When I'm asked to write something – an article, a review, or something about myself or my work – the first reaction, at least in my head, is a big loud no. Because I am a translator, I prefer being a host. My job is to make somebody's words comfortable in my own language. To write is a completely different act, and yet, so similar, nearly identical.

Home, for those original words, is the white page, a empty house. Then the translator comes and opens the door and lets the writing find its new voice, in a new language.

“Hospitality seems to me to be an incredibly important human capacity. And the first rule of hospitality is to accept the presence of somebody and exchange”, John Berger said. Obviously, I agree.

I am the host. I am there to serve the writer, and readers in my language.  I am also the lover, mystic and engineer.
Of a text, the critic is only the fleeting wooer, the author is father and husband, while the translator is the lover.
[…] The translator is like someone who professionally cracks safes. No shaking hands. Detachment and passion are both crucial. The translator has to be mystic and engineer at the same time.
(My translation)

Di un testo il critico è solamente il corteggiatore volante, l'autore il padre e marito, mentre il traduttore è l'amante.
[…] Il traduttore è come uno scassinatore di casseforti. Guai se gli tremano le mani. Freddezza e passione, dunque, ci vogliono entrambe. Il traduttore deve essere insieme mistico e ingegnere.
- G. Bufalino, Il malpensante, lunario dell'anno che fu, Bompiani, Milano 1987

Why this long preamble? Because Jumpha Lahiri's book In altre parole, (In Other Words) written in Italian, her “new” language, is certainly about languages – and the complex, scary, humbling feelings that accompany the act of learning, discovering and handling them. It is also a rivetting account of translation, of translating one's life – on the shapes our identity takes according to how we use our words. It's a memoir, a love story with a language: “I realised there was a space inside me where it – la lingua in Italian is feminine  – could be comfortable.“ The whole book resonates with thoughts on writing and translation that were only half formed in my mind. For this, and much more, I am grateful to Jhumpa.

A third language?

When I was asked to write something, I immediately thought, ‘No’. Then I said a bright, happy, ‘Yes’ when I realised I can – or have to – write in English.

But for Jhumpa, this third language, besides English and Bengali, both unreliable “mother and step-mother” tongues,  is not necessary, as it is for me.

Learning Italian for her is a passion, an obsession, and also apparently useless. There is an idiom she uses often: “come una pazza”, like a mad woman, when she talks about her struggle to memorise, to give a sentence the right scaffolding (there's a whole chapter on this, “impalcature”), to get out of the comfort zone of a familiar language.

Italian gives her identity a new shape. “The arrival of Italian, the third station of my linguistic journey, creates a triangle. It creates a form, instead of a straight line... I am the daughter of those two woeful dots, but the third doesn't originate from them, it is born out of my desire, my struggle. It is born out of me.” (My translation)

And sometimes, it gives her freedom. “Maybe because in Italian I am free to be imperfect”.

So when I read this sentence I understood why I prefer to write in English. I knew it, but it was a shapeless thought.

The freedom to fail. And when one thinks about it, writing, and even more so, translating, is a constant battle with failure, and its ultimate recognition and acceptance.

Failure always wins. But we can turn a failure in an art, The art of losing, as Elisabeth Bishop put it.

Why write at all?

And when Jhumpa questions herself about why she writes, she gives many answers: to tolerate herself, to investigate the mystery of existence, and also to absorb and to “arrange life”. She uses the word “sistemare”, which, thanks to my layers of identity and to my mother’s (and grandmother’s and cousins' and aunts' and uncles’ and relatives’) tongue, resonates with humble acts, like tidying up, organising, giving shape.

It makes me think of manual, housewifely labour. One of the best translators we had in Italy, Angelo Morino, who promoted many unknown authors and translated Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa,  Roberto Bolaño, Osvaldo Soriano, Manuel Puig and many others, was convinced that translation and domestic work have something in common: invisibility, the fact of being paid very little despite being indispensable, and the common aim of creating harmony and dispelling chaos. Translators, according to him, are like “housewives or househusbands of literature”,  who “mess around“ with signifier and significance, or, rather, carry out the activities of tidying up, sometimes of refurbishment, as craftsmen of language.”

It is this humility and this tenacity in Jhumpa Lahiri's narration that strike a chord in me, as I am sure it will in many readers of this little gem of a book . There's nothing grand or pompous about learning a language. There is frustration, struggle, humiliation, but also a constant sense of stupefaction: “Every new construction seems a wonder to me. Every new word looks like a jewel.” And then new feelings, and ultimately, subtle personal changes.

Languages do shape us. They give us a new home.

That is why I read Jhumpa from the very beginning of her writing career. I had the feeling she was somebody looking for her home. Just like me, but for different reasons.

I found mine in the in-between land which is translation. Jhumpa says about translation – and I am sure she has read Italo Calvino's very similar words on the subject – “I believe translating is the most intimate way to read something. Translation is a wonderful, dynamic encounter of two languages, two texts, two writings. It implies a doubling, a renewal.”

The serendipitous bonus to Jhumpa's story about her relationship with Italian is that she was introduced to me by a dear friend, an Italian who writes in English, Francesca Marciano. Hers is another masterful love story (a collection of short stories) with language, called, aptly, The Other Language. She has been translated into Italian by another common good friend.

Thanks to Francesca, I had the most lively and interesting discussion about translation with Jhumpa in Rome, in the precise ghetto which she describes beautifully in this book, with white wine and mortadella. Yes, clichés, amazing historical places, good food, etc. But after escaping Italy (for India, mostly) for such a long time, I am starting to consider it home.

And to my surprise – even if it is just an impression – I felt Jhumpa was really different from the writer I had seen on stage in many festivals before I had met her. Before she looked aloof, algida, as I would say in Italian. When we shared a robust aperitivo together, in her new language, she was, as she says many times in In altre parole, vulnerable. Warmer, and completely different.

Language does the magic, then.

(The translations of Lahiri's passages and Bufalino's quote are mine. I only translate into my mother tongue, but in this case I had to make an exception.)

Gioia Guerzoni translates modern and classic fiction from English to Italian.