A very radical state of affairs
(on Jhumpa Lahiri & translation)
To dig my way out of DFW-inspired rabbit holes and over-the-top-Americana, I’ve found myself turning lately to Jhumpa Lahiri — the Pulitzer-Prize winning author whose debut book of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, first made its way onto my bookshelf circa 2003 via a junior-year English teacher who suggested I might like her writing.
Was that… half a lifetime ago now?
As a 16-year-old girl, I remember feeling drawn to the simple elegance — what some might call “plainness” — of Lahiri’s prose. I would spend a not-insignificant portion of my time that school year complicating my writing with esoteric SAT words only to read her stories and think, to what end? Lahiri has an unparalleled ability to evoke complex emotion in restrained and eminently readable sentences; if DFW might lean more toward “pulchritude,” she proves the word “beauty” will do just fine. Her work epitomizes the idea of writing primarily as a tool to convey something far beyond words —maybe partially why, despite a long list of accomplishments and literary prizes for her work in English, she never seemed to develop a particularly strong emotional attachment to the language itself.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s early work largely centered around existential questions of identity and belonging. Her protagonists were either recent Indian immigrants or first generation Indian-Americans, caught between two cultures, two languages. As NPR wrote, “she expertly plumbs the Bengali-American experience, following immigrants and their offspring while traversing borders and expectations.”
Lahiri wrote one best seller, and then another, and then another, and then — in what really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who reads the Hawthorne quote that inspired her 2008 collection Unaccustomed Earth1 — took off to Rome in search of beauty. From 2011 to 2015, she immersed herself in the Italian language and more or less swore off English altogether. In In Other Words, a book she wrote in Italian and had translated by another, she compares Italian to a precious newborn but describes English as “a hairy, smelly teenager.” An interview she granted the New York Times in 2013 reminds me of a conversational tic I’ve demonstrated more than once in my own lifetime — and, well, one I guess I’m about to employ here — namely, a tendency to bring everything back to Europe.
For some longtime fans who missed Lahiri’s English-first fiction, she came to represent the woman who got a little too unruly — the girlfriend who left for some guy named Giuseppe and stranded you, heartbroken and rudderless, off the Amalfi coast.
When asked “why Italian?” she would respond simply “joy.”
I love nothing more than a rules-defying woman of letters, and so, just a few weeks ago, I grabbed a ticket to see Lahiri in conversation with Georgetown Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature Nicoletta Pireddu at the DC’s historic synagogue, Sixth & I. Now a Director of Creative Writing at Princeton, her most recent collection of essays, Translating Myself and Others, describes, among many other things, her at-first tentative return to English via, well, the art of translation.
The surroundings most had something to do with it, but — for me, at least — listening to the conversation felt almost.. spiritual? My French side listened intently while Lahiri sat there strumming my pain, à la Lauren Hill.
Lahiri spoke of both translation as writing (“translating is looking into mirrors and seeing someone other than yourself”) and writing itself as an act of translation. On her relationship to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the myth of Narcisssus and Echo as a metaphor for the relationship between writer and translator. She spoke of spending years trying to find an apt translation for the Italian phrase “Dove mi trovo” — one that would capture both meaning and poetry at once — and on self-translation as her sharpest editing tool. She fielded questions from audience members who seemed both transfixed in admiration and somewhat confused — college students focused on the heady analysis and technicality of it all, when really, what drives translation if not falling in love?2
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen someone who so embodies her prose; her presence alone feels like a manifestation of elegance and restraint.
At a café in Paris circa 2016, in my late 20s, I remember sitting across from a friend who would occasionally compliment my written French. At the time, I primarily made use of it to write him long, emotionally-fraught emails on the topic of “should I stay or should I go?.” I had lived in France for over two years at that point and found myself questioning whether I wanted to stay long-term — in my relationship, in the language, in the country.
Je suis partie au boulevard Hausseman après qu'on s'est quitté ce matin pour voir les robes aux Galeries Lafayette. Il y avait beaucoup trop de choses, entre les marques les lunettes les parfums le lingerie les touristes chinois et les couleurs... je suis tournée en rond pendant 20 minutes avant de me retrouver perdue parmi des caleçons d'homme. J'en pouvais plus, j'avais mal à la tête et plus du tout envie d'essayer quoi que ce soit. Il a fallu que je trouve une vendeuse pour poser une question tout bête: comment je fais pour sortir de là?
Elle m'a regardé avec l'air un peu surprise et m'a répondu qu'il fallait descendre au rez de chaussée. J'ai demandé comment faire une fois arrivée au rez de chaussée; elle m'a dit simplement "eh bien vous sortez madame", comme si j'était un peu folle.
En sortant je me suis dit que cette interaction pourrait bien être un métaphore pour comment je vis ma vie aujourd'hui. J'en fais une labyrinthe alors qu'il suffit de descendre au rez de chaussée pour retrouver l'air frais.
“Allez,” he said. “You’ll fly home and explain to your parents you fell in love with yet another Frenchmen, and it didn’t work out, and they’ll say ‘c’est pas grave’ and you’ll fall in love with a man from Texas, and everything will be just fine.”
Everything listed above happened and more — I’ve made a home in Washington, the city where my grandmother once wrote (and I agree), “I’d rather be depressed than anywhere else.” I’ve experienced the joy of being present for friends’ life milestones and aging parents. I now know the ecstasy — seriously underrated — of arguing with a significant other and not having the fight quickly devolve into digressive spats over correct grammar and usage.
What my friend didn’t warn me about — perhaps, what he couldn’t possibly know — was the indescribable ache that would arise from abandoning what had become a linguistic home. That over five years and one global pandemic later, I’d subscribe, unsubscribe, and re-subscribe to Augustin Trapenard’s Boomerang depending on my mood and toss aside copies of The New Yorker whenever I saw a byline by Lauren Collins.
As Lahiri stated during the Q&A:
“When you learn a new language well enough to write in it, you become another writer, another thinker. And that’s a very radical state of affairs.”
At the end of the conversation, the moderator asked us to please remain seated while Lahiri and Pireddu made their way to the exit. Instead of making her way directly out the door, Lahiri actually stopped just a few feet away from me, to chat with an acquaintance she recognized in the audience. I glanced over briefly and, when a small crowd started to gather around her, decided to get up and leave via a side door.3
Outside, it was golden hour after a fresh DC rain. I soaked up the sunshine on my skin and texted my friend Michael about the event, who, as it turns out, took Pireddu’s comparative literature course in college. He asked if she still has fabulous hair. (She does.)
Two blocks into our conversation, I realized I’d absentmindedly been walking the wrong way. I turned around and found myself mixed in with a throng of people just leaving the event, feeling not unlike Lahiri’s wandering protagonist in Whereabouts.4 For a few hundred feet, I meandered through them and eavesdropped on what they had to say.
An Indian-American woman: "oh my god, I *love* her.”
A Jewish woman explaining Sixth & I to a friend: “so there’s more conservative Judaism, and then Sixth & I, which would belong to the more progressive…”
And an American in almost comedically basic intonation, expressing a sentiment I almost envy: “um so like, I didn’t understand a thing.”
“Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children ... shall strike their roots in unaccustomed earth." - Nathaniel Hawthorne
One of the most fascinating exchanges came on the topic of identity politics in translation, on which Lahiri said: “When we go to the translation question of who has the right to translate, this flies in the face of everything I have believed in, and everything that has given my life meaning. Without minimizing questions of yes, we have an identity cake no matter what — identity is also a construct. […] This form of expression, literary expression, is so powerful that it can override the us versus them question. And that is the key to our humanity.
“The idea of meeting writers of the books I’ve read doesn’t interest me. That is to say, I wouldn’t go out of my way. If the book is alive to me, if the sentences speak to me, that’s enough. A reader’s relationship is with the book, with the words, not with the person who created it. I don’t want the author to explain anything to me or to interfere.” - Jhumpa Lahiri, 2013
“We stop in the middle and look at the wall that flanks the river, and the shadows of pedestrians cast on its surface. They look like skittish ghosts advancing in a row, obedient souls passing from one realm to another. The bridge is flat and yet it’s as if the figures—vaporous shapes against the solid wall—were walking uphill, always climbing.” - Jhumpa Lahiri, “Casting Shadows”