Jhumpa Lahiri’s Identity Swings in ‘Translating Myself and Others’

“A translation dilemma is among my earliest memories,” Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book begins, as she recalls a kindergarten teacher insisting she and her classmates write mom on a Mother’s Day card, when Lahiri called her mother by the Bengali term Ma. In Translating Myself and Others, out May 17 from Princeton University Press, she collects recent essays on the process of translation, writing in Italian for the past decade and her new identity living between languages. Many essays in the book were written in English, a few translated from Italian and one originally composed in a hybrid of both.

Lahiri was born in London to Indian parents who settled in Rhode Island when she was 3. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her first book, the 1999 story collection Interpreter of Maladies—her obsession with translation right there in the title—which, like her bestselling novels The Namesake and The Lowlandsdepicts Indian-Americans caught between two cultures.

In 2012, she moved with her husband, the journalist Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, and their two children to Rome, where she’s since published four books in Italian (and edited a collection of Italian stories) with more on the way, including In Other Words (2016), a meditation on learning to write in a new language, translated by Ann Goldstein, and whereabouts (2018), a poetic, elliptical novel about a woman meandering through her unnamed Italian city that Lahiri translated into English herself. Lahiri has also recently translated three novels by the Italian writer Domenico Starnone.

She now teaches creative writing and translation at Princeton, making frequent trips to Rome. In July, she will join Barnard as a professor of English and director of creative writing. A book of poetry, The notebook of Nerina (Nerina’s Notebook), was published in Italy in 2021, and her collection racconti romani (Roman Stories) is set to be published there this fall. Her US publisher, Knopf, plans to bring both books out in English, with a timeline to be determined.

To the inevitable question—is she writing any fiction in English now?—Lahiri has a quick, contented answer: “No.”

This new book seems like a declaration that you are now a translator as much as a fiction writer, and that translation is its own artistic form. Do you see it that way?

I do see it that way. I felt the need to reiterate this more complex and more accurate definition of what translation is. My identity as a writer has come to its fullest form now that I am also an active translator, and I’m thinking so much about translation alongside my own writing. The line between the two is very malleable. I find that very stimulating to recognize to think about, to how much of translation is writing and to recognize, conversely, how much of writing is a form of translation.

What language do you think and dream in now?

It depends on what the dream is, what the thought is. If you have more than one language, you are living, thinking, dreaming, in my case writing and reading in more than one language. I have Bengali thoughts in my head, I have English thoughts in my head, and I have Italian thoughts in my head. There’s no one language, because I don’t come from any one language. Technically I was brought up with Bengali, but because English entered in so early and then played such a heavy role in my formation as a person, as a reader and a writer and student, in my conscious memory I can’t remember any kind of monolingual universe.

In your new book, you refer to what you called an “anguished decision” to come back to live in the US after you’d been living in Rome for a few years. Why was that so anguished?

It was anguishing because I didn’t want to leave Rome, where I felt happiest. I wanted to remain in that place where I feel the most fulfilled and the most inspired I’ve ever felt in my life. It’s like a relationship, right? You want to be with the people you love. In my case, I wanted to be in the place I love. But I did come back because there was an opportunity to teach at Princeton, and I was curious enough about what that might be like.

The main thing it has enabled me to do is to produce essentially all of the books I’ve written in the past decade, because the financial stability I have now from a teaching job enabled me to take greater risks in my writing. All of the essays I wrote, many of them for this translation book, I just wrote because I wanted to write them. Some were commissioned for no money. It’s given me enormous freedom to write in Italian. There were different kinds of expectations, shall we say, placed on my English language production, different kinds of print runs, different kinds of book tours, different kinds of audiences.

You’ve said that when you started writing in Italian, some people thought you were throwing your career away. Where did that reaction come from?

It came from all over the place, more in the Anglosphere, less in Italy. People in audiences, at events, people who came up to get their book signed, who were disappointed and saying, “Aren’t you ever going to write in English anymore? What happened? I used to like you.” But it was important for me to remind myself that my writing has never been a career in my head. Not to be naïve. You write a book and you get this big advance and you sell all these copies, and there is an economic reality. I experienced that economic reality and have been very grateful for it. But I also feel like I’m in a different position right now, so that I can say yes, I want to take on this translation project that’s going to take me the next six years, that couldn’t possibly amount to a living wage .

You dedicate this book to your mother and write very eloquently about how translating Ovid’s Metamorphoses while she was dying was a kind of consolation. How am I?

Ovid is describing a state of transformation again and again and again, shifting from that character to this person, to that deity to that animal. That was the thing that enabled me to translate, if you will, what was happening to her body de ella as a metamorphosis. In some sense, death is a metamorphosis from living to dying, your body literally alters to a state in which it is no longer functioning. It was the fact that I was so deeply immersed inside of a poem that was so attentive to that, to that reality of what happens when we die. I found that really revealing and difficult to take in, but I had to take it in because it was happening in real life.

Here, in her own words, a few of Lahiri’s favorite things.

“The glass-top table was given to me by my friend the poet Alberto de Lacerda. He taught me at Boston University in graduate school. It has been beside my reading chair since 1997. On the table is a copy of Oliver Twist I bought in the bookshop in the home of Charles Dickens when I was 12 years old. It was the first time I set foot in an author’s home. It was so thrilling. On top of the book is a list. When I was in college, I took a Shakespeare course with Edward Tayler. He wrote down these six points, kind of a road map to how to write; it felt like he was an oracle. The jar with shells and rocks in it is a sampling of the things I pick up on the beach when I’m in Wellfleet [Massachusetts]. I can’t really be at peace if I don’t have a piece of the sea in my house. Behind it in a box frame is a Roman postcard of a young woman playing a double pipe that I discovered and grew attached to long before I ever went to Rome. It’s very powerful to be drawn to something that you don’t realize comes from a place that’s going to call you and become another home. In front of that is a statue of Saraswati, the goddess of learning, given to me by an aunt of my mother’s in Kolkata who was a Sanskrit professor. She gave it to me as a kind of talisman for my studies, and I’ve kept it by my desk since my college years. In the large frame is a watercolor by my grandfather. I believe this was from his imagination of him, not from being in Kashmir, which is the landscape. The marbled-paper box on the table is the first object from Italy I ever possessed. I keep my pen cartridges inside of it. The perfume bottle on top of the box belonged to my mother. She died a year ago. She was not a very vain person, but she loved fine perfumes. She used the stopper to apply vermillion to her hair de ella, which is the traditional symbol of a Bengali married woman. If you look carefully, you can see the stain of the vermillion powder that she would apply to her de ella hair parting around the base of the stopper.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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