belief, translation is not imitative but imaginative – it is not secondary to writing and does not point to a dearth of imagination.

She also expresses discontentment with how even the publishing industry and readers have created a hierarchy. If I were to ask a reader what makes for a good translator, they are quite likely to say, someone who disappears into the text. As compared to writers, translators are advised to have an invisible, discreet, and self-sacrificing presence. So much so that their names are often missing from book covers – a pervasive problem that International Booker Prize winner, the translator Daisy Rockwell, highlighted by “redesigning” the cover of The Books of Jacob – published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions, whose translators regularly win international acclaim but who does not include their name on the cover.

In translator and artist Daisy Rockwell redesign of Fitcarraldo Editions' "The Books of Jacob" cover, the translator's name has been added alongside the author's name.

Though the translator is expected to remain invisible, readers are quick to reject a translation the minute it “feels” or “reads” like one. The expectations laid on the shoulders of the invisible translator are enormous, even more than the original text and its authors.

Lahiri reminds us that all writing is essentially dated – except translations. With time, subject matter, the language, and even the author’s reputation is bound to fade into obscurity; yet for translations that can never be the case. A translated work is only as good as how contemporary it is – the translator takes it upon themselves to make the text relevant to the modern reader. Therefore, it is always a work in progress. A new translation is expected to remain faithful to the original text without betraying the expectations of the time it is being translated in.

Former US President Barack Obama presented the National Humanities medal to Jhumpa Lahiri in 2015.

In the end, translation ends up being a more solitary pursuit than writing. Lahiri recalls how, while translating from the Italian, she existed in a space where it was just her and the texts. The process might be long, painful, and seldom well-paying, but it is always richly rewarding. There are few joys in life greater than really knowing and loving a text. This intimacy is almost sacred, and translators are among a handful of those who can claim to love a text the way they do.

In the chapter “In Praise of Echo”, Lahiri evocatively sums up how translation poses difficult questions not only to translators and readers, but to all of humanity. She writes: “...it influences not only how we regard literature but how we regard one another. Who is original, who belongs authentically to a place? Who does not? Why are those who are not original to a place – migrants who did not ‘get there first’ – treated as they are?”

Translating Myself and Others

Translating Myself and Others, Jhumpa Lahiri, Princeton University Press.