For years, translators have been hidden in plain sight. We read their words, but their names are often omitted from book covers, royalty receipts and awards. However, change is in the air, in part the result of a recent campaign to feature translators on book covers, spearheaded by International Booker Prize-winning translator Daisy Rockwell and Jennifer Croft, known for her translations of the work of Olga Tokarczuk, among others. Now, with the scramble to find more people to bring Ukrainian voices to the world, the issue of translation has become more urgent and political.
In his new collection of essays, Translate myself and others, acclaimed author Jhumpa Lahiri gives voice to the experience of the translator, taking us behind the scenes of how her mind works as she switches from Italian, Latin and English to translate books from writers such as Domenico Starnone, Italo Calvino and, exceptionally, herself. It offers a rare glimpse of a translator giving free rein to their creativity between periods of close attention to someone else’s words, and it serves as a rebuke to those who view translation as an uncreative activity.
A reimagining of the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus, “In Praise of Echo,” captures the meaning of Lahiri’s thesis. Narcisse embodies the original text and the intoxicating personal involvement of writing; Echo the translator, deprived of her own voice, condemned to repeat what others say. But where Narcissus eventually fades into a silent flower, Echo’s voice lingers on, carried forever by the breeze. It is, according to Lahiri, the role of a translator, to adapt to the needs of the times, to keep revising and replacing, and to “support the great works of literature. . . through space and time”.
It is an essay that comments on both the narcissism of an English-speaking world that expects everyone to speak English and the protectionism of some Italians who resist the possibility of others speaking Italian. When living in Rome, Lahiri was often asked “why do you speak our Language?” Yet, she says, a culture that refuses to be translated or to translate others is “a culture that is turned inward, in love with itself.”
Despite her lucid view of the translator’s role in this collection, Lahiri’s thoughts on her decision to adopt Italian and then become a translator (a role she had hoped to circumvent by learning a language to begin with) are somewhat vague. . She says “I write in Italian to feel free”, but what exactly remains unclear.
Instead, in “Why Italian?” she focuses on conveying the pleasant and painful sensations that her new role produces; those of bodily metamorphoses, and journeys through enticing new landscapes. One transformation, however, proved too much for Lahiri: his plan to translate his own Italian novel Dove mi trovo in English (published in 2021 under the title Where) confronted her with a lingering doubt about herself. She admits she probably won’t translate anymore, even though it has “deeply” changed her.
While these vivid descriptions bring the translation to life, elsewhere his essays “on the translation of others” can be complex or confusing. Some are his attempts to combat the isolation of belonging to several languages at once, identifying with a transitory world of multilingual writers such as Gramsci and Calvino. Reflecting on Gramsci, she admits to being afraid that “a double (or plural) identity could be a lack of identity”.
Yet that is not the case for Lahiri, whose voice is strong in the current campaign to give translators more recognition. His candor about the difficulties of translation and his enthusiasm for his awards leave you wanting to know more about these fascinating characters, who spend so much time in the voices of others but have not lost the use of their own.
Translate myself and others by Jhumpa Lahiri Princeton University Press, £16.99, 136 pages
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Coffee
Summer books 2022
Over the last week of June, FT writers and critics shared their favourites. Some highlights were:
Economy by Martin Wolf
Environment by Pilita Clark
Fiction by Laura Bataille
Story by Tony Barbier
Policy by Gideon Rachman